A couple of months ago (October 20, in fact), a post appeared on Thought Catalog, authored by someone identifying herself as Rachael Sacks. Miss Sacks describes herself as being a 20-year-old college student fortunate enough to have been born to fairly well-off parents, and even more so to parents who like to keep the girl who is the apple of their collective eye in a manner to which most of us would like to become accustomed. I have to assume that her self-description is accurate.
Miss Sacks lives in New York City, in the West Village. Comfortably, we are given to understand. She enjoys shopping at swanky clothing stores, but will admit to enough humanity to let on that she also enjoys getting a deal at such places (at least to the extent that paying only several hundred instead of many hundreds of dollars for – just by way of example – a hand-bag can be called a “deal” by any reasonable standard). So far, so good.
The subject of her post was a brief encounter she experienced in the check-out line of a store near where she lives. As she approached check-out, the cashier (also a young-ish female) was chatting with an acquaintance (ditto), and one of them observed to the other that she had gone to college in-state in order to save money. The other agreed that was a good idea. Miss Sacks interrupted the chat with her purchase. Let’s roll audio and hear (so to speak) Miss Sacks tell it like it was:
“I get to the checkout and there’s this girl in front of me probably a little older than I am talking to the cashier. The girl says to the cashier, ‘I went in-state to save my parents money for school.’ The Cashier then replies, ‘That’s smart.’ They then both glare at me with my shopping bag and my Coco Lite snack cakes and Diet Coke as if to say here’s daddy’s little princess wasting money, that little piece of shit. They exchange words and then the girl leaves. I try to be chipper and ask the cashier how her day is and she doesn’t answer me. She just looks down and scans my items not saying a word or even glancing in my direction. I say have a great day, as happily as I can and walk out feeling like a turd.”
At this point in her essay Miss Sacks begins to sin. And also to dole up what is very likely a heaping plateful of unintended irony. I use the expressions “sin” and “very likely” carefully, because my irony sensors went off so spectacularly in response to what is after all an assumption about Our Author. You see, unless Miss Stacks is among the fewer than one-in-five of her age, sex, marital status, and socio-economic stratum who voted for Romney this last time out (I just typed and then deleted “McCain”; Miss Sacks at 20 is too young to have voted for the grumpy old guy), then she proudly pasted Hopenchange slogans about the place, pouted up her (attractive, from the pictures that have since appeared online) face in disgust at the very thought that someone could be so [insert term of derision] as not to be heart and soul for Dear Leader, and generally wore herself a callous on her own shoulder congratulating herself on her own Intelligence, Tolerance, Enlightenment, Sophistication, and Moral Superiority, all just by virtue of rooting for a political candidate. Who knows? She might even have “liked” him on Facebook, re-tweeted the most current Soros-sponsored talking points, and have proudly held up a union-printed sign demanding that the low-skilled unemployed be kept out of work by artificially high wages for those with jobs. Or something like that. I could be completely out to lunch on my supposition, but just by random selection there’s something like an 80% chance I’m right about her political preferences.
And that’s what makes (assuming I’m correct) her essay ironic. Because she tilts her shapely chin back and emits what can only be described as an enormous belch in chapel (or temple, in the event she happens to be Jewish . . . which of course has even less to do with the merits of her thoughts or how she expresses them than how she chooses to get her jollies (q.v.); I just don’t want to place her out of her element, f’rinstance at a stock-car race). She doesn’t think she ought to have to pretend to be poor in order to be thought well of by people like the cashier and her friend. She thinks that people ought to be able to spend their money as they please, without being judged by the world around them. “People shouldn’t make others feel bad about their own personal finances. How people spend their money is their own choice.” She bristles at what she perceives as hatred, contempt, and/or envy welling up against her solely by virtue of the fact that she’s carrying a shopping bag from some swanky retail store. She goes so far as to suggest (O! the horror, the humanity of it all!!) that people ought not be judged by the thickness of their wallet. “It should not be made to define who people are, even though we do it all the time.”
Well, y’know what, Miss Sacks? You are absolutely, 100% correct. Seriously. You have now the experience of having been spot-judged by purely superficial criteria, and you find that it rankles. [N.b. I’m the last person to read body language and non-verbal cues correctly, but there’s always the outside chance you mis-read Cashier’s and friend’s.] You may well be the kindest, most personable, biggest-hearted, most inquisitive, even-tempered person we all could hope to meet. But because you don’t choose to hide one aspect of your existence – the relative freedom from financial worry and the relative ability to choose the objects with which you surround yourself – you perceive yourself to have been damned for all time by people who do not share that one characteristic with you. You are in their eyes unredeemable. You are for them The Eternal Other.
If my hypothesis about your political leanings is correct, then what makes your essay deliciously ironic is that this cashier’s attitude towards you is the very essence of your own politics. You think people ought to be able to spend their money as they choose? Guess what? At its most stripped-down, the politics of today’s elite – including the bulk of the people you share your island home with, who just voted overwhelmingly for ACORN’s knight in shining armor – come down to the assertion that they may tell you what you may or must spend your money on (individual mandate, anyone? illegality of catastrophic coverage insurance policies? someone else’s birth control? compact fluorescent lightbulbs? trans fat bans? magazines that allow you fourteen chances to defend your life against a violent criminal rather than only six? vast amounts of wasteful “biofuels” subsidized by artificially high gasoline prices? intentionally bankrupted coal industry?). What’s more, they assert the right to tell you when you have enough money for any purpose at all, and to expropriate from you the “excess.” The fellow behind whom you choose to march (again, if I’m wrong about your politics, please forgive me) has done little more than preach the doctrine of hate and envy you felt washing about your knees in that check-out line. You’re buckled firmly by your own petard; stand by to hoist away.
Don’t feel badly about your situation, though. You’re far from the first to have sensed that things aren’t working out for you quite as you’d thought they would. The Russian aristocracy that had supplied the Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries for all those years with money, guns, safe houses, and social respectability probably went through most of the feelings you have. Only they were waiting for their turn in the Cheka’s execution cellars as they pondered how anyone could hate them for having too large a house. All you had to endure was a snotty interlude from someone who feels herself no more superior to you for her poverty (relative to yours, of course; if you want to see truly grinding poverty, take a spin through southern McDowell County, West Virginia) than you likely do to those slopey-headed in-bred mouth-breathers in fly-over country by virtue of your political enlightenment.
It gets better. Miss Sacks’s essay is not useful just for its own substance and its merits. What’s every bit as delightful (at least for the cynic) is the hateful tenor of the comments she smoked out. She’s excoriated for poor writing (guys: it’s an internet post, fer cryin’ out loud). She’s damned for being “arrogant.” She’s damned for being rich in the first place. And so on. I’ll just go on record and state that I didn’t find her reaction to her experience to be arrogant at all (assuming she “read” the cashier’s reactions correctly; if she read those reactions into the situation, that might be different, but then of all the people who’ve weighed in on this subject, exactly one of them – Rachael Sacks – was present that day). Oh sure, she might have expressed her experience and her own reactions to it more artfully or gracefully. But hell’s bells; she’s 20 years old and admits that she’s got growing yet to do. That degree of self-knowledge alone sets her apart from the run of humanity at that or any other age.
Miss Sacks might have spent her creative energy pondering the implications of class hatred for the future of America. Twenty-four years ago, when Paul Fussell led off Class: A Guide Through the American Status System with a chapter entitled “A Dirty Little Secret,” you could still joke about it. [Per Fussell, when asked and he confessed that he was writing a book about class in America, people looked at him as if he had just said, “I’m writing a book advocating beating baby whales to death with the dead bodies of baby seals.” That’s still one of my all-time favorite lines, anywhere.] For decades European socialists fretted about the relative impermeability of American politics to class hatred as a organizing principle. If Miss Sacks’s cashier is a bellwether, their dreams might be close to realization. But the essay wasn’t set up as a disquisition on such things. It was her relation of her own experience in a specific time and place.
All in all, the blistering Miss Sacks has taken from her commenters and the media puts me in mind of a retort a friend of mine gives under such circumstances: “Thank you for making my point for me.”
Not only has Miss Sacks got to see up close the street-level application of politics which may well be her own, but she’s also got to experience the special sort of viciousness she maybe laughed off, five years ago, when directed at this guy known to history as Joe the Plumber. Remember him? He made the mistake of asking the Anointed One an awkward question on camera. And the next thing you know, within hours nearly, non-public financial information about him, available only to people with access to official records and computer systems, had been fed to the press. Or consider for a moment a certain former governor of a northern state. She got to have someone literally move in next door and peer into her back yard (again, literally), hoping to see something titillating, or prurient, or embarrassing. Did Miss Sacks cackle with glee at the hectoring of those stupid knuckle-dragging Tea Partiers? How about when the union thugs come to demonstrate in front of the homes of corporate CEOs? Did she puff up and sniff, “Serves ‘em right!” when she read about how the IRS targeted groups so retro-grade as to suggest that only people lawfully entitled to vote be permitted to do so, and then only once? Did she vote for Bill DeBlasio for mayor? Did she? Whether she did or not, what’s happened to her since October of last year is just a tiny little slice of how the present administration and its allies conduct business. Someone dug up pictures of Miss Sacks on Facebook (which is how I can state that she appears fairly attractive); they hunted up her childhood home and put pictures of that up on the net. Reporters began to moon about the front door of her apartment building in the city.
To her credit, she doesn’t back down on the basics of her original essay. Which is good. To borrow another favorite quotation from history, she has done no more than “make a plain statement of an obvious truth,” and no apology is called for. And as mentioned, she admits her comparative lack of life experience and perspective, and that her acquisition of same is likely to change how she perceives and thinks about things. Again all to the good.
After another few months of getting the Full Treatment from the thought police, Rachael weighs back in. This time what annoys her is that no one mentions how she gets her jollies. You see, Miss Sacks identifies herself as homosexual. As if that had a damned thing at all to do either with the merits of her original arguments, the vitriol hurled at her from the sidelines, or the inappropriateness of the invasion of her privacy. I have to say I fail to understand her objection. Her original essay and the points she makes in it have nothing to do with how she disports herself in her bedroom (and she points that out). I didn’t notice in any of the excoriation she took anything substantive that relates at all to whom she prefers as a bedmate.
What’s interesting, and where Miss Sacks sort of gives away the game, is precisely by pointing out how the mention of her preferences would have politicized the public reception of her essay. The lamestream media would have leapt to her support, because the homosexual lobby is so influential. And the troglodytes would have emptied their magazines (metaphorically speaking) of every cacophemism they have, precisely because of those same preferences. It would have become a sliming match based on what she does with her genitals, instead of a pissing contest about her comparative wealth, how Us Proles react to her not feeling obliged to hide it, and what those reactions have to say about us individually and as a society (which is to say, about the substantive merits of her essay). Miss Sacks sure gives the impression of being disappointed in the missed chance to drag her amorous predilections into an argument where they had no place.
Rachael objects to the media making hay of her background, her family, and the physical circumstances of her existence, but of omitting to mention her homosexuality. Errmmm . . . Rachael, those sorts of reference points people have dug up are precisely illustrative of the central point of your essay: People judge you (negatively) because of the financial circumstances of your birth and your parents’ willingness that you should at age 20 reap the tangible benefits of that. Yes, it was tacky (and by the way I’m proud you used that word correctly in your follow-on essay; so few of y’all Yankees know how to) of everyone to jump all over your personal circumstances. But it wasn’t so because they were personal but rather because they didn’t affect the validity of your argument one way or the other. Put differently, suppose you’d been, not the girl with the swanky shopping bag, but the next cashier over, making your rent on damn-near-nothing-net-of-taxes-per-hour, watching the girl with the swanky shopping bag and how your colleague treated her, and describing what you saw. What exactly about your observations would have been either more or less valid? What about the discussion we could have about what you saw would be more or less pertinent to life in today’s United States?
Not good enough for Miss Sacks. “While my sexuality is irrelevant to the topic of my article, it is still part of who I am and should not be ignored.” If, she bemoans, they could delve into where she grew up and where she lives, why can’t they trot out her sexual habits? She thereby goes a long way towards giving up match point: She wants the personal to be political, as and when she wants it to be so, on her terms, not the cashier’s. Which gets us right back around to the irony of the first essay. People should mention that I’m homosexual, because then some would be more frightened to attack me, others would more readily leap to my defense, and in any event I could deflect criticism by pasting the label “homophobic” (whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean) on my detractors. But people should be able to spend their money as they choose (which of course necessarily presupposes that they should have their money as they choose in the first place). People should not think badly of me because I’m rich; rather they should consider me sacrosanct because I like to sleep with other women. Either the personal is political or it’s not, Rachael. You can’t have it both ways. You chose to put up an article about something that is extremely important, and you are disappointed that a triviality – and by your own statement, an irrelevant one at that – was not made part of the centerpiece of the controversy.
In closing, let’s hear it one more time for the Decalogue: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his servant, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.
[Updated 14 Jan 13 to correct some stoopid typos.]