"American class privilege is very much like the idea of sex in a Catholic school — it's not supposed to exist in the first place, but once it presents itself in your mind's eye, you realize that it's everywhere." That's Chris Lehmann's opening volley at the pervasive "Money Culture" of our time, the first of many lobbed with wit and fury in his book Rich People Things.
Lehmann has been hurling thunderbolts at our reigning idiocies and inequities for a long time now — think H.L. Mencken crossed with Jon Stewart and Clint Eastwood. Aside from a brief, intellectually stultifying stint in graduate school, he's been breaking new ground in magazine journalism since the late '80s. Among many other gigs, he wrote early and often for Thomas Frank's the Baffler, where he's now an associate editor, while blogging for Yahoo News and co-editing Book Forum. He was a contributor to the legendary Feed and Suck in the mid '90s, when the strange new world of the "World Wide Web" called online publications "web 'zines." And now, he's participating in a new book-publishing model through OR Books: Rich People Things came out first as an e-book, on September 15, and the publisher ordered a print run based on e-book sales (available at orbooks.com). If you're ever down DC way, check out Lehmann's band, the Charm Offensive.
The title of your book seems sort of tossed off.
It's dismissive, yes, but also vague enough to refer to anything that benefits the propertied and wealth addled. The "thing" part of the title knocks down the notion that there's anything sacrosanct about what our economic betters do, buy, think, or believe. So, yes, a Rich People Thing can be a Lamborghini, a mansion, and most definitely New York magazine, but also the debased notion of populism, the empty rhetoric of supply-side economics, and the fiction of Ayn Rand.
Have you always wanted to eat the rich, or did it just sort of creep up on you?
I find the idea of being rich kind of hilarious and absurd. I've known some perfectly pleasant, insanely well-to-do types, and plenty of assholic ones as well. I grew up in the lower reaches of the middle class in a Midwestern city [Davenport, Iowa] that Money magazine deemed the worst in the country, so I had very few formative encounters with the moneyed. My most vivid memory comes from a college freshman class where a kid — freshly graduated from Choate — turned up in full horse-riding regalia.
Some of the "things" you cover are clearly tied to class entitlement. But reality television?
I've been struck by its gruesome class voyeurism. Look at Jersey Shore. Here's a group of young people from middle-to-working-class suburbs chosen for their conspicuous absence of any marketable life skills. The losers in all reality-TV competitions harbor the wrong kind of ambition, which is often conveyed in the shows' titles: Toddlers and Tiaras, Meghan Wants a Millionaire, Rock of Love Charm School, and — of course — I Love Money.
You come down pretty hard on Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell divines all sorts of fake wisdom that is in fact simple middle-management boilerplate. It's no great leap from his dubious premises to the most cherished myths of the market: you can get rich by anticipating the next great wave of consumer demand; your personal genius will be borne out in the boardroom, the workplace, or the market, if you just hew to your first impressions.