On the Playing Fields of the Georgetown Day High School
In my four decades in national journalism – I started at the Associated Press in 1974 – I have grown increasingly concerned about how Americans respond to information, or put differently, how propagandists package their messaging to elicit the desired response. In an age of cynicism, the trick is to get the “big ha-ha!” – convincing you to laugh at the target whether deserved or not. --Robert Parry, the other day
Not the least interesting feature of having moved to the US in my early 20s is the occasional discovery of qualities many Americans seem to enjoy but that I, Buenos Aires-bred, instinctively recoil from. The roguish charm of the rote George Clooney character, for example, is one that I can't help but associate with overbearing grifters, so some of the guy's ur-roles are as odd to me as though someone had thought to cast Ricky Roma as the lead in a romantic comedy.
I thought of this social dissonance while exploring that peculiar embodiment of American credentialed meritocracy that is Vox,
noticing that their standard article summary ends with "Here's what you need to know." The line always bugs me, partly because it triggers flashbacks of bar- or newsroom idiot know-it-alls starting their spiel with "Look kid, sit down and let me tell you how it really is," partly because I don't understand why Vox's readership of successful or aspiring professional middle-class Americans, touchy in all kind of small ways, would tolerate being talked to like that.
The Robert Parry piece linked-to above led me to a partial answer, which I hereby respectfully submit, following lambert's foundational work, as a contribution towards A Theory of the Explainer Class. It's just high school, Jack. I don't mean this in the trivial sense that high school shapes who we are and we remember borne back ceaselessly into the past...zzzzzz..., but rather that the explainer class has never left the intellectual world of high school, which is why its members are so uniquely susceptible to, say, the threat of ostracizing ridicule (Parry's "big ha-ha!" journo consensus above), or unembarrassed by the exercise of unearned authority, such as Matty Yglesias, '03 Harvard philosophy BA who last week explainered, from his $1.2 million condo in Logan Circle, why a $15-minimum wage "is probably too high" .
Here's where I'd refine lambert's 20% of "functional and wannabe (strivers)" through the filter of undergraduate or at-most-masters education choices.
It's an interesting question whether the combination of rentier capitalism, social deference and high inequality will lead generally to an infantilization of the educated middle class. I'm thinking here of that bit in Orwell's "Inside the Whale" where he talks about how,
Towards the end of Mr Cyril Connolly's recent book, Enemies of Promise, there occurs an interesting and revealing passage. The first part of the book, is, more or less, an evaluation of present-day literature. Mr Connolly belongs exactly to the generation of the writers of 'the movement', and with not many reservations their values are his values. It is interesting to notice that among prose-writers he admires chiefly those specialising in violence — the would-be tough American school, Hemingway, etc. The latter part of the book, however, is autobiographical and consists of an account, fascinatingly accurate, of life at a preparatory school and Eton in the years 1910-20. Mr Connolly ends by remarking:
Were I to deduce anything from my feelings on leaving Eton, it might be called The Theory of Permanent Adolescence. It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development.
When you read the second sentence in this passage, your natural impulse is to look for the misprint. Presumably there is a 'not' left out, or something. But no, not a bit of it! He means it! And what is more, he is merely speaking the truth, in an inverted fashion. 'Cultured' middle-class life has reached a depth of softness at which a public-school education — five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery — can actually be looked back upon as an eventful period. To nearly all the writers who have counted during the thirties, what more has ever happened than Mr Connolly records in Enemies of Promise? It is the same pattern all the time; public school, university, a few trips abroad, then London. Hunger, hardship, solitude, exile, war, prison, persecution, manual labour — hardly even words.
So back when I was young and handsome and could get away with wearing half-turtle-necks while instilling into Bay-Area undergrads such as Vox's Jim Tankersky all they'd ever know about political economy, I was struck by two things about my colleagues in the PhD program. One, they were weirdly envious at the money made by people their age (or younger--gasp!) in Silicon Valley VCs, the GSB or even law school people, an envy I thought weird simply because, if you were smart and came from a good school and wanted to make money, well, then you wouldn't have chosen to become a grad student in [insert super-soft-social-science-here]. I remember this whenever I look up some Voxxer who's written an contemptuous piece about dirty-hippy complaints against Uber/TPP/Wal Mart/etc., and find, not some Galtian titan of the Harvard Business School (those go on to make money, which is why I'd interject them and many economists between the 1% and the rest of the ~20% we're talking about here), but rather an Ivy BA (not even a BS!, for you academic types) in some precious humanities thing like Russian literature or some super-soft social science (at the undergrad level, anyway) like polisci.
Take Andrew Ross Sorkin, probably --before young Ezra's Vox valuation, anyway-- foremost among the courtiers produced by the Explainer Class. I was looking his background up right now in a properly-Popperian attempt to falsify my hypothesis about the kind of undergrad degrees finance or economics journalists tend to have. His Wikipedia entry caught me up short: Ivy, inevitably, but his degree a B.S. OK, those tend to be in serious fields like mathematics or physics, so, I guess my pattern's not that tight. But the complete lack of any indication about what major this BS might have been in bugged me, so I looked further and came across a Cornell alumni magazine profile that *still* didn't mention what exactly he graduated in, which really made me suspect there was something promising here. Finally, I found the answer in a New Yorkprofile, where I think the adoring nature of the interview ("Sorkin is where he is today, the most famous financial journalist of his generation, in large part because of his herculean work ethic.") led him to drop his guard a bit, and allow the writer to start a paragraph with "When the summer ended, Sorkin left for Cornell, where he majored in communications."... Communications!
I suspect this at some structural level inevitable because, well, nobody who's actually worked any particular job can be an unequivocal, fervent evangelist for it, at least not in the profession's own talking points. Every good journalist I've known had a low opinion of the profession, ditto academics: not in the sense that the profession is evil, but simply that what it manages to produces often happens in spite of, rather than because, the professional incentive structures that are in place. The great John Dolan touched on this problem in a review where he comments that the author like a lot of self-indoctrinated Leftists, never had to encounter actual academic leftists until he'd decided on his own that they were in the right. So he's embarrassingly enthusiastic about these people, who are, let's face it, unbearable. So one can begin to see how there might be a role for articulate BAs from good schools who'd like to make more money than their majors'd otherwise warrant in our brave new neoliberal world. Not a huge number of spots for that job (thing could be automated, really, Tom-Friedman-generator like), but there's a constellation of government-or-foundation non-jobs in cities where this particular class of "striver" constituency gathers, so there'll usually be plenty of names with which to freshen up the byline.
However, American credentialism probably plays a role as well. The "weird envy" I picked up among my non-economist-MBA-STEM-with-startups grad school colleagues cuts two ways. My guess is that anyone with that kind of degree, the one that you go into with an implicit guarantee that getting it will set you up to make some serious money, would find it intolerably shaming to become a financial or economics "correspondent," having constantly to play courtier to what are really successful versions of yourself, to whom you, with your degree, must inevitably appear as a pitiable loser. I think the only exception consists of people who are out of the financial game for very well-defined legal reasons, such as Business Insider's Henry Blodget.
But I'm forgetting that I structured this odd and overlong bit of mnemonic irrelevance by saying that there were two things I was stricken by as a grad student that are relevant to understanding the explainer class. The second was simply the reproduction of the kind of high school dynamics I'd imagined grad school was designed explicitly not to harbor. Many people there seemed to see the place as a kind of do-over: now they'd "do" high school the way they wish they'd have done it . So around the fifth time I heard the line about "not talking shop" I started to pick up that, perhaps, bringing up, ever, our common subject of inquiry was not thought ideal for dinner parties, or really any common social occasion outside of assigned courses and hurried talks before invited speakers. Alright, so what are we talking about? High school stuff! Or what I associate with high school stuff, a mass of vague social rankings, enlivened by bitter bilateral feuds over things such as who invited whom to a dinner party, or who was being very ridiculous by going after a guy who's clearly into someone else, but someone else said, and so on.
This is not enormously fascinating (it isn't to me now, and was even less so at the time) until you realize this kind of dynamic (to call it something) animates a great deal of DC discourse, which is why I started this post with Robert Parry having repeatedly to face the know-nothing "big ha-ha" journalistic consensus over the course of his career. Engaging with this at the level of arguments is as pointless as engaging any high school ridicule, because the dirty- and open secret is that nobody really knows exactly why anything is so "ha-ha", and if someone showed up to explain why it might not be so ha-ha (like Dean Baker, whose "Beat the Press" column swims against Sinclair's "It's difficult to make someone understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it"), they'd grasp not his point (which they don't care about--last time they thought about econ was while cramming for the Spring finals), but the fact that grasping it won't help them become director of media relations for Lyft.
To end this post on a constructive note, I think that critics of the status quo have to realize that a lot of the mainstream people they're engaging are highly incurious people who really are happiest writing stuff like extended analyses of the economy of Game of Thrones or gossiping about who got that job or was seen going out with that chick whose father worked once with Tina Brown. They react only to ridicule (they're a very touchy bunch, as Matt Bruenig has repeatedly discovered), and the only reason they've been able to pass themselves off as experts (I should say, "explainers") is that the actual experts (in terms of education) are out there making money, so that economics journalism becomes populated by people bound by a throwing-rocks-in-a-glass-house kind of omerta.
My own modest contribution to this campaign of ridicule is simply to append to anything I mention by Harvard philosophy major Matty Yglesias the line and link, written from his $1.2 million condo in Logan Circle. I'd welcome more ideas of this kind. To a very small extent, "I know these people" (as, according to either Dolan or Mark Ames, Hunter S. Thompson said about lower-middle-class Nixon voters), and arguments at the level of their purported ideas won't work because they don't live there--that's "shop". Ridicule, however, gets at what they really care about.
Weapons of the weak, obviously, but in general official America doesn't seem great at dealing with those these days.