Slumming has a fascinating history as a slang term. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1839, it meant “passing bad money,” but by the 1880s, it had taken on its present-day denotation of visiting poor neighborhoods “esp. for charitable or philanthropic purposes.” I’m going to take issue with that part of the OED’s definition, the purpose. To begin with, the illustrative quotation right next to it, from 1884, reads, “I am not one of those who have taken to ‘slumming’ as an amusement,“ suggesting an entirely different and uncharitable purpose: doing it for fun. Slumming has always seemed on its surface to be connected to class consciousness, like the reform-minded muckraking journalism of the Late Victorian period exposing corruption in high places, or like ecotourism today, but those are essentially documentary endeavors, interested in fact-finding and, for all their ideological overlays, open to new information.
Slumming, on the other hand, seeks thrills, not social change, and gets there by exploiting the existing social order. It’s only amusing to visit a slum if you can leave. The second illustrative quotation in the OED is from 1894: “Slumming had not become the fashion at that time of day,” and that one, too, emphasizes the superficiality of the act. “Fashion,” not philanthropy, is the prime motive here, which makes perfect sense going back to slumming’s earliest incarnation as slang for counterfeiting. The slummer pretends to be poor, but isn’t really. Both quotations suggest slumming is a counterfeit of caring about the economic misfortunes of others, a pose more attuned to Decadence than altruism.
Rolling Rock had its own brush with counterfeiting when Anheuser-Busch closed down the only factory this dive-bar staple had ever known, in Latrobe, PA, moved it to New Jersey, and tried to re-brand it as a “craft” beer. Obviously, its parent company missed the whole point of Rolling Rock, which was to get away (temporarily, at least) from one’s own status as an artisan cheese eater who listens to R.E.M.
Now there’s no reason to order Rolling Rock, nor is there a reason to go slumming. To paraphrase Walt Kelly, we have met the slum, and it is us. Remember, the amusement value of slumming derives from the ability to leave. But those who ten or twenty years ago would have been upper-middle-class-bound are today not so sure about their financial destiny. Yeah, we’re in an economic recovery, blah, blah, blah, but I don’t believe it, nor does anybody else I speak with. My friends and neighbors want to be hopeful, but they express their optimism in quiet undertones that sound more like fear. This slump seems different, bigger, more serious, and deep, as in unfathomable. Only Washington and Wall Street , with the Dow again springing above 10,000, cling to the delusion that we’re on the road to recovery. The rest of us see an economic house of cards that makes the corrugated tin shacks fringing the Nairobi dump look better built.
We spend more than we earn. Our country consumes more than it produces. Our planet is one giant maxed-out credit card, and the time is coming when even a $4 Rolling Rock won’t fit on it. That’s neither amusing nor fashionable. We’ll all be making home brews then, our hands banged up from digging ourselves out of debt.
Au revoir, Rolling Rock. Hello, ’33.