Why There’s Not Much Intellectual Activity in Orange County November 9, 2009

My friend asked me to write on why there isn’t much intellectual activity in Orange County. My basic answer is a simple one. First, it isn’t considered healthy. Second, it’s too much like work. Third, it’s not considered character-building.

Actually, you need to go back farther than that and start with a classic little book written in 1899. It’s called Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen. At the same time that Max Weber was writing about the Protestant Ethic, Veblen wrote that the prestige class of a society showed its power by assuming the appearance of avoiding labor, however labor is defined at that time. If labor is defined as dirt and sweat, the prestige class devises for itself a “business suit” and a “tuxedo” which may not be the most comfortable of clothing, but certainly one cannot do dirty and sweaty labor in them. The women of the class are dressed up in elegant outfits that are even more useless for any practical labor. And also, when labor was mainly outdoors in agriculture and building, the person of leisure cultivated a pale skin. As labor moved indoors, to the factory and then increasingly to the office, the appearance of leisure was gained through a suntan, at least for people not born of a dark color already.

The issue of health, though, was not high on the minds of the people that Veblen was writing about, nor of Veblen himself. It soon showed up in force, however. It seemed that the conditions that the new working class of the 19th century was living in were not healthy ones. Disease spread in the crowded slums, good and balanced diets were hard to afford, and vitamin deficiencies were common. It seemed that the deficiency of Vitamin D could be remedied by the exposure of faces to ultraviolet sunlight. (As a matter of fact, it is now thought that the white race evolved so as to be able to let in more sunlight in dark and cloudy northern latitudes precisely to overcome vitamin D deficiency.) Better and more healthy environments, it was thought, were those that were close to nature; the English planned Garden Cities, Americans contemplated suburbs.

During the height of the Imperialist Explosion before World War I, a new machismo came into the cultures of the West, especially the English-speaking ones. The English “public school” cultivated sports and games as a form of building “character” and to some extent an analogy for military virtues and tactics. Theodore Roosevelt, an asthmatic rich kid, compensated by modeling the Strenuous Life as an ideal. Boys started dressing in masculine outfits as soon as they were out of diapers, and cultivated an un-girl-like look. (If you see pictures of Victorian male children before 1875, they look like girls; by 1900 they look quite different from girls.) Rousseau and the Romantics, about 1800, may have told people to get out to nature and get away from civilization, but in 1910 Baden Powell founded the Boy Scouts and told people to get out to nature to learn to be civilized! Nature was now seen as not only healthy but also character-building; this would have been a surprise to Rousseau, who was almost totally lacking in moral character.

After World War II, the suburbs opened up to many people who were not wealthy. Green space, sometimes freedom from urban pollution, were available. On the other hand, the automobile was the chief mode of transportation for most things, and that meant physical exercise was not to be had in the ordinary course of living but had to be found another way. Anglos, especially, began to see sports activities as almost as important for their children than academic success. But suburbanites continued to eat home cooked meals, which, while not of the highest quality by today’s standards, did not come in large portions, so obesity did not become epidemic at that time.

Of the things that happened in the 60’s, four were significant.

First, women went to work, and because the supply of land for housing is fixed, the more women worked, as they used their incomes to bid up land prices and rents, the more women had to work. So we became more dependent on restaurants and fast food places, and less on home-cooked meals. Restaurant portions are large, and it is more difficult to control weight through diet alone if you eat at them much of the time, all the more so in an automobile culture.

Second, the nature of work, for many, had changed. When women’s work was Rosie the Riveter in World War II, the women were glad to get back into the house. While women still did many physically vigorous jobs of the sort they had always done – cleaning, waitressing, store sales, etc., the return to the workplace of more affluent women was a fruit of the fact that more and more work was now desk work or “knowledge work.”

Third, the higher paid and more authoritative positions within “knowledge work” were for people who could manage or relate to people – or understand finance. As historian Will Durant declared, “The men who can manage men manage the men who can manage only things, and the men who can manage money manage all.” (The Age of Louis XIV, 720.) Therefore, experience in things training in teamwork or leadership, such as sports, came to be thought of equal value with academics, if not greater. “Character” came to be thought of not so much as good moral character in the traditional sense as those traits that lead to success, many of which are often called today “emotional intelligence.” There is some legitimate overlap between “emotional intelligence” and the Christian “fruits of the spirit,” but they are not the same. .

Fourth, the sexual revolution made everyone – eventually even males – conscious of how they looked in the mirror.

As a result, intellectual activity, once clearly the pursuit of a gentleman or lady of leisure, ended up looking a lot more like work. So, the leisure class no longer wished to pursue it. Sports, sailing, golf, downhill skiing, (Surfing, boogie-boarding, and cross-country skiing were less reputable, because the equipment and costs of participating weren’t expensive enough to qualify as conspicuous waste) were more reputable pursuits than matters intellectual. (Actually, among the leadership classes, there was a long tradition of this. For the great kings of early modern Europe, hunting, the golf of its day, was a more reputable pursuit than scholarship.) The new element was that, because work was sedentary, and so was driving to it in an automobile, the human body was really not at its best doing so much sitting. And there was actually some documentable truth to that. Plus, there was the fact that a well exercised body – though not necessarily an over-muscled one – does look better in the mirror, or perhaps we find it so because we know it to be healthier. So, intellectual activity, in addition to being too much like work, became to be considered relatively unhealthy. Nor does it build “character” qualities. And the Orange Countian who is concerned about her health, or who wishes to be considered a gentleman or lady of leisure, does not have time for such things.

2 Comments
Lela Gilbert 11/16/2009

Howard, that’s such a thorough analysis! And it definitely exceeds my own flimsy theorizing. I always thought it was just because the OC’s nouveau riche were a) clever at making money but not intellectually curious and b) too busy hustling, acquiring and consuming to read books.

Meanwhile, I’m not sure I get the connection between “character” and “emotional intelligence,” but I’ll take your word for it!

[…] of “fitness” and “wellness,” one of the significant “religions” of our time. (”Why There’s Not Much Intellectual Activity in Orange County“) But Jonah Lehrer, in the Wall Street Journal on December 26, has given us a fascinating […]

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