There’s a new class system

Marketplace Staff Oct 23, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s a fact of life that there are haves. And have nots. And that the gap between them’s getting bigger all the time. In this edition of the Loh Down, humorist Sandra Tsing Loh tells us there’s a silver lining to that depressing fact.


SANDRA TSING LOH: By without class, you could think of, say, Paris Hilton — who has managed to bring a tawdry softcore, fast-food vibe to both Paris and the Hilton. Suggesting the further conundrum that our most famously affluent women look like they don’t eat.

But that’s ever the way it is in America. The totems of wealth and the totems of poverty are always mixing.

It was writer Paul Fussell who first hilariously dissected the miasma in his book: “Class: A Painfully Accurate Guide Through the American Status System.” He divided American society into upper class, middle class, and proles.

Money comes into play, sure, but the more important distinguisher is style. For example, Fussell argues that in the upper class, one might say: “Grandfather died.” Middle class? “Grandma passed away.” Prole? “Uncle was taken to Jesus.”

Of course, now, more than 20 years later, our President is a Yalee who talks to Jesus quite often. And Fussell’s beloved fourth group — the X category: creative artists and thinkers — the only Americans to escape the limitations of class?

Well, it’s now the Age of Bono, who recently launched his “Red” marketing campaign where you can send help to Africa by buying his little red iPods. Each swipe of my VISA getting Bono one step closer to his Nobel Prize, in Peace.

In short, the creative X’s have become overlords. And with that power come strict new rules. For instance, recently here in Los Angeles, I became embroiled in a discussion regarding the correct wardrobe for Hollywood meetings. As a writer, you can’t wear a business suit. Horrors! You’d look like a drone from accounting! No, creative types must always dress down, the rock ‘n’ roll t-shirts, the torn jeans, even . . . I’ve seen gardening clogs.

Of course, the studio lot valet parker cannot wear anything torn. He wears a tie, and a vest, and those shoes have to be spit-shined. In which case the quickest way up is to write a hit screenplay.

RYSSDAL: Sandra Tsing Loh is a contributing editor at the Atlantic Monthly.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.