Dentists and lawyers waiting in line for two hours on a sunny Saturday in May to get $15-worth of free flowers from the city. Have middle-class values ever been made so manifest? How frugal these people are with their money! How profligate with their time!
Of course I’m writing this on my iPhone whilst waiting in line for free flowers. But that’s besides the point. Because this isn’t about me. It’s about middle-class values.
The middle class has always sought to differentiate itself from the wasteful rich and the wasteful poor. “We are the careful, hardworking, frugal ones.”—this is their greatest source of pride, their central and defining conceit. “We weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths, goddammit! We didn’t inherit our money like those spoiled rich brats over there. We earned every penny of what we have. And we’re smart with our money. We save and budget and look for specials (even when we don’t need to!). Unlike the wasteful poor, we don’t spend all of our money on beer and cigarettes and lottery tickets.”
Paying full-price is for the middle-class moralist what a mortal sin was for the medieval Catholic. This makes them especially zealous comparison shoppers who will readily waste an entire Saturday driving around from mall to mall just to save $20 on a toaster oven at a big-box store in the burbs. You might be tempted to remind them that life is short, that the day would have been better spent at home, playing with the kids. And you might be tempted to point out that they probably burned far more than $20 in gas on their day-long suburban pilgrimage. But don’t bother because they’ll hear none of it. Trying to reason with a zealous comparison shopper is, I’ve discovered, about as pointless as trying to reason with a Christian fundamentalist. Besides, in their heart of hearts, they’d rather lose money on gas than overpay for that toaster oven! As such, when you compliment a person who grew up middle class, they invariably tell you that they didn’t—god-forbid—pay full price! They got it on special. It was 50% off or 75% off or TWO-FOR-ONE.
The spiritual victory of middle-class values in North America has been nothing short of astounding. Even the ultra-rich Bill Gates drives a sensible car and walks around in khakis; and, in so doing, signals that he’s still spiritually middle class, despite the money. By contrast, the hip-hop star’s bling signals that he remains—psychologically speaking—a product of poverty, despite the millions. We’re all supposedly middle-class today (despite the fact that we’re manifestly not). And the appeal of the Tea Party must be understood within this context. For instance, when the Tea Party rails against big government and wastefulness, they’re really just standing up for middle-class values (such as thriftiness). Likewise, when they roundly reject the noblesse oblige—“to whom much is given much is required”—tradition (which produced Kennedys, Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Trudeaus), they’re really just standing up for the middle-class rejection of luck, fate, and fortune. “We earned our money, goddammit! Don’t owe you bums a thing! Why should I have to pay taxes to support social programs for people who are too high or lazy to work? Word harder! Save more! And stop looking to me for a fucking handout!”
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)