“Are you one of the affordable units, or are you one of the Harvard units?” It’s an elegant reformulation of the Great American Question: How has the market looked upon your efforts in life? Has it blessed them with money and status? It’s also the ethical climax of a covert cell phone video that went viral on Facebook this week.
The questioner was Theresa Lund, Executive Director of the Harvard Humanitarian Institute. Perfect.
Lund’s interlocutor, and the poster of the Facebook video (almost 2 million views now) is Alyson Laliberte. She was sitting outside at 3pm on a Saturday with her young daughter at an apartment complex in Cambridge, MA, which apparently features two classes of apartments – some owned by one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and reserved for members of the Harvard community, and the others providing the helping hand that Harvard so strenuously espouses, at least from the lectern.
Lund was visibly agitated because apparently (the video doesn’t show it) Laliberte’s daughter had been making noise while Lund’s children were trying to nap. Lund, face pinched and subtly incredulous, stares at Laliberte like a mother bear who really thought this raggedy little fox would have run away by now. It’s the face of one accustomed to obedience. It’s an aristocratic face.
Laliberte’s Facebook profile is publicly visible. Based on a 30 second perusal, I know basically as much about Laliberte as Lund did at the time of their exchange. I’ll say what Lund assumed and suggested: based on the way she looks and talks, Ms. Laliberte comes from working-class Boston.
Class is the unseen mover of American society – operating with ruthless efficiency almost everywhere, but everywhere unacknowledged. We are a democracy. We are a horizontal society. We do not judge based on outward appearances. Merit rules the days and nights. Nonsense.
This democratic fantasy is ubiquitous and unquestioned. Laliberte, in her Facebook post, speculates that Lund accosted her because her daughter is biracial – she appears from Laliberte’s public photos to be of partial African descent – and almost all of the media coverage calls Lund’s intervention racist. I don’t know Theresa Lund’s heart, but I don’t see any reason to make the story about race, except for the fact that race and class are so intertwined here that it takes an act of intentional, rebellious imagination to see one without the other.
Laliberte is as white, physically, as Lund. What she isn’t is equally rich and refined. These sorts of differences count for more than skin color in America. That may seem insane to most educated Americans, because they refuse to see themselves as beneficiaries of advantageous prejudice. It’s all merit here, folks – it has to be – except when you’re dealing with The Racists.
Wrong. I’ve never been to Mississippi, but I can say that a black man in crisp J.Crew will be greeted with less suspicion in Cambridge, MA than a white man in grubby Ed Hardy. I’m sorry if that hurts the Narrative. It happens to be true.
Lionel Trilling once complained that American novelists were hamstrung by their unwillingness to examine manners in America, because that would have required them to acknowledge differences in manners between the classes. Which, of course, do not exist here.
2018 keeps slamming us in the face with how wrong we are about class, but we’re unable or unwilling to see it. This failure accounts for a lot of the tinfoil-hat hysterics of the ruling class. They don’t know why the ascendancy of a classless rich man to the land’s highest office fills them with such dread, but they know it’s awful, awful, awful. The bumbling outer borough chump must, therefore, be a vanguard agent of a sinister Kremlin takeover plot.
Exhausting. Maybe we’ll get the picture roundabout November 2024, when Nate Silver and his fellow pollsters are tossing and turning in bed, unable to nap, because a very small part of their brain is shrieking and laughing that maybe, just maybe, they might have slightly underestimated the appeal of Palin/Trump Jr. 2024.
The #resistance is squinting itself blind these days, trying to conjure the ways that puppeteer Putin and his army of cyber-marionettes stole our democratic election. The truer picture of our political moment is perched on a hundred Cambridge curbs for all to see – the growing contempt between the Lunds and Laliberte’s of America.