I’m re-reading Paul Fussell’s Class at the moment, which is subtitled (on my copy, originally published in 1983): “A painfully accurate guide through the American status system.” It’s a beautifully snarky tract, moving its way through the distinctions and divides of America’s classes with such amusing observations as how one’s language is an unavoidable indicator of one’s class:

Upper: Grandfather died. Muffy is pregnant.

Middle: Grandma passed away. Meredith is expecting.

Prole: Uncle was taken to Jesus. Minnie is in a family way.

Fussell takes on everything: What you drink, how you decorate, what you buy. It’s insanely hilarious, mostly because it’s so true. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, the reason I picked up Class again is because I’m having this strange compulsion lately to spend some times with various social and political books written during (or about) American culture during the Reagan years. (Before Class, it was There Are No Children Here.) It’s amazing how many themes and observations about that time are suddenly relevant again. That could be a whole post of its own, but I just wanted to share this passage, which I would guess may not even be in the edition for purchase now:

Ronald Reagan, of course, doesn’t need to affect the establishment style, sensing accurately that his lowbrow, God-fearing, intellect-distrusting constituency regards it as an affront (which, of course, to them it is). Reagan’s style…registers the sense that if you stubbornly believe you’re as good as educated and civilized people—i.e., those Eastern dudes—then you are. He is the perfect representative of the mind and soul of the Sun Belt. He favors, of course, the two-button suit with maximum shoulder padding and with a Trumanesque squared white handkerchief in the breast pocket, which makes him look, when he’s dressed way up, like a prole setting off for church. Sometimes, for leisure activities (as he might express it), he affects the cowboy look, which, especially when one is aged, appeals mightily to the Sun Belt seniles. One hesitates even to speculate about the polyester levels of his outfits.
Sound like anyone else you know?

A few pages later, this:

Jewelry is another instant class-lowerer, like the enameled little Old Glory lapel pins worn by the insane and by cynical politicians working backwards districts.

Okay, now that I’ve started, I’m going to totally lose the plot and just throw out some of the other quotes I’ve come across that have had me howling. Undoubtedly, some people are going to recognize something they wear, do, etc. and feel the urge to get offended. Don’t! Resist the urge! Some of the biggest laughs I got were the ones that came with the cheek-reddening realization that I do the things described. The thing about Class is that he skewers everyone. No upper, middle, or prole is safe.

On baseball caps:

Proles take to visor caps instinctively, which accounts for the vast popularity among them of what we must call simply the prole cap. This is the “baseball” cap made largely of plastic meshwork in primary colors (red, blue, yellow) with, in the rear, an open space crossed by a strap for self-adjustment: “One Size Fits All [Proles].” Regardless of the precise style of the prole cap, it seems crucial that it be ugly.
On weekends:

That the weekend is now widely regarded as a mere prole entertainment fixture is clear from the vulgar “Weekend” sections of papers like the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, brimming over with commercial features and ads telling the presumably witless consumers what to do. … It should hardly be necessary to indicate that for uppers, who do not have employers or perform steady work, the weekend is not a very meaningful concept, except as it indicates the days when the banks are closed.
On collector’s items:

In fact, peddling “collector’s items” to the middle and lower classes has now reached a fine art. Witness the Norman Rockwell plate sold for $20, with suggestions that it will increase in value (!), having been produced in a “limited edition” during only “one hundred firing days”; in that time, obviously, billions of the hideous things can be turned out.
On class and catalogs:

[Upper] catalogs offer a disproportionate number of Chinese artifacts (like “ginger jars”), betokening as they do a close connection with the “old” Orient, the archaic one Americans used to colonize, missionary to, educate, and rip off. … But the main indication that a catalog is upper-class is that it sells clothes. If something doesn’t fit or look right when it arrives, for the rich no matter—give it away, either to the Salvation Army or to the servants. Proles can’t afford such risks in their consuming. Even when they do buy clothes from their prole catalogs, the risk is small because the clothes are not sized, as in the His and Her Slumber Suits made of T-shirt cotton-knit printed with the combat camouflage pattern (why? why on earth?) or the similar matched nightshirts (red, or red-and-white striped) reading on the pocket, “Brr, I’m Cold.”
On the X class:

X people are verbal. They’re good at languages and take it for granted that it is disgraceful, because merely American and provincial, to remain monolingual. … Soliciting no reputation for respectability, X people are freely obscene and profane, but tend to deploy vile language with considerable rhetorical effectiveness… They may be rather fonder than most people of designating someone—usually a public servant or idol of the middle class—an asshole.
Now that really sounds like someone I know. Ahem.

(More on Class, including a discussion of the X Class, into which I imagine none too few Shakers fall, when I get around to writing it.)

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