“In the 19th century, gentlemen were ‘requested’ to use the sidewalks; servants were ‘commanded’ to stay off the grass, while peers of the realm could frolic all over the turf. Now that the newspaper ‘Style’ section has replaced ‘Society,’ Central Park’s pastures entertain almost as many homeless as hedge fund managers . . . .” Skip Eisiminger
Skip the B.S.
By Skip Eisiminger
“Servants should not be ill. We [aristocrats] have quite enough illnesses of our own without their adding to the symptoms.”—Lady Diana Cooper
“There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talent.”
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—6/3/2013—Twenty years in the army taught me a valuable lesson about where the “class melon” splits. For 17 years, Mother preached that the sons of officers did not associate with the children of non-coms. This was never truer than when I reached adolescence and started dating.
After each Ft. Myer cotillion that she enrolled me in and drove me to, she would check my dance card to see if I’d made the mistake of twisting with any girls whose fathers were ranked below colonel. Once you cut that “melon,” she said, the heart was easier to distinguish from the seedier cuts and the rind.
You can imagine her shock when I dropped out of college and enlisted for three years in the army. Mother’s disappointment was not allayed when I started dating Ingrid, a German woman whose father had been a sergeant in the Luftwaffe. “Your father didn’t fight the Germans,” she told me in so many words, “in order that you could betray your class.” I married Ingrid anyway, and my Cold-War bride remained a sore point in the family until Mother’s death.
In a variety of mostly southern schools prior to any Federal civil-rights legislation, I had learned that all white men are created equal or at least enjoy equal opportunity. Just because some achieve more success than others by virtue of hard work, good genes, or some venture capital, I believed, naïvely perhaps, that 90 percent of America constituted a very porous middle class which tolerated rapid risings and sudden descents. I abhorred the idea that one’s success in life was tied to a lucky roll of the parental dice and the casual aura of entitlement that often accompanied that roll.
The medieval class rigidity I discovered in Germany, courtesy of Uncle Sam, was appalling. In the fourth grade, the children still take a test that puts them on the path to factory worker, shopkeeper, or professional. Upward social mobility in “The Fatherland,” despite the reforms following World War II, had been oversold. Almost 70 years after the war, the children of parents who attend the least demanding schools generally get the same education their parents got despite the “objectivity” of the test. The same is true of those who attend college-preparatory schools.
If the German Neanderthals had a caste system, I’m not aware of it, but surely one existed. The earliest I know elsewhere in the ancient world is the Egyptian system circa 2,000 BC in which the nobility feuded with the priests for the privilege of serving the pharaoh in the afterlife. Farmers and stone cutters were smart enough not to ask for the favor lest it be granted.
Across the Mediterranean, Plato self-righteously assigned the various Athenian classes gold, silver, bronze, and iron souls depending on their worth to the state. Ever since, every culture has suffered from an eater-eaten, sower-reaper, or washed-unwashed dichotomy. In the US today, we’ve bifurcated along William Gerhardie’s lines of the “no-gots,” “gots,” “anti-gots,” and “poly-gots.” Other divisions within this country include the Chevrolet-Cadillac spectrum, Ford-Continental, blue collar-white collar, indie-frat boy, geek-jock, philistine-aristocrat, basketball-golf, and George Bernard Shaw’s neurotic-equestrian. For a “classless society,” Americans are exceedingly class conscious.
For aliens who might experience difficulty recognizing who stands where in the hierarchy, here are a few upper-class markers drawn from history.
The Japanese language has long had pronouns that are solely used for the emperor. However, before he declared himself mortal, many thought he was invisible, leaving his followers unsure when they were (or were not) in his divine presence.
In Great Britain, only lords were permitted to read pornography in the British Library. Across the men’s rooms of Britain, the lords looked more sharply away from their penises than the working class. I’m not sure if there’s a connection, but the lords also slept at a greater distance from their wives.
Across the Channel, the most favored nobles were those permitted to observe Louis empty his bowels. It had something to do with intimacy. If a French lady’s status were in question, watching the king tip his hat was useful: the farther it moved from the royal head, the higher the lady’s caste.
Recognizing the lower end of the spectrum also required a discriminating eye. A protractor is still helpful in Japan in distinguishing among the 15°, 30°, and 45° bows. Large department stores have machines to teach apprentices the proper angle of respect. A century ago, the public bathhouse was another place the Japanese hierarchy was evident: the dirtier the water, the lower the class.
In India, the class system remains very rigid despite being declared illegal in 1947. One can still identify caste on Indian passenger trains by observing how many cars a food order must pass through to reach a diner. Since an order from a Brahmin cannot pass through a Rajput or Dalit compartment, by counting the number of cars outside which the order is passed (interior doors are locked), one can determine the caste of the buyer.
In Switzerland, it’s much simpler: a Swiss enlisted man’spocket knife has no corkscrew because he’s never going to open a bottle of wine anyway.
The consequences of such class divisions may be humiliating. The journalist James Fallows described the Thai prime minister “slithering across the floor on his belly” when a member of the royal family entered the room.
College deans in the US have been known to mortify themselves in similar fashion in the presence of a blue-chip jock.
However, the consequences aboard the Titanic were far worse: when the ship went down, a higher percentage of third-class children drowned than first-class “gentlemen.”
The Titanic, however, was but one ship. In 1588, the Duke of Medina Sidonia was chosen by the Spanish king to command what was at the time the largest armed fleet in history. The nausea-prone duke was chosen not for his ability as a naval strategist or commander but because he was the realm’s ranking aristocrat. Proof that the king had not misjudged his man, some said, could be found in the duke’s decision to take aboard his 130 ships more priests than gunners. These privileged passengers were to be used to convert British Protestants after the great victory was won.
In the 19th century, gentlemen were “requested” to use the sidewalks; servants were “commanded” to stay off the grass, while peers of the realm could frolic all over the turf. Now that the newspaper “Style” section has replaced “Society,” Central Park’s pastures entertain almost as many homeless as hedge fund managers. Beside death’s majority rule, a few things do remain constant: the fastest way down the grassy incline involves adultery, drugs, and alcohol abuse. The fastest way up is by one’s wits and hard work. All in all, the trend away from hereditary privilege has been a good thing.
Note: The image of an Indian “Untouchable” used to illustrate this column may be found at http://multiplyjustice.net/tag/untouchables/.