Last Monday evening, in a town not very far from here, a man named Ernest Trevino was discovered dead in his home with a gunshot wound to his chest. The next day police arrested Nicholas Royal Porter, 20, in the Houston suburb of Tomball. If the police suspect a motive, they are keeping it to themselves, but the word gangland seems to shimmer between the lines of some comments on a local news site.
Such suspicions would seem to be confirmed by the photograph of Mr. Trevino that appeared in today’s newspaper, to illustrate a story in which Trevino’s friends and family remember him as “a devoted father, avid outdoorsman and top-notch athlete who always had a smile on his face.” What I find curious and worthy of comment is the seeming incongruity of the photograph and the story. In the story, Trevino is represented as a man whom one would never expect to suffer premature death by a gunshot wound to the chest. In the photograph . . . well, here’s the photograph.
That’s Trevino on the left, standing next to his brother.
Presumably Mr. Porter did not murder Mr. Trevino because he was a devoted father, avid outdoorsman, or top-notch athlete—or even because he always had a smile on his face. Presumably he did it because Mr. Trevino was also something else, in addition to all of these agreeable things. I have no definite idea what that something else might be, and have not taken to this keyboard to speculate. My interest is in the photograph and what it tells us about a nation that is, in Charles Murray’s words, “coming apart.”
It is unlikely that this is the only available photograph of Mr. Trevino. Someone in Mr. Trevino’s family most likely selected it from a set of photographs, and gave it to the newspaper under the impression that it is flattering likeness that will, like the newspaper story, inspire sympathy.
In other words, we may suppose that Mr. Trevino’s family believes this is what normal, respectable, Americans think normal, respectable, working-class Americans looks like.
(Mr. Trevino appears to have dropped out of college after two years’ service on a football scholarship. He then attended culinary school, and since then has worked for a landscaping concern, specializing in tree care.)
Now this is, indeed, what a great many working-class Americans do look like nowadays; and no doubt many who look like this are, indeed, normal and respectable; but those who are normal and respectable, and who look like this, fail to communicate their normality and respectability to people like me.
This isn’t to say that they ought to do so, only that, if communicating respectability to people like me were their aim, they have failed.
To the mind of this stodgy, middle-class, white man, it appears that Trevino is flashing a gang sign, and so, perhaps, is his brother. The gestures may have been ironic—indeed those may be ironic smirks on the men’s faces: but gang signs and ironic smirks do not (in my mind) connote “devoted father” or “normal, respectable working-class American.” The same goes for arm tattoos, Chicago Bulls gear, XXXL tees, hip hop chains, and chunky ear rings. What these things connote in my mind, and the minds of people like me, is thug.
Of course, I understand that a man who flashes gang signs, sports tattoos, and goes about in Chicago Bulls gear, hip hop chains, and chunky ear rings, is not necessarily a thug. He may in fact be a devoted father and an (otherwise) normal and respectable working-class American. But when this is so, I cannot help but to wonder why he does not make some attempt to put his devotion, normality, and respectability “in evidence” (as Thorstein Veblen would say).
“Esteem is gained and dispraise is avoided by putting one’s efficiency in evidence.” (Theory of the Leisure Class )
By “efficiency,” Veblen meant, of course, “superior pecuniary achievement,” and so it might be said that Mr. Trevino had very little pecuniary achievement to put in evidence. But to say this is to read Veblen too narrowly. Every human craves esteem, and those who do not win it in one way will strive to win it in another. As we all know, they can even strive for esteem by putting their contempt for esteem in evidence, after the manner of Diogenes.
So, what we may say of this photograph (assuming all other photographs are not more incriminating) is that Mr. Trevinos’ family believes it puts the normality and respectability of the deceased in evidence. They believe that this photograph is, indeed, evidence in favor of a decision to click the gofundme button at the foot of the newspaper article.
(The gofundme account is said to be for the college tuition of Mr. Trevino’s two young children, over whom he was recently pleased to win joint custody.)
As stated above, I am interested in what this photograph tells us about America “coming apart.” I am not interested (here, at least) in probing the shadows that surround the murder or the gofundme account. In Coming Apart (2012), Charles Murray argues that the white working class now inhabits a different world than the white middle class. He intentionally avoided complicating factors of race, which are evidently at play in Mr. Trevino’s case, but Murray, like Veblen, should not be read too narrowly.
As recently as fifty years ago, Murray argues (with abundant data), the white working class ate, dressed, talked, and played, much like the white middle (and even upper middle class). Their standard of living was certainly lower, but it was not altogether different. My grandfathers were, for instance, respectable dairy farmers of no great “pecuniary achievement,” and when they wished to put their respectability “in evidence,” they dressed in more or less the same manner as John D. Rockefeller. Their suits and ties were, of course, ready-made and inexpensive, but they were still suits and ties.
In strictly pecuniary terms, the distance between my grandfathers and John D. Rockefeller was infinitely greater than the distance between the late Mr. Trevino and I, but in cultural terms it was far less. My closet does not contain Chicago Bulls gear of marginally finer quality, nor is there round my neck a hip hop chain made of somewhat costlier metal. Like tattooed arms, XXL tees, and gang signs (ironic or deadly earnest), such things are utterly foreign to me. They are no more part of my world than the cockade of a tribesman from the mountains of New Guinea.
Paul Fussell called this “prole drift” (Class: A Guide Through the American Status System ). By this he meant “the tendency in advanced industrialized societies for everything inexorably to become proletarianized,” which is to say adjusted to the standards of the crude and ignorant majority. This is why, Fussell ruefully explained, “proles, who superficially look like losers, have a way of always winning.” The enormous purchasing power of the working class invariably swings the market in their direction, and causes every haberdasher to stock up on Chicago Bulls gear, XXL tees, hip hop chains, and chunky ear rings.
We have drifted a lot farther prolewards since 1983, and the process has been complicated by a Black drift that Fussell did not see coming. (Or perhaps saw coming and for that reason did not mention.) When the Trevino brothers assimilated to American culture around the year 2000, it certainly was not to the down-market but respectable working class culture of my grandfathers, or even to the chaotic and slovenly white working class culture documented by Murray. They obviously assimilated to the culture of the Black underclass.
I do not wish to express a haughty or contemptuous indifference to the Trevino family’s grave misfortune. My point is simply that it is hard to sustain a high level of sympathy in a culture that is “coming apart.” The prime function of shared culture traits is, after all, to produce a sense of solidarity and identity (which are the same thing). A man who dresses as we do is one of us. A man who dresses as they do is one of them. It by no means follows that I must hate them, or him for being one of them, but it does follow that he is primarily their concern and not mine, or ours.
Oswald Spengler stated the facts very neatly.
“A people is an aggregate of men which feels itself a unit . . . . So long as the common feeling is there, the people as such are there . . . . That which distinguishes the people from the population . . . is always the inwardly lived experience of the we.” (Decline of the West, vol. 2 ).
We is, as he says, “felt” in the course of “inwardly lived experience.” At the deepest level, this inwardly lived experience is a spontaneous recognition of shared feelings or sympathy. As St. Augustine put it:
“Let us say that a ‘people’ is an assembled multitude of rational creatures bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” (The City of God [A.D. 426])
What this means is that I am best able to love a man who loves what I myself love. I am able to fully sympathize with a man in the great events of his life only if I am accustomed to sympathize with him in the small events. I can share his deepest grief only if we are in the habit of sharing the smallest pleasures. We prepare ourselves for weeping over the same sorrows by wearing the same sort of hat, and for glorying over the same triumphs by eating the same sort of breakfast.