Put away that dirty baseball cap, Harvard grad!

Just in time for our national obsession with what money says about us, Sandra Tsing Loh takes on the subject of class.

By Amy Benfer

Published February 26, 2009 5:27PM (EST)

Affluenza may have been the disease du decade of the boom years, and few writers were better at dissecting its symptoms than Sandra Tsing Loh (whose contribution to the genre included coining the marvelously useful word "aflufemza"). I'm not sure that anyone yet has coined an appropriate term to describe the class anxieties of those who proclaim to care nothing about money, until suddenly they discover they have none about which to proclaim their indifference. But since the stock market tanked in the fall, good old class rage is the new Vuitton bag (an accessory that long ago ceased to indicate certain membership in the ruling class; one poster at WSJ snipes: "Louis Vuitton was ruined for me the day I saw a street thug wearing a LV leather baseball hat").

Those so afflicted should take heed before diving into Loh’s column in this month's Atlantic. Just in time for a fresh national obsession with what money may or may not say about us, she has dusted off Paul Fussell's "Class: A Guide Through the American Class System," first published in 1983. The three basic class divisions, according to Fussell, are Upper (whose signal flag might be a “yachting pennant"), Middle ("American flag") and Prole ("windsock with a Budweiser logo"), whose tastes and prejudices roughly translate, Loh suggests, to the stereotypes we associate with "Old-Money WASP, Midwestern Insurance Salesman and Southern Trailer Trash." (In his larger argument, he recognizes nine classes: Top Out-Of-Sight, Upper, Upper Middle, Middle, High Proletariat, Mid-Proletarian, Destitute, Bottom Out-of-Sight).

Among the chatting classes, discussing class directly meant one was either gauche or British, but howls of recognition once he -- and Loh -- get going leaves little doubt that Americans most certainly have a thriving class system, "if less defined by money than by that elusive quality called taste." Loh gives fair warning: "Fussell's methodology settles into the brain like a virus; one soon cannot stop nano-categorizing one’s world."

And, oh, what parlor tricks it offers. Loh offers up Vanity Fair, with its "obsessive detailing of the summerings, winterings and fallings of obscure Eurotrash," as a handbook to the lifestyles of the Top Out-of-Sight, self-parody included. She ponders why aspirational middles are so tempted by "mute, glistening hillocks of beef," proffered by restaurants such as Ruth's Chris Steak House advertised in in-flight magazines, and explains why Fussell sees all of the New Yorker ads as "crucibles of middle-class high anxiety." A bathroom that displays "a 'hospital' standard of cleanliness" combined with useless "fanciness" such as "fur toilet seat covers" and non-working towels made of Dacron and fake gold thread, according to Fussell, is a sure sign of High Prole style. There are mandates: "Only six things," warns Fussell, "can be made of black leather without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases and dog leashes." (I would like to point out that Blair Waldorf wears black leather pants to dinner with her father in the opening chapter of "Gossip Girl" as proof that either tastes are mutable or tweaking one’s elders through the appropriation of inappropriate clothing is timeless.)

At this point, most of us might feel a little guilty, even or especially if we recognize friends, family, frenemies or ourselves among Loh and Fussell's parody. In much the same way that a demographically impossible number of Americans self-identify as middle-class, most people want to escape being caricatured as either a snob or a rube. We can justify making wicked fun of others only if we can satirize their choices -- most often for the sin of appearing to value status (which always comes from valuing someone else's opinion over our own) over the more elusive and self-directed virtues of personal choice and creativity.

And guess what? There's an escape hatch! Back when Blair Waldorf was not yet a bump in her mother’s summer linen shift, Fussell suggested that there was a new class of Americans who didn’t have to deal with all that embarrassing, uncomfortable class bullshit: the handily named Class X.

Loh summarizes: "X's disregarded authority; they dressed down on every occasion; they drank no-name liquor ('Beefeater Gin and Cutty Sark Scotch betray the credulous victim of advertising and hence the middle-class').

Ah yes, the category formerly known as young bohemians.

In Loh's modern-day translation, these are the people who may be well-educated but would consider it verboten (or worse, uncool) to fling their alma mater in anyone’s face. Back in Fussell’s day, the favored apparel of these anti-establishment types came from the L.L. Bean and Land’s End catalog; today, she helpfully provides her original Ramones t-shirt, now reduced to a "linty rag," as a sample costume one might see on a X-er.

"At network TV meetings," she writes, "millionaire 20-something comedy writers see how low they can go with torn jeans, t-shirts and grimy Red Sox caps, while the only guys in coat and tie on the lot are the Honduran valet parkers." (This sounds like a dead-on description of the attire found in the writers’ room on "30 Rock," if you give the suits to the un-cool boss and the page).

This is a meritocracy for the scrappy and the unpretentious: "Dumb good-looking people with great parents have been displaced by smart, ambitious, educated, anti-establishment people with scuffed shoes."

That last quote comes from a little book you may have heard of -- David Brook's "Bobos in Paradise," which argued that "bourgeois bohemians" have become America's dominant class. So you might guess what comes next. "Rebellion," argues Loh, "is not the outlier stance it once was. By 2009, Xs are neither what Fussell called the 'classless class' nor an 'unmonied aristocracy' with the freedom of the Out-of-Sights but without the bucks."

There could hardly be anything more American than the cycle of one generation's anti-establishment posturing hardening into the next generation's establishment (this is, after all, a country founded on the value of rebelling against the old world, only, in many cases to recreate that world and many of its prejudices). But Loh's argument is scarier than simply pointing out that the characteristics of this generation’s "creative class" have been around long enough to calcify into a stereotype -- or "class" if you will -- of its own. Instead, she takes on the most cherished notions of rebellion -- self-expression, innovation, freedom from the old-fashioned rigidity of bourgeois culture -- and argues that, in many cases, it has led to less diversity of thought, "shameful social stratification" (helped along by the concentration of like-minded people in cities and neighborhoods perceived to be progressive), and perhaps the collapse of the world as we knew it. "This economic catastrophe is teaching Xers that their prized self-expression and their embrace of personal choice leads to…the collapse of capitalism."

If that sounds harsh, she points out that the virtues of the creative class -- "innovation! Self fulfillment!" -- are shared by "those buccaneering entrepreneurs who’ve lead us down the primrose path."

Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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