President Obama defended American exceptionalism in a speech mostly dealing with America’s diplomatic efforts in the Middle East at the UN Tuesday: “Some may disagree,” he noted, “But I believe America is exceptional, in part because we have shown a willingness, to the sacrifice of blood and treasure to stand up, not only for our own narrow self-interests, but for the interests of all.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently published a New York Times op-ed in which he critiqued this conceit head on: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Putin’s statement clearly struck a nerve: Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint answered Putin directly (“all humans are created equal—but not all nations are created equal”) while Senator John McCain responded in the wrong Pravda. Obama’s UN remarks represented a rather pointed reply to Putin’s comment. He warned of a “vacuum of leadership” that would result from American disengagement around the globe. He argued that “the world is better” for active U.S. leadership.
Is American “exceptionalism,” then, derived from its globalist foreign policy? Not according to Richard Gamble: In a 2012 article for this magazine, he argued that America has been driven by “old” and “new” American exceptionalisms. Gamble cites an 1899 speech by Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner, written at a time when America’s imperialist bent was beginning to take hold:
When Sumner came to the question of what set America apart from other nations, he debunked the most popular and superficial conception of exceptionalism and looked at history to ground America’s identity in something more substantial. Sumner first noted the irony that by claiming it had a unique civilizing mission to perform, America sounded just like every other major power at the end of the 19th century. “There is not a civilized nation which does not talk about its civilizing mission just as grandly as we do,” he remarked. The English, French, Germans, Russians, Ottoman Turks, and Spanish said the same.
It was not America’s “divine mission,” writes Gamble, that once set it apart. The old idea of exceptionalism was “more about what America doesn’t do than what it does, more about national self-restraint than national self-assertion.”
Indeed, one could not help comparing the defensive Putin backlash to George Washington’s famous 1796 farewell address:
Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government. But that jealousy to be useful must be impartial; else it becomes the instrument of the very influence to be avoided, instead of a defense against it … The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
America’s political connections and involvement now extend far beyond Europe’s friendships and enmities. Our engagement around the globe is now routine. Yet Washington advocated for restraint. He was devoted to the peace and permanency of the Union, and to preserving domestic peace at all costs. Only one comment in Washington’s speech hints at “exceptionalism”: he said the U.S. enjoys a peculiarly “detached and distant situation” from other nations, and this position “invites and enables us to pursue a different course.”
In other words, the only “exceptionalism” envisioned by Washington is anathema to that expressed by American politicians today. While Washington saw domestic concerns as our most important preoccupation, Obama defined strict national interests as “narrow” and selfish.
Yet in a nation swimming in debt and riddled with unemployment, perplexed by health care complications and political schisms, one cannot help thinking that these “narrow” concerns are actually quite broad.
Virginia’s Fairfax County library was struggling. Their budget was down 23 percent since 2008, and library visits had declined by 10 percent. The library administration made a plan – and at the top of that plan was the goal to move from “a print environment to a digital environment.”
So they began throwing away books – more than 250,000 of them, according to a story by the Washington Post Local’s Tom Jackman:
Hearing complaints that the Fairfax County Public Library was throwing away tons of books, County Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) decided to peer into a dumpster. Twice, she found stacks and stacks of high-quality books, bought by the taxpayers, piled in the trash … Smyth took her box of rescued books to the Fairfax government center, dumped them on a county official’s desk and demanded answers. The next day, Aug. 30, a directive went out to all branches suspending the discarding of books. Fairfax Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said she is going to ask the library administration on Tuesday to put a hold on its new strategic plan until the board and the public have more of a chance to weigh in.
This story illustrates a dilemma facing most of today’s libraries: how to survive in the technological age? What services can they offer to compete with other book and Internet providers?
There are several things one must keep in mind when addressing a library’s future. First, libraries’ solutions must be as diverse as the communities they serve. A recent Financial Times story on the future of libraries called them a “metaphor” for their communities.
If the library is a metaphor for the city itself, it can play just as profound a role in creating the image of a nation. One of the most famous images in architecture is visionary architect Etienne-Louis Boullée’s single-point perspective of a library for Paris (1785), a vast vaulted space in which the books are bricks and readers sit below a coffered vault foreshadowing the great roofs of the 19th-century stations. This was a model for a rational new France based, like Diderot’s encyclopedia, on knowledge.
But for this very reason, libraries must be specific to their place. This means others will not (and indeed should not) operate on such a massive scale. In a post titled “The Libraries We Need” at his revived “Text Patterns” blog over at The New Atlantis, Alan Jacobs pointed to the importance of peripheral, local libraries: the sort that aren’t large or grandiose like the city of Birmingham’s new library, but rather the sort that provide services to smaller neighborhoods.
In addition, despite the importance of a library’s print collection, the library must also offer technological services. Libraries must have a digital response for this digital era – and the benefits of inter-library loans (ILL’s) and online courses are significant for users. As Jacobs put it, “A neighborhood library … should have stacks that can be browsed, with as many books and journals as the library can afford, but — and maybe I’m flirting with heresy here — only after the library is well-equipped with internet-enabled computers and a staff who knows how to help people find what they want.”
Thirdly, the library should not forget its strength in functioning as a commons or community-gathering place. A blogger at Getting Rich Slowly shared some thoughts on the way other libraries have done this successfully:
Recently, the Los Angeles Public Library launched the “Citizenship Corners” initiative. Szabo sums it up: “In Los Angeles, there are 700,000 people legally eligible to become U.S. citizens, but for whom that process can be difficult to find out about, hard to take the first step, bureaucratic…What the library has done is partnered with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to offer citizenship information in all 73 of our libraries.” …Impressively, a handful of other cities, including Chicago, are following suit.
Whether providing Internet to poor citizens, teaching classes, or helping inspire a local kindergarten student to read, the library can offer countless services to its community. But it must take a community-centric and proactive approach in order to do this.
But finally, the library must not forget its primary, ancient, traditional function: providing books to the public. Despite the many digital and communal services it can offer, its greatest gift is still the printed word. True, the library must figure out ways to cut extraneous costs. But it cannot cut away that basic component of its nature. It should never throw away its books.
One cannot blame the Fairfax County Library for attempting to downsize in the face of financial difficulty. And donating old copies to shelters or schools could be beneficial to all parties involved. But while increasing digital services provided will help, a library’s primary function and goal should always be to unite reader with book. It must always be a “print environment.”
Yesterday was Leo Tolstoy’s 185th birthday. Most well known for his infamously vast novel War and Peace, Tolstoy was a complex and fascinating writer—a devout Christian with anarchist leanings, whose views on private property may have annoyed today’s libertarian. But despite what one might think about his more controversial beliefs, Tolstoy must be admired for his dogged pursuit of truth. He did not shy away from its raw, demanding light.
Tolstoy’s works are now available online for free—all 90 of them. This new Russian website hosts all his work, along with extensive biographical resources. If you have heard tales of Tolstoy’s legendary verbosity, be not dismayed: he has also written some excellent short works (The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a notable example, along with Father Sergius and Hadji Murat).
Raised by rich nobility, Tolstoy spent his early years as a poor student and avid gambler. He was horrified by the violence of the Crimean War; perhaps this helped push him toward the Christianity and pacifism of his later years. He married in 1862, had 13 children, and achieved great literary acclaim. However, after writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy experienced a spiritual crisis. He then devoted the rest of his writings to religious and moral subjects.
Considering the Syria debate that has enthralled the media lately, I found this selection from Tolstoy’s essay “The Kingdom of God Is Within You” particularly noteworthy. Though Tolstoy’s pacifism and anarchism may be extreme, he had some interesting arguments regarding the use of violence that should be considered in today’s debate:
But besides corrupting public opinion, the use of force leads men to the fatal conviction that they progress, not through the spiritual impulse which impels them to the attainment of truth and its realization in life, and which constitutes the only source of every progressive movement of humanity, but by means of violence, the very force which, far from leading men to truth, always carries them further away from it. This is a fatal error, because it leads men to neglect the chief force underlying their life—their spiritual activity—and to turn all their attention and energy to the use of violence, which is superficial, sluggish, and most generally pernicious in its action.
…The sole guide which directs men and nations has always been and is the unseen, intangible, underlying force, the resultant of all the spiritual forces of a certain people, or of all humanity, which finds its outward expression in public opinion. The use of violence only weakens this force, hinders it and corrupts it, and tries to replace it by another which far from being conducive to the progress of humanity, is detrimental to it.
Could Tolstoy be right that force repels progress and corrupts the truer motives of men—that using force to suppress force will not, in fact, bring freedom, but will instead subjugate the deeper, truer power of public opinion and reasoned discourse? If the people of Syria perceive that their progress only comes through deplorable violence, when will they stop? When will they convert from bloody revolution to the peaceful pursuit of representative government?
There may be times and places in which violence is absolutely necessary. However, one must never view it as a good means to procure peace: violence is never excellent. Tolstoy recognized its cyclical nature, and rightly saw it should be avoided at all costs. In Tolstoy’s mind, the greatest good one could do was to live without greed or avarice: to tend one’s own land, family, and to love thy neighbor as thyself. It seems in this time of great national decision, there are many ways in which our government should tend its own land and family before seeking to suppress or fight violence elsewhere.
I suppose something like the following was inevitable, given the circumstances and the historical sensitivity of the region:
The deadly violence percolating half a world away in Syria and the warnings of a possible U.S. attack have some people not only looking ahead to what might happen in the coming days—but also looking backward into ancient, apocalyptic prophecies in the pages of the Old Testament. In recent weeks, some dire prophecies have turned up on websites, in book stores, as the subject of Bible studies and in sermons by some Christians and others who see a link between the old passages and modern-day events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.
That’s from a report in USA Today. I’ve seen similar murmurings in my Facebook newsfeed.
Still … really?
Looking at a 20th-century timeline of Syrian history compiled by BBC News, one can’t help but notice several years as seemingly pregnant with apocalyptic significance as the present day. For instance: “1920 July—French forces occupy Damascus, forcing Feisal to flee abroad.” And: “1925-26—Nationalist agitation against French rule develops into a national uprising. French forces bombard Damascus.”
This is to say nothing of Syria’s wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973.
Delving further into the past, there’s this bit from Wikipedia’s entry on the history of Syria, chosen more or less at random:
In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, defeated the Mamluk army at Aleppo and captured Damascus. Many of the city’s inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. At this time the Christian population of Syria suffered persecution. By the end of the 15th century, the discovery of a sea route from Europe to the Far East ended the need for an overland trade route through Syria. In 1516, the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria.
I’m not scorning the current spate of prophetical dot-connecting. Consider this an offering of friendly advice its practitioners: Beware the mental affliction of presentism.
This, too—whatever this turns out to be—will probably pass.
Several critics of Kevin Williamson’s 2012 piece celebrating the Republican party’s record on civil rights charged that Williamson had conflated “Republican” and “conservative”: sure, the GOP of the ’50s and ’60s looks kosher on race if you ignore that fact that, back then, there used to be lots of liberal northeastern Republicans and conservative southern Democrats.
[A] lot of those so-called liberals from the northeast who supported civil rights look pretty good by today’s Republican standards: sober, free-enterprise, small-government guys. Not ideological flamethrowers, to be sure, but not as bad as we remember them.
It would appear that Williamson is up to something similar in his reappraisal of President Dwight Eisenhower in the current print edition of National Review:
Eisenhower may have sometimes called himself a progressive, but his bedrock priorities—a strong military, balanced budgets, and limited government—are classical conservativism.
Williamson never specified who “a lot of those so-called[!] liberals from the northeast” were. I’ll try to fill in the blanks (and extend the category to states like California and Maryland and Illinois): Jacob Javits. Ken Keating. Irving Ives. Clifford Case. Thomas Kuchel. Hugh Scott. Edward Brooke. Charles Mathias. Charles Percy.
I’ll stop there. For more, check out the book Geoffrey Kabaservice recently published about the defunct Rockefeller wing of the Republican party. I find it hard to imagine Williamson believes that Javits—who wrote a manifesto in 1964 assailing the Goldwater right—or any one of the aforementioned would make it in today’s Republican party. Judging from Williamson’s favorable summation of Ike’s record of prudence and caution on foreign policy, and his deft maneuvering around both the labor left and the McCarthy right, it seems to me he’s genuine when he writes that “Eisenhower had a deep appreciation for those most conservative of virtues: steadiness, judgment, predictability, attention to detail.”
There is more—much, much more—to conservatism, in other words, than “ideological flamethrowing.”
Maybe Williamson’s critics aren’t hip to what he’s trying to bring about: a revitalized Republican big tent.
I won’t go so far as to say Williamson agrees with Sen. Rand Paul, who said, “There’s room for people who believe in bigger government in our party.”
So I’ll say it for myself: The Republican party was better off when it had a moderate wing. A bona fide national party, if nothing else.
There’s no turning back the clock, of course. Republicans can no more reabsorb moderates (notice I didn’t say “independents“) than Democrats could successfully woo southern conservatives. A new coalition will have to be formed. But recognizing the greatness, the conservatism, of Ike is a worthy baby step. Dare I say it, Williamson and I are on the same page:
[W]here the ideologue sees a two-dimensional world with endpoints marked “Freedom” and “Slavery,” Ike saw the world in three dimensions. Just as his innate sense of realism and caution led him avoid unnecessary war, Ike’s fundamental lack of zeal helped him see that an ideological war on the New Deal would lead to, yes, quagmire—something very like what we’re experiencing today. Therefore, he employed his vice president, Richard Nixon, to run interference with the likes of Joseph McCarthy, and he quietly and unflashily went about the business of maintaing a course of peace, stability, and incremental racial progress.
When reading about war zones, it is easy to envision an endless battlefield, with uninterrupted explosions and turmoil. But Atlantic writer Cathy Huyghe pointed out Friday that, even in the midst of Syria’s turmoil, life goes on for many. Her story on Syrian winemakers highlighted the way people hold to hope in the midst of fear and death.
Karim Saadé and his family own a vineyard near Latakia, Syria, located on the outskirts of the Al-Ansariyah mountains in northwestern Syria. Because it is outside the towns experiencing heavy fighting, it has been safe from attack thus far. The Saadé family has had difficulty keeping workers, especially as the local currency has collapsed and taken an inflationary toll on wages. Despite these difficulties, Huyghe writes that the winemakers are “planting the seeds, literally, for the future: Derenoncourt pointed out that they’ve just bought fresh rootstock for new vines.” Her story suggests a deep sense of rootedness and loyalty to the land:
Fabrice Guiberteau, a winemaker at Château Kefraya in the fertile Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, can see the border with Syria from his vineyards. Despite the worries of a conflict so close to home, leaving Lebanon would be difficult, he said. ”It’s about having started something and wanting to see it through,” said Guiberteau, who previously made wine in Cognac, France, and Morocco before coming to Lebanon. The Saadé family has recently made new investments in material for Château Bargylus in Syria, he noted. As Karim Saadé says, “Wine ties you to the land, and you cannot just pack up and leave. It’s a signal to yourself and to others.”
The story reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. In the throes of World War I, American ambulance driver Lieutenant Henry learns to cope and survive. His deepest moments of fellowship, love, and communion usually surface around food and drink: especially wine and cognac. He risks his life on the battlefront just to procure cheese for his comrades’ pasta. The descriptions of wine – “clear red, tannic and lovely” – of eating spaghetti – “lifting the spaghetti on the fork until the loose strands hung clear then lowering it into the mouth, or else using a continuous lift and sucking into the mouth” – are nuanced and vivid. Hemingway breaks with his dry, concise style in order to make such scenes come alive. He shows the human lust to live, to enjoy all the beauties of appetite and existence, to endure in the midst of change. For these characters, the drink is indeed “a signal” of sorts.
New York Times contributors Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez identify a similar “signal” and community-building power in coffee amongst the American military. By World War II, they write, American servicemen consumed 32.5 pounds of coffee per capita, per year. Whether carefully brewed or burnt and bitter, coffee is a soldier’s “constant companion”:
As platoon commanders, we would often share with our platoon sergeants and squad leaders while we gathered around a map and discussed our plans for the day. Whether in the forests of North Carolina, the mountains of California, or the deserts of Afghanistan, the ritual provided a sense of continuity … Coffee was more than just a drink. It was a way to remember what it’s all about, a way to connect with old friends, a way to make sense of where our paths in life had taken us.
Lieutenant Henry and his soldiers fight, retreat, laugh, and philosophize around alcohol. It helps them cope; it comforts them in the midst of sorrow. Even for civilians like the Saadé family, it is their wine – their simple work and community it gives them – that helps them cope with fear of the ominous war. Their wine ties them to the land, and to each other.
There’s a little bookstore on C Street in Washington, D.C., with a slightly tattered window awning and dimly lit windows. On first glance, it looks quite gloomy. But then you step inside.
Immediately, you are engulfed in a cavern of books. They pile from floor to ceiling, glower down from towering bookshelves, and overwhelm every crevice of the store. When Capitol Hill Books’ website says “Every bit of space in the store has a book,” they aren’t joking.
The store’s sections are handwritten notes taped to the shelves, often with special “directions.” So often, these little notes anticipate my own thoughts. As I searched the fiction’s “D” section for Dostoevsky, I met this paper note Scotch-taped to the shelf: “If you’re looking for Dostoevsky” – with a friendly arrow pointing to a special section just a few shelves away. The whole store is like this: with unanticipated rabbit trails and person recommendations, all footnoted with a personal touch. If you want to discover a new unknown author, this bookstore is a perfect place to browse.
Charles Simic shared his love of independent bookstores in a Tuesday New York Review of Books blog post. He writes, “They were more discriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure.” Through perusing shelves, he found books possessing humorous and often soulful material for the reader:
“Among the crowded shelves, one’s interest was aroused by the title or the appearance of a book. Then came the suspense of opening it, checking out the table of contents, and if it proved interesting, thumbing the pages, reading a bit here and there and looking for underlined passages and notes in the margins.”
Simic reminds readers that in used books, we meet more than the author – we also meet past readers, mysterious and diverse. My sister has an old Victorian era diary, filled with old newspaper clippings and ads. According to a frontispiece by the owner, this diary was one of the few possessions she salvaged from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.
Jim Toole, Capitol Hill Books’ owner, told People’s District in August 2011 that he has gathered 20,000+ volumes from estate sales, yard sales, and auctions. But he isn’t sure how much longer the bookstore will thrive: “Big book shops are closing down, and those two-faced bureaucratic Johnny Onenotes in the D.C. government scream out the window that they want to help small businesses, and then close the window. So, I have property taxes, Kindle, and Amazon working against me.”
One of my favorite notes in his bookstore offers the “Rules,” i.e. words prohibited on the premises: “Oh my God (or gosh),” “neat,” “sweet,” “like” (underlined several times in emphatic permanent marker), “you know,” “totally,” “whatever,” “perfect,” “that’s a good question,” “Kindle,” “Amazon,” and “have a good one.” Toole says when people use these words, he tells them to “get a thesaurus and stop being so mentally lame.”
This is the other innate appeal of the independent bookstore: its personal eclecticism and charm. Mr. Toole’s knowledge and sarcasm are evident in every handwritten note scattered throughout his store. The store’s deep caverns, hidden treasure troves, and “mystery section” make it unique from any other book seller – and honestly, even if it’s a little harder to find Dostoevsky, I prefer it this way.
David M. Shribman accused Americans of ruining August on Monday, through their cacophony of work, school and frantic scheduling. He remembers when August was “an idyll of idleness, a time of pure ease” – but nowadays, it’s ebbed into work and school obligations:
“Not so long ago—well within the memory of half the American population—August was the vacation month. It was a time, much anticipated and much appreciated, of leisure, languor, lassitude and lingering at the beach well into suppertime… What we’ve done to August has made it the cruelest month: infuriating work and inescapable school obligations amid intoxicating weather.”
The New York Times actually wrote a similar story in August 2006, called “The Rise of Shrinking-Vacation Syndrome.” Mike Pina, a spokesman for AAA, told author Timothy Egan that “The idea of somebody going away for two weeks is really becoming a thing of the past. It’s kind of sad, really, that people can’t seem to leave their jobs anymore.” Egan pointed to ”the heightened pace of American life, aided by ever-chattering electronic pocket companions,” for crippling people’s ability to escape or just be “slothful.”
Since Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous study of American life in Democracy in America, we’ve been a documented case of superior work ethic. This work ethic has become tantamount to our national identity – and some might argue, our obsession. Social critic Morris Berman has written Why America Failed and Spinning Straw Into Gold, two books aimed at the nation’s work-fixated culture. He told the Atlantic in an interview last week that America is “essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years.” Americans, for the most part, lack true community or neighborly connection. They see careers, professional ambition, and prestige as means to “the good life.” In this mindset, life and pleasures become results-obsessed.
Berman does think these trends have escalated in the recent past: he writes that as the U.S. began to “speed up” from about 1965 on, “a kind of industrial, corporate, consumer ‘frenzy’ took over, which meant there was no time for anything except getting and spending.” This fits with Shribman’s description of the new August: a month that is now results-obsessed in its educational and vocational pursuits. Classes for high schoolers can begin as early as August 5 (whereas Shribman documents a time when they began after Labor day). College students return to campus mid-August, and summer travel has dropped by 30 percent. Americans, it would appear, are eager to achieve – not relax.
This frenzied environment may not stem entirely from technological advances (though gadgets certainly help) or even historical precedent. The country’s current economic situation fosters a sense of vulnerability and job insecurity, and this increases our desire to put in extra hours at the office. In turn, that economic anxiety may push students toward college and a degree with greater alacrity.
The Atlantic ran a curious article last week. Under the headline “Why Americans All Believe They Are Middle Class”, Anat Shenker-Osorio argues that Americans are encouraged by politicians, the media, and even colloquial language to believe that they belong to the middle class, when in fact they do not. Shenker-Osorio observes:
The puzzle is why so many who do not fit the category (as median family income reported as just above $50,000 defines it) believe they do. Why does the description “middle-class nation” continue to feel appropriate, desirable, or both?
There’s not much of a puzzle here. According to a Pew poll that Shenker-Osorio cites in the piece, Americans don’t all think they’re middle class. On the contrary, they’re pretty good judges of where they belong in the class structure, at least as defined by the distribution of income.
In 2012, the poll showed 32 percent of American identifying as lower class or lower-middle class, 49 percent of Americans identifying as middle class, 15 percent of Americans identifying a upper-middle class, and 2 percent of Americans identifying as upper class. That correlates reasonably well with the 25 percent of American household with incomes of less than $25,000 a year, the 50 percent who earn between $25,000 and about $90,000 a year, the 20 percent who earn between $90,000 and $180,000, and the 5 percent who earn more than that.
The similarities are particularly striking when it comes to the top tier. The top 2 percent of American households have incomes of more than $450,000. That seems like a plausible cutoff for the 2 percent of Americans who call themselves “upper class”.
Regional variations are extremely important in understanding differences at the margins. Well-paid professionals are clustered in cities like New York and Washington. They tend to call themselves middle class or upper-middle class because taxes and high prices, especially for housing, constrain their standard of living. The reason is not that they’re trying to keep up with the Kardashians. In low-cost areas, on the other hand, it isn’t necessarily crazy to consider oneself middle class on a household income of, say, $30,000.
Moreover, class is about more than income. As the great sociologist Robert Nisbet observed, the concept of class developed to make sense of Victorian Britain. It referred partly to differences of wealth and economic activity: businessmen were middle class no matter how rich they were. But it also indicated different mores, speech, and even physical characteristics. When Britain imposed military conscription during the First World War, it discovered that working class recruits were significantly shorter than soldiers from the upper class.
Charles Murray and others have argued the United States is moving toward a similarly visible class system. But it’s still not easy to tell at glance (or a listen) to which class Americans belong. Most look and sound like they belong somewhere in the middle. That’s the historically consistent and still distinctively American phenomenon that the Pew poll reflects.
So it’s reasonable to see the U.S. as a middle-class society, even though far from all Americans identify as middle class. The question is whether it will remain one. The Pew numbers show the number of Americans who identify as middle class declining from 53 percent in 2008 to 49 percent in 2012. Far from indicating that Americans are victims of false consciousness, that figure suggests that the norms and expectations that defined American social reality in the 20th century are eroding fast.