Saturday, April 2, 2016

Playing with Bubbles

Harold Pollack is skeptical of Charles Murray's Bubble Quiz.
Joe the Plumber would probably ace that particular exam. Good for him. But he’s no more authentically American than I am, no more authentic than the inhabitants of more cosmopolitan or less non-Hispanic American worlds, either.
I too found this quiz curious, and somewhat trolling.  It polishes the spear tip on the argument that lower-class, lower-culture, lower-educated whites are to be resentful of upper-class, upper-culture, upper-educated whites.  I find myself wounded by it, and sympathetic - snobbery is real, as is the resentment it creates.  I immediately reflect upon my own "hipster" interests, cultured by a process of criticism and evaluation, skeptical and analytic.  Music, fashion, movies, television, food, literature: none of which to be taken for granted, accepted as they come from family or community, but rather to be assessed according to an extrinsic rubric of historical contexts, objectives and criteria.  Each artifact is never to be accepted according to tradition or default, but rather as something to be explored within a larger cultural expansive.  Even when the default option is selected, it is appreciated with a wink of post-modernism - cheese puffs and Pabst blue ribbon (or Celine Dion, although I realize I'm in rare hipster air there) are enjoyed for their almost comical yet elegant simplicity, all the while understood as tropes themselves of particular historical manufactural moments.

All of which is fundamentally progressive.  This approach is learned, usually in cognitively enriched home environments, or chance entry into friendship circles that reinforce critical thought, and generally leads to higher education, which reinforces this posture further.

And it doesn't end with cultural material consumption, but extends as well into social analysis: religion, politics, history, psychology - all of encounters a critical analysis which seeks to transcend tradition and established authority.  "Question everything" is the guiding principle to be striven towards.  Skepticism and enlightenment become high values.  If one is not questioning, critiquing, evaluating, comparing, contrasting, one is failing to perform basic duties.  The stance is progressive, liberal, as opposed to conservative.  Instead of standing before history shouting stop, one ought be driving the train - past the cheese puffs, Pabst and The Bachelor - on to hummus, Sierra Nevada and Herzog.

Can the conservative be critical?  Of course, just as he can enjoy fine wine and literature.  He investigates, questions, evaluates, critiques... and ends up in favor of tradition.  But this type of conservative is a rarer breed.  This type, often a libertarian (he finds cultural conservatism silly, but so too the pretentions of the statist - all pretentions really, his defense of genre against literary canon is quite high brow analysis, if self-serving).  But enlightenment and skepticism are not conservative values.  They are defined by subversion of traditional paradigms.  Thus conservatives who wield them must do so carefully, building arguments not from sleepy inheritance, but rather from erudite analysis of historical context.

Which brings us back to the bubble.  A bubble refers to one's attention, how one spends one's time.  Murray references situational characteristics of an individual's placement in space and time.  Certain stores, certain friendships, certain neighborhoods, certain television channels.  These define the extent to which one is in a socio-economic bubble.  HIs quiz is simple, and designed to target (troll) upper-SES whites.  Lower-SES individuals are no less prone to living in bubbles.  Eating only cheese puffs, Pabst, listening to Dion and watching the Bachelor are no less insulated from Herzog or World Music.

But the point of the exercise is to illustrate the power dynamics hidden within these spacial and temporal spheres.  The ability - the desire even - to question, analyze, evaluate, critique requires societal capital.  It corresponds with cognitive enrichment that comes from social privilege.  This is where the resentment lives.  The pickup truck with the "redneck" sticker on the bumper is a reaction to a sense of unfairness, of being looked down upon.  It is a statement of pride in the face of a perceived and real imbalance of power.

The conservative movement has been polishing this spear tip for decades....  The "elites'" arrive at their position through privilege....  This privilege grants them the luxury to adopt enlightenment, skeptical values ("book learnin')... this privilege allows them not only better pay, but a whole variety of cultural "goodies": music, food, fashion, tastes that play as status symbols for their privilege, the nature of which is not merely arbitrary, but defined in direct opposition to tradition.  Sierra Nevada is not merely fancy beer, but a direct product of critical rejection of "lesser" tastes, derived as they are from tropes, derivations, and unreflective experience.... to engage in such cultural activity is to traffic in a sort of  enlightenment masturbation - the organ of pleasure erected from a progressive stance....

Or so goes the argument.  But wait for it! ...the money shot: just as upper-SES microbrews are emblems of exploitation, products of critique inherited from privilege and defined by a process of discriminative taste-making, so too is the liberal, progressive ideology.  Social progress and relativistic values are just as much products of this enlightenment, skeptical stance.  Critical thought as decadence.

However, this is all cheap trickery.  Disadvantage is real, and immoral. Critical thought and analysis requires societal capital, and to the extent that there is an inequality of societal capital, there is moral failure.  However, critical thought and analysis do not require class inequality.  This is the cynical lie being sold.  Sure, you can find individual instances of cultural snobbery, where instances of cultural unsophistication are sneered at meanly.  But to take the position that the concept of cultural criticism is therefore an immoral act is absurd.  Complexity is Go ahead and listen to Shania Twain, read Danielle Steele and eat cheese puffs all day, but the fact remains that they are simplistic and derivative.  That is an empirical fact.  They may be entirely enjoyable, but complex they are not.  Whether or not one has a history of learning appropriate to understand this fact is a spatial and temporal reality that need not be a function of class.  Listeners of Phish and Dave Mathews (generally college educated) are a testament to this fact, as both bands are generally considered derivative and uninteresting to music critics, those who's job is predicated on having spent long hours of learning musical contextual analysis.  That a learning history of complexity need not be defined by class is evidenced by the wealth of experience in blue collar trades: would you tell a highly-skilled tradeseman that experience (learning history and contextual analysis) doesn't matter?  Knowing how to precisely lathe a rocking chair leg or replace the alternator an an '09 Chevy Silverado is hardly less discriminating than an appreciation of micro-brews.  That one is more valued than the other is function of SES status as it relates to social privilege, not a critique of the process of critical analysis.

So, to the extent that the Murray quiz asks us to reflect upon our learning histories and privilege, the exercise is useful.  However, to the extent that it seeks to further sharpen a wedge between blue collar and white collar workers by arguing that cultural sophistication is responsible for social inequality, it distracts from the real functional relationships that drive economic mobility.  Rather than cower before the notion that my cultural interests are decadent, I prefer to embrace them with pride, meanwhile continuing to actively advocate for social policies that seek to expand access to social mobility for all.

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