Rob Henderson

How luxury beliefs took over the elite


March 13, 2024
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Why are the top 1% so politically correct? Rob Henderson coined the term ‘luxury beliefs’ to explain how affluent people signal high status with ‘woke’ ideas. In his new memoir ‘Troubled’, Henderson tells the story of a difficult childhood and how it opened his eyes to the hypocrisy of America’s elite. He joins UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers to discuss the concept of luxury beliefs and much more.

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Transcript

Rob Henderson:

I got out of the military in August 2015 and started classes two weeks later in September, it was a very rapid transition. So at first for the first few weeks I was trying to come in with an open mind and I was really impressed with the students, and just how quickly they were able to sort of absorb and synthesise information. A lot of those students, they’ve been training their whole lives to go to a school like that. So they were just very good at sort of reading and sort of scanning a syllabus, determining how to prioritise, and which classes and so on. So I picked up a lot of sort of useful study tips, because I was a really bad student in high school I barely passed. I graduated a C minus average, I just barely scraped by, part of that was self inflicted, I could have tried harder, but I just didn’t. So my study habits were already bad, but then I was rusty from just being out of school for so long so that was challenging to sort of keep up just academically. Once I sort of got the hang of it, things went fine, but then I was unprepared for the campus politics, the identity politics, social justice scene etc. This was 2015 it wasn’t quite the birth of what people now call wokeness, but it was kind of the birth of when it spilled out of the universities. I remember there was this big blow up on campus where these Professors had a dispute with the administration, and this debate about academic freedom turned into students calling these professors racist. It was also interesting, because they said ‘okay, well, it wasn’t really like actually racist, but it’s sort of emblematic of racism on campus. And actually, it’s emblematic of broader patterns of racism in society.’ They were sort of using this isolated moment to get a champion list of demands, get these professors fired and implement their preferred guidelines. So I was watching all of this, and they were saying that these professors had written some emails, essentially. The whole debate was about Halloween costumes – that sounds ridiculous, saying it out loud – but the administrators told the students ‘don’t culturally appropriate’, I dont know, they didn’t want white girls dressing up like Pocahontas or something. So one of these professors wrote a letter or an email to her college saying, ‘you know, you’re all adults, do we really need the administration interfering?’ And not all of them, but many of them, there were hundreds of student protesters marching around campus saying that this was very offensive, and I’m watching all of this and I’m just completely mystified. Because the students were saying that this email had caused them harm, it made them feel unsafe, that they didn’t feel welcome on campus and these were like the sons and daughters of millionaires saying that they had felt unsafe and that they didn’t want to like sleep in the same residential college if their professors were around. At one point the students in Silliman college, they residential college at Yale, if the professor’s walked in to the college they wanted them to announce their presence as kind of trigger warning, because they didn’t want to be in the same room with them. So all this was happening, alongside this I was having these strange interactions with these students.

Freddie Sayers:

Did they not even call you privileged in this argument?

Rob Henderson:

Yes well, I would ask people, because I was so unfamiliar with this environment. There were students who disagreed, but they knew kind of what the contours of the debate and what it was about. And they could create sort of sophisticated arguments for both sides. Whereas I just had no idea so I would just ask students ‘why is this offensive?’ There was one student she said I was too privileged to understand the pain these professors caused.

Freddie Sayers:

At that point are you fighting back? Are you saying I’m not privileged at all, do you start telling your story, or do you just stay quiet?

Rob Henderson:

I held my tongue because, well, first, I was so shocked that she said it. But then, secondly, I didn’t want to use my identity and my experiences. I didn’t want to exploit it and break people with it; I wanted to know what people thought. I kind of understand now the logic that went through her mind when s he said that. It was something like, “Okay, whatever, you’re a cisgendered, mixed-race male,” and she’s making assumptions based on my identity. If that’s what students wanted to do, I thought, “Okay, let’s go with this, and maybe they’ll speak more freely in my presence, and I can really understand what they believe.” It was useful actually because I learned a lot more than I think I otherwise would have. I told this other story in the book about how I was talking to this young Asian woman. She was a student, and she was telling me about how her parents were, like, Tiger Mom, and that they always expected her to go to this kind of college. She said something like, “I’m sure you know what I mean, though,” and I said, “No, not really, like my mom’s Korean. But I didn’t really have that experience.” And then she said, “Oh, so you didn’t have a traumatic childhood,” you know, making these assumptions. Then I realised, like, “Oh, in her mind, having an overbearing mother who makes you do homework, that’s trauma to them. That’s kind of the opposite of what I had; extreme neglect and no one monitoring what I was doing like schoolwork.” So these were kind of the early experiences. I was reading a lot; I was working in a psychology lab; I was taking a lot of classes, and I would go to office hours, I was trying to capitalise on this experience as much as I could, and that’s when the luxury beliefs idea started to take shape.

Freddie Sayers:

When you came into contact with that, you know, [you’re] someone who’s lived pretty much five lifetimes compared to some of these college kids you would have been coming into contact with, do you get the sense that it’s just a well meaning, kind of ignorant, mistaken desire to be virtuous and righteous? Or do you think it’s cynical?

Rob Henderson:

I think that, like anything with broad social patterns, it’s a mix. I would say maybe 10 to 20% of the elite college students and graduates are cynical and intentionally exploiting people’s sympathies and compassion to advance their own interests, and knowingly doing this. I think the other 80%, most of them have good intentions. I don’t think they reflect on and interrogate their own beliefs enough to understand how much of a coincidence it is that their compassion just happens to coincide with their social and professional interests. Isn’t that interesting? But I think, in their own minds, they’re doing the right thing. People are very good at self-deception and finding ways to do intellectual acrobatics to believe they’re doing the right thing. That gives me hope. Most of the people aren’t kind of duplicitous sociopaths, a lot of them are, but not all of them.

Freddie Sayers:

But the theory is still that it’s somehow a kind of status symbol. Because so many of that group and are to various degrees privileged, they have to find these new factors to differentiate themselves in this. So they kind of seek virtue signalling as a way to distinguish themselves. Is that fair?

Rob Henderson:

Yeah, I mean it doesn’t have to necessarily be about virtue. There are luxury beliefs that aren’t about your moral character or virtue, but they still elevate your status and often have downstream consequences for less fortunate people. But that is the drive for distinction, the desire to separate oneself from the masses. I cite different sociologists and thinkers in the book towards the end when I’m describing this idea and providing them with citations and everything. Pierre Bourdieu talked a lot about cultural capital; he titled his book ‘Distinction.’ He was a French sociologist in the 20th century who wrote about how the elites of his time would signify their elevated status through intricate and arcane knowledge about wine, art, history, geography, furniture, exotic travel, and people still do that too. But I think it’s less frequent today and cultural capital has more and more sort of manifested itself in these these sort of newfangled and obscure beliefs. There was a great book written a couple of years ago by Michael Knox Beran, he wrote this book called ‘Wasps’ on the white Anglo Saxon Protestants and the ruling class in the US from roughly the mid 19th, to the mid 20th century. He has this line in there about how the the high Wasps, sort of the the top of the top, that they would often support fashionable movements and ideologies, because it would irritate the Bulgarians. They actually experienced a bit of joy at the thought that they were supporting these ideas that would abhor and upset ordinary people. Because it would distinguish themselves, if they supported it then clearly they weren’t one of the masses.

Freddie Sayers:

And what you say is that actually, it has real world consequences downstream. That they’re not just silly campus ideas, it actually means that resources, preferred treatment, special attention goes to groups that don’t necessarily need it. Because people who have actually been struggling are ignored or demonised. That feels like a very significant claim, because it means that even if they’re trying to do good in the world, they’re actually doing net harm?

Rob Henderson:

Again, I don’t think that the harm is the intent. But I do look at things in terms of outcomes. If the outcome of this belief, this idea, is that your status is elevated, and then there are downstream negative external consequences for others, regardless of whether you meant it or not, the outcome is the same, and it’s still something we should be focusing on. And I think if you’re a current, aspiring, or future member of the elite, you have a duty to actually think about the ideas you’re broadcasting, the things you’re supporting, and the things that you believe in. I mean, one that I focus on in the book that I don’t think I’ve written about anywhere else, sometimes I call it trickle down meritocracy, sometimes I call it trickle down diversity, which is this belief that, especially in sort of elite spaces, they talk a lot about equity. My impression is that their view of equity is as long as the 1% demographically reflects society as a whole, then we’ve achieved equity. So as long as the ruling class is 50% women and X percent LGBT and X percent Asian and Hispanic, and so on, then somehow we’ve achieved an equitable society. But I’m not thinking about the elite, I’m not thinking about who the next president of Harvard is, for why we’ve achieved equity. I’m thinking about actual marginalised, low-income, dispossessed communities, and whether they care whether the next president of Yale is a trans person or a woman of colour or something—I don’t think they care. But the belief seems to be something like, and I use this term “trickle-down,” it seems to be analogous to trickle-down economics, that somehow if we can put these historically marginalised groups in these seats of power, that somehow those benefits will magically trickle down to these communities. And I actually don’t understand how that mechanism is supposed to work like where does that occur? Because, you know, inequality has actually been widening in society, a lot of these communities haven’t been improving. A lot of the markers for human flourishing and wellbeing has been stagnant or declining over time. How nice for me that I was a former foster kid, and I went to this expensive university but I think in their mind, they’re like, “Well, if we put a foster kid here, then the other there”, I don’t actually see that.

Freddie Sayers:

The contrast with your earlier story, where were reading about your childhood, your teenage years, and you’re in one of the poorer towns in Northern California, I’m not even sure I can remember if people are black or white in in of the characters you talk about, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in race. When your adoptive mom, when she divorces your father becomes a lesbian or comes out as a lesbian, and then you have two mums for a period before they also eventually split up. But again it’s told very practically, not with that sort of obsessive focus on gender and race.

Rob Henderson:

Yeah, it wasn’t that big of a deal. I used the language of that time, so there was a bit of casual homophobia, a little bit of casual racism—it existed. But it wasn’t violent, and people weren’t as preoccupied with it. I mean, weirdly, I think casual homophobia, racism, and all these things, sexism, I think they exist in elite spaces, but they just sort of take on this form of compassion, of heightened salience. Now we have to be hyper-aware of everyone’s race, skin color, and sexual orientation all the time. That’s the number one thing about their identity, and you have to tiptoe around it, acknowledge it, and pay fealty to it. Whereas where I grew up, people weren’t blind; you could see there were differences and everything. But it wasn’t this all-pervasive thing. It was more just like we’re all kind of poor, our families all look the same, life is just kind of drudgery, and we’re all just trying to get by day to day. So the foster homes I lived in, they were probably more diverse overall—there were black, Hispanic kids, white kids, a couple of Asian kids. But in Red Bluff, it was like majority white working class, but there was a large Hispanic community there too. So my high school was probably 60% white and then maybe 30 something percent Hispanic, but we had some Black and Asian kids too. But it wasn’t like this focus on identity, were not nearly to the same extent as when I got to Yale where suddenly people were trying to ask me about my identity and Asian people would ask me about it, but I didn’t feel attached to it the way that a lot of other people have melted in more elite spaces.

Freddie Sayers:

So give us what the top luxury beliefs are, practically speaking, you talk a little bit in the book about stability and marriage and family formation being something obviously, that you experienced very directly, and that it’s a sort of luxury belief not to think that matters, whilst in fact you think it does. Is that the number one for you? Or where should we start?

Rob Henderson:

I mean, that’s the one I’ve probably spoken about and written about the most. Yeah, there is this kind of disconnect between the families of educated and affluent people and how they actually don’t look that different than they have in decades past. That family stability has more or less been the same. But for poor and working-class communities, they’ve just completely deteriorated and fragmented. Almost every single one of my friends that I’ve met since university, had been raised by two parents, and then where I grew up in Red Bluff, none of them, zero. That’s sort of reflective of the patterns in the US and I think in the UK, too. What’s really interesting is if you sort of trace this, starting in the 1960s, 95% of kids born in the US were raised by both of their birth parents, regardless of social class. But then starting in the ’60s, you know, they did introduce more and more sort of newfangled ideas around marriage being outdated or promoting open marriages or single parenthood. This is kind of in the wake of the sexual revolution, by the 1970s divorce and single parenthood had spiked kind of across the board, and even for kind of upper class families, single parenthood and divorce and these kinds of things were on the rise as well. But by the 1980s, they had reverted back to their original figure. The upper class got high on their own supply and said, “Let’s try this kind of new age, new way of life.” Then they kind of realized that, “Oh, actually, this isn’t so great for my kids and for my family, and for the kind of life I want to live. Maybe it’s fun, but it’s not the optimal way to live.” So they kind of returned back to those sort of conventional bourgeois lifestyles, and the lower classes marched in lockstep. Single parenthood and divorce and all those things increased for them, and they just never returned. They just sort of continued to fragment and never recovered, and it continued to sort of get worse and worse. But yeah there are other luxury beliefs that I speak about in the book as well. Some people accuse me of saying luxury beliefs. They say that luxury beliefs are this trojan horse to attack the political left or something, and I don’t think it is. They think it’s much more about class. So, one other example I highlight in the book is how tech executives and entrepreneurs will promote addictive technologies to the public and profit from this. And then at home, they have very strict rules about screen use. Steve Jobs famously wouldn’t let his children use iPads. There was an op-ed in the New York Times written a little over a year ago, and the headline was something like, “I make video games, but I won’t let my daughters play them.” And it was very honest, very blunt op ed, where he was like, “we want you to be addicted to the games, because like, that’s how we make money.” Like it’s not that hard to understand to connect the dots. But then he’s like, you know, talking about how he’s worried that his daughters would get addicted to it so he doesn’t let them play. But I cited this study recently, indicating that children raised in families that earn $35,000 or less per year spend two hours more per day on screens, than children raised in families that earn $100,000 or more per year. So essentially, kids in poor families spend two hours more per day in front of a screen then kids from rich families. A lot of that has to do I think, interestingly, that is connected to the family issue where if you are a single parent, and you work all day and your attention and resources are spread very thin and then you get home and your kid is disruptive or rowdy or something it’s just so much easier to just give them an iPhone or an iPad and just say, “Hey, go chill out,” and they can be distracted and kind of sedated for a while while you can, you know, kind of have some peace and quiet. But if you have two parents you can actually monitor a disruptive kid and find more constructive and engaging ways to occupy their time.

Freddie Sayers:

So taken together you’re advocating stability, families, harsh drug regulations, less screens, these all sound like quite conservative principles. Do you now think of yourself as a conservative?

Rob Henderson:

I think it depends on the context, I think now if you if you even question identity politics, you just get categorised as conservative.

Freddie Sayers:

What’s your most left-wing belief?

Rob Henderson:

My most left wing? I mean, I’m not opposed to financial assistance. Some people inevitably make the parallels with JD Vance’s book, in his book he does talk about the frustration that people in working class communities feel when they go into work every day, and they see their neighbour who’s an unemployed able bodied person receive government handouts. Economics is a piece of the issue, but I don’t think it’s the whole story. I think culture, habits, mindset, and families—those things are more important. I’m not opposed to a welfare state.

Freddie Sayers:

So you’ve had this incredible journey from one very very different environment to now being a celebrated writer going around universities, places like this. Where do you feel you belong now? Do you believe in classes and are you now a member of a different one?

Rob Henderson:

So to the earlier point about, am I conservative? I didn’t grow up thinking about politics, that’s another point I make in the book, these sort of sociological differences, politics is not as much of a dinner table discussion among low income families, they they don’t watch cable news, they’re not sort of keeping up with current events quite as much for a variety of reasons. So I didn’t think about it. Then, I was in the military. My mom and her partner, they were working-class Democrats, and I kind of just, through osmosis, absorbed some of their views maybe that has something to do with my stance on on government benefits. It wasn’t until I got to Yale people started to think of me as a conservative, even though my views I thought they were moderate or centrist. And I think compared to the maybe the median voter in the States, I would probably be either right where they are, or maybe even slightly to the left in some ways, where as at an elite campus, I am to the right of them. Its just a fact, I’ve written about this in various places that elites, on average, tend to hold sort of more kind of left wing views, especially on social issues than ordinary people. So where do I stand? Again, this is sort of a classic view in sociological theories of class that, especially in the US, but I think it holds true here too, that you are the class you’re born into, and that it’s ultimately very hard to fully transcend it. Pierre Bourdieu, he writes about the triadic structure, you have to have sort of schooling and habits and income, you have to have these the different ingredients all in place. One way to think about this is if some menial labourer wins the lottery are they a member of the elite now? I don’t think anyone would think that.

Freddie Sayers:

I’ve got to ask, how do how do all these issues compare over here, compared to the US do you think? Do you find our college campus politics less bad? Worse?

Rob Henderson:

I think it’s less bad. I mean, it’s funny, one of the reasons why I came here to study was because I’d seen a lot of surprising events occur at Yale with the bans, the professors— it wasn’t just there, but I had friends at other universities by this point. I talked about this friend that I had, who I helped get into Brown, and he was shocked when he got on campus on Veterans Day and they were burning American flags. The wokeness was spilling out, Trump had just been elected, things were just very chaotic, so I just had this image of these kinds of stodgy Oxbridge Dons who didn’t have time for this kind of nonsense. And turns out, they do have time for it. Not quite to the same extent you and I talked about this before, if Yale is a nine or a ten out of ten, Cambridge is probably like an eight or eight and a half. So I get here late 2018, started my PhD and then by 2019 famously Jordan Peterson was invited and then disinvited. And then Noah Carl got fired. He was a postdoc who was maligned and treated very unfairly, and there were like other sort of behind the scenes, even to this day, I know stories of what’s happening at the university. I still live in Cambridge, so I still hear sort of what’s happening. For every public cancellation we learn of there’s probably at least five behind the scenes that we don’t know about, it’s not as bad but still pretty bad.

 


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Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
4 months ago

Rob Henderson’s conception of luxury beliefs had a profound impact on me when I first read it in Quilette. It really explains so much of the madness gripping the west right now.

Joakim Lindqvist
Joakim Lindqvist
4 months ago

Henderson rather experiences and identifies class contradiction without explaining why it appears as it does. A crucial observation, but what is the alternative? I spontaneously think of the class position expressed in Brecht’s words: “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann die Moral” (First comes food, then morals). The elite he describes is strictly conservative, and the so-called “woke” movement lacks genuine ideas challenging the causes of disparate living conditions and the unequal distribution of wealth and economic power—conditions that have led them to become the very elite Henderson describes. Since the 1980s, we have witnessed a weakening of working-class organizations, diminishing their influence on the superstructure. Historically, the working class has championed issues challenging a bourgeois perspective on, for example, sex, marriage, or nationality. For instance, the slogan “Workers of the world, unite!”—an appeal against any sectarianism or the radical reforms in views on marriage during the Russian Revolution until its Stalinist degeneration. The “elite” described by Henderson, now drawing from early labor movement’s most advanced programs, such as radical views on sexuality, family structures, contraception, and anti-racism, have failed to integrate these issues into a deeper class analysis and to unite it with a struggle for real change in living conditions. Their arbitrary use of disconnected ideological fragments from the movement that poses their greatest threat (as representatives for the ruling class) illustrates how the ruling class is incapable of societal and intellectual development. The worldview described by the “elite” Henderson portrays is merely another conservative position, as it fails to challenge the class society in any way, leaving it untouched. Therefore, I would say, for my part, the top 1 percent are politically incorrect —they simply have it politically wrong.

Anders Wallin
Anders Wallin
4 months ago

You don’t have to look as far as the top 1%… anyone raised in a neighborhood where there are alternatives to – if possible – get a job job for money with it being interesting as priority D or E will have a heck of a hard time understand the situation of the job jobbers or those who wished they had such a job.
You definitely don’t have to be a millionaire to qualify for that. But there is probably one back in the generations making the offspring getting ideas like meaning of life, doing something with your life those kind of ideas. If you find yourself here, please understand that there are people with maybe nicer gadgets than yours, but born in neighborhoods where all work, that do not even hear the questions of meaning or fulfilment at allm in their younger years. That never will be neoliberal or progressive. And that they just might have something to say worth listening to.
I highly enjoyed this video.

JMN Gould
JMN Gould
3 months ago

Has anyone thought to host a conversation between Rob Henderson and Matt Goodwin? There must be so much overlap in their thinking.

JMN Gould
JMN Gould
3 months ago

Also: I’m a member and can’t watch the whole interview? come on. that’s a bit tame.
actually i can watch it sorry