Paul Fussell (RIP) had it Right, Once Again

One of my favorite reads since the mid-1980s has been Paul Fussell’s Class.  In fact, I’ve liked it so much I’ve lent it to multiple friends, which is why I’m on my sixth or seventh copy of the book.  Not all my friends are as punctilious about returning loaners as one might like.  [Pointless aside:  Sometimes when I like a book well enough, I’ll just give copies to my friends.  I’ve bestowed several copies of The Most of P. G. Wodehouse and Life at Blandings on the deserving select, and when The Joy of Drinking came out I just ordered about eight copies up front and played Santa Claus.]

Fussell’s book shines the light on the fascinating clues about and intersections of status strata in a society that — aggressively at times — insists it has no class system.  As Fussell points out, that very insistence is one’s first clue that (i) there is such a system, and (ii) its contemplation makes people very, very uneasy.  The book, which he later described as tongue-in-cheek, is both outrageously funny and painfully insightful.  Ever since reading it I’ve paid attention to things like “prole jacket gape,” the separation of a man’s suit jacket from his neck and shoulders.  Even more than the exhibition itself is the failure to realize it as an issue.  Sure enough, in almost every instance in which I’ve observed it, the wearer has been someone who, either from personal acquaintance or by other visual or aural clues I can tell is someone who does not wear a jacket with any sort of regularity. 

The upper and lower strata don’t come in for very much ragging in Fussell.  The fellow on Buckley who, as Fussell recounts, kept saying, “pro-MIS-kitty” and, “I am a prole,” at the same time comes in more for regret than censure.  The ones whom Fussell flays from stem to stern, so to speak, are the middles, the ones who are desperately and pathetically ambitious to climb a rung or several, all while terrified of slipping down one or more pegs (to mix a couple of metaphors).  As The Blogfather would say, read the whole thing.

For today’s purposes Fussell’s most important observations concern the nearly-unbridgeable chasm that separates those Americans whose young men were sent to die in the mud of Vietnam from those whose youngsters sat the war out on indefinite student deferments (here it helps to understand that Fussell had been an infantry lieutenant in World War II, and sufficiently badly wounded that he was classed permanently partially disabled . . . although he was slated to take part in the invasion of the Japanese home islands).  He also points out in the segment on work and its class implications that all work can divided into two broad groups: (i) those occupations where the material threat of death, dismemberment, or permanent disabling injury is a normal part of the daily life; and (ii) those where that threat is absent.  As he points out, what would America say if every week several dozens of college professors were maimed or killed in front of their classes?  What would be the uproar if after twenty or so years of dentistry a dentist’s arms and hands could no longer hold his instruments because of various work-induced trauma?

All of which is to say that Victor Davis Hanson has once again driven the ten-ring.  The poor O-pressed students at Dartmouth have finally had enough of the “micro-aggressions” that come with spending four years at a country-club style elite university, enough of the attacks on their fragile sensibilities that arise from “racist, classist, sexist, heterosexist, trans-homophobic, xenophobic, and ablest structures.”  No, seriously; someone actually wrote those words in that order . . . and thought himself “speaking truth to power.”  Their precious little “bodies are on the line.”  Do tell.

The downtrodden have presented written demands (in a 72-point manifesto; Martin Luther in launching the Reformation could only manage 95 theses) to the administration for the amelioration of their condition.  The Wall Street Journal reports:

“The demonstrators had a 72-point manifesto instructing the college to establish pre-set racial admission quotas and a mandatory ethnic studies curriculum for all students. Their other inspirations are for more ‘womyn or people of color’ faculty; covering sex change operations on the college health plan (‘we demand body and gender self-determination’); censoring the library catalog for offensive terms; and installing ‘gender-neutral bathrooms’ in every campus facility, specifically including sports locker rooms.”

Prof. Hanson does his usual masterful job of exploding these fatuities.  And before one looses the charge of hypocrisy against Hanson, it’s useful to bear in mind an anecdote he’s shared of the day he returned from Stanford, a freshly-minted Ph.D. in classics.  His father, a farmer as had been his grandfather before him, greeted him in the driveway with (I’m speaking from memory here) a ladder and the observation that there was a shed that needed a new roof.  I’d wager Hanson’s had more barked knuckles and squashed thumbs over the years than the Dartmouth student body has seen. 

As Hanson points out, these shattered hulks of micro-aggression victims are the creatures of the very “oppression” that they claim to decry.  Their world — a world in which a Dartmouth degree is a magic decoder ring that can open doors shut to 99.99998% of their peers — can only exist by reason of the fact that those peers are not able to attend a school like Dartmouth.  Put very plainly, you can only be elite in comparison to something or someone else.  It’s those someone elses that the professor invites us to contemplate: the guy atop the tractor in 105-degree heat, or the 19-year-old infantry private in some flea-bitten, sand-blown hell-hole in Iraq or Afghanistan, or the 60-year-old manning a cash register at Wal-Mart near the tail-end of a full shift, gamely trying to remain cheerful amid the crush of humanity.

You don’t have to accept the postulate, as the “Occupy” movement purports to do, that somehow these little snot-nosed whiners at Dartmouth have caused the misfortune of those of whose existence Hanson so unceremoniously reminds us.  In fact they didn’t, and neither did those who are paying the freight for them to get their certified-organic cotton, manufactured-in-a-workers’-cooperative-paying-a-living-wage panties in wad over the horrors of not being able to ogle the sweat-stained bodies of one’s fellow students of both sexes.  But for them to pretend to misfortune in the circumstances of their daily lives, all while enjoying the up-side of a brutal and life-long invidious comparison to all those Someone Elses is monstrous.

A number of years ago Jacques Barzun, a Frenchman who fetched up teaching at Columbia for 184 years or so, wrote a book, From Dawn to Decadence, a history of Western civilization from 1500 to the present.  While it’s sometimes difficult to avoid the impression that the book’s unwritten alternative sub-title is something along the lines of “How the French Invented Civilization and Everyone Else was Just Along for the Ride,” it’s still a mighty read and I highly recommend it (to go along with all the other books about how nation X, Y, or Z “saved civilization” or “invented the modern world”; I’ve got books on my shelves making or suggesting such arguments for the Irish, the Scots, and the Germans . . . and of course Barzun’s plea for the French; I have to wonder if any such books making the Chinese and/or Japanese cases are available in translation).  At any rate:  This nonsense at Dartmouth, engaged in, encouraged, and funded by the “elites” of our present society, are precisely the decadence in Barzun’s title.

God save the mark.

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