Luxury Beliefs

December 1, 2021 Updated: December 5, 2021


As the elaborately plumed peacock reminds us, both men and beasts have ways of displaying their assets and their power. The male peacock, it seems, puts on an extraordinary audiovisual show, using his magnificent plumage to shake, rattle, and make the crest on the female’s head vibrate in response.

Of course, humans display their status in other ways: through fancy houses, expensive hobbies (such as polo or golf), and possessions (such as jewelry, luxury boats, and cars).

In England, where I grew up, it’s not simply that the higher your class position is, the more you lavish on products and services that show off your wealth or leisure time because they’re beyond the reach of your fellow citizens. Modesty and self-deprecation (think Hugh Grant) are also signs of status. People compare old money with new—the well-established in the upper ranks of society with the newly rich. So a man of the upper class with no anxiety about his social status is more likely to drive a scruffy, untidy car, while the arriviste will drive a shiny new BMW.

From Conspicuous Consumption to Luxury Beliefs

The economist and social scientist Thorstein Veblen (1857–1929) developed the theory of the leisure class (1899), which popularized the concept of conspicuous consumption. Consuming and displaying luxury goods that few could afford was considered to be a marker of class and status, in addition to any other kind of pleasure they might bring.

In modern times, brand names play something of the same role, though showing off a prominent brand name on clothing or an accessory can also signal a lack of class—a vulgarity that French women studiously avoid, according to the few videos I’ve seen about how to dress like a sophisticated French woman.

In a recent “update” on Veblen’s theory, Rob Henderson writing in Quillette pointed out that luxury goods aren’t so rare in modern society, as they were in Veblen’s time. Working-class people also take foreign vacations and cruises and own cars and appliances, while hardly anyone of any class has their own personal butler.

So, Henderson argued, luxury beliefs are replacing luxury goods as markers of class and status. They have many advantages. Luxury beliefs cost little to nothing to the believer, and they’re often expressed in terms intelligible only to the elect (think heteronormative, cis-gender, intersectionality, microaggression, and the like). Other terms that are fundamental to the language and common to all those who speak it, such as woman, mother, breastfeeding, marriage, and family, are banished or redefined in ways unknown to previous generations and most living speakers of the language.

The apparent craziness of this kind of subordination of language to identity politics has political disadvantages, of course. Veteran Democratic Party strategist James Carville has attributed his party’s poor showing in the 2021 local and state elections and in national opinion polls to its “wokeness” problem. Failure to endorse the woke ideology with sufficient enthusiasm may get you canceled or fired from elite universities, big business boardrooms, or media positions. Woke ideology may dominate such leading institutions, but most people aren’t impressed by it and don’t buy it.

“You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like ‘Latinx’ that no one else uses,” Carville said.

What makes a neologism such as “Latinx” or “heteronormative” toxic in democratic politics is that most people think such beliefs and language absurd. But they’re no more “useless” than the peacock’s feathers. They proclaim the user’s elite status. They reaffirm those who use such terms in their sense of moral, intellectual, and social superiority.

“The chief purpose of luxury beliefs is to indicate evidence of the believer’s social class and education,” Henderson wrote.

“When an affluent person advocates for drug legalization, or anti-vaccination policies [not sure how that one makes the list], or open borders, or loose sexual norms, or uses the term ‘white privilege,’ they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, ‘I am a member of the upper class.’”

The Fight Back: People Don’t Like Woke Claptrap

Luxury beliefs such as the notion that it would be a good idea to “defund the police” are easy to adopt—if you live in a safe, affluent, and, preferably, gated community. But such notions, associated as they are with rising rates of violent crime and the growth of “informal law and order” in poor neighborhoods in the form of gangs, don’t appeal to working-class, poor, or suburban voters of any race or ethnicity.

Carville suggested that progressive Democrats should drop such nonsense from their rhetoric and that they “need to go to a woke detox center.” It may work for the elite, but most people simply don’t like what he referred to as the woke “claptrap.”

The first disadvantage of such luxury beliefs, then, is that most people think that they’re crazy or incomprehensible. That may enhance their appeal to a clever Yale undergraduate, but it doesn’t win votes. After months of riots and vandalism, violent crime rates rise in cities run by Democrats and break records—Philadelphia just reached the highest homicide rate in its recorded history, while a student at Temple University—which is located in that same city—was shot dead in broad daylight. Police “reforms” involving the defunding of law enforcement may signal the virtue of liberal elites and those who aspire to elite status, but they harm those that they’re supposed to help and go down to defeat in heavily liberal cities.

As parents learned from seeing online—thanks to the remote learning practices employed by school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic—the “woke racism” with which their children were being indoctrinated in the name of anti-racism, they became increasingly concerned. They were angry both at what was happening to their children and at how dismissively parents’ concerns were being brushed aside, not to mention that those concerns have been turned over to the FBI as if concerned parents were domestic terrorists.

There were stories such as the one J.D. Vance told at the 2021 National Conservatism Conference about the parent who had removed his 11-year-old white daughter from public elementary school after she came home in tears day after day. The girl was told that she was an oppressor because of her skin color and separated from her best friend, a black girl of the same age who was told that she was a victim and sent to join a group of black children. It seemed to many parents that the schools were deliberately inciting racial hostility and segregation among the children while helping none of them.

Democrats, for whom education had been a winning issue until recently, were widely blamed for subordinating the interests of children and parents to those of bureaucrats and teachers’ unions.

The second disadvantage of luxury beliefs is that, popular or not, they make for bad policy. They may signal the virtue of the believer to other believers, but even in this respect, they’re unstable and unreliable. Yesterday’s undisputed facts—about the nature of sex and marriage or the virtues needed for and reinforced by educational and occupational success—become today’s heresies. Lifelong feminists, such as Martina Navratilova, Germaine Greer, or J.K. Rowling, who campaigned for special protections for women—in sports, locker rooms, and prisons—find themselves canceled, deplatformed, and denounced as heretics. The very definition and existence of “woman” as an adult human female is suddenly problematic and disappears from official government documents.

Some make embarrassing displays of repentance and remorse that remind one of the public shaming and confession rituals of the Chinese Cultural Revolution or the Moscow show trials of the 1930s. As with those public displays, those who wished to maintain the elite positions they had held or aspired to were among the fiercest in denouncing their former friends and allies.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Paul Adams
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of "Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is," and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.