Thursday, February 02, 2012

"Can you name this NASCAR champion?"

Gawker points us to a Charles Murray (-inspired?) quiz that, in 20 questions, tells you how Real American you are, a kind of conserva-rants twist on Bourdieu. The questions are tilted so as not to take into account wealth or income (and as I've asked on WWPD on multiple occasions, if you're not mining your cultural capital for some tangible benefit, what good is it doing you? potential energy of sorts, in the form of brie.). They're about consumption in such a way that if your answer isn't 'not iceberg, arugula,' but 'no lettuce at all, Fritos,' you count as a Fancy American, because you think you're too good for iceberg.

But behold, because this was an easy-to-produce blog-post, my results:

1) Have you ever worked on a factory floor?

No. It would seem the better question would be whether, in an earlier generation, this is a job you might have had, but now you're unemployed/underemployed. Isn't one of the issues the country is facing that these jobs have gone overseas? My father worked on one for I believe exactly one day, and I can think of one honest-to-goodness current factory worker in my somewhat-extended family. But as with all such jobs, there's a difference between having done X as a young person, and doing X as an adult. Which brings us to...

2) Have you ever held a job that caused a part of your body to hurt at the end of the day?

I know, The Fancies are meant to answer "no" to this. But, yes.

3) Have you seen last year's mega-hit movie, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"?

No - I only watch art films at the local cinema. Actually, I could recite the plot of maybe 30 different episodes of "Two and a Half Men," and keep checking Hulu for the latest "The Millionaire Matchmaker," but don't like going to the movies, mainstream or otherwise, because of the whole popcorn thing.

4) Can you name this NASCAR champion?

Of course not, I'm from New York. Once, in Arizona, for of all things an academic conference about French history, I was assumed to be a Nascar fan, which might count for something. (Whiteness, presumably.)

5) In the past five years, have you been fishing or hunting?

If this were an "ever" there'd be a yes re: fishing. I have, however, gone jogging and walked a miniature poodle many times recently through areas marked "No hunting," and aside from academic housing everything around here is mansions, which suggests that The Fancies do, in fact, hunt. But the answer here, for me, is no.

6) Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian?

Does having a good friend who grew up evangelical count? Of course it doesn't. Next!

7) During the past year, have you stocked your own fridge with domestic mass-market beer?

Hipsters have, Mormons and Muslims haven't. I win the pretentious Ashkenazi award for having stocked my fridge with exactly six Belgian beers shortly after moving in, and either five or all six are still in there. What we do use is our SodaStream. I give up, I've failed already. But, but, I'm a well-educated Fancy! I can't fail a test!

8) Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreement?

Yeah, probably, although this depends how "close" and how "wide-ranging" we're talking. I went to UChicago, with the libertarians, and since high school, I've been the token "Republican" (center-left Democrat) in leftier social sets. But if your answer on this one amounts to 'I'm a nerdy contrarian who likes to argue about ideas,' going by the essence of what Murray is asking, you have to put "no."

9) Have you eaten at an Applebee's, TGI Friday's, or Outback Steakhouse in the past year?

Gosh. Have I eaten in a restaurant in the last year? Year, OK, yes, but last several months? I live in the woods. We cook at home. It's incredibly elitist and sophisticated, especially on the nights frozen tortellini is involved.

10) Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck?

Similar answer to the one above. Neither of us has ever bought a car. Whether this makes us fancy or cheap is another question.

11) Have you ever attended a Kiwanis or Rotary Club meeting, or a gathering at a union local?

No, but I've been to some lovely events at the 92nd Street Y, such as the talk by BHL.

12) Have you ever participated in a parade that did not involve global warming, gay rights, or a war protest?

Does an Israel Day Parade count? I think I was in one with my Hebrew school class as a kid.

13) Since leaving school, have you worn a uniform as part of your job?

The post-college coffee-making stint required a special shirt with the name of the establishment (catering, as it did, more to yuppies than hipsters), so this would be a yes. But what's this "since leaving school"? I haven't left school.

14) Have you ever ridden on a Greyhound or Trailways bus?

Bolt Bus? Megabus? I also suspect I was on buses as a kid, and have no recollection of which company ran them. So let's give this answer as, 'no, I was chauffeured across the country by Niles the butler.'

15) Did you ever watch an "Oprah" show all the way through?

This is a ridiculous question, as anyone who's ever been home sick, and with a TV connection, can answer "yes, an 'Oprah' marathon." Although I do remember that this was on when I got home from school, and that 10th grade was not my most productive year. I feel as though I'd get better Realness points for admitting the amount of "Designing Women" I consumed in those days, even if that show did have a vaguely Democratic tinge. But we're going to have to go with, "yes."

16) Did you or your spouse ever serve in the armed forces?

OK, Charles Murray, I give up. My husband is from socialist, good-bread-having, nicely-dressed-man-producing Western Europe. He did not serve in the Belgian army, and I'm not even entirely sure if there is a Belgian army. As for me, I seriously considering the IDF and somehow ending up in French grad school. Not only no points here. Negative points here. Minus five.

17) Did you grow up in a family in which the chief breadwinner was not in a managerial position or high-prestige occupation (defined as dentist, physician, architect, attorney, engineer, scientist, or college professor)?

Nope. I bet this question comes as a relief to those whose childhood bread was won at places like Vogue or Chanel. Not that these families eat carbs.

18) Have you ever lived for at least a year as an adult in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your nearest 50 neighbors probably did not have college degrees?

I have no idea. Probably? Prospect Heights, 2005-2007? Currently, my nearest 50 neighbors are super-elite scientists and their families. There's probably no pocket of 50 people in the country more highly-educated than this locale. My ABD status is mildly shameful. Need I go on to Question 19?

19) Have you ever had a close friend who could seldom get better than Cs in high school even if he or she tried hard?

How would any adult possibly know this about friends met after high school? I know that as a teacher, I'm never sure whether a C student - or any student, for that matter - is trying hard, because I can't know what goes on once they leave the class. If this is a question about whether you yourself went to a public high school, why was it phrased in this roundabout way? I suspect my answer is yes, because I did go to a school that was totally OK with giving low grades, and I had friends across the academic spectrum. But even if this is technically "yes," going by the spirit of what I think Murray is asking, it's a "no."

20) During the last month, have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes?

See Question 7, about domestic beer. This is about age so much that the class element makes no sense unless one controls for age. In any college or recent-grad setting, however elite, lots of people smoke. With a bunch of well-educated 40-year-olds, not as much. During the last month, I haven't much "hung out," what with the whole cloistered thing, so this hasn't come up. So I must once again give the Fancy answer: no.


What this amounts to is, as with other "Real America" diversions, a lumping-together of a variety of people who don't really have anything particular in common, other than not being (a public intellectual or politician's fantasy of) a white, working-class, evangelical Midwesterner - truly wealthy sorts in liberal enclaves; PhDs raising families in West Virginia because that's where there was an academic job; anyone of any economic class/education level from the Northeast; anyone who isn't white. Oh wait, these people all tend to vote Democrat. But wouldn't it be nifty to construct this category such that anyone who falls into it counts as an "elite"? And isn't it convenient that super-WASPy old-timey Republican sorts may grow up on Park Ave., but have the exposure to good ol' country living that comes with having a second home (or fifth!) and thus know all about hunting and Walmart?


Isabel Archer said...

So my husband got a free copy of the new Murray book in the mail, and he and I took the quiz about a week ago. Our scores were one point apart (37 and 38, respectively), and we subsequently posted our scores to Facebook with appropriately snarky appended comments. A bunch of our friends have also taken it online, and though there are a couple outliers... one guy in the low 20s and two of our friends who grew up in rural Michigan and Idaho respectively pulled off scores in the 60s... there's a definite clustering in the 30s. One of my friends from college, who comes from a far lower SES background than I did by almost any measure, somehow scores one point lower. So if my suspicions are correct, and most people regardless of eliteness of upbringing tend to cluster in some narrow range, then I doubt that it's showing much that's useful. Also, maybe more thoughts on entire book to follow on blog, if I ever get a sufficient break from teaching the retriever to heel.

Phoebe said...


I'd be curious to know how the quiz fits in with the book itself, but not curious enough to go out and buy it, so I'll be on the lookout for a post! (One on how to get a dog to heel would also be much appreciated.) Going by the Gawker commenters' results, it seems like so very much can throw it off.

There were too many problems with the quiz to address them all at once, but these struck me as the big ones:

-There are a lot of people who are kinda-sorta one of the two things being described, kinda-sorta the other. The prof at a small college in West Virginia, the wealthy but right-wing Texan. One would think that this would hurt Murray's argument, but it works because "elite" needs to be understood as "votes Democrat."

-"Real American" (for lack of a better term) should not be understood precisely as a marginalized status. There are advantages and disadvantages to being able to check "yes" to these questions. (All the more so if you're running for office!) It's not that Ms. Arugula has cultural capital, and Mr. Iceberg lacks cultural capital. They have and lack different forms of it. If Arugula earns more than Iceberg, that's something, but if they earn the same? If Iceberg earns more? Murray is asking us, implicitly, to accept his terms, to agree with a definition of "elite" that does not, in fact, correspond to who does and does not have power in this country nearly as well as we're meant to think it does.

-There were a bunch of design flaws. For one, anyone who ever, for so much as a week, worked a crappy job gets all these points. As does anyone who was (or is) a recent-ish college grad. And then there's the way the questions are phrased - if you owned a tractor but not a pick-up truck, if you've eaten at Wendy's but not Applebee's, you're out-of-touch.

-A quiz like this is designed to ruffle YPIS feathers. Someone like me - an undeniably over-educated New York Jew, a graduate student in French, married to an astrophysicist from Belgium - is meant to cringe at learning (!) that my experience is not precisely that of a factory worker in Michigan. I am being asked to 'check,' as a progressive would put it, things about myself I hadn't doubted in the first place. The problem is that the same low score could just as easily come from any number of people less privileged than a high-scorer. Like those who can't afford Applebee's. But that's probably not who's reading the blogs that send you to this quiz, or getting the book for free in the mail, etc.

PG said...

This is about age so much that the class element makes no sense unless one controls for age.

EXACTLY, except the age bias is different for different questions. I think the "friend who couldn't get better than Cs in high school" made more sense in the pre-grade inflation era; nowadays pretty much any kid who is demonstrably trying hard -- at least at my public high school -- can pry a B- out of teachers. Ditto the factory floor question, as you note.

Or consider the question about whether you or your spouse has served in the military. There are only 22 million military vets in the country, which means they're about 10% of the adult population. But they're overwhelmingly 50 or older -- i.e. from the Vietnam, Korea and WWII drafts when most able-bodied men had a stint of military service. I know lots of people from high school who could answer almost every other question with "yes," but who haven't served in the military (and Texas has a disproportionately high level of military service). In fact, most of the people I know who have served, or are doing so currently, are actually officers who had college paid for them. They're mostly no less culturally elite than I am. I'd probably scare the crap out of Charles Murray if I told him my closest Navy vet friend is a lesbian trans woman -- but she's in her 50s.

(However, if someone in America were winning enough bread at Vogue or Chanel to support a family, s/he was likely in something reasonably deemed a "managerial position.")

I don't follow how question 8 determines whether you're down with the masses. I'm married to a Republican, so heck yeah on strong and wide-ranging political disagreement. But he had a managerial class father, went to one of the best public high schools in America, then went to private elite college and grad school. Even if I exclude my husband, my dad's a Republican. I was in the Federalist Society at law school, which means several of my good friends are conservatives and libertarians. I think this question would work better to sniff out folksiness if asked as something like "Are you or a close friend of yours a Sarah Palin fan?" Or "Are you or a close friend of yours of the opinion that homosexual acts should be illegal?" Because I'll concede that my conservative friends and relatives, even the Mormons, Catholics and Baptists, are of the Wall Street Journal-reading type, not the fearing-the-gay-agenda type.

Phoebe said...


Re: Vogue, I guess I was imagining something like "supermodel" or some ambiguous title like "creative muse" or whatever it is Patsy supposedly does on AbFab. Not precisely managing anything, but getting paid a ton to be, well, fabulous.

Re: the question about political differences, this is how we can see that the real divide Murray's interested in is Democrat-Republican, not rich-poor, "elite"-"Real," etc. As with the other questions, it's not really about your answer. It's about causing the kind of person whose friends of course were all supporting OWS in spirit if not in person to question things. To say to himself, 'OMG this is so true, I think of myself as this good liberal, but none of my friends are Republicans, and oh wait, because conservative=marginalized, this means I'm a snob! I feel terrible! So terrible that I'll vote for Romney out of liberal guilt!'

PG said...

I think you're broadly correct about the political intention behind the quiz. However, with regard to question 8 in particular, wouldn't a conservative who is just as sheltered from opposing political views have to answer it with "no" as well?

Then again, as I reflect on people I know who would fit that description (e.g. some of my mom's friends who send her stupid political email forwards), I can't imagine their reading Charles Murray or even blog posts about him. There are an awful lot of people in this country who agree with the premise of The Bell Curve without actually knowing the scholarship behind their beliefs exists.

I suppose there's a sense in which certain kinds of conservatism are somewhat marginalized. I mean, if you sincerely believe that black people as a whole just aren't as smart as white people, it's not career-advancing to say it anywhere on TV except possibly Fox News. (Maybe not even there.) Fox is also the last place to still be able to talk about being scared of all Muslims and homosexuals. That there is no place in the mainstream media for leftist rhetoric that I'd consider analogous in its bigotry (e.g. for referring to straight people contemptuously as "breeders," or for referring to all religion as childish myth) doesn't cross the minds of people who hold Fox-only conservative beliefs, because no crazy person realizes he's crazy.

I don't know, when I think about what are the topics of conversation that effectively cross socioeconomic boundaries, they tend to be about the big American sports (football, baseball, basketball); video gaming for younger people (defined as "10-35 year old males"); and celebrity shenanigans (celebrities standing in for the common acquaintances we no longer can gossip about because we're organized in cities too large for us to know the same people). I can quasi-hold a conversation about football -- I grew up in Texas and attended a big sports university -- whereas I'd sound asinine talking about car-racing even if I diligently read up on NASCAR. Why fake it? But the popular culture that Americans actually share, the references that are worth knowing ("Tebowing," "multiplayer first-person shooter," "Kardashian") as cultural currency that's accepted almost everywhere, don't seem to show up on Murray's radar.

Phoebe said...


That's it precisely - even if some conservatives find the quiz, the point of the quiz is whether (coming from the presumption that the answer is "yes") you live in a liberal-elite bubble.

Murray's not interested in common ground, just in where tastes diverge. I'm not sure this is one of the main flaws of his argument, though. It just depends what ratio we think there is of common ground to divergence. As in, maybe Snooki's pregnancy is enough to sustain a couple minutes of chitchat, but not a friendship.

Flavia said...

Just echoing what everyone else has said: this is an oddly-designed quiz.

Friends who smoke? Yes, I'm an academic.

Ridden a Greyhound bus? Yes, see above.

Attended a union local meeting? Yes, see above.

Lived in a neighborhood where many people don't have a college degree? Yes, see above (I lived in central Harlem for years, partly for financial reasons)

Had a job that involved physical pain? Yes, see above (I stand for hours a day teaching).

Have a friend w/whom I argue regularly? Yes, see above.

Have a friend who's an evangelical Christian? Yes, more than one (but several are academics, and liberal, so that may not be what the quiz is looking for)

In short, it's terribly gratifying how well this quiz proves what we liberal academics are always saying: we're DOWN with the working class!

PG said...

Yeah, but I don't think most friendships are sustained on the basis of having owned a pickup and watched some NASCAR or Oprah. It's not like every woman in the secretarial pool or every man on the construction crew likes each other.

This is part of why I disagree with you about random assignments in college dorms -- some of my friends most different from myself are people I lived with in college. Pretty much all my closest friends are people with whom I did time-intensive activities (like the law school musical) or with whom I've lived or first knew when I was much younger. The people with whom I did activities are intrinsically people with whom I have a strong common interest; people I've known a long time mostly are folks with extremely similar backgrounds to my own in terms of race, religion, socioeconomics -- basically our parents being friends. So random living assignments have resulted in my more random friendships. I figure this is what David Brooks has in mind in suggesting that we have mandatory national service in which all sorts of Americans will get thrown together.

I think being at the level of chitchat -- literally being able to talk to each other -- is a perfectly good level of cultural commonality for American society. It's important to talk to people with different experiences than your own, but they're often not people who are that different along certain lines anyway. For example, I modified my preferences on prayer at high school football games because of conversations with a friend who was on the football team -- whose parents are professionals, who was in the same honors and AP classes I was, who now has a graduate degree in engineering. But who smokes occasionally, drinks domestic beer, took 5 years to get his undergrad degree because he was following Willie Nelson's tour around... meh to Charles Murray's boxes.

Phoebe said...


True enough re: academia, although your comment is reminding me that the only proper union meeting I attended was for the office job I had prior. It's also making me think how much of one's answers come down to how one's defining "friends" - the quiz insists on "close" friends, and if we're talking very close, currently close, and not just people one would see if one were in the same city, etc., it's not going to be as much of a sample.


First, re: roommates, I think you're digging for disagreement here. My stance on the whole roommate thing was, and is, that it's completely wonderful and important to throw people from different backgrounds into close proximity, but that proximity that close, whether the two roommates are from opposite ends of the world or the same block, is detrimental to college freshmen. We've obviously neither of us married someone of our own exact background, and I tend to think friend-wise as well, we're more shared-interest sorts than we-look-similar-let's-hang-out ones. As for the mandatory service argument, many counterarguments spring to mind, as to several alternatives, but the throwing-people-from-all-over-together aspect is appealing and, given the age of the participants, would, as per Murray, shuffle up the gene pool.

I agree that chit-chat has an important function, and certainly don't think everyone of a particular socioeconomic/professional group is friends with everyone else. Are all academics close with all other academics? But that doesn't mean that academics are more likely to form close friendships with other academics. Just because all Nascar fans aren't friends with one another doesn't mean friendships aren't formed over fandom. The way to reconcile this with the whole we-befriend-people-we-have-more-in-common-with-than-background is, we befriend people we have something in common with now. If we're currently in exactly the same world as our parents inhabited, we'll hang out with people with our exact backgrounds. Murray's point (or, one of his less offensive ones) is evidently that without much social mobility, that's how it goes for most of the country.

Britta said...

I know this book is about white people, but the assumptions are, if you perform poorly on this quiz, that you're a latte liberal (aka. bobo). The possibility you could be one of the urban poor, or, say, POC (or a middle class white person with significant exposure to people different in you based on skin color, national origin, and class, etc) isn't a possibility.

I grew up in a mostly working class immigrant neighborhood (Italian, SE/E Asian). Most of my neighbors worked in factories or were retired after working in factories, but they weren't drinking domestic beer, watching Nascar, or eating at Applebee's. Ditto, both my elementary and middle school were Title 1 schools (schools where a significant portion of students are low income) but I doubt any of my classmates knew what Branson is, or were exactly welcome at a Kiwanis Club meeting.

Of course, being exposed to real diversity means knowing white people who shop at Walmart, and not having childhood friends are HIV+, or who are Laotian refugees, or who don't speak English, or who are poor and live in a 2 bedroom apartment with their grandma and their 4 siblings.

Phoebe said...


I completely agree that this white-centric approach is misleading - and intentionally so, because it's designed to see if you hang out with Republicans, not poor people, not even working-class people. If there's any hint of accuracy, though, it's that there is a sort of well-off, white urban liberal who will (through a principled choice of their parents to send them to public school, or through a private school admitting a few incredibly needy kids) know a few token not-rich, not-white sorts, but otherwise lead a basically homogeneous social existence. The kid who grew up in Brooklyn Heights in a mansion of a townhouse, and totally took the subway with poor people. People who were technically speaking exposed to a diverse group, but whose fates were never at all intertwined with theirs. I'm not saying this was your childhood, of course, but I think this is what the quiz is assuming.

I think if we follow the quiz strictly, and only talk about current close friends, etc., we'll come closer to the intended result, but that even then, it's clear what he wants you, the theoretical yuppie quiz-taker to say, and that if you're unsure of how to answer, you're meant to feel that a "yes" would be in bad faith, as with the question about whether any of your close friends got Cs despite trying in high school.

But I also think the quiz sets off a kind of revisionist-history-of-one's-life impulse in a lot of its intended audience. A defensive response to a YPIS combined with a liberal reaction to a conserva-rant. Or in less WWPD-specific terms, it inspires us to highlight the aspects of our lives that count as not-elite, and to be evasive about whichever forms of privilege we do have. This was my first response, and was, it appears, just about everyone else's, with the exception of the one person I discussed this with who actually grew up working-class.

What I was trying to do with the post is push this further - not take the bait. I could absolutely write the selective-detail-highlighting scrappy story of my life thus far, using only 100% true autobiographical information, dwelling on (for example) the high percentage of my homeroom on free lunch (and the school sure wasn't discreet about it), or my significant-for-a-NYer time spent between the coasts, but it wouldn't produce an accurate impression of who I am and how I'm perceived. What I wanted to do instead was look at the flaws of the quiz, and of the broader point it's trying to make, namely that if you likely vote Democrat, your privilege, by this fact alone, is showing.

CW said...

I think the quiz is supposed to show readers of the book how segregated america is on a class basis. Murray is claiming that in earlier generations there was more day to day contact and cultural affinity between working class people and the educated elite, but that now the two hardly know each other to the detriment of both (I believe he argues that the working class have lost some of their traditional virtues of hard work and thrif and could stand to re-learn those from the educated classes). However, by focusing on white southern and middlewestern rural and suburban working class people, to the exclusion of other working class americans, he has distorted the quiz. Those educated urbanites who actually live and work among the working classes (and not just public transit riding posers like myself) will have artificially deflated scores, which Britta's commens underscores.

I don't think it makes sense to see this in terms of political parties. Both major american parties are broad coalitions, and the democratic party is not just made up of educated urbanites. If it was, it would lose more often than it does. For example, there are tons of loyal democratic voters living in Minnesota's iron range who would do well on the quiz.

Britta said...


That IS a major flaw of the quiz. My point isn't that I'd score low, it's that genuine working class/poor people would. I'm not claiming that I am from a non-privileged background. I'm not. It's just that I know people whose lives are bleak in a way that's hard to imagine (criminal records, unemployment and no chance thereof, crazy overcrowding, children they can't support, death, illness, etc.), and they'd score very low on this quiz as well. Hell, I've known homeless people who'd probably score very low on this quiz. The point is, as people have pointed out, it's aimed primarily at working class suburban Republicans, not actual really poor people, yet the implication is that suburban Republicans are somehow the opposite of UMC liberals.

Phoebe said...


I really do think this is about politics, and only pretending to be about socioeconomic class. The professional landscape in America has changed, good blue-collar jobs have disappeared, and the fact of having been to (or even graduated from) college no longer signifies being all that "elite." The quiz is basically asking if you, the presumed-liberal-elite taking it, have friends who are 1950s factory workers. Of course you don't, because it's 2012. Meanwhile, even if you have all kinds of degrees, if you're making very little and have lots of student-loan debt, maybe you love arugula and sneer at Nascar, but it's unclear what good that's doing power-wise, comfort-wise, etc.


Ah, I hear you. (And somehow Gingrich's apparent recent quip about how subway-riding "elites" feels relevant here.) It's the old conservative notion that there are good and bad poor people - good ones are white Christians who've lost their manufacturing jobs, bad ones are the rest. And it's not precisely about whether one is in a bubble protecting one's self from the poor - again, Applebee's isn't that cheap. It's all hinting at something, namely that Real Americans constitute an oppressed class. The existence of far-more-oppressed segments of the population somehow doesn't matter, either b/c they're not white, or b/c the idea is that this demographic was once doing OK and is now failing.

PG said...

Applebee's isn't that cheap

That seems to be the idea behind Golden Corral's retort to the 2 entrees + 1 appetizer for $20 "deals." Not sure whether to read anything into the respective races of the couples.