THE IMPERIAL MIDDLE

Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Class

By Benjamin DeMott

Morrow. 264 pp. $18.95

WHEN SOMEONE tells you, and in the very title of his book no less, that everyone (except him) can't think straight, you have to wonder if all his readers are included. And even if you are inclined to believe the arrogance of the title to be the publisher's choice, you are disabused in the first sentence, which posits the existence of "a nation in shackles, its thought, character, and public policy locked in distortion and lies." DeMott is sure of himself in the way that only an amateur -- his metier is literature, not sociology -- can be.

The lie we all seem to be living has to do with social class. We are, pace Marx, a class society, but we choose to believe otherwise. Hence we either try to ignore class by assuming that everyone is in the middle or, when the reality of class is admitted, we are cruel, hypocritical and filled with disdain toward ordinary working men and women. We admire Diane Sawyer but distrust Donna Rice, not because the former became a success while the latter's behavior was troubling, but because one has panache, while the other is tacky.

The "we" of the preceding paragraph is not a grammatical but a sociological subject. America's first-person plural is the "imperial middle," a collection of attitudes, behaviors and longings associated with those who have made it, or think they have. DeMott is not one of those muckrakers who lavishly record the details of the way upper classes live. His is a cultural account, concentrating on the way the mass media spin the myths by which the middle class thinks. "The edifice of opinion thus constructed has prejudice for its substructure and is clearly underfurnished with fact. Inside its walls we live with no grasp of the substance or the meaning of the differences among us."

DeMott proves the existence of an imperial author better than the existence of an imperial middle. Only he knows what is good for the unfortunate among us. He contemptuously dismisses a black reporter for "the preeminent imperial middle journal, the New York Times" because the man dared suggest that some people make it out of the projects by their own efforts. He heaps scorn on those like educational theorist E.D. Hirsch who believe that all among us, including the poor, ought to be in possession of some basic facts. Efforts by the media or by social scientists to focus on the pathologies associated with poverty are savaged as expressing class prejudice in different form. Compassionate is a word that DeMott puts in quotation marks.

If poor people might not like being told that their lives are miserable and laced with oppression, middle-class people may not appreciate the constant reiteration of how cruel they are. Missing from DeMott's jeremiad is any sense that the middle station is something many Americans are proud to have reached. If individuals believe in achievement and personal responsibility, it is because they have experienced change in the course of their lives and want to take some credit for it. The ultimate virtue of middle-class status is that those who do not have it very much want it.

There are poor people among us, and not all of them are homeless. It has never been easy to be hardworking, underpaid and witness to the arrogance of the rich. But class inequality is not severe because of the television programs offered to middle-class viewers (many of whom, by the way, are turning off their sets). Class differences exist because the overwhelming majority of Americans, as they demonstrate in almost every election, want them to exist. When Gov. James Florio of New Jersey tried to raise taxes to equalize school spending, even those attending underfinanced schools objected. Class is not a lie in America; on the contrary, it is the truth by which we all live.

DeMott means well. But like all converts to a cause -- his own conversion is described in the acknowledgements to his book -- he oversimplifies, moralizes and is more concerned to please himself than to influence the skeptic. On the next-to-last page he finally admits: "I don't know whether I've got it right." He hasn't.

Alan Wolfe is the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology and Political Science and dean of the graduate faculty at the New School for Social Research.