Sorry, David Brooks again. (Promise, it’s the last time). But I almost missed this piece in NYT magazine last weekend. It’s a cool read.
As I mentioned earlier, I like David Brooks. But occasionally, this student of bourgeoisie shows such a misunderstanding of his own subject that I can’t pass by quietly.
Recently David Brooks went on an $120,000 world-wide tour as an assignment for NYT. He was surprised to find that people who can spend that kind of money on a trip weren’t behaving like rich assholes. He was almost disappointed.
What sort of people go on a trip like this? Rich but not fancy. It is a sign of how stratified things have become that even within the top 1 percent there are differences between the single-digit millionaires and the double- or triple-digit millionaires. The people on this trip were by and large on the lower end of the upper class. One had a family carpet business. Another was an I.T. executive at an insurance company. There were a few law partners. There was a divorce coach who’d worked in finance, a woman who’d started a telecom business with her ex-husband and the vice chancellor from a medium-size university. Very few of these people were born to money. They did not dress rich, talk rich or put on airs. They have spent their lives busy with work and family, not jet-setting around or hanging out with the Davos crowd.
In other words, they were socially and intellectually unpretentious. They treated the crew as friends and equals and not as staff. Nobody was trying to prove they were better informed or more sophisticated than anybody else. There were times, in fact, when I almost wished there had been a little more pretense and a little more intellectual and spiritual ambition.
Of course they treated the crew as friends, of course they were not trying to prove anything! They don’t need to! The proof is in the fact that they are traveling in this manner. Nothing else needs to be said or done.
I mean, what did he expect: top hats and frocks and Oxbridge accent? The rich, for a long time, have not looked like that. In fact, the rich love to dress unpretentiously (I mean he described it in his own book, Bobos in Paradise). They love to pretend to be one with the people. The powerful don’t like to think of themselves and to look like powerful at all. They manifest their status by the access to exclusive services that regular folks not only haven’t heard of but can’t even conceive in their dreams (like a livered valet insisting on bringing a second bottle of champagne in Brooks’ room), not by what they wear or by how they speak. These days if you fly first class you’ll make sure you look like a bum. In fact, a folksy demeanor is almost a must-have, a way of underplaying one’s status. By Brook’s logic if one sold his company for $100 mil or made a partner at some investment firm he must immediately display it in flashy clothing items and change his manner of speech. On the contrary, such success usually behooves him to assume a role of a regular guy even more. I saw Lloyd Blankfein a few months ago near Columbus circle, walking among the crowd on the sidewalk, in unpretentious baseball hat and some dull jacket he probably got for free at some conference. That’s how the power dresses and behaves in public. Don’t look at me – the message is – I’m just like you.
Comfort, time-efficiency, exclusivity and privacy – that’s what modern-day luxury entails, not the ability to buy an expensive piece of clothing. I would think Brooks, of all people, would understand that.