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Pity the Postmodern Cultural Elite

I think most of our problems transcend politics, which is increasingly a reflection of an elite, insider culture that is completely at odds with the majority of the country that it oversees.

So what is a cultural elite?

It is a sloppy term that might include the academic class in the university that educates our children in college. The upper echelons that run government departments constitute part of this cultural elite. So does an entertainment cadre that oversees television and Hollywood. Corporate managers are elites as well.

There is no racial, regional, religious, or tribal commonality. One shared allegiance perhaps is to higher education that certifies the cultural elite by diplomas of all sorts from a “good school,” as well as a respectable salary and a nice home with appurtenances. The good life of the elite is defined by both the absence of worry about necessities, and a certain status that accrues from properly recognized advanced education and sensitivity.

How would we characterize the new aristocracy? In a number of ways.

1) Untruth. One requisite to being a cultural elite, unfortunately, is a certain allegiance to untruth, to saying one thing and doing another. Consider the manifestations of falsity from ecology to race. Often exempt from worry over a weekly check, and distanced from the mechanics of how things work, the elite clamors for a green cap-and-trade revolution. It rejects compromise with a fossil fuel near future that would transition us in a half-century or so to renewable energy.

That said, it is hard to find cultural elites who live green lives. Most use their money at times to fly on jets or boat (like the president this weekend). As in the manner of the tastes of a John Edwards or Al Gore, the bigger and more impressive the home, the better to contemplate how lesser others use too much carbon-based power. Usually green sacrifice is to be made by coal miners, oil drillers, and timber men of politically incorrect industries — the distant horny-handed classes whose unmentioned work brings us instant convenience.

On matters racial, it gets complicated since advocacy is one thing, living another. The cultural elite use “pull” to get their kids into college, money to live in a “good” neighborhood, and “networking” to marry and “place” like others from a good background. All that remains unspoken and rarely articulated. Why so? Because otherwise the logical ramifications of such a liberal belief system would be to live in the San Jose or Fresno mixed suburbs, to have their children school with the “other” at Cal State Stanislaus or Indiana State, and to marry their children to Rick Lopez or Tyrone Hiller to encourage “diversity.”

In short, money, privilege, and status create in the cultural elite both a fear of mixing it up with others that might jeopardize position and placement, and yet guilt for that very sense of entitlement and exemption. All that, in turn, only heightens the shrill and sanctimonious rhetorical demands on less blessed others to prove their morality.

Barack Obama was a genius in recognizing all this, and at a very early age no less. The subtext of Dreams from My Father, and indeed Obama’s life from 18 to 45, was to allay elite fears, guilt, and suspicions. And by proving to be a calm, charismatic, minority wannabe fellow elite — who could ipso facto offer instant penance for rather isolated and shamed cultural elites — Obama in return grasped that the rules simply would not apply to him (elites having few real unchanging principles and values): graduate admission without commensurate grades and test scores (their release to the public could in theory prove my hypothesis wrong), law review without a paper trail, teaching and offers of tenure at law schools without normal publication, community organizing without worry of tangible results, running for office without repercussions from tawdry attacks ranging from suing to invalidate petitions to leaking divorce records.

2) Nature. The cultural elite class tends to romanticize nature, since it has little contact with it. Energy Secretary Steven Chu cheaply announces that California farms will dry up and blow away, with no clue how the tomatoes in his salad or the lamb chops on his plate are grown, cleaned, shipped — and land in his mouth.

The elite like big hiking boots and four-wheel-drive SUVs that can go anywhere, and — once that is exhibited — usually stick to the hallways and freeways. The further the distance from nature, the greater the desire to experience it vicariously, symbolically, or representationally. The more we don’t clean and eat the fish we catch, the more we don’t know an apple from a cherry tree, so the more we idolize something like a three-inch Delta smelt and shut down 500,000 acres of icky distant irrigated land to ensure the minnow-like, but beloved, fish has enough oxygenated water in the California delta.

I think that instead of SAT camp or a summer tutorial in estuary biophysics, it would be far better to assign Jason to apprentice with Mott’s septic service or Wright’s tree-trimming. All during the BP mess, I tuned out the Steven Chus and Barack Obamas, and instead wondered what sort of people can weld, or lift, or hammer these massive derricks, casings, drills into place, and what will it take from them to plug the leak thousands of feet below? We just assumed that once the proper strategy was finally formulated, its implementation was assured. But any military historian knows that even the greatest generals sometimes failed for the lack of one brilliant major or lieutenant to take a hill or calm a shaky brigade and so reify a good plan.

3) Muscularity. An elite is often characterized as staying fit entirely by the workout, the gym, the jog — never by chain sawing, digging, climbing, or hammering. Yet here too arises contradiction. The elite, being largely progressive, champion the muscular classes to the degree they can stay distant from them. Having good abs by crunching is far different from having big arms by using a five-foot long pneumatic drill. Expect the more cerebral our jobs, the more paranoid we will become about diet, fitness, and appearance, and the more we will romanticize, fear, and separate ourselves from those who work with their muscles. Yet get off a Massey-Ferguson after 11 hours, and one does not care how one looks — only how many grape stakes the disc took out. Not so after coming home from running a foundation or a newsroom in Washington. Much of modern elite neuroticism derives from the combination of not working physically with the desire to look as if one did.

4) Gender. Here I am worried, as I have expressed previously, about the marked differences in the way our cultural elite express themselves. Hollywood offers an instructive example. Why can’t any of our actors talk like a Humphrey Bogart, Glenn Ford, Lee Marvin, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Bill Holden, or Gregory Peck? I’m not asking for Jack Palance or Fess Parker, just a normal male mainstream voice. I know there are Al Pacinos and Robert De Niros, but they too seem to fade before the new wave of DiCaprios. Elites talk (and probably sound) like the freedmen in Petronius’s Satyricon.

Today’s male’s voice is often far more feminine than that of 50 years ago. Sort of whiney, sort of nasally, sort of fussy. Being overexact, sighing, artificially pausing, all that seems part of the new elite parlance. In terms of vocabulary, the absolute (“he’s no damn good,” “she’s a coward,” “he ran the business to hell”) is avoided. Pejoratives and swearing resemble adolescent temper tantrums rather than threats that might well presage violence.

In other words, sexuality, sex roles, and gender differences sound as if they are less distinct among the elite. The old notion has long passed that a no-nonsense mom of 50 or so, in sizing up a daughter’s suitor or potential son-in-law, would mark the sound of his voice, its modulation, tone, and expression. And who any more would take a look at the boy’s shoulders in comparison to his behind, the texture of his hands, whether he looked Mom in the eye or not, whether he opened doors or charged in first, whether he jumped up to fix a running toilet in the back bathroom, or tried to deal with a leaky faucet? My grandfather in 1974 told me that he liked my dad better than a few Stanford fellow grads that my mom — his daughter — had brought home to visit, because he climbed up to the second story on his first appearance out here to put in new pads in the swamp cooler.

I fear now, in contrast, that we all worry more about the BA certificate and well beyond, or the job description and status, than whether the daughter or son helps out with the dishes, changes the tire, or carries the groceries in.

5) Logic. There is little logic among the cultural elite, maybe because there is little omnipresent fear of job losses or the absence of money, and so arises a rather comfortable margin to indulge in nonsense. The idea that taxes cause scarcity, and subsidy abundance is a foreign concept. The notion that entitlements create dependency is considered Neanderthal. Tough penalties supposedly do not deter crime. Abroad, military preparedness or deterrence pales in comparison to “soft” diplomatic power and clever talking. Borrowing trillions is “stimulus” and need not quite be paid back. In other words, take a deep breath and imagine the opposite of everything you know by experience to be true, and you have mostly the worldview of the sheltered cultural elite, who navigate in rather protected channels and not in the open seas of the real world.

This ad hoc meditation on cultural elitism was all prompted last week by listening to a poor white tree-trimmer lecture me on the various merits of his three different chain saws, while I was talking on the cell phone with a nasal-voiced, snotty Washington reporter — out here south of Fresno — but, in minutes, to be on the way to work at the antipode at Stanford.

Weirdly antithetical two worlds these that we have created.

Published: July 20, 2010

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