On Class in America, 1/27/2024

[I]f you change your speech–maybe use appropriate grammar, make polite and charming small talk–you can advance in society?

On Class in America, 1/27/2024

In high school, we read and wrote on Shaw's "Pygmalion." Our teacher expressed interest in whether changing one's speech and manners could result in a higher social station. I suspect he was keen to illustrate to us that social class actually exists and requires attention to navigate. Even now I find this difficult to address. A local billionaire has demonstrated an enthusiastic desire to destroy the public school system as well as shown sheer bigotry (11th paragraph). His political efforts shape the state legislature and the governor's office. No one in the area knows his name.

So is it true that if you change your speech–maybe use appropriate grammar, make polite and charming small talk–you can advance in society? Shaw's "Pygmalion" features Henry Higgins, who makes a bet that he can turn Liza Doolittle from a girl on the street selling flowers into a lady in a flower shop through speech and manners alone. In the key respect, the bet fails. While Liza's speech and mannerisms lead everyone to consider her no less than royalty, nothing is materially gained for her. No flower shop spontaneously offers her a job. She's more marriageable, but remains invisible to the higher parts of the elite. She's respectable, but what good is respect without any financial security whatsoever?

You will note American higher education suffers from a related problem. However, it is vital to document how different our situation is from that of Shaw's world. Class in the United Kingdom depends on proximity to the monarch, to bloodlines which are not only wealthy but literally considered more legitimate than others. Sure, you could learn to speak a different way in New York and get a job at a coffee shop that served wealthier customers. You might get better tips and make contacts who advance you. That is not the same thing as the world of Victorian England. Winston Churchill is a direct descendant of the Duke of Marlborough. Inasmuch as Liza Doolittle can become the lady in the flower shop through elocution lessons, it is because capitalism, however flawed it is, allows that advance. When it comes to remnants of feudalism merged with an upper class made infinitely richer by domination of places like the entire Indian subcontinent, the only thing for certain is that you can pose as aristocracy or royalty for a time.

You're about to tell me that I'm wrong. Didn't I just show that it is the same thing? Capitalism will allow you to advance for a time with social skills. Then the problems of class appear, where the ultra-rich and powerful live in a world dictated by their whims and it is impossible to even know what to do for them. That's the bigger problem, though. Higgins can at least get Doolittle to pose for a while because he knows some accents matter more. Weirdly, the structure of English society at the time allows it to be gamed. How do you game the chaos that is class in America? How do you become one of Mark Zuckerberg's friends, you know, the ones who can get millions in bank loans because they play Settlers of Catan with him? Is becoming romantically involved with Elon Musk a necessity? Do you have to be a Vanderbilt for people to consistently respect your work? Will being a lobbyist for arms manufacturers elevate one to power? What about writing for The New Yorker? Only one thing is certain: there are paths for many which are cut off because of class, but it isn't always clear what will actually elevate you into another social station!

Moreover, the class structure of Victorian England depends on rank misogyny. Henry Higgins' complete lack of self-control contrasts sharply with all the mannerisms he tries to instill in Liza. Higgins' bullying isn't a result of a lack of understanding. He knows the social order demands some demonstrate they are always well-behaved, whereas others can do virtually anything. A princess has perfect manners because they are a marriageable pawn. They unite royal houses, cement alliances, and produce heirs so power is maintained. And that's the top of the food chain! Again, you protest: isn't this the same thing in America now? It is and it isn't. The problems of patriarchy are still ubiquitous, but they're ubiquitous in part because class nowadays is chaos. Currently, Elon Musk, "an incel who wants his mom to give his Xbox controllers back" (someone else's quote but I can't find it atm), has been desperately trying to get Mr. Beast to validate his stewardship of "X." It may be the case that Mr. Beast might become POTUS, not only because Musk is begging for him to use "X," but because people have grown up with him and he, as Ryan Broderick has noted, is acting "unflinchingly normal" about one of his fellow creators being trans.

There is simply nothing like this in the old world. A landed aristocracy isn't expected to prove themselves. Truth is, that's in terrible taste. They're supposed to simply be. Whereas our mega-elite feels they have to prove they actually deserve $300 billion dollars. That's an impossible demand because, as Dan Riffle used to say, "every billionaire is a policy failure." Massive concentrations of wealth not only depend on repeatedly finding exploits in the economy, but they very obviously steal opportunities from others when not creating a world where people have to decide between paying rent or eating food.

By now you want me to get to the point. How do we navigate class in America? The number one rule is to be aware of it. People who pretend it doesn't exist are not helpful. Neither are those who say that others can't do what they want because of class. I distinctly remember some parents telling their child they couldn't serve in the Foreign Service because ambassadors were rich. That isn't awareness of class because that isn't awareness, quite frankly, of anything. The second rule is create things of value and just keep creating them. That's the fundamental value of the humanities, honestly: it allows you to transcend the petty battles and give something that might be a lasting legacy. The third rule is start holding the extremely wealthy accountable. Tax them and aggressively prosecute their abuse of poor people. Those slaughterhouses where undocumented children lose limbs will not go away until you stand for the lives of others against imaginary status. Moreover, people with billions being given tax breaks is literally bribery. It is very cheap to buy an entire state legislature--those campaigns cost a few thousand in some cases--and if you tax billionaires at a 12% rate, you are inviting them to buy every politician in the country. I do not currently believe we will ever live in a classless society, and on a better day, you can get me to talk about higher and lower tastes. Not all notions of class are created equal. But for now, we must understand that some people really do profit as the world burns.