When I was in college, at one of the Seven Sisters in the mid-1980s, meals were served in the dormitories by kitchen staff who were longtime employees of the college. This was before the big contractors, like Aramark, took over dining services everywhere. We knew our cook, Charlie his name was, and dinners were like dinner parties. We enjoyed what we ate, and we lingered over the table for hours. Sometimes I sat with a group, and sometimes I sat where there was an empty seat. It was easy to know everyone; there were maybe 150 residents in my dorm, Beebe Hall.
Because the nights were so similar to each other, they generally blur in my memory into one big mealtime. One night, though, when I was a freshman, I was sitting with Andrea, a junior from New Jersey. I don’t recall what I was telling her, but I was talking, and at the same time she was finishing dessert and licking her spoon: licking the bowl, licking the back, dipping it into the melted ice cream again, licking and licking.
She paused in her licking and listening and she interrupted me: “You know what’s a shame?”
“What?” I asked back.
“No matter that you’re here, no matter how smart you are, no matter how much education you get, people are always going to think you’re ignorant.”
What does one say in reply? I burned with sudden shame. “Um… why?” I stammered.
“Because of that accent. It’s like R’s don’t exist for you.”
She was right. I was from Central Massachusetts, near Worcester, pronounced Wooster, but Woostah to the people who lived there. (Why enunciate an R when it was easier just to drop it off the end?) So, there I was, a world away from Woostah (although only 30 miles down the road), and being accused of being a hick. And maybe I was. But I decided, in that instant, to accept the letter R into my life and to straighten out my speech, which I did, immediately.
And I’ve been doing it ever since, and I do it pretty well. A professional speech coach, with whom I once worked, told me he couldn’t place my accent, it was so “neutral.” And I told him the story of Andrea, and of my success.
Recently, on Chee’s blog I watched an old YouTube video of GOP vice presidential candidate and Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin. I almost couldn’t focus on what she was saying, because her manner grated on me. She talks as if she’s snapping bubblegum. She smiles too much. She said “cool,” twice.
“Unpolished.” That’s the word I came up with.
People are talking about her, everywhere: on tv, in homes, at work. Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin. I never knew so much about another woman in such a short time. “What do you think?” Already, we have so many opinions — about her, about the soundness of McCain’s choice — and none of us is uninterested.
I supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and now I’m supporting Barack Obama’s. I barely know anything about McCain, but I know enough. Sarah Palin? I am filled with condescension: “She doesn’t have the stature for national office.” That’s the nice way to say it.
What do I mean by that? What do any of us mean in our scrutiny of her credentials, her policies, and her family life? Is it really only that she’s too young, too biased, too untested to serve in the Executive Office?
Yesterday I was trying to explain my prejudice to Jimmy. With some humility, but not enough that I didn’t say it, I used the word “low brow.” Today, a friend from graduate school forwarded to me an e-mail from another person that critiques Sarah Palin and baldly calls her “red neck.” In an instant, I felt the mirror turned on me.
People, this is not nice, not generous, and most of all, not democratic.
I am not, of course, Sarah Palin, although maybe the town I grew up in (small, working class) and the times I grew up in (she’s only one year older than me) are not unlike where and when she grew up. She is a former basketball player, beauty queen, and mayor. I have been none of those. I’m no Republican, and no governor of no state.
I am, however, or at least I fancy myself to be, part of some sort of intellectual elite that she is not. I read the New Yorker and the New York Times; I see films and read difficult novels and nonfiction, too. I know how to talk, right? If I were on national television, I would know not to say “cool,” twice. I have no highlights in my hair, and, if I did, they wouldn’t be all streaky, like hers — they’d be “natural.” I usually don’t wear lipstick, and, if I did, it’d be subtle. And if I had a seventeen year old daughter, she wouldn’t do something so obvious, so unpolished, as to get and stay pregnant.
In his book, Limbo, Alfred Lubrano points out that an elite college education offers students from working class families lessons in how to act, how to “pass” as upper class. To “rise” in status, there is much that a student from a blue collar family has to leave behind, to detach himself from. Such a student also has to learn how to tone down affect and hide displays of feeling.
So, I mostly don’t want to vote for Sarah Palin — no matter how smart, brave, cunning, loving, and ambitious — because she’s not like me. Maybe I should say, she’s not like the me I am now.
We are, however, misjudging McCain’s choice and even misjudging Palin’s suitability for a national role. Hey, this is America — government for the people and by the people, right? Who’s “people”?
In the election commentary so far, pundits and analysts and voters and scholars have been rightly talking about race, gender, and age. It’s time, maybe, that we start talking about the demographic difference that intersects all of these and that Sarah Palin, I believe, has become a touchstone for: social class.