Menckens Ghost
The new America of the tattooed hoi polloi and the hoity-toity nouveau riche  

By Mencken’s Ghost

January 30, 2012


“Hey, Dude,” the tattooed and pierced waiters and bartenders said to the dude sitting on the barstool next to my wife and me at the bar of a popular Scottsdale restaurant that we frequently patronize to watch the decline of the United States.


The dude was an unemployed former employee of the restaurant.  Naturally, he had his i-Phone on the bar in front of him, and, like the male employees who greeted him, had his hair gelled into what looked like a shark fin on the top of his head.  As each of his former co-workers greeted him, they went through an elaborate fist-knocking and thumb-interlocking procedure that has replaced the old-fashioned handshake.


Above them was a blaring TV, one of several in the place and typical of contemporary American bars and restaurants, where noise has replaced meaningful conversation.  On the TVs were scenes of tattooed sports stars and barely literate sports commentators, interspersed every eight minutes with four minutes of commercials, featuring guys with scruffy beards and shark fins on their heads driving expensive cars, as if someone who looks like them could hold a high-paying job and afford such an extravagance.


Had the TVs been turned to non-sports channels, it would have been likely that some reality show would have been on the air, inadvertently showing the state of the American culture and economy.  Of the popular genre, one show is about an overweight guy with a scruffy beard and disgusting table manners who travels the nation gorging himself in local eating challenges.  He is a poster child for a nation in which the cost of medical care is bankrupting federal and state governments, due in large part to over half the population being overweight and nearly a third being obese.


Other reality shows are about people who literally trade in, and pick through, the economic remains of the nation, like a family picking the carcass of a Thanksgiving turkey after the holiday.  One show, fittingly, is about a Las Vegas pawn shop run by three generations of the same family, with each generation being more overweight and tattooed than the preceding one.  Another show is even more fitting.  It is about two personable and tattooed guys who travel the country picking through old stuff from America’s industrial past to resell at their Iowa store, which is staffed by a charming but plump young woman covered in tattoos.


I digress.  Let’s return to the scene at the Scottsdale restaurant.


“So what have you been up to, Dude?” the unemployed dude on the barstool asked one of the bartenders, whose hair was graying.  “Well, Dude, I just had my fortieth birthday and my girlfriend is pregnant.”  “Cool, Dude,” responded the barstool dude.  “Are you going to marry her?”  “Probably not,” responded the bartender dude, “but we might move in together.”   The father-to-be didn’t add:  But we plan to consign our kid to a life like ours.


As conservative sociologist Charles Murray has correctly pointed out and has been vilified for doing so, marital status is the leading distinction between the haves and have-nots in America--between those who are like the aimless and future-less dudes at the restaurant and those patrons who pull up to the valet parking in front of the restaurant in their Escalades, BMWs, Priuses, Mini Coopers, Leafs and other displays of their wealth and/or environmental pretensions.


Granted, not all of the patrons who pull up in expensive cars are rich, or, more accurately, nouveau riche.  Some are pretend-rich.  They are the clerks and service workers who toil in the bowels of the bureaucracies of business and government, which is where their lack of a college degree or their acquisition of a useless but expensive degree has gotten them.  Sadly, instead of emulating the successful people at the top of their place of work, they emulate the dominant low-brow culture they see on TV and all around them.  Unbeknownst to them, their speech, mannerisms, dress, and tattoos speak louder about their true social status than their smartphones, expensive cars, and seven-dollar margaritas bought on credit. 


Chances are, as Murray has sagely documented, the dudes and the pretend-rich are either divorced, or the offspring of divorced parents, or single parents themselves.   Many have grown up with no models of virtuous and loving marriages, of the importance of deferring immediate gratification for long-term gains, or of any other traits that are required to be successful in just about every culture in the world.


According to Murray, 83% of upper-middle-class whites are married today, versus 94% in 1960.  Conversely, only 48% of working-class whites are married today, versus 84% in 1960.  Equally troubling and predictive of a life of low income, mothers with fewer than 12 years of education have a rate of out-of-wedlock births of 65.4%.   And even before the current recession, 20% of working-class males of working age were working fewer than 40 hours per week, a lack of industriousness that Murray attributes, not to a lack of well-paying jobs, but to social norms and welfare policies that have devalued the traditional male roles of provider and protector.


Murray’s diagnosis is accurate, but one of his solutions is naïve.  He suggests that the affluent should move from their upper-income enclaves and into the neighborhoods of the working class in order to be role models of what it takes to be successful--as it used to be decades ago in much of America, when the classes lived closer together.  To see how futile that would be, Murray should get out of his office and listen to the dudes at a Scottsdale restaurant.  



Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at ghost@menckensghost.com.