the dilemma of equality -- 7/29/21

Today's encore selection -- from Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell. Most Americans resist the idea that they live in a class-based society. But, however fluid, these classes do exist, leaving Americans with a unique challenge in figuring out where they stand in society -- and a unique need to achieve in order to gain respect. And thus "How'm I doin'?" -- former New York Mayor Ed Koch's famous question -- can be viewed as the quintessential American question:

"[When sociologists interview Americans about the subject of class,] being told that there are no social classes in the place where the interviewee lives is an old experience for sociologists. '"We don't have classes in our town" almost invariably is the first remark recorded by the investigator,' reports Leonard Reissman, author of Class in American Life (1959). 'Once that has been uttered and is out of the way, the class divisions in the town can be recorded with what seems to be an amazing degree of agreement among the good citizens of the community.' The novelist John O'Hara made a whole career out of probing into this touchy subject, to which he was astonishingly sensitive. While still a boy, he was noticing that in the Pennsylvania town where he grew up, 'older people do not treat others as equals.' ...

"[In America] we lack a convenient system of inherited titles, ranks, and honors, and each generation has to define the hierarchies all over again. The society changes faster than any other on earth, and the American, almost uniquely, can be puzzled about where, in the society, he stands. The things that conferred class in the 1930s -- white linen golf knickers, chrome cocktail shakers, vests with white piping -- are, to put it mildly, unlikely to do so today. Belonging to a rapidly changing rather than a traditional society, Americans find Knowing Where You Stand harder than do most Europeans. And a yet more pressing matter, Making It, assumes crucial importance here. 'How'm I doin'?' Mayor Koch of New York used to bellow, and most of his audience sensed that he was, appropriately, asking the representative American question.

"It seems no accident that, as the British philosopher Anthony Quinton says, 'The book of etiquette in its modern form ... is largely an American product, the great names being Emily Post . . . and Amy Vanderbilt.' The reason is that the United States is preeminently the venue of newcomers, with a special need to place themselves advantageously and to get on briskly. 'Some newcomers,' says Quinton, 'are geographical, that is, immigrants; others are economic, the newly rich; others again chronological, the young.' All are faced with the problem insep­arable from the operations of a mass society, earning respect. The comic Rodney Dangerfield, complaining that he don't get none, belongs to the same national species as that studied by [founding father] John Adams, who says, as early as 1805: 'The rewards ... in this life are esteem and admiration of others -- the punishments are neglect and contempt. . . . The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger -- and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as the gout or stone. ...' About the same time the Irish poet Thomas Moore, sensing the special predica­ment Americans were inviting with their egalitarian Constitu­tion, described the citizens of Washington, D.C., as creatures

Born to be slaves, and struggling to be lords.

"Thirty years later, in Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville put his finger precisely on the special problem of class aspiration here. 'Nowhere,' he wrote, 'do citizens appear so insignificant as in a democratic nation.' Nowhere, consequently, is there more strenuous effort to achieve -- earn would probably not be the right word -- significance. And still later in the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman, in Democratic Vistas (1871), perceived that in the United States, where the form of government promotes a condi­tion (or at least an illusion) of uniformity among the citizens, one of the unique anxieties is going to be the constant struggle for individual self-respect based upon social approval. That is, where everybody is somebody, nobody is anybody. In a recent Louis Harris poll, 'respect from others' is what 76 percent of respon­dents said they wanted most. Addressing prospective purchasers of a coffee table, an ad writer recently spread before them this most enticing American vision: 'Create a rich, warm, sensual allusion to your own good taste that will demand respect and consideration in every setting you care to imagine.'"



Paul Fussell


Class: A Guide Through the American Status System




Copyright 1983 by Paul Fussell


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