In the morning they asked her, “Did you sleep well?”
“Oh!” said the Princess. “No. I scarcely slept at all. Heaven knows what’s in that bed. I lay on something so hard that I’m black and blue all over. It was simply terrible.”
They could see she was a real Princess and no question about it, now that she had felt one pea all the way through twenty mattresses and twenty more feather beds. Nobody but a Princess could be so delicate. So the Prince made haste to marry her, because he knew he had found a real Princess.
As for the pea, they put it in the museum. There it’s still to be seen, unless somebody has taken it.
— Hans Christian Andersen, “The Princess and the Pea”
In days so ancient that it apparently has not found its way onto the Internet, there was a magazine ad for a sports car — I cannot remember which marque — consisting of a photo of a beautiful piece of automotive architecture over the caption: “Don’t you wish you’d worked harder in school?” In spirit, it was something like that terrific Cadillac ad with Neal McDonough, in which he scoffs at Europeans for taking all of August off rather than taking two weeks. (I am afraid that McDonough is going to spend his life suffering from Mark Hamill Syndrome: Put him in a Cadillac commercial or Captain America, I still see Robert Quarles.) Other civilizations are big on karma, arete, martial codes of honor, virtus, etc.; we Americans have “Work hard, live well, enjoy good stuff,” which might be sneered at by philosophers and warlords but is nonetheless the best and most humane organizing principle a human polity has yet discovered.
I miss the days when the important status symbol could be something so simple as a Cadillac.
There is some truth in the usual criticism of that sort of shallow materialism, as voiced by Chuck Palahniuk: “You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your f*****g khakis.”
But he forgot to add: “You are not the emotional health of your poultry.”
Tinkering with the organic, spontaneous orders of human society is a tricky business. In the 1960s, the Western world got it into its collective head that traditional social arrangements, especially family arrangements, were an instrument of oppression that needed to be torn down. And we set about tearing them down, without giving any thought to what would replace them. We were confident that whatever came next inevitably would be better, and about 80 percent of our current domestic-policy initiatives are in one way or another aimed at dealing with the fact that what came after wasn’t better — that it was brutish and frequently cruel — without ever being so gauche as to notice that that’s the case.
Similarly, the old status symbols — the nice house, the car, the sensible two-week family vacation — might have been bound up with a brand of unthinking and insalubrious materialism, but they were also bound up with some important virtues that we are in the process of rediscovering: thrift, frugality, delayed gratification, etc. That is, in fact, why status symbols work as status symbols: It’s not just having the Cadillac or the gold watch — it’s being the sort of person who earns them. When you see an 18-year-old college freshman driving a new Mercedes roadster, the car functions as a sort of anti-status symbol, denoting not someone who has worked hard and done well but instead someone who is coddled and quite possibly headed toward a life of disappointment.
But we are not supposed to want those things any more: The Cadillac commercial referenced above was in fact roundly criticized. Writing in the Huffington Post, Carolyn Gregoire scoffed: “There are plenty of things to celebrate about being American, but being possessed by a blind mania for working yourself into the ground, buying more stuff and mocking people in other countries just isn’t one of them.” Adweek, of all publications, complained that the ad was “obnoxious,” “painfully annoying,” and “poorly timed.” Apparently, the keen minds at Adweek are shocked that the impulse toward conspicuous consumption might have something to do with the brand identity of Cadillac — Cadillac, mind you. Ludacris might entertain some novel uses for his Escalade, but the rest of you good, virtuous Puritans are not supposed to aspire to that — you’re supposed to get a Prius and use it to lug home your organic vegetables.
And your emotionally needy chicken. On New Year’s Day, new chicken-raising regulations came into effect in — does it even need to be written? — California, which led Gary Smith of Evolutus PR to send me a press release with one of my all-time favorite bullet points: “Meeting the physical and emotional needs of chickens.” Egg prices are sharply higher in California and expected to rise even more: The nutritional needs of poor people are secondary to the emotional needs of chickens. Those of you who have experienced living paycheck to paycheck are no doubt familiar with the important role that eggs play in the diets of many low-income households: At Chez Williamson circa 1978, I thought that breakfast-for-dinner was a simply a fun novelty; it wasn’t until later that I figured out that this (along with Kraft spaghetti) was a sign that groceries were running low with the next paycheck at an uncomfortable distance in the future. (“Pancakes — a lot of pancakes.”) But elites make policy for elites, which is why we spend so much time worrying about the interest rates on college loans and debating about whether Georgetown should subsidize birth-control pills. And — California again — the pressing public-policy issues presented by foie gras.
I have trouble typing these words without pitching my computer across the room in a fit, but: On Wednesday, a federal judge — a by-God federal judge! — was obliged to weigh in on California’s ban on foie gras, and he threw it out on — God help us — constitutional grounds. I do not have an opinion on the legal merits of the case, but I am of the opinion that the fact that the case exists — that we need competing state and federal interventions on chopped liver — is a symptom of national insanity. There was once an expression advising against overreacting: “Don’t make a federal case out of it!” But if you can make a federal case out of fatty duck liver, you can make a federal case out of anything.
Making a federal case out of it is the new status symbol, the new Cadillac. As in the case of the princess in Hans Christian Andersen’s 1835 story, so sensitive that she could feel the pea under 20 mattresses and 20 featherbeds, acute dissatisfaction with the tiniest, most ridiculous little details of life is how 21st-century progressives communicate to the world that they are indeed the new royalty, with sensibilities finer than those known to mere commoners. No normal, mentally healthy adult human being actually gives a good and sincere goddamn about the “emotional needs of chickens.” But that sort of posing, along with such daft enthusiasms as foie-gras horror, wetting oneself liberally over the fact that Bradley Manning’s Wikipedia page identified him as “Bradley Manning” for a full eleven minutes after he declared that he wants to be called “Chelsea,” sneering at SUVs and roomy suburban homes, insisting that Melissa McCarthy is a comic genius, using the word “mansplaining,” being terrorized by “thigh gaps” in advertisements, fretting about “micro-aggressions” — all of it is a way of saying, “Look at me! I went to a good school! (Or am truly at heart the sort of person who might have!)” There is a term for this that is uncharitable but cannot be improved upon: status-whoring. The old status symbols may have been shallow; the new ones are shallow, destructive, and a great deal less fun to drive.
And they don’t even require you to work particularly hard in school.
The sort of fine distinctions that connoisseurs once detected (or pretended to detect) in fine wines are now detected instead in subtle distillations of Facebook’s 71 gender choices: “Pangender on the palate, with robust notes of genderqueer and a tart two-spirit finish.” It is nothing more or less than an expression of class affiliation — or, in a great many cases, class aspiration among those who have not been as expensively educated as a Bryn Mawr gender-and-sexuality major but who wish to appear to be so. But there is an important distinction between political-correctness-as-status-symbol and Cadillac as a status symbol. The Cadillac, at least as presented by Neal McDonough, is a symbol of what you have earned; hashtag-activist foie-gras phobia is, like the princess’s sleepless night, an expression of who you are — or who you are pretending to be. Anybody can be dissatisfied; it requires no real expenditure of effort. All you have to do to be a member of the new aristocracy is to convince the prince (or some gender-neutral equivalent) that you belong.
Which is to say, our progressives have progressed right back to 1835.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.