Whenever this particular incarnation of the culture wars erupts, I think back to my earliest experiences with my august employer, The Atlantic. On the scale of ashy to classy, I was more the former than the latter. But my relationship with the magazine often put me in the dining company of men and women who were not unused to nice things. These were the days when I powerfully believed Breyers and Entenmann's to be pioneers in the field of antidepressants. My new companions had other beliefs, a fact evidenced by our divergent waistlines.They organized dinners featuring several small courses, most of which were only partially eaten. The general dining practice consisted of buttering half a dinner roll, dallying with the salad, nibbling at the fish and taking a spoonful of desert. The only seconds they requested were coffee and wine. I left the first of these dinners in bemused dudgeon."Crazy rich white people," I would scoff. "Who goes to a nice dinner and leaves hungry?"
My label-mate Jeff Goldberg claims that my depiction of Atlantic dinner parties is way off:
At the Atlantic dinner parties I attend, the first course is usually a bag of Funyuns, followed by corn dogs fried in pig fat. Dessert is usually some low-quality meth and a Ho Ho.
I was reading a new memoir the other day, by a Harvard graduate who went to work as a prison librarian. Much of the book is an account of his acculturation. He discovered that his robes and spell books, so to speak, were a lot less useful than plate and a broad-sword. That he couldn't afford to be seen as a punk. He was perfectly equipped for a comfortable, upper-middle-class life - and wholly unprepared for his new environment.We tend to associate culturally-specific practices with the relative successes of the cultures with which they're associated. Things rich people do must be beneficial; habits of the poor, not. The reality is more complex. Culture of Poverty is a label attached to a wide array of behaviors. There are behaviors - physical assertiveness - well-suited to that environment that may tend to inhibit success elsewhere. There are other behaviors - emphasis on familial and communal ties - that will cut both ways, sustaining people in difficult times but sometimes making it harder for them to place their individual needs above the demands of the group. And there are others - initiative and self-reliance - that are largely positive, and in many ways, even more advantageous if carried further up the social scale.I bristle when I see people discuss the culture of poverty as a pathology. That's too self-congratulatory, and too cramped a view. The reality is that, like all cultures, it has aspects that translate well to other circumstances, those that translate poorly, and those that are just plain different. And that's no different than the Culture of Affluence.