The Magazine

Class Will Tell

Why is Bill Ayers a respectable member of the upper middle class and Sarah Palin contemptible?

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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What the Ayerses now teach, think, and do hardly matters as long as they observe good form, the form of "educated community activists." Stern wants us to hear a mellow Chekhovian tone in their lives (and his prose). Perhaps, but in his moral reasoning I hear Oscar Wilde's Cecily Cardew, in The Importance of Being Earnest, observing that the Ayerses "have been eating muffins. That looks like repentance."

This is the first election since 1996 and only the second since 1984 that has not offered the voters at least one specimen, and sometimes a dégustation of several, upper-class Americans. The Bushes, Kerry, and Gore were all true American aristocrats, with a long lineage, distinguished ancestors, prep-school educations and tastes. Richard Stern couldn't muster an intimacy with their unattainable world--Skull & Bones, the Elizabeth Islands, wind-surfing, ancestral summer compounds. Mere achievement gets us nowhere. But this year, what makes class so important is how very close so many of us are to the upper-middle-class characters on offer on the Democrat ticket. Biden's background is comfy: high school quarterback not racing skipper, summers on Rehoboth Beach not Gibson Island. And even behind Obama's fiery mentors, there is an upper-middle-class background, attainable, imitable, and soothing. If one were to pick out one real achievement in Senator Obama's life, it is to show us that attaining his status has been pretty easy for him. And it can thus be pretty easy for us, if we just pull the right lever.

On the other hand, what can McCain and Palin offer except their two personal histories of struggle? John McCain speaks about service and sacrifice, and how he wore our nation's uniform, as if we want to hear about such things. But in my demographic slice of country, we are a little conflicted about such things as struggle, service, uniforms, and sacrifice. America's "officer class" does not generally include career military officers. In his book Class, Paul Fussell hypothesized that upper-middle-class men prefer natural-shoulder jackets because men's shoulders are a secondary sexual characteristic. "Epaulets emphasize the shoulders. They are thus associated with the lower classes, whose shoulders are required for physical work. The military makes much of epaulets, betraying instantly its prole associations."

The influential section of our upper-middle class, which lives in media centers, does, of course, have an understanding of the ethic of service, and a special familiarity with men in uniforms decorated with epaulets. Paula Throckmorton-Zakaria finds the spirit of service right at home in Manhattan:

We may not have a ''servant'' class in the strict Victorian sense, but a "service" class we have indeed, and it is serving us. How do we square our egalitarian self-conceit with a liveried doorman? Not easily. For non-New Yorkers, doormen are the guys who carry the bags, organize the packages and tell you who stopped by to see your 15-year-old while you were out. They also open the door.

Receiving all those services in exchange for a partially deductible maintenance fee and a Christmas tip, we don't much miss the small matter of McCain's authentic service to his country. I, my children, and perhaps the Sulzberger and Couric children spent years passing through doors opened by uniformed, epauletted men on the way to private schools that were proud to teach an ethic of service. The experience didn't equip us to recognize the real thing.

And what about Sarah Palin? Here, the upper-middle-class deficit gets worse. Throckmorton-Zakaria's husband, Fareed Zakaria, uses a rare one-word sentence to make his entire argument against her: "Palin Is Ready? Please." She notoriously strikes the wrong class note on a thousand media keyboards with what Andrew Sullivan calls gallantly "Sarah Palin's cocktail waitress act." But the problem is not that the governor can't conform to upper-middle-class norms. It's that she won't.

If only Palin were really as trashy as Sullivan thinks she is. Sadly she is quite the opposite--one of nature's noblewomen. She rose by refusing to accept the limitations of her proper station in life; she is despised for continuing to do so. If Palin wants to pal around with the Throck-morton-Zakarias, she is wasting her time memorizing classic 19th-century Supreme Court decisions (Katie Couric isn't going to give her a mulligan). Instead, she should learn from watching herself as she ought to be.