If you want to make an Episcopalian look down at his shoes, goes the saying, all you have to do is mention two things: Jesus and money.
In his new book, Charles Murray, the Big Brain behind such Big Books as The Bell Curve and Losing Ground, doesn’t talk much about Jesus, but he does talk a lot about money, and what it — or the lack of it — has done to white people. And that has made a lot of white people — especially, it seems, the ones with the cash — very uncomfortable.
In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960–2010, Murray divides those of us of a more pinkish hue into two broad categories: those who live in lower-class, slipping-down locations — he calls these “Fishtown” — and those who live in upper-class, movin’-up locations — he calls these “Belmont.”
And then, diabolically, he dives into “Belmont” and comes up with a tiny, tony subcategory, something he calls “SuperZips.” These are the ZIP codes where the rich and powerful live — the swanker parts of D.C. and New York, the Hollywood power elite of Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, Silicon Valley, the leafy suburbs of Boston and Chicago. These are the kinds of places people talk about when they talk about yoga and wagyu beef and artisanal scented candles selling for $100. When Rush Limbaugh inveighs against “Georgetown cocktail parties,” he’s talking about the SuperZips. When people in these places say, “Did you see the paper this morning?” they’re talking about the New York Times, no matter where they live. And, in a wonderfully cocooning bit of symmetry, when reporters at the New York Times talk about “new trends in dining” or “how busy marriages work” or “what the independent voter wants” they’re talking exclusively about the people in the SuperZips, because, for the most part, those are the only people they know.
There are deep pockets of dough all over the country, of course. One thing that always astonishes the rich elites who live on the coasts is how much money there is in places they usually sniff at — places like Alabama and Indianapolis. It’s unnerving, to some of them, to note that Oklahoma City is the home of a giant, spanking-new Whole Foods. “What’s up with that?” they wonder to themselves. If a lot of unsophisticated Okies can buy organic chicken and mesclun salad mix, that sort of takes the elite, exclusive fun out of the entire Wednesday “Dining In/Dining Out” section of the paper.
(That’s the paper I’m talking about. But you knew that, right? Or didn’t you? What’s your ZIP code, again?)
If the biggest thing that distinguishes “Fishtown” from “Belmont” is money — Belmont’s got it; Fishtown don’t — then what distinguishes the broader “Belmont” from its subset of SuperZips is influence. If you breathe the purified, powerful air of the Upper East Side of Manhattan or the breezes off of Santa Monica Bay, you’re what we call in show business a “Chooser.” You’re one of the folks who put together the nation’s television shows, news reports, financial instruments, and academic agenda. You’re a consumer, naturally — people in the SuperZips gobble up organic vegetables and iPads with unrestrained appetite — but you’re also a creator of the national conversation. You’re one of the people who decided that Rick Santorum is too socially conservative. You’re one of the people who miss Steve Jobs. You’re one of the people who think that everyone in Fishtown thinks that 9/11 was an inside job. You’re one of the people who look at their shoes when someone mentions Jesus or money.