X marks the snob

W.G. Runciman

  • Caste Marks: Style and Status in the USA by Paul Fussell
    Heinemann, 202 pp, £8.95, May 1984, ISBN 0 434 27500 X

The point of Dwarfs’ Lib is not to convince the world that differences in height are an optical illusion foisted by sinister interests on a gullible public. Nor is it to promote a literal cutting-down to size of anybody over 4’1”. It is to vindicate the right of very small people to be treated with equal respect by their taller fellows. In precisely the same way, the American myth of equality is not a fairy-tale denial of the palpable fact that some Americans have very much less power and money than others. Nor is it a programme for taxing every American down to the poverty line. It is a myth according to which power and money are – or if they aren’t, ought to be made to be – as irrelevant to how people treat each other socially as their physical height.

To label it a myth, as generations of self-appointed iconoclasts have done, is to signal an intention to debunk it even before the first snickery little anecdote has been laid on the page. But it is not quite so ill-founded as the blatant hypocrisy and frantic status-seeking gleefully recorded by Professor Fussell and his precursors may make it appear. For it rests on an underlying assumption that Americans treat each other as if they were all, whatever the other differences between them, of common social origin. None of them seriously believes that they are, any more than they believe that the rich aren’t rich or the poor aren’t poor. What they do believe is that because a few people can and do go from rags to riches or from log cabin to White House, it is somehow as if everybody else could too. To remind them that they haven’t and don’t and never conceivably could is to miss the point. It is because they would genuinely like to believe what they know to be untrue that Americans do in fact treat each other differently from the way Europeans do.

Tocqueville, as Professor Fussell rightly acknowledges, saw what it is really all about: reprehension of aristocracy. To the representative American, then as now, there is something at once repugnant and incomprehensible about the notion that status should be transmissible by birth. Inherited titles or ranks, formal degrees of precedence, deference to ‘betters’ and an ideology of superior ‘breeding’ restricted to those whose forebears distinguished themselves in the noble profession of arms are, to the extent that they are taken seriously at all, relegated to a remote and moribund feudalism from which George Washington delivered the land of the free and home of the brave once and for all. It is not equality of opportunity which is the issue here. ‘Self-help’ as preached by Samuel Smiles was, after all, a catchword of Victorian England, and ‘the constitution under which we have the good fortune to live, which opens to every man having talents, energy, perseverance and good conduct any honours and distinctions which his turn of mind may qualify him to aspire to’ is a quotation from a speech by Palmerston at the South London Industrial Exhibition in 1865. The critical difference is in the nature of the ‘honours and distinctions’. The successful 19th-century American’s talents, energy and perserverance would bring him a fortune and with it the esteem and envy of his less successful fellow-countrymen. But his English counterpart who rose likewise to riches would end up being addressed in the vocative by his less successful fellow-countrymen as – of all weird and distasteful things – ‘My Lord’.

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