The muddle-class: A continuation

In the 1999 remake of the film The Thomas Crowne Affair, there is an interesting snippet of dialogue:

Woman: The thing that impressed me most… was getting from Glasgow to Oxford on a boxing scholarship.

Crowne: Not bad for a wee lad from “Glasgee.” It was easy. Rich kids can’t box.

As readers of NOL would know, Oxford doesn’t offer sports scholarships, meaning that this origin story is not only implausible, it’s impossible. What this speaks to, aside from the inattention of the screenwriter, is a phenomenon of performance for a certain demographic: That is to say the telling of stories with information tailored to the understanding and assumptions of a particular group, or groups, of people. In the case of The Thomas Crowne Affair, that group is Americans for whom collegiate sports and higher education are synonymous, or those whose understanding of higher education is framed by their local institution, which offers sports scholarships. By extension, such people are not in the Oxbridge or even the Ivy League’s orbit as they would then be aware that the former don’t offer sports scholarships and that at the latter, even though some sports-related scholarships are offered, sports are held in open contempt by the student body. No one works hard to attend these places to then be jocks. The problem with demographically targeted performance is that it creates division, one which is based on fiction but whose consequences can be all too real. If a person doesn’t know how things work in another part of society, if his or her knowledge is based on stories-with-an-agenda, then he or she will see discrimination or rejection where there is none.

I have written before about meeting a childhood acquaintance for the first time in over twenty years and discovering that she was angry and bitter toward society for not recognizing her imagined precocity. She had moved to a town which is known as a resort frequented by the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, visiting dignitaries, etc. Telling me of her experiences, she became distraught – distraught! – that these people were polite to her. She comes from a family which might be described as Gucci socialists, so I inferred that she had a worldview which presumed that rich people, successful people be rude or arrogant toward the “working man.” Realizing that she was not elite and that her perceptions of the elite were wrong was a massive blow to her constructs.

As the case of Anna Sorokin, alias Delvey – the young woman who swindled her way around New York City for a year before being caught and charged with fraud – revealed, what tripped Sorokin was her lack of knowledge of the way elites truly behaved. One of the girls whom Sorokin attempted to involve in her subterfuges stated that she could be exceptionally rude to service people, which was one of the red flags to the hotel management who eventually unmasked her. The exact words were: “she could be oddly ill-mannered for a rich person. Please and thank you were not in her vocabulary.” She was hoisted on the petard of her own fantasies. I, myself, am waiting to see if this little detail makes its way into the two upcoming television dramas about the Sorokin swindle.

There’s a film from 2004, In Good Company, which stars a young Scarlett Johansson, among others. The film is a fairly good representation of how a placid, self-satisfied middle-class man was dragged, kicking and screaming, into the digital age. But, interestingly, the first clue for the parents in the film that the world doesn’t work the way they thought it did is when their eldest daughter, played by Johansson, is injured, costing her her tennis scholarship to an unnamed college in upstate New York. She comes home and informs her parents that without the scholarship, there’s no point in returning to that college because its reputation isn’t good enough for her to be able to progress professionally and socially coming out of it. She’s already arranged to transfer to NYU but needs her parents to cover her fees as she’s transferring mid-year, when all scholarships or financial aid have already been awarded. The daughter’s announcement is the beginning of her parents’ world collapsing in an avalanche of new information: “Not all colleges are created equal! The tennis scholarship wasn’t worth it – now she has a damaged arm and is behind academically! Well at this rate, she’s never going to win a merit scholarship. No problem, we’ll take out a mortgage on the house. Oh, damn! Dad’s lost his job because the magazine where he works is moving from print to digital and he can’t figure out how to use a computer!” The film is an interesting study of what happens when a couple, that fancies themselves as worldly wise and upwardly mobile, discover how little they actually know. The world doesn’t work the way they thought it did and everything that they believe themselves entitled to is stripped away.

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote in his essay “Psychological observations,” published in English as part of a collection of his essays titled Studies in Pessimism, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” This quote, taken out of context, is much beloved by self-help authors. The full quote is:

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world. This is an error of the intellect as inevitable as that error of the eye which lets us fancy that on the horizon heaven and earth meet. This explains many things, and among them the fact that everyone measures us with his own standard—generally about as long as a tailor’s tape, and we have to put up with it: as also that no one will allow us to be taller than himself—a supposition which is once [and] for all taken for granted.

Schopenhauer was commenting on Shakespeare’s Hamlet in this paragraph. However, it is a succinct description of the intellectual heresy of the pseudo-middle class. They take their own limited experience as how the world works, e.g. sports scholarships, and measure society according to their tailors’ tapes, e.g. world views requiring rich people to be rude.

According to legend, American wit Dorothy Parker was asked at a party to create an epigram using the word “whore;” without hesitating, she said “you can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.” Mental or knowledge poverty, be it social or cultural, cannot be alleviated by mere exposure. Such poverty has nothing to do with lack of material means. It exists solely in the four or so inches between a person’s ears. In the same way, mental or knowledge wealth cannot be redistributed. As the Bolsheviks found, the only way to redistribute this type of wealth is to blow a person’s brains out.

The pseudo-middle class (or the muddle-class), with its limitations and tailors’ tapes, isn’t the backbone of society. At best, it’s a parasitic entity; at worst, a cancer. The bourgeois, of the type studied by Deidre McClosky, with their high-quality educations, discipline, courtly manners, and work ethic, are the backbone. Not everyone who falls into the general category “middle class” is bourgeois. In fact, I go so far as to say based on my own experience that the majority of middle class people are not bourgeois because we are at a point in history where true bourgeois values and lifestyle are demonized as “elitist.”

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