When a society becomes as rich as the United States status is no longer about quantity – how big your house is or how many cars you own – it’s about quality. Today status is more about what your possessions say about you as a person. And the trouble with status in 21st century America is that nobody agrees on what the standards should be. What some Americans think of as respectable others see as reprehensible. People are arguing about how to judge each other’s status.
Every time the economy booms American society is stricken with status anxiety. People who once struggled to make ends meet are able to buy new cars, nice clothes, and roomy houses. For those who like to think of themselves as better than ordinary this poses a problem. Where it was once possible to spot the masses by their grimy blue collars and pungent body odor, working class affluence makes this more difficult. Post industrial societies create a new mass of low paid white collar workers while economic growth brings wealth to grimy tradesmen. University lecturers find themselves earning less than the people who unblock their sewers and fix their cars. Even Marxist professors find this hard to take.
Economic booms lead to culture wars. Those rising from the old working class see the rules of the status game changing around them. Once it was enough to wear a suit, be able to quote a bit of Shakespeare, and to have a house with more bedrooms than children. But suddenly it’s hip to come to work in jeans, reference popular culture (be sure to do so ironically and use the term ‘intertextuality‘), and live in an old warehouse. As soon as you get money, a bit of education, and the complete works of William Shakespeare (all bound together in the one paperback volume) the snobs invent cool. Just when you’ve convinced your kids to go to church every Sunday and not get tattoos, going to church becomes uncool and tattoos become a mark of sophistication.
The origins of Red America lie in the 1950s and 60s. As ordinary Americans grew wealthier and more educated many of them started to think of themselves as middle class. They bought books, went to the movies, and struggled to understand modern art. The demand for culture increased, and soon living rooms everywhere were sporting Van Gogh prints and paperback copies of Shakespeare. The intelligentsia was horrified by this shameless and shallow cultural climbing.
The intelligentsia’s passion was for the avant-garde – the green and growing extremities of culture rather than the dead wood of tradition. They saw themselves as immersed in the work of the Shakespeares, Mozarts, and Van Goghs of the future. This living culture wasn’t for everyone. As American cultural critic Dwight Macdonald wrote:
The great cultures of the past have all been elite affairs, centering in small upper-class communities which had certain standards in common and which both encouraged creativity by (informed) enthusiasm and disciplined it by (informed) criticism.
As a leftist, Macdonald didn’t want readers to think that the cultural elite had anything to do with old divisions of wealth or property. He argued that the avant-garde of Rimbaud and Picasso’s era "was based not on wealth or birth but on common tastes." The elite’s superiority lay in its ability to discriminate.
In the world before mass prosperity and mass education the non-elite were content to consume the cheap cultural products offered on the mass market. Feel good movies, comic books, westerns, musicals, and romances. Mass culture was formulaic, you always knew the hero would triumph over the bad guys and get the girl. It appealed to the emotions rather than to the mind. You knew when to laugh and when to cry, and when Masscult was good, you did plenty of both. High culture was different. It challenged the formula, it left you confused and disturbed. It made you think.
The new cultural consumers were ambivalent about the avant-garde. On the one hand it was attractive as a status marker. But on the other hand it was difficult to figure out and was emotionally unsatisfying. Consuming it was work rather than fun. On top of this was the suspicion that much of it was an in joke made at their expense. The demand for something better than mass culture but more digestible than High Culture was met by something Macdonald called ‘Midcult.’ This had shared the "essential qualities of Masscult – the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity – but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf." For Macdonald Midcult was a far bigger threat to living culture than Masscult ever was:
It is its ambiguity that makes Midcult alarming. For it presents itself as part of High Culture. Not that coterie stuff, not those snobbish inbred so-called intellectuals who are only talking to themselves. Rather the great vital mainstream, wide and clear though perhaps not so deep (p 37 pdf).
Midcult was pre-packaged, pre-judged culture. The newly affluent and educated became "skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped PRIME QUALITY by the proper authorities" but were unable to discriminate on their own. This is how critics like Macdonald were able to tell the cognoscenti from the ignoscenti. The cultural climbers defended their tastes by appeals to tradition and authority while the true elite defended theirs with analysis and argument. The elite knew about standards and how they worked. Their job was to challenge and reinvent them.
As levels of education and wealth continued to rise through the 1980s and 90s (with a slight hiccup in the 70s) two things happened. The first was the rise of militant Masscultism. Many ordinary Americans started asking why they had allowed a bunch of self-appointed culture experts decide what was and was not worth consuming. They decided to make their own rules. Star Wars was good because it was fun, exciting, and made lots of money. High Culture and the avant-garde was bad because it was not fun, was elitist, and did not make lots of money. The people had judged the elites and found them sad and pretentious. But worse still, they had judged that the elites were un-American. By trying to establish themselves as superior minority they were trying to replicate European aristocratic privilege.
Not everyone joined this cheeseburger and fries revolution. The avant-garde still felt threatened by Midcult. The champions of Midcult were constantly harping on about ‘the classics.’ They loved ornate 19th century architecture. They worshipped Charles Dickens, the King James Bible, William Shakespeare, and other dead white males. And they seemed to think that any music played with a string section was superior to something played with an electric guitar. To defend themselves against this ignorant appropriation, the cultural elite dumped the venerated and pre-approved examples of High Culture and promoted works that were deliberately new or obscure. And to prove that membership of the avant-garde was gained through superior analytic skills rather than rote learning and deference to authority, they turned their attention to Masscult.
If the trick to being avant-garde is critical engagement with standards, then what better way to demonstrate superiority than by turning your analytical skills onto Masscult? Why not analyze Buffy the Vampire Slayer the same way you analyzed Shakespeare or James Joyce? Midcultists would never understand what was going on. Because they had never learned to discriminate high from mass on their own, they would reveal their ignorance by being scandalized. The more aggressive the Midcultists became about enforcing ‘standards’ in places like universities the more they betrayed their cultural incompetence. By appealing to tradition and the authority of the canon they showed that they were unable to argue philosophically about how standards of evaluation might be justified. For the cultural avant-garde it was a wonderful joke.
Nobody likes being sniggered at. And the champions of the canon were outraged at the way the shared standards of the avant-garde had become political. Works of literature were praised because they championed the interests of blacks, women, gays, and third world peoples. University students learned how to create their own marxist and feminist readings of the stale old texts of the canon. Even Dwight Macdonald would have been horrified at the cultural studies practices of the 1980s and 90s. Production had given way to consumption. You showed your discernment as a critic by the way you consumed a text rather than by which text you chose to consume.
The link between cultural expertise and radical politics worried conservatives. In the 1950s and 60s far too many of the European avant-garde were openly Marxist. The American government was worried enough to covertly fund literary magazines through the CIA. During the much of the post war period conservatives managed to discourage radicalism at home through a combination of witch hunting and moderate Keynesianism. But during the second half of the 60s the counter culture and the New Left married cultural and political radicalism. Worse still, it was a mixture that appealed to many of the educated upper classes. Sexual liberation, drugs, rock’n’roll, and revolution were highly marketable commodities and America’s capitalist culture industry wasted no time in selling them to the world.
Back home too many of America’s upper class were led astray by their deference to the authority of the cultural elite. Many conservatives believed that donors to influential philanthropic foundations were cutting their own throats by funding leftists and cultural radicals – people who would be satisfied with nothing less than the overthrow of conservative morality and the capitalist system. Writer Tom Wolfe dubbed the combination of high society and political radicalism as ‘Radical Chic. In Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers he described the experience of attending a New York society party in the 60s:
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which re at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with handironed white aprons … The butler will bring them their drinks … Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York.
It’s easy to see the dilemmas involved in hosting a party like this. For example, having black servants serve nibbles to Black Panthers would be a faux pas of the highest order. Obviously only white servants would do. But how does one talk about black guests to lower class whites? Wolfe continues to burrow (New Journalism style) into his host’s head:
When talking to one’s white servants, one doesn’t really know whether to refer to blacks as blacks, Negroes, or colored people. When talking to other … well, cultivated persons, one says blacks, of course. It is the only word, currently, that implicitly shows one’s awareness of the dignity of the black race. But somehow when you start to say the word to your own white servants, you hesitate. You can’t get it out of your throat. Why? Counter-guilt! You realize that you are about to utter one of those touchstone words that divide the cultivated from the uncultivated, the attuned from the unattuned, the hip from the dreary. As soon as the word comes out of your mouth – you know it before the first vocable pops off you lips – your own servant is going to size you up as one of those limousine liberals, or whatever epithet they use, who are busy pouring white soul all over the black movement, and would you do as much for the white lower class, for the domestics of the East Side, for example, fat chance Sahib.
The tag ‘limousine liberal‘ dates Wolfe’s piece perfectly. Mario Procaccino used it in 1969 to attack the supporters of Mayor John Lindsay, the mayor of New York. According to William Saffire, Procaccino’s opponents made fun of misstatements such as "I want every kid in New York to have the same chance I did – to come up the hard way." The old New Deal liberals were firmly on the side of the white working class and their values. Lyndon Johnson was a firm supporter of the civil rights movement but he didn’t have much time for dole bludgers, hippies, or anti-war protesters. He was the kind of straight talking Texan who expected his guests to keep up their end of the conversation while he was taking a leak. Old-style Democrats like Johnson were not limousine liberals. They sent bombers to blow the bejesus out of America’s enemies, expected people to work their way out of poverty, and wanted to sell American democracy to the world.
American liberalism has changed since the mid 60s. As Thomas Frank says "There is a very upper-middle class flavor to liberalism, and that’s just bound to rub average people the wrong way." In an essay for Harper’s, Frank argued that Blue America is dismissed with the ‘latte libel:’
the suggestion that liberals are identifiable by their tastes and consumer preferences and that these tastes and preferences reveal the essential arrogance and foreignness of liberalism.
Frank argues that working Americans have been hoodwinked by conservatives into voting against their own economic interests. Working class Bush voters have become so fixated on cultural elitism that they haven’t noticed that their government is entrenching economic elitism – the rich get further ahead of ordinary people every year. But perhaps the latte libel works because many Americans really are more worried about social status than they are about economic status. And when offered the choice between a president who promises to wage war on left wing cultural snobbery and one who offers state funded health care and a better education for their kids they’d think carefully about it… and then vote conservative.