Rich People Things: Real Life Secrets of the Predator Class – Chris Lehmann (Haymarket Books) 256 pages
Chris Lehmann has written a book for the 99%, and it should be required reading for all of us in this critical election year. Lehman is the Yahoo! News editor, and he also does that dirty deed at Bookforum, The Baffler and Awl.com. In this book he peels back the lid on the ruling class in present-day America, and exposes the construct of lies and misdirection designed to protect them. Here’s the opening line to his introduction: “American class privilege is very much like the idea of sex in a Catholic school – it’s not supposed to exist in the first place, but once it presents itself in your mind’s eye, you realize that it’s everywhere.”
How does the super-wealthy “predator class” really function? And how do they get away with it all? Lehmann deconstructs the zeitgeist of the upper-echelon of American society, and exposes how the monetary and social “value” and “worth” of their existence is perpetuated by the mainstream mass media. He offers a point of entry into an understanding of our lack of class consciousness in America (or even class awareness), and provides some evidence that the American cultural experience is oriented around making the rich feel comfortable and protected. If they are simply left alone to do their thing, then, somehow, we all benefit. We aspire to be where they are, and we accept that whatever is good for the rich is also good for us. The national political tone is set.
In a chapter entitled “Class Warfare” he uses quotation marks in the heading to mock the idea of class warfare, and he paraphrases author Chuck Palahniuk, who said, the first rule of American class warfare is that it is always waged upward, never downward, meaning that it only comes up in conservation when conservatives are accusing people of waging it against the rich.
As a society we’re not allowed to talk about the rich waging class warfare against us because that rubs against the national tone. The corporate wealthy and their political attendees use a pretzel logic to baffle Americans about how government and the economy works, and who really pulls the strings. There are twenty-nine short chapters that seem wildly disparate at first glance, but are all tied together in a loose web: “The New York Times”, “David Brooks”, “The Free Market”, “The Democratic Party”, “Malcolm Gladwell”, “Reality Television”, Ayn Rand”, “The iPad”, “Social Media” and so on. Lehmann’s writing is razor sharp and whip-smart, and there’s so much to grab onto in all of these chapters it’s a shame he couldn’t have written twice or three times as much on every topic. This is really just a primer, but a damn disturbing one, nevertheless. And, not unlike James W. Loewen’s radical post- modern classic, Lies My Teacher Told Me, it’s also a gob of spit in the face of the bourgeoisie. If you’re not already bought and sold and in the pocket of Big Money this book should “knock you on your ass,” -in the immortal words of Matt Damon as Will Hunting when speaking about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States – or, at least, it should reinforce much of what you already know.
A Dozen Questions with author Chris Lehmann:
What was the motivation for turning the original concept of “Rich People Things” into a book?
Money, of course! Actually, quite the contrary: Colin Robinson, whom I’d spoken with at various points in the past about possible book projects, came to me with the notion. He’d assumed that the online columns I’d written at the Awl would lend themselves to ready adaptation into book form. He was, of course, wrong—the Awl columns had very tight and unforgiving sell-by dates, as tends to be the case with all online content. So I was more or less stuck with writing a whole new book from scratch—which no doubt was Colin’s master plan all along.
What do you think accounts for our blind national worship of the free market?
Phew—all sorts of things, from the role of the frontier in US history to the country’s characteristic forms of religious worship. I try to give a glancing account of the origins of America’s unique adoration of laissez faire in a chapter on the Free Markert, but more broadly speaking that bit of detective work is the subject of the entire book. Buy it now to learn the shocking plot twist on the final page!
Why do you think so many Americans accept this two-party system, and the accompanying cronyism among the rich and powerful, as the only option, and the conservative worldview as their default position?
Well, the two-party system is, like many things Americans are alleged to choose or accept, actually a lumbering legal contrivance—the political equivalent of a market cartel, sustained by enormous entry fees, and ludicrous obstacles to simple things such as ballot access. Given this, I’m not sure Americans— plenty of Americans sit out the rigged election system, and it’s all but impossible to know their motives for doing so. But as to the conservative worldview, that, too, is an ideology that gets reinforced daily, while operating without any noticeable trappings of popular consent. No one voted for Rupert Murdoch, or Roger Ailes, or Tim Geithner, or Larry Summers—these are the character types who ascend to positions of maximum influence and tend to assert mandates for their power ex post facto. Still, there is a more general sense in which conservative thinking of a certain stripe—a reflexive hatred of government, the ready lionization of market values, the rote vituperation of cultural elites—has become a background political persuasion. And I suppose that has a good deal to do with the forty-year legacy of the culture wars, which taught Americans to distrust the media, loathe the government, and cultivate a near-unappeasable sense of persecution at the hands of shadowy coastal “elites.” On one level, this style of politics harks back to Andrew Jackson, but in the contemporary scene, it’s become decoupled from any economic basis, and permits figures such as Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, both of whom pull down tidy eight-figure annual incomes, to pose as aggrieved populists.
How do we circumvent the corporate media stranglehold on mass communication?
Uhm, very quietly? I actually am not all that dour about the delivery systems for media these days. While online news outlets may not be terribly reliable, and tend to reinforce existing ideologies, they also permit a good deal of skeptical inquiry and what lefty types call “media literacy”—ie, careful vetting of news content and news sources for lurking agenda or empirical blindspots. True, the influence of such outlets won’t match that of Fox News, or PBS for that matter. But the simplest way to circumvent any baleful media trend in today’s overcrowded information scene is to, well, make your own media.
Several of the chapters in your book seem to point to the theme that Americans are easily distracted by the trappings of culture and don’t generally see the reality behind the show. How do we combat this condition?
Well, I don’t view culture as a distraction per se—that’s a kind of strict materialist reading of history that I’ve never bought into. I do think, however, that cultural material can point up revealing themes and narrative tics in our thinking about issues such as economic inequality or social class. There’s something very striking, and odd, about a recession this steep creating a mass following for rigid class melodramas such as Downton Abbey, or national revivals behind Prosperity preachers such as Joel Osteen. This all affords a vivid contrast, in my view, with the so-called social novels of the 1930s, or even the lifestyle rebellions of the Beat era and the sixties far from serving as a distraction, our cultural life serves as a telling window into the way we tend to distort, repress, or sublimate the otherwise intolerable tensions between our folk beliefs about American economic life, and the way it tends to actually unfold.
You seem to suggest that our misunderstanding of the Constitution is, in part, the basis of the lack of class consciousness in this country. Do you think the framers of the Constitution had the foresight to recognize this and purposely muddied the waters?
Oh sure—most of the Founders signing the constitution were large landowners, who took great pains to prevent the states from minting paper money (a great boon to smaller farmers, workers and debtors generally speaking), while also making awkward and inconsistent room for the perpetuation of slavery. Past historians of the Founding were assailed for drawing attention to these obvious material interests at play during the creation of the republic, but that was simply the dominant socio-economic profile of political leaders in Colonial America. You had to be a landowner to vote, remember—and you can see the extent to which the political participation of landless peasants distressed the Founders by their reaction to Shay’s rebellion, just a few years before the Constitutional Convention was called to order.
In your conclusion you point out that we have no “basic grasp of what might constitute economic justice” in this society because we all, essentially, see ourselves as potential entrepreneurs. Doesn’t that suggest that we are so far down the rabbit hole that we will never be able to address the fundamental issue of wealth disparity?
Oh, I don’t think so. Extreme economic misfortune has concentrated the minds of many Americans wonderfully, I think—hence the Occupy movement, and to some extent even the Tea Party’s rancor at the financial industry bailouts of 2009 and beyond. It is true that it’s very hard to persuade Americans that there is such a thing as social class, and that it is powerful determinant of our life outcomes, since the mythology of the market and the self-made millionaire is so central to so much of our informal civic religion. But increasingly, I think, people are receptive to new ways of thinking about economic inequality, so long as they don’t come across as too deterministic or doctrinaire.
How does the right-wing dominate talk radio so effectively? Besides Bill Maher, why is there no commercially viable “left-wing” or alternate version of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity?
I’m not really sure I have a plausible explanation or theory here. I’ve never been much taken with the left clamor to get a left version of Rush on the air. To me, what’s risible about Limbaugh isn’t that he’s an ideologue or a bully—though he, Hannity et al are surely that. Rather, I think it’s distressing that so much of our political and media culture reflexively mistakes shouting for thought. I think the best response to Limbaugh is the Sandra Fluke one—shame and ridicule. The thing that pisses bullies off most, in the final analysis, is exposure, not competition.
When did honest, genuine class-consciousness disappear in this society?
Uhm, 1924? I don’t think there’s any sure way of pinpointing this trend—there’s been confusion about the role of social class in America virtually since the republic’s founding. As I mentioned, I think the frontier mentality has consistently futzed up our ability to apprehend the way class privilege has taken root in the midst of the New World—but forces such as popular religion, the culture wars, and mass culture have all played important roles as well.
Has our national fascination with “celebrities” of every kind dulled the critical edge on our political sensibilities?
Oh, I don’t think so, especially. I think most people understand that celebrities aren’t truly consequential public figures. Does anyone really see anything non-ironic about Kim Kardashian, or the cast of Jersey Shore? It is curious, though, that once celebrities start sounding off on politics, we’re invited to dismiss them—cf., the Dixie Chicks circa 2003, or Sean Penn, well, whenever. In many cases, of course, celebrities have shallow or ill-formed political opinions, but it’s hard to argue that Alec Baldwin’s view of the world is more puerile than, say, David Gregory’s. I don’t (again) have any overarching theory to peddle here—it’s just striking that we automatically assume that politically minded celebrities are somehow dumber or more pompous than the usual variety.
What kind of response has the book received?
It’s been varied, which is what I’d expect, more or less. I was glad, though, to see that it got included in the free library for the Occupy Wall Street crowd at Zuccoti Park, before New York’s media mogul mayor destroyed said library, and the protest encampment along with it.
What would you like readers to take away from it?
I’d like them to think more skeptically, I guess—both generally, and about the social myths of economic privilege, meritocracy, etc.