Class and educated stupidity, as demonstrated by Sandra Tsing Loh

17 April, 2009

I found this article interesting, having just finished reading Watching the English, an examination of English manners by Kate Fox, which naturally spent a lot of time looking at class issues. (That book, incidentally, is over-wordy and repetitive, and I think underestimates the importance of understatement as a mode of being.)

Sandra Tsing Loh’s Atlantic article is interesting for the contrast US class archetypes make with the English types. It turns out the snooty yacht club is not just a feature of National Lampoon movies. Loh goes askew, however, when she attempts some original thought, based on Paul Fussell’s identification of the classless “category X”, which she surruptitiously conflates with the 1990’s “Generation X”.

She is correct to identify the rise of a Bohemian-identifying creative class in the US (she waves her original Ramones T-shirt as proof of her belonging to this elite, but then unwittingly proves herself a phoney by admitting she never particularly liked the band). Unfortunately, she fails to differentiate between what for want of a better word we will call “authentic” Bohemians, and those she spends half her article excoriating, who are, despite the casual dress and herbal lifestyle, mostly industry “suits”. What we used to call yuppies, in fact.

The real problem is that Loh identifies X clustering as a “problem”, which she ends up accusing of causing the current recession (or GFC, to use the vomit-making acronym). Here’s a quote:

In the relatively affluent post–Cold War era, the search for self-expression has evolved into a desire to not have that self-expression challenged, which in turn necessitates living among people who think and feel just as you do.

Does she really think that people wanting to live beside like-minded people is a new phenomenon brought about by the “self-expression” culture? Look at any society, any culture of the past, to see this is an obviously stupid idea.

Loh’s “Bohemians” “flee gritty Los Angeles for verdant Portland”, and she observes that “Portland is much whiter than Los Angeles, disconcertingly white”. Do you see what she’s doing here? She’s accusing the X’s of congregating in ghettos. Imagine if she accused a non-white group of this. Imagine if she observed that “Los Angeles is much more Latino than Portland, disconcertingly Latino”.

She carries on in much the same vein. “In Austin alone, the percentage of people with a college education went from 17 percent in 1970 to 45 percent in 2004.” She says that (pace Robert Putnam) “the highest-tech cities tended to have the lowest rate of civic connections” – and demonstrates this with an anecdote: she showed some keys she’d found to a guy in San Francisco and he said “I wouldn’t trust the police with those. Post a notice on Craigslist!” I hope I don’t need to point out to you that (a) believing the police to be untrustworthy does not necessarily demonstrate a lack of civic connection, and (b) the reference to Craig’s List actually demonstrates a new kind of civic connection, no less valid than the old, even if less physically tangible.

She quotes Bill Bishop writing “there was a surge of people who wanted to live in cities for what could only be social—or even aesthetic—reasons”. This is not actually a new thing, of course. People with money have always lived where they wanted to, and now more people have more money. It does not mean, as Loh implies, a new selfishness.

The great sin of the X’s is lack of diversity. Loh says “an over-clustering of educated people in one region is not always a social boon”, and obviously means that it is never a social boon. Why? Because, as Bishop writes, “education is presumed to nurture an appreciation of diversity: the more schooling, the greater the respect for works of literature and art, different cultures, and various types of music. … Education also should make us curious about—even eager to hear—different political points of view. But it doesn’t. The more educated Americans become—and the richer—the less likely they are to discuss politics with those who have different points of view.”

Now, Bishop is fudging here (and Loh is going along with it). If more educated people are less likely “to discuss politics with those who have different points of view” (a phrase which vividly conjures the blank banality of the survey question), so what? In any statistical analysis, one group is always going to be more something than another group. I doubt Bishop or Loh would try to assert from this that educated people are therefore less politically aware than other people, or less informed. They are probably more aware and informed. But they are not being diverse, you see (diversity being a virtue we should “nurture an appreciation of”, rather than a word meaning “consisting of several kinds”).

Thankfully, this awful situation will be brought to an end by the recession: “more Xers will have to start rubbing shoulders with The Other, living in truly mixed neighborhoods, next door to such noncreative types as Kohl’s-shopping back-office workers and actual not-yet-ready-for-their-close-up-in-Yoga-Journal immigrants”. Again, imagine if she was talking about a different group: “Urban blacks should move out of their ‘over-clustering’ regions and get some diversity.” She would be ostracised by her fellow hip-erati (oh God, did I just coin that?), and possibly shot, with some justification, for not minding her own business.

Oh, I almost forgot her big punchline. The rise of the Bohemian-identifying creative class has “brought shameful social stratification* and a consumer binge that our children’s children may well be paying off.” In case that’s not clear enough: “This economic catastrophe is teaching the Xers that their prized self-­expression and their embrace of personal choice leads to … the collapse of capitalism.” You see? Lack of diversity leads to Global Financial Crisis! Hang the whites! She provides absolutely no justification for this assertion, which emerges at the end of her article out of thin air, just as it has here.

So why this crusade against the Bobo’s? First of all, it is terribly fashionable, amongst the chattering classes, to knock white people (the fact that these chatterers are largely white is neither here nor there). Apart from goofy poor whites, and socially anxious middle-class whites, the best target is whites with an education and some money. You see, if you have money and education (and are white), you are “privileged” and “entitled”. You are, in fact, no matter how hip or “aware” you may seem to be, The Man, which means you are the cause of everyone else’s problems. You are the proverbial They, whom we all blame and hate.

Now, although Sandra would appear, by almost every definition, to one of the class she is criticising (urban, creative, educated, well off), she is part Asian, which means she’s not part of this “disconcertingly white” pariah group. (I can’t help wondering if childhood experiences of racial “otherness” helped foment her X-baiting resentment.)

So, Loh gets to have her cake and eat it. She can’t possibly lack diversity (the leading cause of economic meltdown) – because she’s not white. She is dressed-down funky (“I believe the true X philosophy is to try to destroy “hipness” wherever one sees it”), “edgy” (she said “fuck” on radio!), no doubt Twittering her fans about the details of her cool life, certainly ecologically “conscious” and globally “aware” – what in this description does not include her as one of the hip yuppies she so vilifies? And yet the blame rolls off her like water off a duck’s back. Lucky her.


* Because Xers invented social stratification, of course. Or maybe she means we used to have the good stratification?


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