Sample text for The O'Reilly factor : the good, bad, and completely ridiculous in American life / Bill O'Reilly.
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NOTE TO REV. JESSE JACKSON: Sorry, Jessie. You're wrong. Racism gets all the ink, but the heart of America's somewhat unfair social setup is class, not race. This fact might cut into your power base, but it's true.
The question for this age in America is: What class are you? Never thought about it? You should. Each one of us is born into a very specific economic and social class, regardless of color. Most of us remain in that class, for better or worse, until the day we die. The more observant among us can usually sum up a complete stranger's class background within minutes.
Politicians don't usually talk about class. It might open a dangerous door. Advertisers want us to believe we're all one class: the consuming class, equal as long as we keep spending. The rich want us to believe that anyone can make the quantum leap from bowling league to country club by just working a little harder. That's supposed to keep us motivated and quiet.
But does class really matter? Would every blue-collar family be happier and more productive if a long-lost relative died and a trust fund flew in the window overnight?
No, but class is not just about money. It is about opportunity for your kids or dashed hopes, about education or minds that close down for good, about enduring values or materialism that comes out as greed or self-indulgence or complete disregard for others. It is the bottom line, in a way, for every problem I talk about in this book. Class attitudes can be involved in unfair tax laws, or government indifference about our terrible drug problem, or what kind of entertainment is available at the local movie house. Class plays a role in gun control laws that restrict personal freedom for the little guy and in casual enforcement of drunk driving laws.
As someone once said, "Class in America is like sex in Victorian times: People believe that if no one talks about it, it will just go away."
Whatever I have done or will do in this life, I'm working-class Irish American Bill O'Reilly. No one ever told me or my sister that we were pretty far down the social totem pole while we were growing up in 1960s America. We took for granted that it was normal to buy cars only when they were secondhand, that every family clipped coupons to save money, and that luncheon meats were the special of the day. The municipal pool in our town on Long Island, New York, was pretty seedy, and we took the Greyhound bus to Miami for our annual vacation, but since air travel and private pools simply did not exist in our world, we never thought we were missing anything.
RIDICULOUS NOTE: Deprivation works both ways, it seems. I'll never forget my astonishment reading that First Lady Jackie Kennedy learned about Green Stamps from a White House employee. This elegant, cultured upper-class young woman was delighted to find that these stamps, which were given out by retailers like supermarkets as a reward for shopping, could be redeemed for "free" electric blankets and the like. For a time, wealthy Mrs. Kennedy collected the stamps like mad.
My parents, who loved us both and wanted the best for us, believed that "the best" was playing it safe in life and not straying too far from the neighborhood. One of my grandfathers walked a police beat in Brooklyn, the other was a train conductor, my mother's mother was a telephone operator, and my uncle was a fireman. My sister became a nurse. I was expected to become a teacher or, if I got very lucky, a lawyer. My mother, not wanting me to become a nonconformist in the 1970s, would not rest until I wore a "leisure suit."
My father, who never made more than $35,000 a year while exhausting himself commuting daily from Levittown to New York City to work as currency accountant for an oil company, took for granted that college for his son meant one thing above all: employment security. He and my mother graduated from college, but they did not remember the experience as a life-altering event. Dad didn't want me rocking the boat or getting big ideas. He looked ready to throw up when I told him I was going to study abroad during my junior year.
"Why do you want to do that?" he snorted. "You could start on the football team!"
He didn't know, as I did by then, that the privileged classes saw the college years as an opportunity for learning a great many things that did not necessarily involve going home on weekends. Sure, some rich students I knew may have grandstanded about hangovers in Spain and sexy nights beside the canals in Venice, but they also learned from experience about different cultures and ways of thinking and saw firsthand some of the great achievements of European art and learning.
Of course, my father had never met such people of privilege, nor did he care to. He was proud of his spartan life with its fast foods, yearly three-week-long vacation, and four Robert Hall suits hanging in a small closet in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom home. All of his friends lived much the same way and were just as proud.
Most of my childhood friends stayed in the neighborhood, married each other, and now live fairly comfortable middle-class lives. Some of them are happy, some aren't. But few of them realize how much their lives have been defined for them, even laid out for them, by a class system that discourages most of us from moving up the social ladder, no matter how hard we work.
Could some of them be happier or more productive if they had had the opportunity to go to graduate school to become architects or physicians or cancer researchers? Yes. It's not that one type of job is more important than another; it's that each of us should have the opportunity to use our own talents and follow our own dreams. A mind is a terrible thing to waste if you're held back by race or by gender. It is just as great a waste when you're held back by class. Right, Rev. Jackson?
A great scientist, J. B. S. Haldane, was asked the most important thing he had learned in his years of study. "That God must love beetles," he replied, "because he created so many different kinds of them."
American politicians, businesspeople, and media moguls have to love the middle and working classes because we exist in such huge numbers. If they didn't exactly create us, they do their best to keep us there. We make them prosperous. McDonald's, Burger King, and the like can't survive by supplying takeout only to the rich in Palm Beach, Malibu, and the Hamptons.
Without us, say good-bye to country music and rap, slasher flicks and Home Shopping Network, the Gap and SUVs, Jerry Springer and Oprah, malls and malt liquor, tattoo parlors and trailer parks, Myrtle Beach and Branson, Missouri, professional wrestling and the National Enquirer.
TALKING POINT: This country hums along economically because of the toil and the tastes of the working class . . . and the big-profit boys will do almost anything to keep it that way. Factor that into the price of your next Happy Meal.
In Barry Levinson's great movie Diner, the working-class heroes drive out into the country and spot a beautiful blonde riding her horse across the fields in the cool of the morning. Poised and confident, she chats briefly with them and rides on. "You ever get the feeling," asks one of the young men, "that there's something going on that we don't know about?"
Like most working-class kids, I first learned about the class system and its rigidity when I left home in Levittown for the wider world. As a freshman at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, a fine and affordable school, I was like most of my class: "ethnic" instead of old-line WASP, smack-dab in the middle of the middle class, and a little rough around the edges in social situations.
Vassar, at that time still a tony women-only college that boasted Jane Fonda as an alumna, was nearby, but Marist guys were not considered prizes at Vassar dances. The Ivy Leaguers up from Princeton or down from Cornell got the dates; we were treated like hired help. Our clever response to such snobbery? We overturned the punch bowl . . . thus proving their point!
Even when our hormones weren't raging out of control, my college pals and I were far from being Ivy League material. None of my friends came from families that could afford the tuition there, nor could they benefit from the old-school-tie tradition of preference for the children of alumni. We certainly couldn't dress as well as a Princeton Tiger or hold up our end of a conversation about regattas.
Following the path that seemed destined for me, I became a high school teacher after graduation. There's no job more important, and few are more difficult. But I was ambitious for the larger stage and left after two years to go to Boston University for a master's degree in journalism.
From the campus of this mostly middle-class school my friends and I could look across the Charles River at MIT and Harvard, observing that more than a stretch of dirty water separated us. Our degrees would not open as many doors as degrees earned over there. Our fathers did not have friends waiting to interview us for fast-track jobs as soon as we got our sheepskin. Many of my classmates set their sights lower than they should have, in my view, because they believed they were already behind in the race.
Years later, in an effort to bring all sorts of people together in a creative mix, Harvard's John Kennedy School of Government accepted me for postgraduate study when I was in the middle of my broadcasting career. Suddenly Bill O'Reilly was in a world where no new friend was named Vinny, Stevie, or Serge, and there were no girls called Amber, Tiffany, or Jennifer. Many of my new classmates had three names, and they expected to hear all three of them: Stephen Tristen Copen, Robin Braden Crosfield.
It was the first time I actually knew people who never had to think about money. Their clothing was understated but top-quality, their cars were European and well tuned, and their rooms hinted of exotic vacations and sprawling family properties. Winter skiing in Grindelwald? A must. I learned that a "cottage" could be a twenty-two-room mansion on a northeastern beach or a "camp" a forty-acre property on a lake in the Adirondacks with houses and outbuildings more than a century old.
My classmates were impeccably polite and welcoming, by the way. We might go out together to a restaurant down the way for Thai food. That was fun, even when I was the only one who didn't know how to order my meal in Thai.
CLASS FROM THE PAST: When President Ronald Reagan was nearly killed by a madman's bullet, he put on a brave front to calm the American public. Traveling west to his Santa Barbara ranch to recuperate, he stopped to rest in Chicago and made a brief statement. As he prepared to speak, local officials were horrified by his deep wheezing and weak voice. But when he stepped up to the mike, Reagan spoke strongly, taking a slight breath between every few words to keep his voice steady. It was an actor's trick, but it was also a class act in a time of national concern.
I studied my Harvard classmates more intently than my political courses at the Kennedy school. I had a nice enough tuxedo, I thought, but a friend might have several. Oh, and it's déclassé to say "tuxedo" or "tux," old boy--it's "evening clothes" or "formal wear." Because the point was not really the material things themselves: It was having the right attitude, which meant acting a certain way and using the terms and accents of the elite. One rule was not to be "pretentious." A neighbor in Levittown might save up money and take pride in new drapes. No class. The upper classes refer to "curtains," not "drapes," "rugs," not "carpets," and so forth. The expensive cars and clothing were never flashy, never too colorful, never ornamented.
Generally speaking, my Harvard classmates remained outwardly calm in all situations. Everything was under control. No one "acted out." No swearing or arm waving or bear hugs. No panic at exam time. Things were expected to go well. They always had. The Harvard campus was like a giant theme park--perhaps Privilege World--where life worked out happily ever after and everyone's clothes fit perfectly.
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