This viral confessional piece by Neal Gabler managed to inspire my sympathy for some reason, not my righteous disgust. Maybe it’s just that Gabler is particularly eloquent at talking the story of haut bourgeois woe, smoothly eliding the embarrassments. Even so, and in spite of the pointed critiques he’s gotten for presenting a lengthy essay of SWPL in excelsis humblebragging as an everyman’s tale of tight finances, there seems to be a certain genuine introspection and humility shining through his prose and his interviews that is missing from most of his peers in their public commentary on things financial. The guy recognizes that there are problems with the lifestyle that he and his wife have chosen, and that they’ve made some foolish decisions.
Besides, his sheer congeniality and thoughtfulness is a breath of fresh air in a socioeconomic milieu that’s otherwise chock full of self-justifying assholes and their thoughtless aggression. I’ve spent much of my life around the latter sort. More than a few of them ought to be banished to the salt mines. They’re inescapable in American journalism, especially business journalism, or, as USA Today prefers to call it, MONEY. This is the crowd that has rebranded the US citizen as the consumer. Perhaps these propagandists would enjoy consumption in the old medical sense of the term. Seriously, it’s dismaying, and sometimes frightening, to realize that there is in fact an on-the-ground manifestation of braying shitheads like Jim Cramer, and that this manifestation is a coherent class that is eager to throw every perceptibly inferior class under the bus in ruthless pursuit of its own aggrandizement. These are the MBA’s who would have veteran nurses and schoolteachers living in shantytowns so that they can pocket the difference. They’re the insurance and hospital executives who make the practice of medicine hell for doctors who haven’t thrown their own ethics into Pot-o-Shit Friend’s trash can. They’re the dipshits who consider investment fund commercials showing a “race for retirement” anything better than crude, utterly tasteless propaganda. A bit more broadly, they’re all the Dilbert/Dunder Mifflin morons, social climbers, and timid Timmies who still haven’t thrown all the motivational posters from your office building into a Fisher stove, where they belong.
Neal Gabler sounds like he’d agree that these people are full of shit, or at least wouldn’t take offense at the argument. It’s scary just how rare this amenability to truth is in so many bourgeois circles today. Entire neighborhoods are made up of people who have sold their souls for a chance not to be cast out into Hooverville. These people have an extreme aversion to the frank discussion of socioeconomic problems. When Gabler takes flak for describing himself as “middle-class” in spite of his being a householder in the Hamptons, it’s worth remembering that fifteen or twenty years ago, decades into the hollowing-out of the broad middle class in the United States under the campaign of yuppie revanchism, something like 85% of Americans described themselves as middle-class. By all too many reckonings, you’d have to be Kim Kardashian or Mama June not to make this generous cut. Gabler’s point should be taken well enough when he notes that he and his wife live in the Hamptons year round. There are Palo Altans who live in their cars or in bus shelters, so there must be Hamptonians who aren’t loaded to the gills. Do the Mexicans who run the physical plant count as locals? #RaceTogether. The Insurance Schmuck and one of his buddies once tried to define the middle class as households with incomes between $125,000 and $270,000, which was insane, but these guys have never known how to kick it in Rancho. American definitions of the middle class are like Potter Stewart’s efforts to define obscenity, but worse, because no two parties can be expected to see the same thing when they see it and no one has the balls to insist on setting agreed-upon definitions for the terms in question, since the candor might offend someone.
Gabler wrote that he and his wife took a real Supercut when they tried to sell their Manhattan co-op and the board kept rejecting their prospective buyers. The very mechanism of the co-op board calls to mind Mark Twain’s comment about the camel having been designed by committee, as well as “Summer: Yes, Taylor, that’s an excellent verb” and a scrupulously unspoken distaste for the dark meat. It’s entirely plausible that the Gablers could have been flush enough to buy into this self-parodying world but gotten jammed up by their new peers when their money got tight, making their money even tighter. The vetoing third parties in these arrangements don’t have a reputation for being plain dealers. (Physician: “Do you get depressed?” Patient: “No, I gets da Plain Dealer.”) (Literacy, among other Values (TM) Pass It On (TM) ). Unless he’s making shit up about having been down to his last five dollars and forced to subsist on nothing but eggs for days due to indigence, Gabler fell onto some real hard times. That these hard times were exacerbated by his own poor financial decisions (a point that he stipulates in some detail) doesn’t make them any easier. If anything, having Hamptons summer people as neighbors probably made these circumstances even worse. I sometimes chop up and pan-fry some potatoes, onions, and garlic for dinner and smother the slop with some mayonnaise and hot sauce, and unless I really fuck it up, I consider it good eatin’. There are people in the Hamptons who would sneer at me for not having a chef, let alone for having summered at the Crossland. The Guyland has more than its fair share of the “Aw, you shouldn’t fly commercial, catch a ride with us” crowd. This could be convenient if you’re one of “us,” but if you’re living on eggs with a single five-spot to spare, you probably aren’t. You certainly had better not cop to it and lose face among the beautiful people, your betters. To do so would make you a peer of the Mexicans.
The thing that kept striking me about the bad financial decisions of the Gablers was that, with the exception of the liquidation of their retirement account, there would have been extreme peer pressure in their social circle to make these bad decisions and throw caution to the wind. Even the liquidation of their “small 401 (k)” (whatever that means; I’d guess $80-200k offhand), intrinsically a no-no in bougieland, was for the very proper haut-bourgeois purpose of throwing an posh wedding for one of their daughters. It is it not uncommon at all for yuppie couples today to delay their weddings by a year or two so that they can reserve sought-after reception venues, usually at great expense. This is absolutely fucking bonkers, the perversion of an institution ordered to the facilitation of family life and childrearing into an orgy of public status-whoring and the ostentatious airing of feels, but this perversion didn’t just happen on its own. Entire media industries are devoted to promoting it in its full wretched excess. Several years ago, I came across an article noting that the average wedding cost in some ritzy part of Long Island was something like $130,000. I don’t recall the details, even for sure whether it was a mean or a median figure that the article reported, but regardless, that’s fucking obscene.
It isn’t just the bitchin’ reception that a good bougie parent is expected to fund. It’s the private schools, or alternately the buy-in price in a “good district.” It’s the tuition at Precious Snowflake’s “reach school,” if the goal was in fact reached, at whatever price the bagmen determine based on the tradeoff between honored parents’ perceived ability to pay and honored alma mater’s need to sit on another cool billion in endowment money right now. There’s probably some overseas travel in the mix, too.
What the point of any of this is is debatable. A great deal of it is about nothing more than keeping up with the Joneses. These people have grotesquely distorted views of the world, but again, the distortion is very much au courant in their crowd. Everyone vacations in Europe. Well, maybe not in Belgium right now, since Zaventem and Maalbeck have such boomin’ travel scenes, but surely, say, Italy. Muh beautiful cookbook. As my parents’ one tenant told us (and her ditzy-ass Valley Girl of an American assistant–a blonde, for what it’s worth), “Everyone in Thailand has a servant.” People start to feel left out if they don’t spend a week or two each summer fucking around in London or Hong Kong for no particularly good reason. Everyone else is doing it, after all. Okay, not the Mexicans, but there are reasons why they aren’t given the old English immersion while our sixth-graders are tossed into intensive Mandarin classes.
Do you realize just how atrociously these people raise their children? It’s out of this world, really. The tragic thing, perhaps, is that so much of it is well-meaning, and yet so destructive. The problem is that the parents in these environments are scared to actually listen to their children, because their kids might express a desire for something other than fight-to-the-death academic and professional striving. These parents want their children to succeed, even though the costs should be painfully obvious by now. I could tell that the college admissions rat race was out of control when I was pushed into it, and that was in the late nineties in rural Pennsylvania. By many accounts, it’s gotten steadily worse since. (The law school racket, at least, has simmered down lately, since word has gotten out that the legal job market is in the toilet.) Frankly, parents and school officials in affluent districts should be relieved if their towns have combined rates of teen self-cutting, suicidal ideation, and genuine substance abuse of less than eighty percent. If a fifth of the kids in these places are not manifestly fucked up by the age of sixteen, it’s a sign that their adults are failing to ruin everyone under their care.
Yes, Gabler indulged in some literary humblebragging of the sort that will reasonably annoy the less privileged, those who have never had book advances or co-ops in the city or Hamptonian homesteads, but at least he recognizes that he screwed some shit up along the way. And if we’re doing woke analyses of downwardly mobile New York privilege now, I can out-woke any of the complaints that I’ve chronicled above with the classic South Bronx/Far Upper East Side critique of The Catcher in the Rye, namely: This white boy is, like, riding around Central Park in a cab all afternoon, and he’s complaining about how bored he is? I guess he doesn’t have a job? (#RaceTogether: I’m guessing that it has something to do with class, too. I don’t recall the Irish in Mariner’s Harbor acting like that. But yes, Holden Caulfield is not what you’d call a brother.)
As I’ve said before, bitch I’m woke. White boys do a lot more than just play that funky music on demand. Some of us do, anyway. Great job on your AP US History paper there, Madison. I’m sure you know all about history now, so go pick some damn berries. The Mexicans do it for subsistence, but for you it can be soulcraft.