Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Class in America: a Superficial Meditation

The late Soviet Union used to pride itself on being a “classless society.” This notion, not unlike the USSR’s implementation of socialism, was imperfectly realized*, but it was sufficiently seductive that for many decades, including those of my formative years, it was considered poor form in the United States to dwell too much on class stratification. That “the poor” existed (with the subtext that it was in most cases their own damned fault) was aknowledged, but alongside this there was the vision of great fluidity—essentially an upwelling current—between the strata. Why shouldn’t the shop foreman, having risen that far on grit and initiative, finish up as a Captain of Industry? Although no shop foreman actually ever rose to be the Chairman of General Motors, there was at one time enough social mobility to permit the foreman plausibly to imagine that his son (his son, of course, in that era) would work in the office rather than on the shop floor, and that his grandson might even rise to the professional class: lawyer, doctor, architect. Good times. Today, of course, the USA ranks fairly low in social mobility measured against the other remaining industrialized democracies (and who knows how much longer we will qualify for that cohort?).

But class in America and elsewhere is surely informed by metrics other than tax brackets, isn’t it? We are advised, these latter decades, that a category—class?—of people known as “coastal elites” looks down upon the honest yeomanry, the “real Americans” who live in “flyover country” (I used to think of them as “those funny little rectangular states”). And yet, there are folks in, say, Oklahoma or Indiana who, with three or four times my household income, would regard me as “elite,” so surely that makes us upper class here at The Crumbling Manse™, aren’t we?

Well of course, by Bay Area standards, we’re only getting by, although we have the incomparable advantage, accounts payable-wise, of no children, no carried-over consumer debt, no student loans (at last!) and a mortgage that should be retired within another thirty months, leaving us with a property that has appreciated considerably since its purchase late in the last century. And I am startled to see that our household income puts us slightly north of the ninety-fifth percentile, national median-wise. But again, let’s leave money aside.

In my twenties I was a guest at a suburban manse owned by a friend’s father, a self-made millionaire. “Millionaire” counted for a great deal more in the mid-seventies than it does today. The place was tricked out with ghastly vulgarity: not unlike (although in fairness to my friend, nothing like as over-the-top) Donald Trump’s decorating schemes. During the preceding years I had been received in the homes of other college friends who, by no means as prosperous in terms of fungible assets, rested comfortably on nest eggs of cultural and intellectual attainments. They were, what, upper-middle class, if that? The millionaire was probably worth a dozen or more of these households, but culturally, had they been his neighbors, he would have been the Tony Soprano (I do not mean to impute an organized crime connection, although in the case of the paterfamilias’ line of work the possibility cannot be excluded) on the block.

So about that: the, let us say, solid-waste management guy brings in $x each year, and has rebuilt and remodeled his home in McMansion style on steroids. Across the street the retired Stanford associate professor (household income closer to $.05x of Tony Soprano’s), who purchased his considerably more modest bungalow back when Bay Area houses were affordable, holds state in his comfortable premises, perhaps a tad shabby, perhaps a tad deficient when it comes to gilded faux-Louis XIV furniture. Professor Poor can comfortably discourse about a range of topics that would leave Tony Soprano tongue-tied, although in fairness Tony Soprano knows much about disposing of corpses in municipal landfills, a discipline that would leave Professor Poor utterly bewildered. Tony dismisses Poor because he is, by Soprano standards, well, poor, while the academic regards the solid-waste mogul, his vast, gaudy house, his dreadful decorating scheme (in particular his “library,” consisting of buckram-bound volumes from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, purchased by the yard), his indifference to scholarship, with boundless contempt. Each man regards himself as dwelling in the superior “class.”

So how do we evaluate them? Does it matter?

I have connections—I will not say more than that I am obliged not to sunder these—with a couple of individuals, both of them probably in percentile 99.5 (and ardent Trump supporters, natch), who share in addition to considerable personal wealth, an indifference—nay, an outright contempt—toward the “cultural elite,” whom they likely believe personified by “Hollywood celebrities” (so Barbra Streisand claims to care for the poor, but she lives in a Malibu mansion! Hyuck, hyuck, checkmate, libtards!), and also toward erudition and intellectual attainment generally, particularly those that come under the rubric of “liberal arts.” I might have asserted that they would indignantly deny “elite” status until the God-Emperor Trump said this a year ago:
“They always call the other side ‘the elite’. Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do,” the US president said. “I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are. I became president and they didn’t. And I’m representing the greatest, smartest, most loyal best people [sic] on Earth — the deplorables, remember that?”
So perhaps they’ll embrace the label after all.

But class: I did not come myself from an educated family—neither of my parents continued their studies past high school—but they were cultural strivers after the fashion of their cohort in the Fifties. Both of them regretted skipping college; both were, I think, keenly conscious of their deficits, and endeavored to better themselves: they subscribed, for example, to a service that mailed the household LPs of “classical” music, not because they actually liked this—their tastes ran more toward Broadway musicals and the “Great American Songbook,”—but because they admired, and aspired to, the stratum of society that did. I owe to them, in part, my own enjoyment of all of these genres. Now might be a good time, incidentally, for the occasional reader to refer to my long-ago entry on “Mid-Century Middlebrow.” Go ahead. I’ll wait. And they aspired for better things for their children in terms of standard of living and culture.

Obviously I come down on the side of class-as-culture rather than class-as-income-bracket, but of course, when it comes time to draw a charmed circle, most of us will devise one with ourselves at the center, as the short-fingered vulgarian so tellingly contrived to do in his 2018 remarks. There is no need, to be sure, for the two categories not to overlap: indeed, at one time they were very nearly congruent, and as the striving, presumptuous middle class that emerged following the New Deal and the postwar reforms is gradually squeezed out of existence—hanging on by its fingertips to the hem of privilege, or cast down to the upper proletariat to be milked by the rentier class—it may be that the “elites” will reunite, with perhaps a significantly larger percentage of semiliterate vulgarian thugs in their ranks. I can hardly wait.

*The existence of the USSR as a countervailing economic and political system, its deficits notwithstanding, served as a brake on some of capitalism’s direst impulses, and we are living through some of the consequences of its absence—but this is properly the topic of another entry.

Friday, April 26, 2019

An anniversary

A court order dissolved my marriage, which had been barely on life support for rather over twenty-four months at that point, on this day in 1988. I should not imagine that the co-respondent has retained the date in memory.

Drainward the Course of Empire

Ben Franklin’s remarks delivered near the close of the Constitutional Convention. For a wonder, the words are not modern fabrications devised as ventriloquism:
“In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of Government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered, and believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in Despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”
As impatient children are wont to ask from the back seat: “Are we there yet?” I fear we are.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Legacy Not

Visiting the former workplace last week, I was struck at how what I once regarded as my potential “legacy” has been utterly erased: both the design sense I attempted to inculcate for the last three decades of my alleged career, and the consciousness of institutional history I labored to leave behind.

I might as well never have walked into the place forty years ago. I thought at one time that I was building something, but it turns out that all the while I was piling sand.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

“I never knew the old Vienna…”

(Another in a series of repurposed film reviews)

The process of transmuting a novel from the page to the screen unavoidably involves some measure of diminution, often drastic, of the source material. The Third Man is one of the rare exceptions to that rule, taking as its point of departure one of novelist Graham Greene’s lesser tales and turning it into one of the supreme achievements of postwar film noir. A certain amount of credit is due to Greene himself, who wrote the screenplay, but the author has acknowledged that director Carol Reed’s handling of the material (including some creative differences in points of plot development on which Reed prevailed) was decisive. Also, Orson Welles, whose character dominates the picture all out of proportion to his actual screen time, contributed some of his own dialogue, including the memorable, oft-quoted “cuckoo clock” speech.

A little historical background might be in order here: At the beginning of the nineteenth century, “Germany” consisted of, oh, three or four hundred pissant little kingdoms and principalities (I exaggerate for effect here), plus half a dozen bigger ones, the most powerful of which was the Kingdom of Prussia. In the 1870s, Prussia’s gifted and overbearing statesman Otto von Bismarck oversaw the unification of these disparate components into the German Empire, with the Prussian king as emperor (or “Kaiser”) and Bismarck as the Empire’s first Chancellor. Left outside of this amalgamation was German-speaking Austria, which was already the center of its own empire, then known as Austria-Hungary, and which included in its subject territory large swatches of president-day Hungary, Poland, Romania, the former Czechoslovakia and the former Yugoslavia, and little bits of Italy. Fast forward fifty years, and after being on the losing side in World War I, Austria is shorn of its empire, thereby freeing a lot of its former subjects to go back to their former pastimes of burning one another’s homes, violating one another’s womenfolk and cutting one another’s throats, a social dynamic toward which it sometimes seems as though our own unhappy fractious imperium is latterly tending. Austria, once a big, honking (albeit ramshackle) polyglot multi-ethnic empire, is now reduced to a smallish, mainly German-speaking country (I trust you’re taking notes: there’ll be a quiz afterward). Fast forward another decade or so, and neighboring Germany, under the dynamic leadership of, by golly, a transplanted Austrian, seems to be going great guns compared to its still-demoralized southern neighbor:

Springtime for Hitler and Germany, 
Deutschland is happy and gay!
We’re marching to a faster pace:
Look out, here comes the master race!

The way the Austrians prefer to remember it, Hitler rolled into Vienna in 1938 and forcibly incorporated it into Germany (or the “German Reich,” as they were styling themselves by then) in what became known as the Anschluss. To much of the rest of the world, it didn’t even meet the “date rape” test, and when the Third Reich went to war with the other major powers of the world the following year, the Austrians were not found wanting by their cousins in martial zeal. Hitler’s project ended badly from the Nazi standpoint in 1945, and although Austria had its national identity restored, it was subject like its senior partner to occupation by the victorious belligerents, France, Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, with each power governing a section of the country.  Vienna, the capital, was likewise subdivided, and it is against this backdrop that the story of The Third Man is laid. Here endeth the historical digression.

Holly Martins is a writer working the lower end of the literary food chain: he pens cowboy novels of the mass-market paperback variety, and although he appears to have a devoted following among the lower socioeconomic strata, he’s not doing so well that he can afford to turn down an invitation to join his old pal Harry Lime, who has set himself up as a successful businessman in occupied Vienna. Precisely what kind of business Lime has been engaged in is not initially made clear, and in any event, the clueless Martins comes to the rather knocked-about city with his head planted securely up his arse, where it remains for much of the movie, and is shocked to discover that Harry has been tragically killed in a traffic accident. Arriving just in time to attend the funeral, Martins attracts the notice of a world-weary British military policeman (a starchy Trevor Howard, with an affect of acerbic disdain he does not trouble to conceal from the American), who advises him to go home. Instead, the writer undertakes his own investigation into the circumstances of Lime’s death, in the course of which he forms an attraction toward his friend’s mistress (she regards him with the sort of affection and esteem in which you and I might hold something we were obliged to scrape from the soles of our shoes), and discovers some very uncomfortable truths about the nature of Lime’s enterprises. Fun factoid: Penicillin had been produced in limited quantities during the war, and for military use only. It did not become available for civilian use in the United States until almost the end of the conflict and was direly needed, and extremely hard to come by, in war-ravaged Central Europe throughout the latter 1940s.

Stylishly photographed (an industry colleague jokingly sent director Reed a spirit level afterward, so that he could set up his cameras straight) and highly atmospheric, and not without its moments of levity, as when the hapless Holly Martins is mistaken for a “serious” novelist and hauled before a literary audience to give a lecture, The Third Man is among the greatest English-language films produced since the last world war, and it’s a little surprising that it isn’t better known. The usual qualifier applies that the pace of editing, although brisk for its time, may be a little downtempo by the reckoning of anyone born since 1980. Some people have found the movie’s once-famous zither music an intolerable annoyance. Final fun factoid: the director’s stepdaughter, Tracy Reed, was the only woman in the cast of Dr. Strangelove (as General Turgidson’s “secretary,” and as “Miss Foreign Affairs” in the Playboy centerfold seen in the B-52 in that film).