In his new book Rich People Things, Chris Lehmann identifies and deconstruct the signifiers of social class in America.
Rich People Things is an ambitious work of non-fiction that takes a closer look at a whole cast, crew, and prop-line of America’s “gatekeepers” along with their large ring of gate keys. Chris Lehmann cleverly works through a book-length argument organized by modern American topics from the US Constitution to David Brooks to The Stock Market and The Creative Class. The author pokes a stick at the iPad, the “Sporting Life,” Tax Cuts, and Ayn Rand.
The main pipeline of the book, or its thesis, seems to be that we, as a country, are in denial of the existence of social class and that these features of American culture, media, and consumerism mask those social class barriers—to our detriment. He posits that this denial furthers the powerlessness of lower classes and continues to feed the bellies of the economic elite. In Lehmann’s chapter, “The Creative Class,” he astutely points out, “…American social commentators have developed an overcompensating tic. They have divined exotic new brands of class stratification that have almost nothing to do with material living conditions and endowed them with strange and wonderful new powers to reshape the urban social contract, drive tax and investment policies, and even reconfigure the coordinates of the Western self.”
What you can expect from each chapter is a description of each “rich people thing” and its mainstream acceptance, followed by Lehman’s idea of the way each one damages society by breeding false hopes, misguided ideas about stratification and opportunity. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell, however, where Lehmann is headed with these turns of tone. This may be due to the difficult-to-decipher style of Lehmann’s prose. While Lehmann’s topic sentences lead toward intriguing concepts, and while there are many moments of striking metaphor within the book, what follows in each chapter often falls short. If any argument in the book illuminates the idea of social class divide, it’s the silent and unintended argument screaming from the book’s less accessible writing style: the communication divide among classes.
However, as an intrigued reader, I want to understand Lehmann’s arguments, and I anticipate that most readers who pick up this book will want the same. Also, what’s left desired is some kind of solution. While the book’s final chapter begins to head in the direction of solution and action, most chapters remain in the realm of critique—often of the figures and authors themselves (David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell, to name some of the book’s targets)—rather than the ideas behind these faces. Frequently, Lehmann’s well-crafted introductions lead directly to attacks on particular theorists or writers—not necessarily the specifics of their content. (In Chapter 5, David Brooks: “Brooks keeps up a steady, wisecracking patter meant to lull his eager auditors into a state of calm reassurance about the social order surrounding them.”) It’s moments like these that fail the reader, and claims like this one that weaken the book.
As an instructor teaching these anxious managers and marketers, future and present, I cannot help but wonder why a thesis like Lehmann’s, that class divisions are important and ever-hidden by the media, could possibly be strengthened by attacking a message based on bottom-up politics like Gladwell’s. To dismiss these popular thought-breeding voices in favor of illuminating a trickle-down reality with no concrete solution seems to reinforce the powerlessness that a book like this wants to combat. With no solution approach, I can only assume that Lehmann is writing safely to fellow theorists—not to the wide audience Brooks, Malcolm, and a slew of other “gatekeepers” serve. This type of deconstruction seems careless in an era where language is an ever-powerful, dangerous tool in creating class warfare.
The final chapter of the book will offer some reward, as the attacking nature of the prose is dismissed for a more thoughtful engagement that speaks directly to the reader. In his final chapter, “The Language Problem,” Lehmann writes: “The only way to ensure that BP-style catastrophes don’t simply become the sort of chronic dystopian eyesore one finds in a Don DeLillo novel…is to clearly apprehend the way we all conspire…in creating an epically unsustainable way of life. In the end, these are not really technical or policy questions, but rather questions about how best to live and what sort of livelihoods do and do not contribute to the common good.” Here, I’m with the writer one hundred percent. It is this message, coupled with the idea that economic elite want to blind the masses of our invisible powerlessness in the construct of the “American dream,” that gets to the core of a grassroots collective energy: to build a sustainable lifestyle on the individual front. The book’s final message seems to tell us: Don’t worry about becoming Steve Jobs or J.K. Rowling—just become an American with control over your own choices. Remove yourself from the heat-lamp of competition models disguised as social idealism, and keep your brain in the on-position. Lehmann may be correct that his chosen targets serve mostly the rich, but the demolition of such “rich people things” cannot be an end in itself. After all, if Robin Hood stole from the rich without giving to the poor, he’d just be another greed-seeking man in tights.