Tag Archives: class

Georgetown Beauty, Georgetown Power

8 Jun

My time at Georgetown was a complicated four-year blur, one I’ve struggled to relate back to non-Hoyas without falling into clichés. This past week’s five-year reunion was a chance to revisit it in all its madness: old friends together again, another afternoon of pitchers at The Tombs, of reminiscences of past exploits and ruminations of future plans, plus some hopeless overplaying of “Despacito.” I took a couple of extra days in DC to get some more one-on-one time with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and to run the Mall, dine in Union Station, and wander up around Dumbarton Oaks, those old haunts of a wide-eyed college kid. With time and distance the peaks and valleys fade into a haze, and above all I’ve come to realize how ridiculously fortunate I was to live out those four years.

After some time away, the most striking aspect of Georgetown was its beauty. There’s the beauty of the neighborhood, the first thing to strike me upon my arrival in DC ten years ago: pastel rowhouses, lush gardens, brick and cobblestones, perfect urban form, sheer aesthetic perfection. There’s the beauty of the campus, with its historic architecture and well-manicured lawns perched up over the Potomac. Sure, there was an unfortunate brutalist phase, but we’ve moved past that, and the most recent stuff, tasteful blends of modernism with the old brick and stone motifs, will stand the test of time in a way plenty of contemporary architecture won’t. And then there’s the beauty of the people: Georgetownites, both students and townies, men and women, are a remarkably attractive bunch. A walk around Georgetown is a constant brush with high fashion, sunny dresses, bronzed skin, casual elegance, and a certain excess of boat shoes and salmon shorts. My wardrobe for the weekend wasn’t exactly the one I break out for lazy Saturdays in Duluth.

Georgetown also knows how to throw a party to show off that beauty. Nearly any weekend night features a glitzy affair somewhere, with girls wobbling down cobblestone streets in high heels. College-era parties brought together the attractive people on back patios and rooftops and at the occasional event at an embassy. (They’re technically foreign soil, so lower drinking ages apply!) After final exams my senior year, there was a full week of university-sponsored partying, with various bar crawls and sporting events and a boozy journey to a farm somewhere out in Maryland. It culminated in a ridiculous night in which the university shut down Union Station to throw a final ball, its grand classical halls reimagined as elaborately themed rooms. The pomp and circumstance of commencement brought out Kentucky Derby caliber attire from the attendees. Reunion was no letdown here either, with a party at the Ritz-Carlton one night and candle-lit tents strewn around lawns on campus the next. These carnivals of beauty allow Georgetownites to revel in their own awesomeness, as inheritors of a claim to status available only to a select few.

I don’t have any illusions about what makes all this beauty possible: an incredible concentration of wealth. The neighborhood overflows with money and power. My graduating class featured more people from families in the top one percent of American households than it did from households poorer than my (very middle class) childhood. Most of my friends are now either employed by companies or attending graduate schools with very recognizable names. The dumpy off-campus house I lived in my junior and senior years, a rowhouse barely over 1,000 square feet with no garage and an eternal slick of Natty Light on its floorboards, sold for $910,000 last year. I could get myself a mid-level robber baron’s mansion in Duluth for less.

Moreover, a view of the Hilltop takes on a new light that it didn’t really have a decade ago. An electorate motivated by disdain for controlling elites is flexing its muscles, and there are few schools that scream “controlling elite” quite like Georgetown. While it may not have quite the prestige of the best of the Ivies, it has an East Coast bluebloodedness to rival any of them, to say nothing of the fact that it is located just two miles from the White House. Georgetown, with its steady flow of politicians in and out of the front gates, is as well-entrenched as any school in the status quo of the past half-century. The phrase “Georgetown cocktail party” has long been a slur directed at events for an out of touch ruling class, and at times some Hoyas do pretty well to live up to that ideal. Hoyas live a world apart, and Middle America has taken note.

Before heading back, I was curious to see if some of the snobbery I recall encountering as a freshman was impenetrable privilege or merely just the antics of pampered teenagers that one wasn’t apt to find in a Midwestern childhood. Said elitists are a minority, but among at least some, the standoffishness is indeed real. A friend and I theorized that this especially pronounced at Georgetown; for a certain brand of East Coast elite, it’s a second-tier school that comes up short of an Ivy, and the pressure to prove oneself looms large. These strivers don’t necessarily exude active disdain, but such a rigid class consciousness is also not something one finds in a place like Harvard, where simple acceptance is proof enough that one belongs. Whether we’re right or not, that struggle to break down barriers remains the greatest strike against elite schools. Some of it is just a desire to do as well as one’s parents, and to continue in the same orbits or edge into yet higher echelons; it’s hard to blame anyone for that. The trouble comes when those who enjoy Georgetown status fail to recognize it for what it is; when those who were born on second or third base think they’ve hit doubles or triples and make few or facile efforts to understand more. (I’m certainly not saying I started out at home plate, either.)

Even so, it’s a bit strange to now watch my former classmates (and myself, I suppose?) get labeled as the elite establishment, as children of a corrupt breeding ground of power and privilege that reinforces this country’s divides and sneers down at the plebes in Middle America. Above all, it’s just silly to picture most of my old peers that way after I spent four years having sloppy college parties with them, flailing about in certain classes with them, and joining them in a collective effort to figure out what one earth we were doing with our lives. Even though we’re five years older, so little had changed among us Hoyas, either in looks or in temperament: we’re still mostly a group of ambitious but uptight kids in search of the occasional release. Some of them have now maneuvered themselves into positions to make far more money than I ever will, and others of us are reaching out to grasp levers of power. We’ve been groomed for these sorts of lives, and are probably as qualified as anyone to lead them, but that does little to undermine the fragility of human experience, even in a world with so many layers of seeming sophistication. So few of us know exactly what we’re doing, and are often trapped in our own insular little worlds, no matter how outwardly cosmopolitan we may appear.

In spite of these critiques, the pride I have in those four years has only grown as I settle into a life in a land far from Georgetown. I certainly don’t mean to say Georgetown put me on a different level, but it also gave me a perspective that is fairly unique in a place like northern Minnesota, and while the world I now live in is far from Washington, I can still navigate that sea and enjoy it. I now hold a master’s degree from a flagship public university as well, and while that school gifted me with an irreplaceable group of peers and a handful of excellent professors and instructors, Georgetown now shines that much more brightly in contrast to some of the instructional mediocrity and bureaucratic rot I experienced at that institution. (There I go being an elitist again, I suppose.) I came away more convinced than I used to be that Georgetown deserves the status it projects, and that simply being there prepared me more for leadership roles than any sort of management education could have. Its brass runs a tight ship, and the academic and personal support networks are excellent. Georgetown also has a soul: its efforts at moral formation push above and beyond most other elite schools. The Jesuits still linger, even in a world where their level of commitment is increasingly alien.

At its best, Georgetown gives its students a few magical years of self-discovery, and an outlet for the hyper-ambitious among us who wouldn’t feel like we’re testing our potential to the extent that we should if we just stayed close to home. John Thompson Jr. likened Georgetown to heaven, and a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? Any philosophy that tries to suppress that instinct, whether equality-obsessed liberalism or a more conservative ethos that lashes out at people who seem to rise above their stations, is fighting a losing war against the human psyche. I’ve joked that the Georgetowns of the world aren’t part of reality, but they are very real. I lived it, and will continue to live it in certain ways for the rest of my life.

To any northern Minnesotan who wonders how I could defend such a different world, Georgetown fuels my hunger to do what I do, and paradoxically, the intellectual backdrop I lean on to do it wouldn’t exist without these dips back in those swampy waters. To the Hoyas who struggle to understand why someone gifted with all of that privilege would give a measure of it up to head back to some northern Minnesotan woods, remember how fragile Georgetown’s beauty can be, something that I suspect the passing years will underscore more and more. The most powerful determinants of a life well lived lie beyond that narrow world, and its unquestioned perpetuation has consequences far beyond DC. But that beauty is a source of power and wonder, and drives us to heights we’d otherwise never know. Georgetown forever.

On Class Divides

9 Aug

Not many people have many nice things to say about the state of our current presidential campaign. But even rotting trees can bear fruits, however, and the Trump candidacy in particular has inspired a rush of quality analysis on people who have had a rough time in an often post-industrial economy. Some even pitch this election along class terms, as the people struggling in 2016 America coalesce around a single figure and a well-educated, well-connected, and financially stable upper class tries to figure out what all the fuss is about. It’s not that simple, of course, but it still points to some important realities that are worth talking about.

The relationship between race and poverty tends to get plenty of press, and has been contested politically (whether out in the open or more subtly) throughout the country’s history. Class warfare, on the other hand, has come in spurts, only surging when led by Jacksonians or turn-of-the-century populists and such. It has long been dormant as a national political force, most likely due to a Cold War consensus that rejected anything that smelled of Marx and claimed it was possible to rise up via hard work, a free market, and some basic supports from the government such as public education, taxation policy friendly to homeownership, and a small safety net. And for the second half of the twentieth century, that was more or less true.

Revolutionary Marxism is fading into history now, and few people seriously believe many of its tenets: most notably, history disproved the idea of a united proletariat. But the people on the bottom half of the socioeconomic ladder haven’t gone anywhere, and with overwhelming evidence showing greater separation between the top and the bottom, the class lines are hardening again. There has been a rise of a vague, white underclass. People have been putting out books on this rough topic for some time now, but the pace has accelerated this year, and has culminated in some provocative recent titles, including White Trash by Nancy Isenberg and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. (The Atlantic reviews both here; the interview with Vance that made the book go viral is here.) The lament is clear: there’s an entire class of people, from the rural South to Appalachia to working-class suburbs, that has mostly been ignored or scorned by the upper classes, and this is starting to come home to roost politically. It also hits home for a northern Minnesotan; while nowhere as extreme as in Appalachia, there are headlines about counties scrambling to combat heroin abuse, and the region caucused for Trump, while the wealthier Republicans of the Twin Cities gave Marco Rubio his lone win of the primary season. Something is clearly happening here.

The Atlantic piece makes an important distinction: tossing anyone who’s white and doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree (or even those with bachelor’s degrees in non-prestige positions) in one big group is going to hide a lot. In fact, it feels like a group that elites might use to denote “white people who are not like me.” This blind lumping of all flyover country white people has led some on the left to accuse poor white people of voting against their economic interests. This misreads the electorate: for the most part, the stereotypical Appalachian doesn’t vote. It’s their neighbors who do who are the core Trump supporters: the people who are managing to get by in these places, as teachers or policemen or in whatever remaining factory jobs there are. Surrounded by people whose lives are going down the tubes, these relative success stories want to pull up the drawbridge to protect themselves and their families from the depravity around them. As people who have made it, they don’t want their hard-earned tax money going to the deadbeat down the street. Middle America is a nuanced place filled with its own networks class distinctions, sometimes more subtle but no less real than on the coasts.

Trump’s appeal goes beyond class, though, and the emergence of a more distinct class divide goes far beyond Trump. The media is now filled with people decrying elites (many of them elites themselves), and the Democrats faced their own sustained anti-establishment insurgency through the primary season. No one can really agree on what the establishment is (Finance? Big government? People with PhDs? Any rich person?), but it sure makes for a convenient bogeyman. Suddenly, longstanding divides are becoming realms of political conflict.

It’s so easy to resort to these generalizations because class is so highly fluid, and we can plausibly accuse most people of being part of some class we don’t like. In 26 short years, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt near the top and toward the bottom. Most people also don’t have a very good appreciation for where they land on this spectrum; even as a very self-aware person, it was easy to think I was “poor” in a place like Georgetown. (In relative terms, sure; in absolute terms, not at all.) For someone in poverty, a 15-dollar-an-hour wage seems like a ticket to the middle class. A couple making over $100,000—successful, clearly, but possible with two jobs that aren’t exceptionally high-paying—is already in the top 25 percent of households. In fact, median household income lands at around $51,000, so a full half of American households are earning less than that. Yet most upper middle class kids—generally, the people I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life—think they come from somewhere much closer to the middle, and for some, there’s a genuine anxiety in needing to preserve some sort of status. People are constantly struggling with ideas of class, and it’s not hard to come to resent a more successful group or fear a less successful one.

Education can prove just as much a source of class as income, as I can well attest as the kid of two parents who have never brought home huge paychecks, but both have advanced degrees: my path to Georgetown felt as natural as it must for children of far greater means. Seven in ten Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees; one doesn’t need a degree from an elite school to get a credential that separates oneself from over half the country. For graduates of high schools from which the vast majority of graduates go to college, this may seem baffling, but that just goes to show what a different world such high schools are in comparted to the ones where people don’t follow these roads. My new master’s degree puts me in the ten percent of the country that has an advanced degree, and I expect I’ll end up in what others might label the “upper middle class” in some way or another, whether I like it or not. The paths set before people can make alternatives difficult to fathom.

And then, of course, there are less tangible ways to signal status, such as clothing and comportment and spending habits. One can now create an illusion of wealth by buying and acting in certain ways, and on the other side of the coin, there are the bohemians for whom scorn of such status symbols is a status symbol in and of itself. The conformity of hipster non-conformity is its own little subculture with its own set of rules now. The “upper class” is just as complicated and diverse as the lower class, as it tends to include anyone from financiers to professors to celebrities to people who just work boring but well-paying jobs. Some think class comes with certain codes of conduct; others use the benefits of class to act as they please.

There are so many gradations, and so many different ways to signal class, that any effort to draw clear lines is probably doomed. Likewise with class-based political action: critical masses of people just don’t usually define themselves by identities that are this fluid, this capable of changing with time. But as those lines grow less flexible, these identities can harden, and the contour emerging in this presidential race will probably only grow with time. Visible voting blocs need not win to have influence, and even if Trump goes down in flames, it’s not hard to imagine a more polished populist successfully stoking this newly visible class divide.

I’m not totally opposed to such a campaign. Elites ignore the masses at their peril, and while stratification is unavoidable in complex economies, those on top need to do everything in their power to stay in touch with the rest. Class consciousness creates a necessary dialogue, and could perhaps yet lead to sensible policy outcomes. But it also comes with inherent risks and threatens to expose deeper divides, and the rhetoric of class warfare (from all sides) isn’t always conducive to a stable republic. The growing divide compels people who care about the American body politic—particularly those with greater means to do so—to keep a pulse on both and to cycle in and out, comfortable in both chic restaurants and dive bars, in the box seats or in the bleachers.

America’s classless history may be a myth, but that need not lead us to assume battle lines. Even if we do, they likely won’t last, given the messiness of it all. Class distinctions can help us understand a society, but we shouldn’t mistake them for reality. Yes, money and credentials can take a person far in life. But they are still no substitute for virtue, and we cannot reduce people to what they earn, where they’ve gone to school, or the signals they send. If all we can see are divisions, we shouldn’t be surprised to find ourselves in a fragmented state.