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  • Max Stearns

David Brooks’ Gourmet Sandwiches

On the flight from Crete to Tel Aviv, I was reading the International Edition of the NYT. I passed to my wife the David Brooks column, “How We are Ruining America,” see here. In it, Brooks posits that income or wealth disparities are not the only, or perhaps even the primary, source of continued class entrenchment within the US. Instead, entrenchment is also owing to a growing culture of small, subtle, social cues transmitted in societally pre-determined elite environments. These cues relate to many aspects of life, and they are developed throughout our lives as those of us fortunate to now be in the ranks of America’s upper middle class provide our children with every conceivable social and educational opportunity. You know, like international travel to and from exotic places like Crete and Tel Aviv. Brooks acknowledged other entrenched advantages inuring to the children of elites, including, for example, legacy benefits at prestigious universities. Of course it is also true that those who are doing well have seen their wealth grow at a much faster pace than those who are not. One result has been to reset the wealth clock, rendering less relevant dividing the top 20 from lower 80 percent than the top 1 or 2 percent from the lower 99 or 98. One study claims: “Between 1979 and 2007, paycheck income of the top 1 percent of U.S. earners exploded by over 256 percent. Meanwhile, the bottom 90 percent of earners have seen little change in their average income, with just a 16.7 percent increase from 1979 to 2014.” See here.

But what really set people off were those sandwiches. By now this is a widely disseminated piece of modern culture, ironically, the sort of thing that elites surely already know. Even so, here it is:

“Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.” See here.

When we arrived in Tel Aviv, I regained access to my laptop for the first time in an uncharacteristic several days. Upon returning there, and more to the point, to my laptop, I was surprised by the firestorm that Brooks’s sandwich anecdote provoked. Some right-leaning FB commentators seemed truly angry with Brooks. Some liberal commentators thought he got the overall story right, even as he frustratingly missed more basic elements, see here. The NYT went so far as to publish a separate piece on reader comments, from all sides, which apparently set some sort of record, see here.

As I read him, Brooks is claiming that those raised under certain conditions are more apt to have the benefit of privileges that convey subtle cues, cues that go a long way toward signaling belonging among elites, even as the elites themselves publicly and loudly proclaim the evils of exclusivity based on race and class. We lament the plight of those who experience the burdens of adverse socioeconomic conditions, all the while enjoying benefits that accompany our very status and class.

The dispute returns me to the question of virtue. See here. A reader who believes that those who rise to the top deserve all they have and those who do not do as well, is apt to find the Brooks analytical argument profoundly problematic, and his sandwich shop anecdote evidence that he is ironically tone deaf to holding the very cultural privilege he laments. A reader who, instead, believes that those who rise to the top didn’t so much rise, but rather were thrust there by foreordained circumstance, a kind of fait accompli, benefiting from actual wealth coupled with subtle privilege, is apt to find the Brooks column not merely on point, but also a bit embarrassing. Of course, the binary itself is simplistic. Many fail despite being given every advantage, and some, although far fewer, succeed despite every seeming impediment. And as we construct stories about ourselves and those we know most well, we are inevitably solipsistic. We imagine having captured an essential truth about the human experience, rather than projecting onto the world a small slice that relates incompletely even with respect to our own. One saying: The plural of anecdote is not data. And another: Numbers don’t lie.

Although I sympathize with Brooks’s argument, I didn’t recognize the names of any of his sandwiches or their ingredients. Not a one. On the other hand, I eat under some admittedly arbitrary, culturally determined, rules, the sort that make such trips to the Italian deli unappealing. I also tend to travel in circles in which my quirky dining habits are respected, perhaps especially by those to whom they might seem least familiar. My sandwich ignorance ironically speaks more toward than against any non-pretense to elite status. Neither my wife nor I grew up this way. Our backgrounds were more working class.

Even that account is quite incomplete. In each of our backgrounds, the most important emphasis was almost invariably education. And even though we each largely financed our own, that was during a period of time in which it was possible. Another of Brooks’s points is that this is increasingly unrealistic for most. Although it is true that few pay full sticker price for elite colleges, the resulting price discrimination is a tricky game strongly favoring those who can play the system to maximum advantage—with expensive test preps, fancy trips and clubs, and of course the early decision process. To paraphrase Hunger Games’ Effie Trinket, we elites ensure that the odds are “ever in [our children’s] favour.” See here.

Brooks is absolutely right to home in on the role privilege plays in dividing America. The real question is whether occasional Horatio Alger stories aside, we are increasingly transforming the American Dream into a predictable story of American Entrenchment, or as Richard Reeves (Brookings) claims something only available to “Dream Hoarders,” see here. And those of us who are deeply fortunate to have “made it” will, of course, commit to helping our own children do so as well. As a dear friend said to me, what else would I spend my money on? No one should feel guilty about helping her or his children succeed. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend that our success, and those of our children, is entirely of our own making. The markers of success are intermingled with our personal contributions in ways that are simply too complex to untangle. It’s a bit like trying to remove those offending sandwich ingredients with the hope of joining David Brooks for lunch.

As always, your comments are most welcome.

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