Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shouldn't We Include NPR?

“Rich People Things – Real Life Secrets of the Predator Class,” by Chris Lehman, 2011

If you don’t like the rich or the upper-middle class, you’ll enjoy this book, in spite of the déjà vu. 

Chris Lehman is a reporter and blogger who joins the ranks of outraged American social-democratic liberals writing about class issues.  He is an erudite and funny writer, styling himself a latter-day Gore Vidal – but of course, without the depth.  Murray Kempton and A.J. Liebling are some of his models as culture critics.  He also admires C Wright Mills, but then, so does everyone.  His articles are somewhat reflective of more in-depth studies found in other books.  For instance, he nails Alan Greenspan, but Matt Taibbi eviscerated Greenspan even more enjoyably.  He further hits Frank Gehry, but after Mike Davis already took down Gehry in “City of Quartz.”

This book is based on his blog for the Awl website.  Like Chris Hedges (“Death of the Liberal Class,”) Matt Taibbi (“Griftopia”), Jeff Faux (“The Servant Economy”), and Guy Standing (“The Precariat”) – all reviewed below – Lehman is no Marxist, but does show an affinity for a biting class analysis.  Lehman cut his teeth as a PHD at the University of Rochester with Christopher Lasch (who wrote “The Culture of Narcissism”), training mostly in the field of cultural criticism. 

What are ‘rich people things?’  Private jets, haute-couture, 3rd homes, exotic vacations, massive jewelry?  Well, yes, but no, since that would be too obvious.  He takes apart more subtle targets, but none-the-less favored cultural artifacts of the bourgeoisie.  Here is a list of most chapters in the book, with some short quotes and/or commentary:

The U.S. Constitution – “Charles Beard found that holders of landed estates, financial securities and regional commercial enterprises … made up the overwhelming majority of ratifiers at the Philadelphia Convention.” 
The New York Times – “Every section of the Times is its business section.”  
Meritocracy – After publication of a 1958 satire about meritocracy written by Michael Young, a British     sociologist, Lehman writes:  “…the greatest joke of Young’s satire is that the ideology of meritocracy has taken firm hold in the U.S. – not as Young intended, as a cautionary watchword for social tyranny of the knowledge class, but rather as a virtual synonym for the hoary American myth of equal  opportunity.” 
“Populism” – Lehman: “… that is how populism has quietly bulked into a Rich People’s Thing.  Once you’re able to separate it from any coherent economic affiliation or program, populism becomes a floating signifier.” Meaning almost nothing.
The Free Market – Lehman: “Goldman made most of its fortune in 2009 by wheeling from the Treasury’s welfare window to exploit the infinitesimally low interest rates the firm commands as a Potemkin consumer banking shop to vacuum up virtually free profits in the municipal and federal bond markets.” 
The Stock Market – Regarding the former Icelandic internet bank, Icesave: “Iceland’s citizens put the government’s proposed bailout plan to a referendum vote – which resulted in 93 percent of the voters responding in the negative.” 
“Class Warfare” – “… persecuted millionaire trope…”
The Democratic Party – Lehman:  “Democrats (during the 2008 election) now represent 57% - some 4.8 million – of the nation’s $200,000 and above households.”  The majority.  This was also repeated in the 2012 election.  This, then, is ‘the party of the working-class and oppressed.’
The Prosperity Gospel – A pastor of a mega-church in Mesa, Arizona said, “The poor will follow the rich, the rich will follow the rich, but the rich will never follow the poor.”
Wired Magazine – Lehman doesn’t like the techie ‘revolution’ for good reason.  And Wired is the upscale Silicon Valley spawn and herald of that fake revolution.  A quote from Wired:  “It’s a consumers’ paradise.  The Web has become the biggest store in history and everything is 100% off.”  
The “Creative” Class – These are the people who moved into the factories, warehouses and mills when they closed.  Lehman:   “American social commentators … have divined exotic new brands of class stratification that have almost nothing to do with material living conditions.”   
Malcolm Gladwell – I actually read one of Gladwell’s books, “Blink” and now I’m feeling sheepish.  It centered around how ‘snap’ decisions were best for large issues.  Good luck with that.  Lehman quotes Gladwell, “If you dwell on a subject for more than thirty seconds or so, you’re probably missing the point.” 
Reality Television – My favorite was “Undercover Boss.”  Lehman writes that at the end of that show, “the corporate CEO… indulges in a sentimental display of noblesse oblige…” while nothing really changes for anyone else. 
Ayn Rand – Lehman reminds us that Rand enthused over rape in her book, ‘The Fountainhead.’ Lehman on Rand:  “L’economie, c’est moi.”  (See also ‘Class Warfare.’)
The Memoir – I have to say, this take-down of the ‘Oprah-age” memoir was most enjoyable.  Lehman:  “The very particular family saga shared by today’s memoir genre has prompted literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels to dub it the ‘signature storytelling form for neo-liberalism.’”
The Supreme Court – Actually, the granting of personhood to corporations took place in 1886, in the Supreme Court decision, “Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railroad.”  Lehman contends that it is possible the court reporter, a former president of a railroad (!), included written comments supporting personhood in the final ruling, which had only been in oral argument. 
Higher Learning – University of Phoenix, 420,000 students, 20,000 instructors all part-time, none tenured; federal money accounted for 86% of their income in 2008; defaults run 11%, twice as much as other schools, and their graduation rate is only 16%, while other schools average 55%.  I’m a fucking PHOENIX!  More likely, you are a dead duck.
The Troubled Asset Relief Program – As FDR said, “…they had begun to consider the Government of the U.S. as a mere appendage of their own affairs.”   And we know who ‘they’ are.
The Lobbying World – Northern Virginia’s Loudon County, where many lobbyists live, is the richest county in the U.S.
Libertarianism – Reminding us all that Rand Paul supports segregation. 
The iPad – When the “i” stood for the internet.  And now it stands for “me.”  The commodity fetish of all fetishes. 
The Sporting Life – Romney’s 2004 Winter Olympics paid out $1 million in bribes to 24 members of the Olympics IOC.
Frank Gehry – Lehman agrees with Mike Davis that Gehry designs with the uber-rich in mind.
The Social Media – Lehman, following his theme of skepticism towards ‘high tech,’ questions the real role Twitter and Facebook had in the Arab Spring.  As he puts it, in the 2009 post-election protests in Iran, there were only 19,000 Twitter accounts in all of Iran - .027 of the population.  Of course, he might not come up with the same figures for the recent revolts in Greece, Spain and other parts of Europe. Even the numbers in Egypt are higher.
Language – one of his best essays is actually on language, as he clearly relishes punchy words and phrases.  Like many others, he shows how the term ‘middle-class’ has become ‘empirically meaningless.’ And says Lehman: “We are all affluent entrepreneurs waiting to happen.”

Well, that is Mr. Lehman.  Here are my beefs – let’s start with that last quote.  I know of no one who was expecting to become a rich businessman.  This cliché is repeated over and over again. Are there some statistics?

Lehman’s chapter on Libertarianism compares it to the “New Left.”   It is a familiar trope that some young Gen X types need to put down those dirty hippies and leftists of the 60s and 70s – mostly because they quite clearly don’t know anything about them.  Lehman’s comments about anarchism, libertarianism and the “New Left” reflects this impressionistic hogwash.  His factual link?  Well, you see, there was this Rand Paul supporter he saw who carried a sign, “This is My Woodstock.”  There are many kinds of anarchists – some are right, some left, some working class, some middle class, some even bourgeois.  Being ‘anti-government’ because you hate war or racism is different from being ‘anti-government’ because you hate paying all taxes or poor people.    Class, however, has disappeared from Lehman’s analysis of this, which is odd. 

Lehman also archly says, “Socialism is dead as an ideological force.”  It is ‘an irksomely gnomic floating signifier.”  (Ah, yes, still haunting…) Yet he ends his book with an 1894 quote from a moderate socialist.  He says he like Barbara Ehrenreich, who is a member of DSA, an ostensibly socialist organization.  C Wright Mills, who he also admires, popularized the term “new Left” and not as an epithet.  Mills himself was heavily influenced by Marxism and guild socialism.  Either Lehman is a fool or he’s scared to be identified with socialism, as are the majority of middle-class radicals and uber-liberals.  Perhaps he fears it will interfere with his work at Harpers, Newsday or Yahoo News. 

Lehman is like a gay man who hates gays, or a self-hating Jew, or a middle-class black guy who looks down on poor black guys.  Come on buddy, you’re nearly there!  Just become non-public and stay in the closet, like so many others. 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog   
December 28, 2012

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