Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Don't Ask

"Class of 1962" - An Acceptable Use of the Word.  Photo by Salt Water New England
Over the years, this blog has received numerous requests to host a discussion on the concept of class.  This, of course, seems like a terrible idea.

Americans just can't talk about class.  In fact, it is anathema for Americans to write or say the word "class" unless:
  • It is preceded by "middle"
  • It is to be spoken by a fictional character in some thick regional accent and accompanied by spittle, 
  • It is about when one has graduated,
  • It refers to airline seats, or
  • It is in the sentiment, "if you are talking about it, you are not it."
Also, Americans can't not conflate money with class, nor climbing with being.

And the efforts to create de facto replacements for the word "class" have been less than helpful, resulting in "classy" and "posh" and the eye rolling  "PLU" and "Old Money."    

Conventional wisdom, for those who do want to dig into this topic, is to ignore the American analyses in toto and start with the British, who are less squirrelly in this area (or at least they have better come to terms with their squirreliness).  

Others may find sufficient identification with the phrase,  "I don't know what class is, but I know it when I don't see it" and leave it at that.   Beyond that, it is an intellectual cul-de-sac; it is doubtful progress in better understanding this area can be made at this time. 

73 comments:

  1. Great topic: I grew up in a highly educated but relatively low income family in NYC> My grand parents were poor. However, for a number of reasons, we had regular contact with some very wealthy people. They were extremely understated. A popular car in this set was a 1966 Rambler Classic or maybe a high mileage Volvo. Money was spent on education. or maybe art. Some of these people had well known last names. You get the picture.

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  2. Unknown, likewise. Our family all had bachelor's, most master's, even some doctorate'......but most of the family were in the public sector. Teachers, asst. DA's, worked in the city manager's office, the county health dept....We felt we had class, but never were going to be rich.

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  3. Interesting topic. I've always been interested because for some reason my family tends to marry outside their class, and because despite money not granting class, lack of it can certainly change a person's class. My grandmother grew up decidedly upper class in the North, chose to marry a blue-collar man and out of financial desperation eventually chose an upper-middle, professional career for herself. My father's family is Southern and may have had ancestors on the Mayflower, but due to a few generations of unfortunately orphaned children and young teens forced to work due to a parent's disability they struggled with poverty. Their manners and love of fine literature may not have changed, but it is difficult to call anyone that down on their luck anything but lower class.

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    1. It's not difficult at all. Social class and economic class occasionally dovetail, but often they won't. For every crass Kardashian wannabe, there's someone "down on their luck" who can't bring themselves to sell what's left of the family silver, and still knows how to use it. If reality television has taught us anything, it's taught us the pernicious nature of equating social class with wealth.

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    2. The family silver was lost in the civil war.

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  4. I've mentioned the book "The Status Seekers" before and will again here. It's a very well researched, brutal in-depth look at class and classism in America. Most of the soul crushing insights and revelations are still true today even though it was written in the 1950s.

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  5. For those who haven’t read it, I highly recommend Paul Fussell’s delightfully entertaining book from 1992 - “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System.” It’s still as relevant today as when it was first published with loads of trenchant insights into an increasingly taboo subject.

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    1. Correction -- it came out in 1983.

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    2. Fussell pretty much nailed it, and hilariously. The book has aged well, and covers regional variations besides. Here's my take, updated for 2018:

      "Upper Class" will tell you about their humanitarian service in Africa; extra points for surviving dysentery and Ebola. When home, they have "jobs" selling "art" that makes sane people uncomfortable, write Tweets leaving no doubt they're not like you and me, and when NOT home can be frequently found in rehab. They haven't spoken with most of their relatives in at least 25 years.

      "Upper Middles" will tell you which schools their kids got accepted to--and rejected. Also about "their numbers" and how they aced that last company-incentivized physical. Wives mercilessly compare decor, calf muscle definition, and husbands' portfolios sub rosa at round-robin dinner parties. Their men inhabit this and other style blogs, furtively seeking tips on which reds, bucks, and must-iron archaic shirts will allow them to "pass" to look like corner-office material. MUST vacation at the right places, driving the right (leased) cars, entire cadre conspicuously leave town together on school vacation weeks. Commonly seen mortifying their flesh mightily to atone for competitive conspicuous consumption; no physical or mental striving is EVER enough for the New Elect. Always looking over their shoulders, marching in lockstep for all fashionable causes, susceptible to the approved popular delusions. Often demonstrably educated beyond their intelligence.

      "Middles" will tell you about their new job, house, and beige minivan.
      Their kids do "travel" soccer, and the parents never miss a game, screaming in the stands and abusing the coach. They will spike their 401-k if need be so Junior can play hockey at 4 AM or Jenny can take figure skating or gymnastics lessons at $300 a pop. Prime movers in all the old-fashioned service clubs, civic organizations, churches. Love consumer goods and fill every available interior square inch with vast quantities of made-in-China kitsch with no sense of irony whatsoever. "Homes" display giant gas grills in lieu of their fathers' Cadillacs, garish fussy columns of annuals, plastic garden gnomes, basketball backboards, and too many older cars minus plates.

      "Proles" are obsessed with lawn-care, buying every toxic product in the Depot until their square-edged patch of earth resembles AstroTurf.
      Their kids get yelled at from infancy on, which is why they're less likely to drown in 5-gallon buckets, pull plastic grocery bags over their heads or join the Peace Corps. They are allowed to ride bikes on the road without adults hovering--or helmets. Several pickup trucks in the yard, at least one lettered and loaded with tools of Dad's (lucrative) trade. Junior will inherit the business, after taking practical accounting classes at the Community College. Early adopters of every single gadget available, they're on terms with Alexa by the age of 3. Girls will start sneaking eye makeup at 7, boys still get BB guns for Christmas "to put their eyes out." Fishing, hunting rites of adolescent passage, they also fill the dwindling ranks of Scouting. Dad will invite the neighbors over to watch the Big Game on their brand-new BIG-screen TV--and pop you a cold beer.

      Guess which ones are the most fun to hang around with! ;-)

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  6. I'm an American married to an Englishman. He bought me "Watching the English the Hidden Rules of English Behavior" by Kate Fox; partly as a joke and partly to help me better understand my in-laws.

    Among other things, she discusses "linguistic class codes," using particular vocabulary & pronunciations as class markers. She summarizes: "...the linguistic codes we have identified indicate that class in England has nothing to do with money, and very little to do with occupation. Speech is all-important. A person with an upper-class accent, using upper-class terminology, will be recognized as upper class even if he or she is earning poverty-line wages, doing grubby menial work and living in a run-down council flat... This reliance on linguistic signals, and the irrelevance of wealth and occupation as class indicators, also reminds us that our culture is not a meritocracy. Your accent and terminology reveal the class you were born into and raised in, not anything you have achieved through your own talents or efforts..."

    If this is accurate, perhaps it's one reason Americans have such trouble discussing class. If we traditionally value a meritocracy, with the possibility of mobility between classes (the American Dream, a self-made man, etc.) then discussing class is very closely related to discussing merits and achievements. Labeling "high class" and "low class" feels judgmental, almost a synonym for "high achieving" and "low achieving."

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    1. My Fair Lady

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    2. The BBC offers an accent test, if you want a baseline: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180205-which-british-accent-is-closest-to-your-own

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  7. The first thing Americans did with their "meritocracy" is to try, as hard as they could, to replicate European aristocracy in their own ranks. The steadfast refusal to deal with that, as with so many other aspects of its history, is one of the things that make class so difficult to discuss, and so difficult for most Americans to understand.

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  8. I love those wonderful, zoomorphic words, 'squirrelly' and 'squirreliness', especially as they are pronounced by the British!

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  9. Also, Americans, for the love of God, please learn that the term "classless" is actually a compliment, not a put down. It means being able to gracefully and effortlessly move up and down the social class strata without imposing. Princess Diana was called "classless" by her brother in his eulogy. Every time someone tries to heap scorn on a boor by referring to them as "classless," the Baby Jesus chokes on a cucumber tea sandwich. You don't want that on your consciences.

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    1. I love that the voices of people with British accents are used in American advertisements to show "class". Lexus is the most recent.

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    2. It's interesting that, the further down the social class strata the item being advertised is, the more likely it is that they'll use an American accent with a fake British accent. See advertisements for horrible cruise ships.

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    3. Merriam Webster dictionary editors disagree with you. Classless as a put down is definition #3.

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    4. All Romans of course spoke with a British accent. It's how you knew they were Roman.

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    5. Did you ever notice how German officers in all the war movies tend to have British accents, just like James Mason?

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    6. Anon April 26, 6:06 pm: Merriam Webster dictionary editors don't disagree with me—the first two definitions bear me out, and examples for the third on are contemporary. Lecturing on word usage is probably not the most useful way for you to spend your online time.

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  10. My father once told us a gentleman never inadvertently insults another person.

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    1. He borrowed this from Oscar Wilde .

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  11. I find this subject discomforting; it's easier to talk about sex and impossible to cover adquately without writing a book. And that would assume years of sociological research. The best I can do is write something I know rather than venture an opinion. So I'll write about my maternal grandmother.

    She attended college in the 1890's and could speak ancient Latin. Although her family came to Vermont from Connecticut in the 1760's, she had no trace of an accent (linguists attribute the familiar Vermont twang to East London, kept in tact by years of relative isolation). Her friends were farmers, teachers, city folk, progressives, advocates for social justice, just about anyone who had something interesting to say and some who had nothing at all to offer. She rose at every occasion to help others in need, puting herself last in line, although she was the most prominent individual in her county. And that included men.

    During the depression, she took in three homeless people who lived out the remainder of their lives under her roof. They were always referred to as Aunt, Uncle and Cousin. It was only after their deaths that I learned they weren't related. But I will always think of them as family. I believe they did too, which is far more important.

    MGC

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    1. I think you just nailed it, MGC.

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  12. Class is alive and kicking in England . I really don't have a problem with it whatsoever . If it means good behaviour , nice building and interesting pursuits are continuing , then jolly good :-) Who wants Marxism ........... not that any of those extremes don't have their own classes either : hypocrites !

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  13. At this time it sounds like Wordpress is the best blogging
    platform available right now. (from what I've read) Is that what you are using on your blog?

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  14. The main confusion today is that there are a great number of people who think being rich or having a good private education automatically gives them class. It doesn't, it just makes them a more conspicuous consumer in the former and gives them a better chance of a better job in the latter.

    I was taught from a young age that 'you can't buy class'. To me, class isn't about wealth or education or social standing, it's about how you carry yourself, how you behave among others, your manners, your personal beliefs, your generosity, your ethics, your dignity, your understated confidence. You just know when you are in the presence of someone with class but it's never obvious whether they have grown up surrounded by opulence or whether they have toiled in the grime all their life.

    As the world becomes smaller and the 'win at all costs' mantra becomes more ingrained than ever before, class is something which is encountered less and less each day.

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    1. Your definition truly express my understanding of class. Thank you.

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    2. Amen, to the above. You nailed my thoughts exactly. Loved the perspectives. Twas a great, thought-provoking question, much appreciated by this "country hick."

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    3. Yes, agree, Mad Dog. Very well said indeed.

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    4. Very good post. Although it should be mentioned that some people are lucky enough to have excellent educations and are dedicated to helping the less fortunate. People like that make all of us lucky.

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    5. Agreed! Good manners, etc.

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    6. I think Mad Dog's statement: "class isn't about wealth or education or social standing, it's about how you carry yourself, how you behave among others, your manners, your personal beliefs, your generosity, your ethics, your dignity, your understated confidence" pretty much says it all.

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    7. That begs the question, how does one attain manners, generosity, dignity, understated confidence, etc.

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  15. You have class when, to you, how much something costs is the least interesting thing about it.

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  16. I'm sorry - can someone please tell me what PLU stands for?
    I find myself feeling I'm in the presence of class every time I am with this earthy, hippy friend of mine who is neither wealthy nor privately educated, and who was raised by a struggling, single mother who loved art and the Maine islands. She is kind, she is gentle, she is honest, she is unpretentious, she is sympathetic, she is human, she is lavender and wool and a perpetual anxiety that she does not deserve the Swedish clogs she's been coveting, she is warmth. Whatever is in her bank account, closet, garage, or family tree have nothing to do with it.

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    1. Thank you. Such a simple approach to a seemingly complicated subject. I agree. Yes, I know when I'm in the presence of such a person with class. Their kindness seems to radiate from them. I wish more people could recognize the qualities you mentioned. Thank you for sharing your viewpoint. What a lovely approach to life.

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    2. Thank you. I found "price look up" on the web - these acronyms can mean so many things. I think I'm getting "internet old"...Amazon keeps suggesting heating pads and estate planning kits...

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  17. PLU=People like Us.....at least I think in this instance.....perhaps a variation of NOKD...Not our Kind Dear....Thanks.

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  18. “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”
    ― Coco Chanel

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    1. I doubt very much Coco Chanel would have ever said anything was "classy." Maybe J.C. Penney said it.

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  19. Have more than you show, Speak less than you know. This is the true definition of "class".

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    1. Class is never being conspicuous; never intentionally drawing attention to oneself. It is -being- instead of self-consciously and intentionally -projecting-. It is authenticity, appropriateness, and paying attention to others. It is correct grammar, old-fashioned manners, and unaffected grace. You know it when you see it, but it's difficult to define. Many people today may never have seen it.

      What it is NOT: A phony curated "life" on social media, imaginary "friends," genetically-attached earbuds and cellphone, yoga pants and cleavage as street wear, and underwear that shows on the outside. Ditto hoodies, shiny ball caps and Nike logos on guys.

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  20. Having class is the ability to walk away from a bad situation with a smile on your face and forgiveness in your heart.

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  21. Meet a lovely woman recently at the March for Our Lives rally in NYC. She is a professional photographer and took a lot of pictures. Afterwards, we had lunch. Turns out she was from a poor Irish Catholic family but had married well. She was well spoken, funny, observant and was refreshingly frank about, well, everything! Her self-confidence was very inspiring. She was interested in art, travel and life. Wish more people were like her!

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  22. I crossed paths once with Ralph and Ricky Lauren on a Telluride sidewalk a few years back. He was standing on the side "people watching" and Ricky was fabulously turned out in her R.L. ranch wear. I smiled and he spoke a few friendly words to me. Needless to say I was over the moon and tried very hard not to show it. (He is one of my personal heroes after all.) He noticed I had R.L shorts on and he said "Oh - It's nice to see someone with shorts on - and they are my shorts - Oh - and you have my shirt on too). They epitomize class and every good thing that comes with it.

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    1. Oh please.....

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    2. Hey Anon, you know what absolutely DOESN'T "epitomize class?" Deriding someone's honest and heartfelt sharing of an encounter they had with someone they admire, in this case Mr. Lauren.

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    3. (Referring, of course, to the snide Anon 1:53 comment)

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  23. "POSH" actually refers to an old acronym for those who had the money to get the sunny side of the boat to and from their destination. Port Out Starboard Home.

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    1. Holds true for Boston/NYC Amtrak!

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    2. That's actually one of the most famous of etymological urban legends. It has nothing to do with acronyms, or ocean voyages, or anything of the sort. "Posh" is a 19th century slang term for money. Eventually it evolved to mean anyone who appeared to have money, or to be fashionable.

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  24. I prefer to refer to someone's behavior that I admire or respect by saying that "it is clear that they were raised well."

    It has nothing to do if someone has or comes from money (or where they are from). But do they have manners and understand how to properly handle themselves through life.

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  25. Nobody knows for sure what it is but a lot of folks like to opine on it's meaning . Hmmmm

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    1. Have you had any previous experience with discussions? This is actually how it works. People discuss. Or, as you said it, "opine."

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  26. One of my college friends entered "affluent" in the space for class on the freshman year intake form. Everyone else entered "freshman". He has never lived that down.

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  27. Mad Dog really said it. To me, class has three components: (1) self-assurance in many different social situations. (2) consistent graciousness - the ability to put others at ease, and avoiding insults and giving offense; (3) honesty and character. Not every person of good character is self-assured or gracious. But if you are dishonest, then you don't have class. A polite, self-assured swindler is just a crook.

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  28. Where is Greenfield? Guaranteed interesting and amusing comments.

    Jacqueline

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  29. "Every time someone tries to heap scorn on a boor by referring to them as 'classless,' the Baby Jesus chokes on a cucumber tea sandwich. You don't want that on your consciences."

    Someone owes me a keyboard!

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    1. Thank you, thank you. I'll be here all week.

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  30. About thirty years ago I spent a week conducting a corporate training course in northwestern England near Newcastle, where 'Geordies' call home. It was June and the height of their midsummer when we could sit outside, play golf or bowls until late in the evening light. The topic of class arose. Some attendees were curious about my wife, our relationship and life in the US. They referred to her as 'your lady' while calling their own wives 'their women'. I asked about the basis for the distinction and they said that I seemed 'in a higher class' than they by the way I spoke and carried myself compared how they related to and knew each other. Thus my wife would be a 'lady', while theirs would be their 'women'. I suspect it may have been more related to my 'American-ness' than class based, but regardless they seemed perfectly comfortable making the distinction; 'seemed' being the operable term. It was notable and interesting.

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  31. My aunt (now deceased) was fortunate enough to have taken a poetry class from Robert Frost when she was in college in the 1930s. He inscribed a book of his poems to her (I think he did that a lot for his students and others). Anyway, she later gave that book to me as a present, and it is one of my prized possessions. I have a big piece of poster paper stuck in the book, however, warning in large letters NOT to inadvertently give it away to Goodwill should I kick the bucket. I think a lot of people would think it was just a beat up old book of poetry and never realize its value and meaning. Sorry, this doesn't have anything to do with class, but I've always liked Frost and his poetry.

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  32. One of our acquaintances in years past had been an officer in a British cavalry regiment (Cheshire Yeomanry) and had even taken part in the last mounted operation of the army in Palestine, later transferring to the Royal Scots Greys. Always thought he was Scottish, turned out he was born in Germany. He was very active in horsey circles here in Northern Virginia and had a great deal to do with getting combined training popular. He rode in the Olympics when still living in Canada. True to form, as described in other comments, he later earned his living as an art preservationist.

    I have no idea if he epitomized class or not but he sure had style. He hadn't lost his accent, either.

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  33. I once had an English business colleague who had so looked forward to emigrating to America. He expected to find a classless society here, quite unlike the rigid one in his native land. He was grievously disappointed.

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  34. What a cute blog. I keep scanning your pictures looking for my parents as you photograph our town!

    In terms of who we are as a people, Andrew Frazer's The Wasp Question must be read. Masterful job tracing unique circumstance and cultural heritage of Anglo Saxons forward to our present day diaspora nations. Whether one agrees with his assessment or not, his sourcing and footnotes are impeccable, as one would expect of a legal scholar. The real value of the book, if one is interested in primary sources.

    And of course Fischer's Albion's Seed. Amazing to recognize one's own habit and behavior in the cultures of those long since gone. As well as inure against some of worst of what's considered cultural commentary post-WWII. One really can't comment on America without understanding distinction among our founding populations, even when from the same sending nation. The "Class question" of course is answered differently depending upon which British lineage is your own. These cultural traits again are very old.

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