EP&M Online Essay

Poetry and Class
(Part I)
by Dr.  Joseph S.  Salemi
Department of Classics
Hunter College, C.U.N.Y.  
Mandarin Caste 1916
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 epics.  

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 the speaker.  

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 views.  

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