Sunday, January 25, 2009

False populism

The thing that makes "first-world problems," "Stuff White People Like," and similar avenues of mockery viable is for those doing the mocking to have some degree of self-awareness. The (upper-) middle-class participants, when mocking the rich, are also mocking aspects of themselves. Making fun of Alex Kuczynski, Emily Brill, or that woman with an espresso maker on every floor of her townhouse is not an activity one engages in to raise awareness about the less fortunate, to make us turn away from materialism and towards what really matters in life. The point is to feel salt-of-the-earth one's self. Most of the mockery comes from those with the leisure and Internet connection that permits keeping up with the Sunday Styles. I'm guessing, at any rate, that few of these commenters took breaks after 16-hour shifts of manual labor, took the bus to their local public library, and had their say. In short, we're looking at the privileged insulting the very privileged.

A subset of the Internet mock-commentariat (mocktariat?) is made up of those whose mockery of the rich (real or imagined) is not accompanied by any kind of self-awareness. So enamored these blog-goers are of flinging the phrase, 'Your privilege is showing,' and its variants at anyone whose words can be twisted to fit the bill that they forget that their own is just as visible. They feign a heart-rendering sensitivity to the underprivileged, all while doing what everyone does on the Internet, namely making fun of those who come across as clueless, simply because doing so makes for some good procrastination. Do these bloggers/commenters also work for social justice? I'm sure some do and some don't. My point is that the posts themselves haven't got a thing to do with helping anyone other than some Internet-friends of theirs also bored at the office.

You see where this is heading. Yes, the Affaire J.Crew continues.

Attempting to display how out-of-touch I am, living it up as I do on my hedge-fund-esque TA-ship and non-existent but somehow massive trust fund, Kriston Capps writes, "Let's note that J. Crew is well out of the price range of a great many Americans whom the Obamas represent." Americans about whom Capps is so concerned, I take it, that he wrote this post. To help the poorest Americans, not to show blog-readers his amazing class sensitivity.

Let's be honest. Are there items at J.Crew only the rich could afford? Yes. Are there those for whom a $30 sweater is too much? Yes and no. It depends how often you shop. No one assumes someone who goes to bars or smokes cigarettes, or goes to the movies, or otherwise spends money on things other than lentils and peanut butter, is filthy rich. If you are not starvation-level poor, I'm afraid that yes, you can (get it?) afford a $30 sweater, maybe even a $30 skirt as well a few months later. For those of us with jobs that don't pay well but require a professional look, J.Crew sales are a reasonable place to shop. And, for the last time, J.Crew is not outrageously expensive, and all this oversensitivity to those who find the store's prices out-of-reach strikes me as nothing more than false populism. Yes, there are people in this country too poor to buy a shirt. No, you are not helping them by being an asshole on the Internet.

So, before yet another blog with far more traffic than this one misses the point, and because the DCist does not seem to accept comments without registering...

-I fully stand by the post that inspired the pile-on, one which, oddly enough, I'd originally written because I'd tired of the vitriol on both sides following my posts about actual political issues, and was about ready for some fluff no one would find offensive. Little did I know...

-Whatever the Obamas wore to the Inauguration was bound to be interpreted as symbolic, political, meant to make a statement to the country and world, and thus quite unrelated to what people, wealthy or not, wear in normal situations. The outfits, aside from looking appropriate and attractive, needed to send two messages. One, this is a very important day, and two, we are not the Palins, so we are not wearing the entire contents of several Neiman Marcuses. Hanna Rosin thought the more important message was that they are not out-of-touch elites. I thought the more important message was that the day was a big deal. If there was ever a moment that called for over-the-top, this was it. The Obama girls are, after all, well-off private-school girls, part of a milieu where J.Crew is not considered shockingly expensive. It would be rubbing it in the rest of the country's faces if the Obama girls showed up in those woven pink Chanel suits meant for ladies-who-lunch, but it struck me as disingenuous that we all had to pretend that off-the-rack J.Crew would be these girls' most-special-occasion-ever clothing, and that the Obamas were not making a political calculation in choosing to put their kids in something many (no, not all, but many) American kids might wear.

-I updated my post, well before any of these sans-culottes started commenting on my hoity-toity ways, to say that on second thought, J.Crew clothes are rather expensive for kids. I suppose it would have hurt Capps' point about my cluelessness re: life in Real America if he'd mentioned this, so he did not.

-As I learned after writing the post, the clothing was special-made for the girls, and is not off-the-rack J.Crew. So the Obamas did, in fact, hit both the regular-people and super-important-day marks. They did not think chain store clothing, even of the fancy sort, was special enough for the occasion. I find this perfectly reasonable.

-When clothing is so purely a political message, it's impossible not to mention brands. The Obamas knew full well that people would want to know where their clothing came from, and intentionally sent a message with their choice. To discuss the outfits' politics is to discuss, in part, the brand. How all these people got from my post that "Phoebe can't see people without evaluating prices of what they wear first" is beyond me. One simply does not lead to the other. And it's not even true. Call me obsessed with male beauty, fine. But label-obsessed, I will not have it.


Withywindle said...

FWIW, this all seems sensible to me.

Phoebe said...

It seems you're alone in this. The hater pile-on continues.

alex said...

As I heard Krugman say once, its hard to make a man understand something when his job depends on his not understanding it. This, I think, more or less summarizes your situation. What you have written is very reasonable, but in order to have a reasonable discussion you must have reasonable partners in conversation, who will seriously try to reply to your arguments. By contrast, if your conversation partners sift through what you write in the hopes of finding something that can be made to sound "elite" or "out of touch" , then nothing you write will have any effect. I think continued engagement with people like that is probably a waste of time.

Phoebe said...


True enough.

dance said...

delurking from RSS...I followed part of the pile-on at unfogged but was not moved to comment until now.

I was going to write a whole screed about the lower-middle class shops, but I won't. I'll just point out that being able to afford a sale item (and you found some good ones, for sure) does not equate to being able to afford to shop at JCrew.

You can shop JCrew sales because you (I'm guessing) grew up shopping there at full-price or close to it, have a sense of the styles and fit, and thus can effectively work the sales. So you find that on a grad-student budget you can still fit JCrew in, and that's fine. Impressive, even.

But for people who would NEVER consider spending $175 on a silk skirt, or even $78 on a sweater, there is nothing there for them at JCrew and never has been. That there are a few items in random sizes and "select" (aka unwanted) colors at a reasonable price on a small sale rack in the back doesn't make it worth even walking in the store. That's what "out of their reach" means.

Phoebe said...


I assure you I was raised to always shop for things on sale. For all I know, your theory is true of every last person but me, but I doubt it.

dance said...

Well, my theory is definitely true of me and every lower-middle class person I grew up with.

Phoebe said...

What can I say? I know and have known people of a range of class backgrounds, and have seen a wide range of shopping habits among them. Granted some of this comes from growing up in NYC, where sales and knowledge of them (not to mention knock-offs everywhere, making it hard to know who did or did not spend $5,000 on a purse) is part of the culture.