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All classed up and nowhere to go
The New York Times goes slumming: How the paper’s allegiance to the ruling elite distorts its look at class in America
BY CHRIS LEHMANN

AT FIRST GLANCE, "Class Matters" — the New York Times’ epic inquiry into the widening economic divisions of the new millennium — appears to be what its editors solemnly claim: a well-intentioned effort to reckon with a serious social condition, one that notoriously eludes clear understanding in America, so long hymned as the planet’s pre-eminent land of opportunity. Alas, however, the New York Times is in no position to deliver. In contrast to, say, the paper’s conscientious reporting on the ’60s-era civil-rights movement in the South, its foray into class consciousness suffers from a fatal flaw. Social class is at the core of the Times’ institutional identity, which prevents the paper from offering the sort of dispassionate, critically searching discussion the subject demands.

Even as the paper takes hits for its alleged liberal bias, it retains a supremely undeviating affinity for the cultural habits of the rich and celebrated — most obviously in its Sunday Vows section, which features short celebratory biographies of newly consummated mateships from the overclass. The Sunday Styles section — along with the Home and Dining sections, the T: Style magazine, and the recently added Thursday Styles — delivers breathless dispatches on the mores, tastes, status worries, and modes of pecuniary display favored by the coming generation of anxious downtown arrivistes.

So the many installments of "Class Matters" — a now nearly completed work in progress — come across less like an authoritative exercise in social criticism than like an oddly anxious series of Tourette’s-style asides, desperately sidestepping the core economic inequities that the Times can never quite afford to mention outright. Getting the New York Times to explain the real operation of social class in America is, at the end of the day, a lot like granting your parents exclusive license to explain sex to you: there are simply far too many conflicts that run far too deep to result in any reliable account of how the thing works.

YOU CAN SEE the trouble early on, in what serves as the series’s mission statement: the pledge, in the May 15 first-installment "Overview" piece by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, that they will chart the way "class influences destiny in America."

For most people on the receiving end of class prerogatives in this country — unskilled service workers who find it all but illegal to form unions, say, or poor black voters in Ohio and Florida — there’s no "influences" about it: class is destiny in America, delimiting access to basic social benefits like health care, education, job training, and affordable housing. Yet for all sorts of painfully self-evident institutional reasons, the New York Times can’t afford to approach a subject this potent in a straightforward fashion.

Instead Scott and Leonhardt marshal their readers through a leisurely tour of hoary American social mythology. America, they purr, "has gone a long way toward the appearance of classlessness" — meaning, one supposes, that the downwardly mobile middle classes are actually thriving on the appearance of being in possession of wealth and disposable income, as though, by analogy, it would have been perfectly acceptable to report design upgrades in segregated Southern drinking fountains as a meaningful advance for black civil rights. "Social diversity," they explain, "has erased many of the markers" separating the country’s haves from the have-nots. Yet they fail to recognize that a more socially diverse ruling class remains a ruling class, after all — an uncomfortable truth easily overlooked when one is writing for an influential organ of said ruling class.

Not surprisingly, then, the closer Scott and Leonhardt circle toward the heart of the matter — how some Americans leverage social advantage into greater wealth and privilege, and how many, many more have seen wealth, educational opportunity, disposable income, and job security stagnate or decline while household debt and health-care costs soar — the more ungainly and vague everything becomes. Still, Scott and Leonhardt are forced to concede a stubborn social fact: "Americans are arguably more likely than they were 30 years ago to end up in the same class into which they were born."

Here the dogged reader is at last primed to reckon with a sharp point of analytical departure: the storied American Dream of social mobility across generations appears to be stalled. Instead, however, the authors lurch into more bootless mythmaking: "Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege.... But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education, and connections cultivate in their children the habits the meritocracy rewards."

Well, no. Parents with connections, education, and money place their considerable resources directly at their offspring’s disposal. What results has everything to do with openly legible lines of power, and very nearly nothing to do with the cultivation of meritocracy-pleasing behavioral "habits" — as any cursory glance at the Oval Office’s present occupant or the cast of The Simple Life will instantly confirm.

Meritocracy is an especially obtrusive and unstable term here, since neither Scott nor Leonhardt — nor scarcely any uncritical champion of meritocracy in our time — pauses to note the original meaning of the term. The concept of meritocracy first surfaced in a 1958 satirical political novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, by old-line British socialist Michael Young. Young’s coinage was not intended to describe a system of impartial upward advancement, but rather the diametric opposite: a dystopian social order wherein bureaucratic rank outstripped wealth and title as the measure of human advancement. The irony in Young’s book, of course, was that the egalitarian nomenclature of this brave new order — of which the word meritocracy was itself a prime example — masked a system of spoils and rewards that was fast becoming much less fair and balanced than the old British class society it was thought to have supplanted. Only in America — or more precisely, only in the A section of the New York Times — could a bitter term of Old World satire gain traction as a straight-faced descriptor of a sunny status quo.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, the twinned notions of Right Conduct and Meritocratic Worth have shaped every subsequent installment of "Class Matters." The first reported piece, by the redoubtable Janny Scott, explores the consequences of unequal access to quality health care, by reconstructing three heart-attack cases — affecting, in socially descending order, a well-heeled architect, an electric-company office worker, and an immigrant Polish maid. This comparative exercise does a pretty good job — how could it not? — of showing what happens when the basic right to critical health care is submitted to the market’s less-than-tender mercies.

Until, that is, Scott joins the hapless maid on a grocery-shopping junket and loses all patience: "Cruising the 99 Cent Wonder store in [Brooklyn’s] Williamsburg, where the freezers were filled with products like Budget Gourmet Rigatoni with Cream Sauce, [the maid, Ms. Gora] pulled down a small package of pistachios: two and a half servings, 13 grams of fat per serving. ‘I can eat five of these,’ she confessed, ignoring the nutrition label. Not servings. Bags."

Not servings, people! Bags! When Times scribes are reduced to sentence fragments, you know their patrician forbearance is running dangerously low. And how can you blame them, considering that the pistachio episode follows a sobering litany of other trespasses? When first stricken with her heart attack, Gora dismissed her husband’s suggestion that she was seriously ill and needed an ambulance, and instead tried to collect herself with a glass of vodka; against explicit doctors’ advice, she sneaks cigarettes and doughnuts, and even clips a cockamamie diet from a Polish magazine that permits her to eat generous portions of fried food and steak. And so Scott’s telltale moment of exasperation carries an unmistakable subtext: There’s just nothing to be done with these people. Never mind that Gora’s behavior suggests that she is also suffering an extended, and completely understandable, bout of depression — an all-too-common health affliction among the working poor. Why extend anything like universally available health care to a group of people so willfully perverse?

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Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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