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‘The Status Revolution’ flips the lowbrow and highbrow

'The Status Revolution,' by Chuck Thompson is published by Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster, Chuck Thompson
'The Status Revolution,' by Chuck Thompson is published by Simon & Schuster

Can you judge a book by its cover? You sure can with “The Status Revolution by bestseller author Chuck Thompson.

You’ll first spot a bejeweled crown, but tucked inside is a baseball cap.

Thompson argues that what is considered prestige is inside-out.

“We no longer know how to measure our value and standing,” writes Thompson. “Several generations ago, a classic indicator of wealth was a maid or personal servant. Now well more than half of Americans employ them.”

Thompson visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about his unique chronicle of the ups and downs of prestige.

“Social media and social upheaval that we're all seeing around us are challenging traditional ideas of privilege. Who has it? How do I get it?”
Chuck Thompson

Read the transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. One of the most talked about bestsellers of the new year is written by Chuck Thompson. It is titled The Status Revolution: The Improbable Story of How the Lowbrow Became the Highbrow. And its provocative image on the cover is a beautiful, golden bejeweled crown and tucked right inside the crown underneath it, almost as if it's part of the crown is a baseball cap.. Chuck Thompson joins us from Portland. Chuck, good morning.

CHUCK THOMPSON: Good morning, Chuck. I took off my baseball cap for this interview, okay?

PRENTICE: And I'll take off my crown. Can I ask you to read a passage from your book? And let's see…Page 14. Could you read beginning with the words…”A rebellion against…”. Could you read that for us?

THOMPSON: Sure. I haven't done this yet, but I'll give it a whirl in first take: “Rebellion against traditional measures of status, prestige, luxury and privilege is underway. It's taken hold at all levels of society. It's swamping the status industry from the academics who track and analyze it to the philosophers who explain it. The companies that manufacture it, the marketers that promote it, the retailers that sell it, the media that popularize it, and the consumers who buy it.”

PRENTICE: And all of a sudden that becomes very accessible. So, could you talk about how what was once luxurious is now out, and what was once lowbrow is now all the rage?

THOMPSON: Well, I think we're going through that process. I wouldn't say it's 100% one way or the other. And that's why I've called this book The Status Revolution. But I open the book with a chapter on the woman who invented rescue dogs. Now, clearly, there's it's a little bit of tongue in cheek. Nobody necessarily invented a rescue dog, but there is a woman in the Bay Area named Kim Sturla, who at one time was the director of the Humane Society in San Mateo, California. And she really in the in the late 70 seconds, began this campaign around what she was calling rescue dogs. She didn't coin that term. It had been around, but not very popular and used a number of marketing techniques that are specific to the luxury and prestige industry in the same way that they might market a luxury watch or sports car or expensive suit. She used those strategies to push this idea that rescue dogs were something to be valued, something important. And so this was, to me, a really great example and one of these kind of examples that you don't necessarily think of connected to status and prestige that I really liked and think that the journey, so to speak, of rescue dogs really shows how that happens, how things that are sort of low brow and down market can eventually rise up. Mean rap. Rap music is a really good example. Hip hop videos, you know, really hip hop and rap was street music. And then, you know, producers like Hype Williams and Puffy Sean Combs, Puff Daddy really took the ideas of luxury and status and, you know, pearls and mansions and the Hamptons and such like that and connected it to these things in order to raise its status and elevate its position in society.

PRENTICE: So, this is fascinating — tier systems among breeds of dogs.

THOMPSON: But I think what's really interesting about rescue dogs is to think about where they've come within the canine community. Right. 50 years ago, these were dogs that were being rounded up and euthanized by the thousands every day in this country. Now, not only are they products that can be used to virtue signal, they enjoy legal protections. Right. In most states. If you live on a and if you live on military housing in the Army, like on a base housing and you want to have a dog, it has to be a rescue dog.

PRENTICE: Really?

THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely. For in most U.S army for base housing. I'm not saying, you know you're just in the army. Yeah.

PRENTICE: Can I ask you to share your visit to Saint Mark's Square in Venice? I think that that really is an accessible moment for a reader.

THOMPSON: You know, for one thing, I'm a guy who's always been really bored by bling and luxury. You know, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Robin Leach and that old show. I couldn't have cared less about that. They pimp my ride. Empty. Traveled to Italy, went to Saint Mark's Square. You know, this famous piazza, perhaps one you know, among human architecture's, most gorgeous creations and couldn't wait to get there. And as we're walking around the square, all of the spaces at street level were taken up by these luxury stores. You know, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada. Who comes all the way to Venice to buy the same overpriced necklace or business suit that I can buy at the mall in Denver or Nagoya, Japan or any other, you know, second or third tier city in the world?. It just baffled me. And, you know, I just was really bored with that. And as it turns out, I'm not alone in that feeling. I think a lot of people feel the same way.

PRENTICE: It's so interesting you said that, because now I'm thinking of all of the great wonders of the world that I have been lucky enough to see. And yet all I can think of is how many more people were in the gift shop.

THOMPSON: It's astonishing to me. It really is.

PRENTICE: Perhaps the most entertaining chapter of your book is when you journeyed to a tongue in cheek here again to the end of the world, to be more specific, rural British Columbia. Could you just tease some of our listeners about this? Because I loved this chapter.

THOMPSON: Well, thank you. Yeah. It's a chapter that involves a totem pole and a very well-known First Nations artist in British Columbia named Roy Vickers, who is in his 70 seconds now, and was when I wrote the chapter and was involved in carving a replica of a famous totem pole that had been removed from a village on the coast of British Columbia by guess anthropologists and museum people and brought down to be displayed in a museum at the in at the University of British Columbia, the Museum of Anthropology. And Roy, after having a really long and distinguished career as an artist, had decided that this totem pole, the theft essentially of this totem pole from the village needed to be, you know, made whole or avenged. And so rather than, you know, go to the museum and try to, you know, have the original pole removed and taken back to the village, he decided to carve a brand new one that was a precise replica of the pole that had been taken from this very small village. And so I followed his story basically from the time he went out to find the tree, you know, dealt with a Canadian lumber company to go out and find literally a five, 600 year old cedar tree for this project to carving it to the ultimately the potlatch in a week. You know that and the and the pole raising there. And you know when I first started on that story, I had assumed that I was going to be writing about totem poles and art and First Nations culture and history. But what became very evident to me right from the get-go of meeting Roy was that what this story was really about was status and was restoring status to this village and to his family and to an entire First Nations community. And so that the totem pole was about something far greater than what we just looked at in a museum. And so, again, kind of like the I was looking for places and stories that you might not necessarily associate with status to to show the point that this this stuff is everywhere it's happening around us and that people's ideas and actions around status and privilege and prestige are really in to me, the biggest convulsion since the Industrial Revolution.

PRENTICE: And to that end, are you convinced that more of us think that prestige is within our grasp?

THOMPSON: More of us certainly look for mos of human history, our understanding of status has been rooted in these kind of retrograde assumptions of religious institutions and enlightenment ethics, you know, Moralizers like Thorstein Veblen and Vance Packard. John Kenneth Galbraith mean Grandma Moses, right? They cast this shadow of derision and disapproval upon this basic human drive for status and its sibling impulse for privilege. But today, with really sophisticated methods of research that were not available, you know, in centuries past, scientists and scholars are really overturning this belief. And in the main way, they're really telling us that status is no longer a sin. It's biology. It's a measurable biological function. Our brains are hard wired, as the phrase goes, to seek status and to want status and and to display status. And so that rather than mock or shame these things, we should be celebrating status and status seeking. That's the message of the new status revolution. And when you ask if there are more of us thinking we can attain that, certainly there are for a number of reasons, whether it's from, you know, social media and technological changes or social upheaval that we're all seeing around us that are challenging traditional ideas of privilege. For example, who has it? Who should have it? How do I get it?

PRENTICE: He is Chuck Thompson. The book is The Status Revolution. It is funny. It is smart. Congratulations on that. And for now, Chuck Thompson, thanks for giving us some time this morning.

THOMPSON: Really appreciate you having me. Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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