Before Roseanne Barr insisted on imploding her new hit reboot with a stupid tweet, I was writing a review comparing the show with the book, Coming Apart by Charles Murray. Still notorious for The Bell Curve of 1994, (co-authored with Richard Herrnstein) he can now speak as part of the growing ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ whose thinkers inhabit the world of podcasts. They are thoughtful opposites of Right Wing talk show hosts whose invective has hijacked the world and the Left Wing activists who seem to have lost their minds. I feel stuck in a middle place. It might be a strange exercise to compare this rather data driven book with the return of TV’s Roseanne – there are similarities – but I feared she brought the whole enterprise down by utilizing a medium that links her with other idiots who tweet like the president as a narcissistic and unhinged power play.
Both ventures attempt to illustrate and make sense of White America from 1960 to 2010 and the new sit-com further serves to underline the gap since it went off the air in 1997. Quite a bit has changed. Broadcast is no longer king. Nanocast phenomenon now rules bringing every tiny communication (by ninnies) into wasted scrutiny. What was News is now a comic strip starring celebrities large and small. I won’t mention the First Lady Immigrant’s low-rent (bad taste) coat gaff. Have we ever seen such antics?
The world (compared to 1960) is a marvelous place with decreased poverty, medical wonders and less war, but some folks may find these are fanciful generalizations if their standard of living is stagnant. Some of them voted the Reality TV ticket. Author, Charles Murray (who is not a shithead) gives us the facts. His approach is conservative – where have all the good times gone? – but he delves deep sometimes referring back to the Fall of Rome. The empire fell apart from within. Apart from the corny viewpoint, I can understand his implied condemnation of single parent families as a widespread reason for social decay. This nugget has been in the conservative canon for a while but not aimed at working whites particularly. I wonder why Murray doesn’t mention Obese America or Tattooed America? He also warns that we will soon become a European-style socialist state. Not a good thing, he says.
In the 1960’s, according to Murray, we weren’t all that different. Both rich and poor wanted a Cadillac. There was nothing but a future for my dad’s generation. Not sure why it couldn’t continue. Something to do with an Arab Oil Embargo. 50 years later another new group dominates. Murray describes them as the New Upper Class. They are well educated and self-sustaining. Unfortunately, they are corrupt, possibly because they don’t interact with regular folks. These tech-savvy global citizens no longer want Cadillacs.
Coming Apart illustrates the differences in classes of Whites with detailed graphs in black and white. Do you smoke? Have you owned a pick-up truck? Do you attend church? If yes, you are Lower Class. Or a Cowboy! The New Upper Class is too busy preparing their children to continue in high-level colleges and creating ‘cultural currency.’ These Movers and Shakers have a bubble to die for. Murray calls the next stratum the Narrow Elites. They live in enclaves called Super Zips (zip-codes) and he locates in them high castles outside Washington DC and similar places. They don’t share post-codes with minions. This is why there is so much division (literally) and so little mobility.
The Conners are old-fashioned, disenfranchised Blue Collar and represent Baby Boomers who can’t escape their lot. The new Roseanne checks all the contemporary boxes, possibly too many: Gender Bending, MeToo and Mixed Race grandchildren seem a sop to progressive Hollywood. Do we spend too much time on these distinctions? They are part of the reason we have a crude, rich guy in the White House as payback. What if the wise-cracking Darlene had graduated college instead of falling pregnant? What if she had success like the actor who plays her, Sara Gilbert. Gilbert is rightly pissed off at the cancellation of the show by ABC. Broken Marriage runs through the show echoing Murray’s book. Laurie Metcalf as Aunt Jackie (in her Pussy Hat) steals many scenes as the older (single) mother. She could live in Fishtown! Murray makes a good case. Kids prosper with two parents and a 401K. They achieve mobility the Conners can only dream of. All this may be a knock for feminism but it is decent comedy from Middle America. Roseanne for Trump. Jackie for Hillary. The same rift exists world-wide and in my family. This is where Roseanne differs from the well-employed and irritating middle class characters in Modern Family.
I hesitate to use my own middle class upbringing as an example but after reading all the charts and statistics it is clear that a similar fate has befallen us. Though we followed the rules of the 50’s – go to college and get married – we end up like the Conners. A few snags are ignored in Coming Apart. One was called ‘The Counter Culture.’ Did that not speed up change and turn values upside down? The ‘Culture Wars’ followed. That was the ‘Post-Modern’ period and I was a fan once. Before the fascinating critical theory about ‘the Other’ expanded into monstrous Identity Politics and ‘The Master Narrative’ was dispensed with. This is when things began to unravel. My dad fought Germans when it was fashionable, went to college twice, stopped smoking and achieved middle management. He sent us all to college but it still this wasn’t enough to push us upwards. Maybe if we’d been high achievers? As it is, we have all (conveniently) come to acknowledge the limits of mere education. In social terms, we remain where we started and unfortunately, staying in the middle means you lose standing as all around (diversified or not) rise up. How they do it? I am still none the wiser.
At the end of the day, the future of this American Experiment is in the hands of the Super Rich. Do they care about the division within class? No. They live in a Silicon Valley Wonderland with only token minorities working towards an uber meritocracy. Murray seems to be on the fence here. He puts stock in re-vitalizing American values like Honesty, Spirituality and Ambition (I read Judeo-Christian ethics) but his conclusions are confusing. Who are these elites? What do they look like? Are they on both sides of the political divide? Murray’s only clue at the beginning of the book is a mention of TV’s Thirty Something. Those 80’s characters were Yuppies!
I was right to see a correlation between Coming Apart and Roseanne. The TV show gives a face to one side of the class divide and its political core where Murray’s facts only go so far. Perhaps he should be more inventive and include stats on media viewing in the Heartland? It’s those Reality TV folks he needs to warn.