How Thick Is Your Bubble?
A new upper class that makes decisions affecting the lives of everyone else but increasingly doesn't know much about how everybody else lives is vulnerable to making mistakes. How vulnerable are you?
NO VICE OF the human heart is so acceptable to [a despot] as egotism," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville. "A despot easily forgives his subjects for not loving him, provided they do not love each other." That couldn't happen in the United States, Tocqueville argued, because of the genius of the founders in devolving power:
Local freedom ... perpetually brings men together, and forces them to help one another, in spite of the propensities which sever them. In the United States, the more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people. On the contrary, they constantly keep on easy terms with the lower classes: they listen to them, they speak to them every day.1
That's not true anymore. As the new upper class increasingly consists of people who were born into upper- middle- class families and have never lived outside the upper- middle- class bubble, the danger increases that the people who have so much influence on the course of the nation have little direct experience with the lives of ordinary Americans, and make their judgments about what's good for other people based on their own highly atypical lives.
In one sense, there is no such thing as an "ordinary American." The United States comprises a patchwork of many subcultures, and the members of any one of them is ignorant about and isolated from the others to some degree. The white fifth- grade teacher from South Boston doesn't understand many things about the life of the black insurance agent in Los Angeles, who in turn doesn't understand many things about the life of the Latino truck driver in Oklahoma City. But there are a variety of things that all three do understand about the commonalities in their lives— simple things that you have no choice but to understand if you have to send your kids to the local public school, you live in a part of town where people make their living in a hundred different ways instead of a dozen, and you always eat out at places where you and your companion won't spend more than $50 tops, including tip.
Those specifications embrace an extremely large part of the American population. Tack on a few other specifications—that you watch at least twenty- four hours of commercial television a week (still well below the national average of thirty- five hours) and that you see most of the most popular new movies, either in theaters or on DVDs — and you have guaranteed a substantial degree of common familiarity about the culture as well. So while there is no such thing as an ordinary American, it is not the case that most Americans are balkanized into enclaves where they know little of what life is like for most other Americans. "The American mainstream" may be hard to specify in detail, but it exists.
Many of the members of the new upper class are balkanized. Furthermore, their ignorance about other Americans is more problematic than the ignorance of other Americans about them. It is not a problem if truck drivers cannot empathize with the priorities of Yale professors. It is a problem if Yale professors, or producers of network news programs, or CEOs of great corporations, or presidential advisers cannot empathize with the priorities of truck drivers. It is inevitable that people have large areas of ignorance about how others live, but that makes it all the more important that the members of the new upper class be aware of the breadth and depth of their ignorance.
To my knowledge, sociologists haven't gotten around to asking upper- middle- class Americans how much they know about their fellow citizens, so once again I must ask you to serve as a source of evidence by comparing your own experience to my generalizations. This time, I have a twenty-five question quiz for you to take.2 I hope it will serve two purposes: first, to calibrate the extent of your own ignorance (if any); second, to give you a framework for thinking about the ignorance that may be common in your professional or personal circles, even if it doesn't apply to you.
The questions you should take most seriously are the opening ones that ask about the places you have lived and the variation in conditions of life that you have experienced. The ignorance they imply is certain. If you have never lived or worked in a small town, you must be ignorant about day- to- day life in a small town, no matter how many movies set in rural Georgia you've seen. If you have never held a job that caused a body part to hurt by the end of the day, you don't know what that's like — period.
When I move to informational questions about sports, popular culture, and some American institutions, you are free to complain that some of them aren't fair. Some questions have a gender bias (though I've tried to balance those). Some are sneaky and several poke fun. In no case does an inability to answer reflect on your intelligence, character, or all- around goodness of heart.
Some of the questions are ones that whites will get right more often than minorities, and that people who do not live in metropolises will get right more often than people who do. That's because I am writing about the problems of the new upper class, the new upper class is overwhelmingly white and urban, and the readers of this book are overwhelmingly white and urban. Note, however, that had I included questions that would be more easily answered by minorities in working- class urban neighborhoods, your score would probably be even worse.
Unless I specify an age range, the questions apply to experiences that occurred at any point in your life.
Please take out your no. 2 pencil and begin