Whomever it was that coined the concept of “winning the Internet” can die with some contentment now that it has been given the greatest substance with 20-year-old writer Rachael Sacks’s flawless victory over it and its users. All it took was one short Thought Catalog essay, in which she dressed a diatribe against a cashier who looked at her the wrong way as defense of her relatively high class status. Written with so belligerent a sense of self-regard, it ingested pageviews with an almost drug-addled fury, sparking the ire of every social media denizen with equally defective opinion filters before gaining the similarly marked disapproval of the likes of Gawker and the New York Post, which put her and her poorly ironed shirt on the front page of last Saturday’s edition. Congratulations, meme-coiner, your inevitable suicide just got a smidge less dishonorable.
For all the talk of America’s apparent polarization, people seem to have reached an easy consensus that Rachael Sacks is a terrible person. On the one hand I’m more than inclined to agree. As someone who has worked as a cashier in one capacity or another, and someone who grew up in an affluent area, hers is an attitude with which I have no passing familiarity. In fact Rachael Sacks did little more than share with the wider wi-fi-connected world the inner-monologue of an entire class of people, screamed inward at any affront to one’s sense of entitlement, whether it’s a 20-year-old intern with a handsome allowance, or the paunchy 50-something doling it out. On the other hand that very same revelation is reason enough to admire her, something to which even Gawker has come around, however warily. It is no act of profoundness to sound off on the self-evident repugnance of Rachael Sacks, or really any given college student. But it’s a repugnance that seems trivial the more honest one is about it, as Sacks certainly was.
One can always tell how important something is to an American (or maybe just anybody) by how poorly they are able to talk about it, whether in a positive or a negative context. Class status — and money generally — ranks as one of the most awkward subjects of conversation for ordinary Americans. In a country where identity is a fluid concept, nothing solidifies one’s being more clearly than calculable wealth, and Americans find comfort in a near-religious reverence for upward mobility, so long as it’s steeped in the benevolent striving of Andrew Carnegie rather than the brute reality of Henry Clay Frick. Class and its consequences are enduring taboos, especially within the middle class, at once a utopia and a purgatory. Comfort there is reasonably but not distastefully priced, and unless Breaking Bad has any relation to it, what use is it in bringing up unpleasant things?
Though Sacks seems to overlook the fact that most rich kids who dress down do so out of self-styled iconoclasm rather than in shame, and that almost everyone else is trying to dress up about as cheaply (and sometimes legally) as possible, her impoliteness towards one unfortunate and undeserving target has at least cracked the oppressive politeness that has held many of us back from speaking about why essays by Rachael Sacks happen to begin with. As Sacks herself said in her Post interview, it’s time to talk about “worthier things.”
Perhaps instead of trolling a troll we might address the circumstances that brought us to this point instead. It might be asking a bit much to rethink the very foundations of capitalism in this case, but I see nothing stopping us from taking the more conservative-friendly baby steps in that direction. The kind of steps that force us to rethink the value of material pursuits in our culture, and from there the related values of the career and of the ambition required for its pursuit. In essence, the kind of steps that lead us to question the character of middle class life itself, which had always been thought to be able to balance material comfort with communal values, at least before the existential scar tissue of Sacks’s essay began to show. I’ve never considered myself to be conservative, let alone communitarian, but the prevailing attitude on display in Rachael Sacks’s writing may well serve as a tiny, if crudely designed detonator that might clear some obstruction for a more compelling view of, say, the bleak but spirited work of Christopher Lasch or John Gray. At least one can Google Lasch pretty easily.