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Real class and our economic aristocracy

Michael O'Hare, professor of public policy | September 21, 2010

I want to reflect a little on the idea of class, and the difference between having any and being in one. The reflection is motivated by the explosion of really unclassy behavior that besmirched the comment threads following various posts on the Reality Based Community site and elsewhere about who is really rich.

Like many in my generation, I first met social class distinctions growing up, in my case in New York as a red-diaper baby, in a family with the kind of unusually diverse associations the city facilitates, and that a ‘mixed marriage’  between the son of midwestern English-Scotch-Irish socialist leaders and a Polish Jewish immigrant who was the first in her family to go to college especially accretes.  Accompanying my father to print shops, binderies, machine shops and other places where things were made I had some contact with blue-collar workers, but I mostly associated with the children of solidly middle-class business people and professionals; and because of summer camp friendships with well-cared-for private-school girls from quite wealthy families, mostly but not entirely Jewish, got to dance at coming-out parties.  I had some sense of the  fading war between the German Jews of the first immigration wave and the mittel-europa avalanche that followed and so scared them when they came off the boats in rags, barely literate, and went into the sweatshops.

Then I went to Harvard and met (for example) perhaps the tenth Protestant of my life followed by zillions more, and more important, people from an real American upper class.  At that time, Republicans were the liberals in New England politics, and the WASP aristocracy constituted a confident, stable, enduring society, even as it fairly gracefully ceded political power to the Irish and Italians – yes, and even as it was sometimes insouciantly anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic.  I know a lot of these families made their fortunes in the slave trade, but a lot of them were also abolitionists and one of them (for example) was Robert Gould Shaw and another was Oliver Wendell Holmes and still another was OWH Jr. and still another was Joseph Welch. While I could immediately see that many of them wouldn’t have had a chance academically in my high school (the Bronx High School of Science),  I had a persistent sense that many of them had, and almost all valued as a conscious part of their social capital,  something important that I had met more randomly distributed in my prior life but never quite distinguished or identified.  A memorable flash of this came when I was at a party at the home of an Adams and observed that a lot of the pictures on the wall were framed political handbills and posters going back to about 1800, all attacking one or another Adams candidate for office ruthlessly and viciously.  Another, of course, was the number of old Yankee names associated with this or that charitable gift of a building or setting up a foundation.

What they often had and usually respected was class in the “other sense”, as in, Donald Trump ain’t got none, or “doing that shows real class!”  One diagnostic of class is being comfortable, and making others comfortable, in any company.  This is harder than it looks, because getting self-confidence mixed up with arrogance or pride, or dissembling actual membership in the group you’ve fallen among, are both fatal. A real lady or gentleman adds value to any group without taking it over or getting lost in it, including groups of peers. Such a person is welcome back again, and does not have to hide out in a gated community. Julia Child had class that sat on her like a halo.

Noblesse, famously, oblige.  But it’s not the only thing: richesse oblige aussi, and sagesse, and instructionOblige quoi, though: what are the duties of aristocracy whether of position, or wealth, or knowledge and capacity to create value?  Well, the first criterion of being classy in my book is benchmarking against your own most recent other-regarding enterprise and exceeding it, and not benchmarking against other people’s positions however marked.  One of the great gifts to those Yankee families was the Calvinist idea of an elect that you might or might not be in, and couldn’t attain by works, but that was particularly not a matter of being as rich as you could get: because you might not be in it, it would not be classy to swan around showing off.  Boston leadership was expected to acquire a fortune large enough for security and some charity, and then take on responsibilities for the common weal.  (For a fascinating discussion of why Boston and Philadelphia are the way they are, even after their local WASPs were displaced by immigrants who took on Calvinist and Quaker culture respectively, see Digby Baltzell’s Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia.)

As I recognized this, I realized I had seen it in people I admired across all socioeconomic divisions, and that I had seen plenty of people who lacked it across classes as well. It wasn’t a monopoly of those Yankee WASPs, and it didn’t immunize them against bad behavior, but respecting it and hoping to display it was a distinctive part of their norms.  Some people are just classy by family upbringing, or maybe they won the genetic lottery, and others with every advantage aren’t, like Larry Summers.  I think people in the latter category sort of realize this and it hurts them, but the pain often stimulates maladaptive behavior that makes it worse.  In any case, I think the right social conventions in your upbringing improve the odds.

Having good manners is an excellent strategy. This can easily go rancid, when people with no class use specific learned routines, or the lack of them, as social sorting tests, but people with really good manners have no problem learning to accept a business card with two hands in Asia or arriving at 10 for an “8 PM”  dinner in Mexico; people who think etiquette is a stick to beat their lessers with, on the other hand, don’t travel well.   A classy dresser contributes to a social occasion by showing respect for, and improving, the whole visual experience of the other guests without trying to draw a spotlight. A classy dresser is not an egotistical showoff, neither in a track suit at a formal dinner nor in a swimsuit on a red carpet.

When you have real class, you can accept compliments gracefully, neither deflecting nor expecting them.  When you have real class, you can set good things in motion and step out of the way so your group carries it forward and doesn’t depend on you more than necessary.  Real class is not whining and demanding rights but looking for duties and seeing them as a piece of good fortune.  It involves a fair amount of turning the other cheek, and is much more easily displayed going to bat for the people who aren’t as rich or smart or lucky as you than by standing on your rights and privileges. Henry Lee Higginson subsidized the Boston Symphony for years (and didn’t ask to have its building named Higginson Hall): that’s class.  Speaking of the symphony, another indicator of class (not dispositive, Goering scarfed up paintings all over Europe) is engagement with demanding, complicated, art.  Lots of people are on museum or opera boards who have no clue, but they at least know a sane society respects artistic sophistication and they try to manifest it … sometimes even try to actually get it.

Real class is what the economic aristocracy of our country has almost entirely lost. The American rich are wallowing in a moral slough, grasping for more and more money they have no clue what to do with, and venting their frustration that climbing over each other to new heights of wretched excess brings no satisfaction by lashing out at every social institution, and at a government whose largesse is never enough for them. Andrew Carnegie may have had his miners shot at Homestead, but he came to regret it and he also said it was sinful to die rich. He walked the talk; there are Carnegie libraries, a university, concert halls, and more all across America, still creating value.  (All the Vanderbilts, not so much.)  But Larry Ellison has his name on nothing and for all his billions, has absolutely no class and no idea that he lacks it, and a whole class of cowboy millionaires and billionaires have the fatal idea that he is a target to emulate. No, money isn’t a way of keeping score; great schools and passing laws that make us all better off and building a subway system for New York and a high-speed rail line in California is a way of keeping score. Anyone who thinks he’s self-made, and single-handedly created all the value he’s come to possess, has no class, no more class than a Gulf sheik who thinks the accident of living on top of an oil pool makes him admirable and distinguished.  Keeping track of (and taking care of) all the people without whose labor and pioneering you couldn’t have done anything, that’s how to keep score.

I am ashamed of  my university when I consider that its rich alumni who wouldn’t pony up for a new art museum are expected to buy enough football stadium seats to cover a half-billion-dollar sports venue.  There’s nothing wrong with sports, playing or watching, but this is a university and we do not study javelin heroes of ancient Greece, or even Pheidippides’ gait: we study the Parthenon and Aeschylus and red-figured vases.  Real class is building something that lasts, not a house bigger than all your neighbors’ houses put together – yes, I’m talking to you, Bill Gates – and it’s not buying a Maybach because you can (it might be learning to actually drive a race car; Paul Newman had class).

The really classy guys among my peers are the ones who make their students and their colleagues smart.  They tend to be the last authors listed on their papers and they ask really good questions more than they pronounce really true truths.  I wish I had more class; I certainly had ample opportunity to learn it.  But I’m sure I know what it is, often I can tell when I’m getting closer to it and when I’m not, and it’s not what I’m seeing in our upper class today. High wealth and low class: it’s ugly and it’s dangerous.

Cross-posted from The Reality-Based Community.