EP&M Online Essay
Poetry and Class
by Dr. Joseph S. Salemi
Department of Classics
Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.
The Mandarin Caste
(Imperial Germany, 1916)
A number of letters that I have received from readers
lately have questioned me on the subject of class. The gist of those
various communications seems to be this: Why do you dislike the mijddle class
so much, and what does the issue have to do with poetry anyway?
I can sympathize with these readers. As a general rule, I believe
politics should be kept out of literary criticism. If art exists for
its own sake, then neither poets nor commentators are answerable to the demands
of political ideology. And issues of class have an inevitable political
coloration. Ordinarily I would not mention them.
My concern with class issues is an extraordinary one, based on the extraordinary
circumstances in which poetry finds itself today. I am forced, against
my will, to talk about class because of the nature of our current poetic situation.
Let me explain. This complex question will take some time, so I ask
for the reader's patience.
In the distant past, poetry was essentially the property of peasants and
warriors. The peasants composed their folksongs and lyrical ditties
and comic jeux d'esprit The warriors commissioned their
epics and battle-chants and heroic genealogies. Other genres developed
naturally but slowly from these beginnings. As the philologist M.L.
Gasparov has recently pointed out, the earliest Indo-Europeans seem to have
had two basic metrical models: a short line for simple love songs and popular
lyrics, and a longer line for more exalted, serious verse. It was an
unsnobbish literary milieu—aristocratic warriors could enjoy the charm of
the peasant songs, and simple peasants could enjoy the excitement of the battle
This was so because peasants and warriors, despite differences in wealth
and tasks, shared a traditional worldview. They saw the universe through
the same eyes, so to speak, regardless of whatever disputes they may have
nurtured on tangential matters. Back then class existed in an economic
sense, but not in any sundering ideological sense.
The modern world is different. For us, divisions among people are
not merely economic. They are also rooted in yawning chasms of separation
on questions of belief, taste, preference, attitude, ideology, lifestyle,
and worldview. Such divisions are much more rancorous and alienating
than any difference in income. A rich man and a poor man could,
conceivably, have a useful and courteous conversation, if wealth were all
that separated them. But a secularist yuppie vegan and a Mississippi
Southern Baptist cannot talk, period. Neither can a right-wing survivalist
and a liberal bureaucrat, nor a Delta Force Commando and a pacifist nun, nor
a sedevacantist Catholic and a gay rights agitator, nor a West Bank settler
and a Hamas suicide bomber. Such pairs of people come from different
planets, you might say, and have no shared ground on which they can stand.
This is why the modern world is marked, as no other has ever been before,
by contention, disputes, factionalism, and savagely fought disagreement.
The world may have always been at war, but today the warfare reaches down
into the very marrow of our intellectual bones. The combat is not always
physical, but it is relentlessly cultural and ideological. The front
is everywhere, and the battle lines are always drawn. Difference is
the watchword of modern life.
Of all the differences that separate people in America today, the bitterest
is that of caste. Caste refers to a series of differentiating
factors that include educational level, occupation, manner of speech, deportment,
habits, social attitude, and political persuasion. Please note that
I do not put race or money in this series. I simply don't believe these
are major factors any longer in the kind of caste distinctions I am about
to describe. They may have been so decades ago, but they aren’t now.
Caste is a better term than class, since Americans are always confusing
class with financial status. Caste immediately marks you in America,
regardless of your income. It tells others in a flash whether you are
one of them, and whether they want anything to do with you. Money doesn't
always do that. When someone says "They're not our sort of people,"
a powerful statement of caste is being made. And the statement can
be uttered about persons richer, poorer, or on the same financial level as
And now we can talk about the mandarin caste. A careful dividing line
separates those who are in America's mandarin caste from those who are not.
In any nation, the mandarin caste is that stratum of society which feels
it is naturally destined to rule by virtue of its inherent superiority.
In ancient Rome it was the patricians. In the Greek city states it was
the oligarchs. In pre-revolutionary France it was the titled nobility.
In Victorian England it was the landed gentry and the Oxbridge graduates.
In Wilhelmine Germany it was the Prussian officer class. And in the
United states today, it is the left-liberal “progressives”.
College educated, professional, fairly affluent, trend-conscious, issue-oriented,
self-important, and utterly convinced of their absolute superiority, America's
left-liberal mandarins are as thoughtlessly arrogant as Homeric warriors.
Like every true aristocracy they are totally self-absorbed, and see opposition
to their will as either pathological or malevolent. Filled with a sense
of privilege and entitlement, they are impatient with the slightest check
to their ambitions, and their main ambition is to impose their political views
on the nation as a whole, and to see that the cultural ramification of those
views is unimpeded.
They have also worked hard to insure their continued hegemony as an elite,
whether in or out of office. America is now a nation where, the higher
one ascends in the caste scale, the more politically to the left one is expected
to be. This remains true no matter what happens in the voting booths.
"Progressive" viewpoints are modish and fashionable, and de rigueur
among the "better" sort of people. Again, please note that when I say
"better," I do not necessarily mean "wealthier." I mean the cachet that attaches
to being a member of the aristocracy, or mandarin caste.
On the other hand, conservative or openly right-wing views are considered
horribly atavistic and socially damaging. No matter how rich you are,
if you take a conservative stance high-caste people will keep their social
distance from you, as they would from a beggar. Ross Perot, a multibillionaire,
found this out very quickly when he ran for the presidency in 1992.
And President Bush, a wealthy man from a prominent family, has scorn heaped
upon him by chic left-liberals who look down upon him in the same way that
medieval lords would look down on a serf—all because of his politically conservative
The treatment that Bush receives from his high-caste opposition is revealing.
Left-liberals talk about the President in the explicit terms of social snobbery:
they make fun of his accent, his verbal awkwardness, his taste for Texas barbecue,
his Christian faith, his simple patriotism, his country-boy habits, his ease
with working-class constituents. Make no mistake—this is much more
than the expression of a political difference of opinion. This is the
de haut en bas contempt of high-caste mandarins denigrating an upstart
member of the servant-class who happens to be in charge. They (of course)
all voted for Al Gore, a member of their own sniffy clique of Brahmins.
You think I'm exaggerating? Think harder. Try expressing strong conservative
sentiments at the Princeton Club, or at a Harvard alumni gathering, or at
a high-toned fundraiser in Manhattan. It will be the last time you're
invited there. Defend Bush in the Hamptons, or the affluent suburbs
of Maryland. People will wonder how you got past the security guards.
Why do Hollywood celebrities, the most fatuously caste-conscious people on
earth, fall over each other to be More Liberal Than Thou? It all has to do
with the elevated social status that adheres to "progressive" opinion in America.
In short, holding left-liberal views is a fashion statement in this country,
designed to show others that one is a member of the mandarin caste.
This remains true despite the spectacular worldwide collapse of socialism
and Marxism over the last fifteen years. Like playing polo or wearing
jodhpurs or sailing a full-rigged schooner, leftism now has what Paul Fussell
would call the added cachet of being uselessly yet fashionably antique.
Conversely, right-wing opinions carry an air of plebeian scruffiness about
them. They are assumed to be the mark of rednecks with a shotgun rack
in the rear of their pickup truck. No matter how many wealthy, prominent,
and highly educated people hold them, such views are still felt to be not
quite respectable, a kind of social disability or scandalous taint.
Condoleeza Rice, Antonin Scalia, Camille Paglia, and Hilton Kramer are all
persons of tremendous energy and intellectual achievement, of the sort that
would dwarf most of our brain-dead collegiate faculty. And yet, because
they have expressed politically incorrect (i.e. non-liberal) opinions,
they are hated pariahs.
Here's a homelier example. I knew a veteran named DiMaggio who had
served in the Korean War. When the Chinese overran our forces, he was
in that terrible fighting retreat that went from the Yalu back to the 38th
Parallel. He survived it, but barely. DiMaggio was ferociously
patriotic, and always flew a large American flag outside of his home in Queens
County, New York.
Later in life he retired to an affluent suburb in the West. Of course,
he continued to fly the flag from a pole on his property. His left-liberal
neighbors complained, and went so far as to bring a harassing lawsuit against
DiMaggio to compel the flag's removal. He fought back hard, with the
same tenacity he had shown in Korea, and eventually defeated his neighbors
in court. Just to enrage them he then bought a truly huge flag, and
flew it 24/7 for the rest of his life.
Try to imagine the sick elitist mentality of those neighbors. What
exactly drove them to bring a pointless lawsuit about a flag? Simple—DiMaggio
was threatening their caste. He was making the neighborhood appear
more conservative, and therefore not as high-toned as they would like.
For them, flag-waving patriotism was déclassé, and did
not comport with their self-image as enlightened progressives.
I once told DiMaggio's story to some addlepated liberal schmuck in the English
department of my college. He defended the neighbors, saying that they
were just trying to maintain the property value of their homes. I then
reminded him that this was precisely the excuse used by whites in the 1950s
who resisted the racial integration of their neighborhoods—they claimed "property
values" would decline if blacks moved in. He blanched, and immediately
changed the subject. Liberals don't like it when you point out that
they are snobs.
To sum up then—we have a self-appointed mandarin caste in this country which
defines itself by its left-liberal views, and which reinforces its image by
demonizing contrary views as socially unacceptable, degrading, and beyond
the pale of polite company. And here is where the middle class
enters the picture.
(To be continued)
Joseph S. Salemi