Class War on Metro North

This video has been all over New York-based internet sites in the past few days. But I don't think it has yet been on any of the Atlantic's sites, and it is worth another look for "the way we live now" purposes.

It shows a young woman passenger chewing out a train conductor who has asked her to stop talking so loudly on the phone and swearing. OK, I've sometimes gotten exasperated with officialdom, and I am glad that no one had a camera running when I did. But the approach the passenger takes is significant, and stunning.

You might think: it could have been worse, in that the passenger didn't "go racial." But the class-war insult approach she took is, to me, at least as bad, and she didn't hesitate the slightest bit before unleashing it. And while this may be one peeved woman on one bad day, when I saw it I naturally thought of a comparable recent clip from China. It was of a "princeling," the son of a political big shot, who after running over some mere citizens with his car was completely blase: "Sue me, if you dare, my dad is Li Gang." That struck a nerve in China and caused a huge uproar, because of the inequalities it crystallized. "Do you know what schools I've been to?" four seconds into this clip, has similar stinging power in modern America.

There's no graceful way to add the punchline: the angry young woman has of course been outed and identified. And her educational background is admirable but not what most people would consider super-fancy. (Undergrad and some graduate work, both at NYU.) The glory of American higher education is its extraordinary variety and openness. The nightmare of American higher education is its increasing role in reinforcing privilege rather than offsetting it. "Do you know what schools I've been to" reveals the mentality behind the bad side of the balance.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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