“Rockefeller vs. Kardashian:” How the New Class System Applies to America

A few days ago, I was entranced by the BBC’s revelation that there are now seven entrenched social classes in the UK, rather than the usual three, and just had to write about class in America.

First, a brief history: In the beginning, America was an overwhelmingly agrarian country, sparsely populated enough that even the poor could expect to live better than their European counterparts. The upper classes were politicians, writers, scientists, and all-around dilletantes, and the US Senate was in fact created as an American version of the House of Lords. There have been at least two class restructures in America: Once after the Civil War, when the gentleman farmers and dilettantes of yore were displaced at the top by captains of industry like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie; and once after World War II, when the GI bill made it possible for practically any young man to go to college free.

Since the war, and especially since the 1970s, we have begun to regress to an entrenched class system; most social mobility is downward as young people comprise a smaller portion of the population and find it harder to get a foot in the door, the cost of education has skyrocketed, and real wages have failed to increase over three decades.

So where are the aristocracy? You know, transatlantic-talking, stately home-living, senate seat-occupying, Groton and Ivy League-educated luvvies like we saw on Gilmore Girls? Where’s Giles Brandreth? They’re around, but only on the East Coast. It is said that in America, class is indistinguishable from wealth, but in the age of the internet that isn’t remotely true. Class in America is just as readily defined by cultural boundaries as Britain, possibly even to a greater extent: Because it’s so geographically spread out, America has never had a cohesive upper class. a huge section of them wouldn’t remotely qualify as “elite.” They mainly live on the west coast, possibly attend USC, winter in Miami, and have shit taste in music. These are the trashy rich. These are the Kardashians.

There have been many unintended consequences to the Great Recession: Wednesday night is the big night for social activity and not having a car is no longer completely insane, but most interesting is the division of economic class into more distinct cultural classes. Hipster vs. Douchebag, Rockefeller vs. Kardashian.

My grandparents didn’t go to college, my parents went later in life. I was the first one to be a freshman at 18, but there’s little hope that I will ever be able to live as well as my parents did. I’ve been applying for hundreds of jobs as a cashier, stock boy, whatever I can find, and in five years have never been accepted for a position. Having a bachelor’s degree could change those circumstances, but to what extent? But in now, suddenly, I’m still on a higher class level because I listen to Frankie Rose, watch Mad Men, and wear a tie.

Of course that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. I’ll be damned if my kids don’t go to Cambridge.

Being Colonial: Why I Love PBS

Originally, I was going to post about why, in the words of Sean Lock, “You should never read the bottom half of the internet.” (Here’s a post from Sally O’Rouke about why maybe sometimes you should).

But that’s not a uniquely American phenomenon and in any case everybody knows that. Instead, I’m going to talk about British television in America.

British TV has always been popular in the United States, but because of cultural cringe we tend to be undiscriminating. Ask an otherwise cultured American his or her opinion of EastEnders and try not to vomit from the praise.

Because six-episode series are too short for major networks to broadcast, most UK content ends up on PBS, the national broadcaster. PBS isn’t like the BBC, it’s way less powerful and critically underfunded. It’s also locally run, so programming can vary wildly from town to town. Most programming consists of travelogues, local interest shows, bizarre ethereal documentaries (the subject of a future post) and material purchased from the UK. The affiliates tend to broadcast the cheapest shows they can get the rights to, and so it was that Keeping Up Appearances was a staple of my childhood.

Our local PBS affiliate was the inept-but-somehow-still-prestigious KCET, which went under a couple of years ago. Now we get Orange County’s KOCE. The station is owned by the Orange County Register, a paper that makes the Wall Street Journal look like Pravda, but it’s a shining example of what public television should be. The production values and imported content are on par with BBC2 at the very least. They even broadcast the original version of The Office¬†(PBS doesn’t have to worry about censorship past 10PM because there are no advertisers to scare away).

Like the BBC, PBS is stereotyped as a niche network for highbrow audiences, though in reality everybody watches it. Television ratings are the province of commercial networks, so not many people know that PBS actually regularly outperforms NBC, the CW, and in certain markets even CBS. When the second series of Sherlock premiered last month, it was watched by 5.5 million people. On Sundays, a night already crowded with prestige shows, it was third in its timeslot!

PBS, you see, can always be relied upon for event programming. It gave the world Ken Burns, who isn’t so much a man as a genre. It’s the network of Sesame Street. And while a lot of their original content is dreadful, the journey is always interesting and I’ve never regretted watching it (with the sole exception of Barney). Even though so much of it is imported from the UK, there are few better ways at understanding American culture.