Monday, October 25, 2010

Like likes like

Charles Murray points out that today's elites marry in, perpetuating their elite elitism. "Three examples lifted from last Sunday's Times: a director of marketing at a biotech company (Stanford undergrad, Harvard MBA) married a consultant to the aerospace industry (Stanford undergrad, Harvard MPP). [Two more of the same idea follow.]"

The marriage part of his argument* bears a striking resemblance to (bear with me) an aspect of my dissertation. Early-nineteenth-century French Jews were faulted for marrying other Jews, as opposed to marrying 'the French.' But who were the French? Wasn't "France" just a big conglomeration of endogamous groups, groups that spoke their own languages, lived in their own worlds? Was there on the one hand a free-floating, marry-anyone majority, and on the other, the Jews, an insular, marry-in minority? If other groups - ethno-cultural, professional, regional, linguistic - were also marrying in, how was in-marriage a trait specific to Jews, proof of a unique xenophobia? Might it be that those whose chief complaint against the Jews was that they refused to marry out (ahem, Napoleon) were just accusing them of behaving like everyone else?

Back to the contemporary 'merica example. Who are the Real Americans, with whom the Ivy grads won't consider so much as a dinner date? (Reihan Salam had mentioned on Twitter he'd be addressing the question of who Murray's Americans are, and I'll add a link to that here if he does and I figure out where.) Are non-elites this homogeneous class, with Nascar fans in Kentucky marrying with residents of Chicago's South Side? And (thank you, Gawker) what about immigrants? Are they part of the monolith that is Non-Fancy-Pants America? Or does the inherent cosmopolitanness of having been to more than one country, spoken at least a few words of more than one language, make them elites, no matter how little education or money they have to their unpronounceable names. (As if "Maltz" were my family's real Old-World name.) If America is a set of insular-ish groups, how is it any more surprising that a Harvard-educated banker isn't marrying a factory worker, than it is that that factory worker isn't marrying an undocumented nanny?

Or, to put it in simpler terms, you can't blame the cheerleaders for only dating football players if the goths only date goths, the stoners only date stoners, and the preps only date preps.

People pair off within the socio-cultural-economic-linguistic-etc.-etc. limitations. All people, not just arugula-munching yoga-mat-carriers. To suggest that there's something nefarious - or particular to the present - about the Vows couples is bizarre. Don't like elites? Fine. Think there's too much of an income disparity? Suggest higher taxes for the rich. (Is this what Murray's suggesting?) But who exactly are fancy-pantses going to marry if not people they meet in the course of their fancy-pants formative years? Basically, Murray, sympathetic to those who'd have tea at their parties, has it in for the librul elites. He needs things to criticize them for, and since not watching "Oprah" isn't enough, he adds to their list of crimes their tendency to act like all other groups at all times ever.

But wait! Something has changed, but I can't quite put my finger on it... Oh oh, I know! The merging of impressive resumes is only possible when there are women with impressive resumes. (Unless the three examples Murray cites are of gay male couples, in which case we're talking about a different set of new opportunities.) Is this nostalgia for a Golden Age when brilliant men married their pretty secretaries? The only way graduates from highly selective colleges are going to stop marrying one another is if one sex simply doesn't go to college. Give it time - soon the men will stop at 10th grade, and babies of sensible levels of brains and looks can be born once again.

But yes, it's significant, it's progress, that being female or non-white and being an elite are no longer mutually exclusive. The "meritocracy" is flawed and not even close to 100% meritocratic, but the fact that massive segments of the population aren't by definition ineligible is an achievement, enough of one that any nostalgia for the elites of yesteryear deserves suspicion. (And yes, I know for what work the author is famous.)

* This was kind of a where-to-begin article. Consider the above to be my post on it, and what's below to be a disorganized array of other objections:

-The change Murray refers to at the beginning of the article isn't that the Tea Partiers insult elites, whereas David Brooks gently mocked the "bobos." It's that the Tea Party is a movement. This is organized anti-elitism. This is a bit like what one learns in Jewish Studies 101 - that sure, Jews were hated for economic and ethnic reasons prior to the 1880s, but it didn't count as anti-Semitism until there was a political force backing up the occasional pamphlet or armchair bigot. I make this comparison not to say that Tea Party anti-elitism is anti-Semitism, but to point out where Murray's gone wrong. The difference with Tea Party grumblings about elites is that it's politicized. Brooks musing about Restoration Hardware, this was Brooks contemplating fancy-pants-types who buy antique-looking doorknobs or whatever. Political only in the broadest sense of all mentions of class being political. 

-Murray picks a few examples of cultural divide - romance novels, yoga - but ignores the huge overlap brought about by something called "pop culture." If the name "Lindsay Lohan" doesn't bring to mind the word "rehab," you're not just an elite. You're part of some micro-elite that has managed to shield itself from the world outside a massive, dusty, home library. But once you reach that level of seclusion, you're more likely to be home-schooling in the woods somewhere than, I don't know, a graduate of UPenn. I'm not talking about when a politician who's gone from New England boarding school to the Ivy League suddenly pretends to care where to get the best corn dogs in Nebraska. I'm taking about highly educated types who read Perez Hilton, not to connect with the masses, but to find out which jeggings Lohan wore for her latest trial.

-A rotary phone? What what?
There so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven't ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or lived for at least a year in a small town (college doesn't count) or in an urban neighborhood in which most of their neighbors did not have college degrees (gentrifying neighborhoods don't count). They are unlikely to have spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line (graduate school doesn't count) or to have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian.

Murray's use of "quintessentially American" reveals his bias. Once we start getting into which activities or situations count as "real American," we're in Palin country. Is it particularly American to live below the poverty line, or in a small town? As in, are other countries all big cities and comfortable living, and if so, what's anyone doing here? And what does it even mean that the elite class is not a version of America in miniature? Why would it be? And (and we've come full circle) why are we supposed to be surprised if the experiences of any small minority of Americans differ from that of the majority?

Things start to look very circular. Yes, elites are elite, college graduates have attended college. Yes, yes, we all know that living in Bushwick in grad school isn't the same as living in East New York for 30 years. But this whole "doesn't count" business is kind of pointless. If the problem is that elites aren't living in small towns or the inner city, yet under certain circumstances they are living in these places, why are we not counting those circumstances? (Sure, college students leave after 4-6 years, but the profs stick around.) If elites were living in small towns working as gas-station attendants, or at fast-food joints in the inner city, they wouldn't be elites. If a fancy-pants lawyer is living in the inner city, the neighborhood in question is gentrifying, thanks to the lawyer and her lawyer-friends. The mere presence of elites changes environments, summons organic grocers and Lululemons.

-As always in these discussions: where's the cutoff for "elite"? Harvard or nothing? College vs. high school? What about the overeducated hovering around the poverty line? (You're broke, not poor, if you're in debt to attend Yale Law School, but what about Medieval Knitting PhD students at Obscure U?) What about the rich and red-state? What about... oh, this has gone on too long.


Miss Self-Important said...

Some spurious cultural references aside, I think Murray's point is stronger than you grant, and in a way that has little to do with gender nostalgia. After all, ad execs who married their pretty secretaries were the exception even before the postwar college boom--most affluent women didn't work and most ad firm employees were married by the time they made it to executive status. Men have always married primarily within their own class regardless of whether their wives had impressive resumes (now resumes stand in for older signs of status), and class-based inter-marriage isn't Murray's focus.

What might actually be unprecedented about the phenomenon he describes is that residential sorting has created the possibility of entire towns and even small regions that are stratified by income and employment such that there might be no lawyers, doctors, or even teachers around at all. This has probably always been more or less true of urban residential patterns (I don't recall a lot of lawyers in the main character's slum in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), but it hasn't been true of suburbs and small towns, which have historically been home to a wider range of socioeconomic statuses. Now, this might not be what Murray means by "elite," since he spends a lot of time focusing on Harvard graduates. But if you take a slightly broader view of things, it is at least a notable shift and it might have serious political consequences soon.

But it also might be too early to say anything conclusive about residential sorting since the generation Murray's talking about has just barely finished college, and their Bushwick apartments are not their final life destinations. Maybe they'll end up in suburbs and small towns in time.

I suspect that this kind of conservative worry about the detachment of "the elite" from "real America" is paradoxically rooted in how big and mobile the elite is, not how narrow and isolated. If they were really just a handful of impractically-educated residents of gentrifying corners of Northeast cities, why would we care what their mindsets are? We don't expend a lot of concern about the Amish and the old order Mennonites, who are at least as detached and isolated from real America as the new elite is purported to be.

Phoebe said...

The strength of his argument was that yes, there's an elite. Or several, but the tendency of well-to-do, liberal Northeastern types to claim 'ordinary' upbringings (all that 'your privilege is showing' has to be preemptively refuted) means that even saying that this set is an elite is slightly controversial.

But we agree - he didn't define who's elite. I read the thing and was not sure where I, for one, would fit - privileged, because I have only a vague idea of what goes on in Branson, MO, and because Manhattan below 96th brands one forever thus, but I don't make a whole lot and I'm not affiliated with any Ivy. Your argument is... yours, not his. It makes more sense than his, but it's not his argument. He does talk about in-marriage, Oprah-watching, etc. This is in his article, not my speculation. He touched on a ton - if residential patterns were his main point, I missed that. I focused on the marriage part not because I thought that was his main idea, but because it was the one I had something (relatively) substantive to say about. And if it wasn't central, it wasn't not-central, either - he's worried about a super-high-IQ caste forming.

But as for residential patterns, does the lack of professionals in some small towns mean that the "New Elite" is more frightening than the old? Because the backlash against the New Anti-Elitism isn't primarily about self-hating Yalies defending themselves, but is about the understanding that today's elite is as egalitarian as any, ever, and that harkening back to any other has sinister implications. Obviously critiquing haves is fair game - but again, what would Murray want? Higher taxes for the rich?

As for why conservatives would care about a few overeducated Northeasterners, because these are the people who control the media and stuff? I'm not sure there's resentment about college-educated people generally, Rick Sanchez's remarks about Jon Stewart's fancy-schmancy teacher mom notwithstanding.

Random point re: New Brooklyners - many are well out of college. That's whose paying for $40 entrees and so forth. It's been a few years since I've been in Bushwick, but Prospect Heights and other border neighborhoods have stable communities of not-that-young professionals, but have not veered over into full-on Park Slopes.

Britta said...

On the article, I don't see how Murray can talk about swaths of America without elites without mentioning the collapse of industry in the US. Much of the Midwest was factory towns, and one company supported an entire class structure, from the CEOs at the top to factory workers at the bottom. Since many of these people had good wages, they had disposable income to spend, and could support a merchant and service class as well, and had a tax base to provide decent schooling. When these industries died or went elsewhere, basically any sort of decently paying job went with them, along with anyone who could possibly do better for themselves elsewhere. People who might have stayed in Michigan and joined the Elks left as soon as they could and then went where there were jobs. While there are people who leave their homes and never look back, I think lots of people would like to return to their home towns if well paying, interesting jobs were available. Structural reasons, supported by the hardcore right, are major reasons for the emptying out of middle America.

Britta said...

Also, I agree that Bobos are easy targets, but the people really with power--CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, lobbyists for large industries, etc. aren't lefty or "cultural" elites. The professors, doctors, non-profit workers etc. Murray seems to be talking about really aren't all that wealthy or powerful as a group. Maybe the AMA has some clout in the healthcare debate, say, but nothing compared to the insurance companies, and CEOs of insurance companies are not known to be yoga loving latte liberals. Also, he's lumping a huge number of people in and then applying stereotypes of liberals to them. Why wouldn't bankers go on a cruise? Do they not read John Grisham at the airport?
Also, maybe because it hits close to home, I get really sick of this "your parents are college educated, therefore you grew up in an affluent suburb." I was raised in mixed income neighborhoods, went to public schools of varying quality, had Ivy-league educated parents with decent but not super high paying jobs in local government bureaucracy, and spent much of my childhood in the poorest neighborhoods in my city. As a kid, my best friend's parents were: a bus driver (2), a veterinarian, a carpenter, a chef, and an unemployed alcoholic. I knew I was relatively privileged compared to many of my classmates, but it wasn't like we inhabited different worlds, or like my parents were materially better off than my other more middle class classmates.
I received social advantages from having educated, white collar parents & a stable home environment etc, but no overt attempts to give me a leg up in life. My parents would pay fees for after school activities if it wasn't too expensive (i.e. a uniform fee for my school's X-country team, violin lessons through the city's parks department), but they made no effort to enroll me in any, and I was on my own in terms of transportation to and from (from age 12 on, it was public transit for me). SAT prep classes and tutors were out of the question, for both financial and ideological reasons, and help with homework was not a regular option. My grades and success in school were also completely left up to me, and there was little pressure to go to an elite college.

I guess the thing is, I didn't climb out of poverty against great odds, but neither was I born in some cocoon of privilege in which I was unaware of how "real" Americans lived. And I think most people in the supposed elite class are much more like me than like the people in Murray's article. Yes, I am an elite: I went to a top college and am in a top grad school and hopefully will become a professor and speak multiple languages and can tell a chardonnay from a chianti, blah blah. Yes, there wealthy sheltered children of ridiculous helicopter parents, but this group isn't the homogenous socio AND economic elite Murray seems to think it is. Plenty of people have college educations from Red State U, go to Red State U law school, and become successful lawyers. Are they not elites? Plenty of non-profit employees have fancy liberal arts degrees and earn in the mid 30Ks at age 40. Are they in the same class as the lawyers? Cruises and nascar tickets can be expensive. Opera tickets can be cheap. People can go to both, or neither, or have friends and family who do both, etc.

Since I have already written a novel, and you will probably say get your own damn blog already, I'll sign off now.

Phoebe said...


First comment: good point, I hadn't thought about that.

Second comment: Yes - I think this gets us to the same place - Murray a) presents non-elite America as a monolith (and possibly an 1950s relic - this is also discussed in the Gawker post), and b) isn't precise about who he thinks counts as elite, or about what power he imagines this elite to have. The idea that overeducated types who can't afford to send their kids to private schools on their own adjunct/freelancer salaries are secretly running the government or secretly immensely wealthy is ridiculous, which is why precision is necessary.

Murray is casting a wide your-privilege-is-showing net, and I fear that if each of us who are privileged in some ways but not all begin enumerating the details, we feed into his argument. He wants to accuse of eliteness (elitism too?) precisely the people who don't feel comfortable with that label. In a sense, he is more interested in making the 30k 40-year-old college grads feel ashamed of having read to their kids than in pointing out the unfairness of CEO incomes versus the rest.

And with that, before this, in turn, becomes an epic, I'll tentatively promise another post tangentially related to this.

rshams said...

This Charles Murray op-ed is a further reminder of my current political homelessness. Bah.

It's clear that Murray is talking about a cultural, rather than economic or political elite, since (as Phoebe mentioned) he might have had to suggest tax hikes for the wealthy to rectify the inequities of the latter. But his definitions of cultural elitism are so broad as to be incoherent and based on (now I'm sounding like a person I never thought I'd sound like) a white, male, Christian, working-class perception of "real America."

Presumably, plenty of Christian evangelical lawyers and business owners and cardiologists have read "Left Behind," while the vast majority of Jewish or Hindu grad students making far less money have not. The book is targeted at evangelical Christians, without any particular regard to their social status.

Similarly, I will assume that a good deal of male investment analysts will recognize the names of the sports greats that Murray mentioned, while many female secretaries and waitresses will not. Not that the womenfolk don't watch these sports, just that the percentages are probably a decent amount lower.

Basically, Murray's elites are so varied and in such great numbers (Ivy League grads, Mad Men watchers, yoga practitioners, the Branson-ignorant, etc.) that they cease to be elite in any significant way. They might actually be a slim majority of Americans, maybe even constituting the "real" America. And his non-elites are defined in such way that they are limited to those who do not take part in "modern" or "meritocratic" activities in the slightest. All this from a man supposedly devoted to the meritocracy.

Phoebe said...


What's throwing you off ("political homelessness") is that there are always these kinds of odd allegiances. Back in the day, I was driven nuts by the tendency of my fellow pro-Israel-types to think that their views on the Jewish state required them to full-on support every view on the right. As though suspicion of birth control and praising America-as-a-Christian-country were not just views Jewish American Zionists now had to tolerate from allies, but ones that had to be espoused by us as well.

Along similar lines, what we're looking at with Murray is probably just as frustrating to many who identify as conservatives. (Not all, MSI, but some, at least). My wild guess as to why Murray's now offering up the Palin party line is that this now is conservatism. To assert his presence on the right, to gain a sympathetic ear from today's conservatives, Murray has to get excited about corn dogs and snide about arugula.

Withywindle said...

I also think you're being insufficiently charitable to Murray. He doesn't say, for example, that the elites in-marry more than other groups today (although I grant you could infer that from silence); he says the effects of such in-marriage are more significant precisely because they do affect the elite. (Or am I also inferring from silence?--Could be.) I think a great deal of your reading is inferral from silence--only intermittently appropriate. I agree, however, that he switches between discussing the 1% elite (Harvard and, ahem, UChicago) and the 10% elite--for both of which the intermarried-alienated-from-the-rest-of-America critique applies, but in somewhat different ways. That there is a Lindsay-Lohan overlap does not invalidate the significance of a Branson non-overlap.

If I may twist Murray a bit: what varies between annoying and pernicious is that there is a distinctive elite, which, if no more parochial and isolated than any other part of society, is unaware that it is parochial and isolated, and uses the normative cachet applied to universalism in defense of a highly parochial experience, world-view, and ideology. (If you like, this replicates Christian anti-Jewish polemics; Jews cling to the Old Testament the way rednecks cling to guns.) It is the lack of self-awareness of its parochiality that is the pyschological and political nub--not least since that lack of self-awareness leads to a certain political overreach that remains dissonant in a democracy, and may even be distinctive among elites in world history.

rshams said...

It's not so much the "odd allegiances" that bother me. I'm perfectly willing to accept a situation in which I support issues A, B, and C advocated by liberals and issues D, E, and F advocated by conservatives.

It's more a sense that neither movement's core as currently constructed has a place for someone like me. Pro-Israel fiscal moderates who are discomfited with identity politics surely have some representation among those identifying as "liberals", but only on the fringes and usually castigated by the Yglesiases and Greenwalds. Socially liberal meritocrats who travel, shop at farmers markets, and watch "Mad Men" (!) might be represented well within conservative think tanks, but are practically required to disdain their lifestyles and education in favor of a mostly mythical "real American" ideal.

It's not so much a desire to agree with all of the tenets of a particular ideology as it is disappointment at how both "liberal" and "conservative" are currently constructed.

Phoebe said...


I'll start with what I agree with. I agree (see my response to Rita's comment, along with my latest post) that there's a fear among a certain set of admitting to being privileged - "elite" if you will. Not all who share this fear even are all that privileged or elite. But enough are, and the conviction on the part of many who've been at the top all their lives that those other people are the elites is grating. Fair enough. Murray's article is meant to be a jab at genuine elites who think they're just regular folks, but it ends up seeming like he's accusing all manner of Americans who don't happen to be country-music fans of being fancy and schmancy. I mean, at most, Murray has identified an elite. He's ignored rich and powerful people not in the yoga-and-soy-milk crowd, and not-even-close-to-rich-or-powerful people who are.

If we're both inferring from Murray's silences, it's because of how much he left out. For instance, you mention a 1%, a 10% elite. These are your speculations. Maybe he means the top 30%? By income? By arugula? It's not in the article who Murray's even talking about, other than in a 'you know the sort' sort of sense. Which is why he's lumping together high and low earners, those who make something of their cultural capital and those who just kind of quietly have that cultural capital.

Re: Branson, Lohan. One is regional/ethnic (i.e. not something even close to all non-elite Americans know or care about), the other universal. You can read in British, Belgian, and presumably other online newspapers about LiLo's exploits, but it's still low-brow. Murray doesn't explain why Branson matters but Lohan does not - he doesn't even mention pop culture, celebrity gossip, areas where Americans and indeed humans can now communicate with ease across many boundaries. To pick and choose particular examples of who 'gets' what, while leaving out the much-consumed lowest-common-denominator, is to inaccurately portray the cultural landscape.

But ultimately, what this comes down to is, is an elite that includes women and non-whites, but that's not fully aware of/comfortable in its eliteness, more dangerous than what it's replaced? I'd say not.


My views are a lot like yours, and I see where you're coming from. I suppose I tilt more to the left these days because I can't stomach the "real America" nonsense.

Miss Self-Important said...

"Because the backlash against the New Anti-Elitism isn't primarily about self-hating Yalies defending themselves, but is about the understanding that today's elite is as egalitarian as any, ever, and that harkening back to any other has sinister implications."

Today's elite is drawn from a slice of society that looks egalitarian only if what we mean by egalitarian is academically smart. Do the the smart have the best claim to rule? Maybe, but it's not obvious. Selecting for smarts can circumvent certain kinds of previously inegalitarian practices, like ethnic or gender discrimination (how the SAT benefited Jews), but it also creates new ones, which is Murray's point when he repeats the statistics about the socioeconomic background of most students at highly selective colleges. Britta may be a partial exception to these statistics, but that doesn't really detract from their validity.

If we grant him this point, then Murray doesn't necessarily have to come up with a remedy for this new inequality. His aim, I suspect, is to illustrate the basic point that the very premise of the "egalitarian elite" you (and meritocrats generally) want is contradictory. Any elite is by definition exclusive and inegalitarian. You may decide that ethnic and gender exclusion is more "sinister" than IQ-based or socioeconomic exclusion, but that doesn't mean you've stopped endorsing exclusion in principle. In that respect, your position isn't that different from that of the sinister old elite, it only emphasizes different qualifications. Conversely, the old sinister elite was egalitarian in a way the new one is not--it was geographically and culturally broader. (Although it's true that this is as slippery as Murray's exercise since it requires a similarly frustrating disentangling of the low from middle from highbrow in the 1960s and debating over what it means that you watch I Dream of Jeannie and read Sartre...)

For the Tea Partiers, apparently an elite that is dispersed among the non-elite is a priority (or more generally, more dispersed cultural power, which is impossible where cultural power is controlled by the selectivity of your alma mater), whereas for you, the priority is that women and ethnic minorities be included in the elite. The burden thus seems to fall on you to show that either the dispersion of the past or the stratification of the present are myths, or to show why the new, narrower elite is qualitatively better than the old. Or, I guess, show how the two priorities can be reconciled. It doesn't really get at Murray's argument to point out that some of his markers of elite-dom are off if you're willing to admit that there is some kind of group like the one he's describing. His vagueness is annoying, but not, I think, fatal to the point. (Also, I'd bet most Fortune 500 CEOs and DC lobbyists have spent some time in Ye Hallowed Ivy League Halls, and the political donations of the former are starting to move decidedly to the left. And Britta forgets corporate/federal/constitutional lawyers and judges among the powerful--surely a group with a solid elite bona fides.)

Miss Self-Important said...

One more thing: Who really know what the hell the Tea Party wants, but I suspect that Murray's own bias in favor of elitism may be preventing him from noticing that they seem not to want any elites at all. Such are the dangers of throwing your chips in with populists. You end up forced to defend a system of higher ed in which hardly anyone went to college in order to stave off the even more dangerous development of competition for college seats and thus degree-based elitism.

Britta said...

Actually, I don't think I'm an exception, I think I'm the norm (or if not the norm, then a norm). I'm from a very comfortable middle class background, it's just that economically it was more middle-middle, whereas culturally/socially it was more upper-middle, and it was situated in a fairly heterogeneous class (and in some ways racial/ethnic) environment (though one that got less so as I progressed through my education). Maybe my hometown (in the Pacific NW) is different from the rest of the country, but my family was certainly not unusual there.

I guess my point is that while there definitely are lower middle, middle, and upper middle classes, and they often are segregated by income, I think there's a lot more fluidity than Murray realizes: a family can have one child who becomes a lawyer and one who becomes a nurse; the the child of parents who went to a regional university might go to Yale, or vice versa; there might be two roommates at Stanford, one of which goes into the tech industry and becomes a millionaire by age 25, the other who does Teach for America, gets their teaching license at a commuter college, and then becomes a public school teacher; likewise, two roommates at state U, one might go to Harvard law, the other might open a record store in the town. People who are Democrats might have relatives who are Republicans. People who are atheists might have relatives who are conservative Christians, etc. I would say on the whole, most Americans (not all, of course) have friends and family that cut across a pretty wide cultural and/or economic class strata of people.

I would agree that the Ivy Leagues and like universities and the "potted Ivy" schools are dominated by the socio and economic upper middle and upper class, but that doesn't seem to be Murray's definition of elite. As Phoebe, rshams and Withywindle have pointed out, he seems to equate arugula eating and yoga mat carrying with making lots of money; he talks about going to HYP, but then he discusses "parents with a college education," the categories just keep fluctuating wildly. If we're talking about anyone with a college education, that's a much broader and more culturally heterogeneous group (including even Sarah Palin, the realist of all real Americans). If we limit it to selective institutions, that narrows it down a bit, but that group is made up mainly of schools like Beloit, or Lewis & Clark, or Swanee College, etc., schools that are good but not nationally known, and which draw probably from a lower-middle to upper middle class demographic, rather than an upper-middle to upper with a few poor and middle class kids thrown in for diversity.

MSI: I do think that certain areas of law and maybe medicine and the high tech industry are where his discussion might be most apt--people with fancy educations, high incomes, and culturally elite status. I'm not sure about corporate lawyers (the only corporate lawyer I know does fit the stereotype of a wealthy, vaguely blue-statey American), but I think finance and commercial/corporate law (i.e. careers that allow you to make lots of money and/or go into politics) are areas that disproportionately attract elite right-wingers. Of course, these people (the George W Bushes) somehow get to be associated with "real" America, maybe because they drink Miller High Life on their yachts?

Phoebe said...


"In that respect, your position isn't that different from that of the sinister old elite, it only emphasizes different qualifications."

This is a bit of a stretch, I think. To say that complex jobs requiring above-average intelligence should be held by people who did well in school is a tiny bit unfair in the sense that school isn't an exact approximation of, say, being a senator or CEO. But meritocracy, if properly functioning (and if it ever could function properly is another issue) is about picking leaders whose abilities, work ethic, and inclinations would make them suited to whichever leadership positions. If leaders are just the white Protestant men with the best hair or whatever, then not only are many women/minorities stuck in positions well below their capabilities (and yes, this is sinister, at least if you're someone who finds racism and sexism sinister), but leaders are bound to be inept much of the time. Even if one is down with racism and sexism, the old way is about as effective as picking leaders out of a hat.

Again, re: which elite was culturally broader - because Murray left out pop culture and honed in on Branson and yoga - it's hard to compare.

Re: geography, why is it necessarily a problem if intellectual types are clustered in cities? As long as there are hospitals nearby for emergencies, and as long as kids who are brilliant or gay or 'different' have a way of getting to the big city, why do we need elites equally distributed? (I mean, they must be a bit distributed - aren't there profs and judges and so forth everywhere?) And, also again, aren't there other elites, the so-called red-state elites? I don't know too many personally, but it's said that they're out there.

"The burden thus seems to fall on you to show that either the dispersion of the past or the stratification of the present are myths, or to show why the new, narrower elite is qualitatively better than the old."

This is what I've attempted to do above. But to reiterate, yes, life is unfair, exclusion is sad, and so forth. But a system designed at offering anyone born with leadership inclinations in a given field to reach its heights is, it seems obvious to me, superior to one that arbitrarily holds certain groups back. And, again, I'm not sure where you or Murray are going with the geographical argument. I read the Tea Party argument more as, elites live in cities so we'll bash cities, than as it's wrong that elites mostly live in cities, so even though we'd otherwise look to elites for their wise leadership, we must bash them and by extension their urban dwellings.

The problem with Murray being vague is, as Britta and I both mentioned above, that he gets at a certain type, not a caste, in terms of power or money. I'm not convinced that the yoga-latte elite are the elite (around where I am, yes, but in the whole country? Not sure.). Nor am I convinced that overeducated, bookish teachers and so on do anything with their cultural capital, such that they're some kind of force to be reckoned with. Knowing about arugula correlates with having money and power, but there's also, well, money and power.

Finally, it bears a mention that there's not a properly-functioning meritocracy. College admissions remains holistic. SAT scores correlate with income and what with prep courses one can point to causation as well. And once the subject of the Vows has been raised, I find it remarkable how many of the brides' and grooms' line of work isn't just similar to that of one or both of their parents, but exactly the same - an art history prof who's the daughter of an art history prof, etc. We're looking not only at amorphous Privilege, but at good, old-fashioned, your father was a cobbler and you, too, shall cobble.

Britta said...

"Of course, these people (the George W Bushes) somehow get to be associated with "real" America, maybe because they drink Miller High Life on their yachts?"

To answer my own question, I think another slightly more pernicious reason behind Murray's classifications goes back to one of Phoebe's main interests, anti-Semitism. The only group regularly associated with being wealthy, powerful, AND culturally and politically leftist are the Jews. (Other wealthy minorities are of course suspect, but they aren't as prevalent in the political consciousness, nor are they seen as wielding a significant amount of political power.) I mean, bankers/lawyers/CEOs/policy wonks are, in the minds of teapartiers, either Republican WASPs, in which case they are the vanguard of the real, like George W, or they are Democrats, in which case they are members of a suspect ivory tower quasi-socialist elite planning to bring down America from the inside (sound familiar?).
I don't think that teapartiers are actively or consciously anti-Semitic. In fact, they may very well be philo-semites because of their affection towards Israel and dislike of Muslims, but it seems like anti-Semitic tropes provide a framework on which to drape a bunch of somewhat conflicting and nebulous traits and have them cohere into something sinister and alien.

Phoebe said...


What you describe re: the wide range of cultural and economic capital within American families strikes me, anecdotally, as true - add to that race, ethnicity, and religion and that's my own family. While I may come across as Miss NY Jew, I don't actually interact with very many others of my kind, aside from my parents.

However, how do we reconcile this with (as I mention in the comment right above) the many, many 'elites' who do exactly what their parents did. Academics specializing in precisely the same field as mom or dad, etc. It's not just family businesses getting passed down - even careers that in theory one ends up in after proving one's aptitudes through years of schooling often follow this pattern. I honestly don't know whether the all-over-the-place of my own family, or the art-history prof begets art-history prof, is the more typical situation.

As for your latest comment, it's always exciting when I'm not the one bringing up anti-Semitism here at WWPD. But yes, the reason that I and others like myself get nervous when we hear the expression 'real America' isn't that we're offended as almighty elites (getting a PhD in French may sound snooty, but no one's envying me my current income or job prospects) but that populism of this sort conflates rich people with Jews, and is ultimately more harmful to the latter. But I think you're right that Tea Partiers are conflicted. They certainly aren't mobilizing as anti-Semites, and that their views on Israel and Islam will likely prevent that from happening. But... any time cities (esp New York), education, and media are denounced, even Jews who live in exurbs, hated school, and never so much as contemplated writing a letter-to-the-editor might feel under attack, for the straightforward historical reasons.

I should probably stop while relatively ahead, but on "Wife Swap" tonight (there go my remaining elite points), a real-Texan football-loving couple swapped moms with a hippie family with a cross-dressing young son. Even though the hippies were from Georgia and seemingly a rural part of the state, there was something about them, not just that the mom didn't shave her armpits (a major plot point) but that she used the word "verklempt," a Yiddish word for upset made famous on SNL by Mike Myers portraying his Jewish-stereotype mother-in-law. Then, after the supreme fruitiness of the hippie family had been established (the father is a professional clown! And the pits! The hairy pits, on a woman!), the episode ends with them singing the "Shabbat, Shalom" song. Jews! No wonder they don't 'get' football.

Britta said...

Argh. I typed a long response and it seemed to have posted and then disappeared. What I basically said was that on the first point, it's hard to know, and I'm not sure how far armchair conjecture will get us. It's hard to know to what extent people's friends and families are socially and economically diverse, and to what extent they collect in homogenous pockets. It does seem that professor's kids disproportionately become professors though. I wonder if that is due to some unique features of academia or if that is true of other professions as well. Are doctor's kids more likely to become doctors? or Admin. assistants more likely to be admin. assistants?

Thinking about the link between anti-semitism and latte liberals and the original point of your post, what is interesting is that both get attacked for being cliquish and insular in a way that is uniquely sinister and harmful to society, whereas other ethnicities/groups seem to get a free pass.
A case in point, I am Scandinavian, the only ethnic group which as far as I know actually developed an entire separate university system (as opposed to one or two institutions) in the midwest, and which is insular to the point that Norwegian Americans are expected to go to Norwegian-Lutheran colleges, rather than Swedish-Lutheran ones, etc. This system has its own prestige systems and hierarchies, and if you are Scandinavian American, it is barely understandable if you reject the Scandinavian Lutheran college system to go to HYP, and totally incomprehensible if you go somewhere else, no matter how highly ranked in the US News & World report. (One of my grandparents' friends asked me when I started college, "why would you want to hang out with a bunch of WASPs for, when you could go to St Olaf's?") Yet despite the fact we can be insular, cliquish and self-segregating, no one seems to think this is in any way a problem or detracts from our ability to contribute civically to America.
In addition, Scandinavian Americans tend to be liberal, the upper midwest is as blue as the coasts, and indeed was socialist for much of its history, yet people don't rail against Minneapolis the same way they do against NYC or San Francisco.

It seems you can be an ethnically insular actual socialist with strong ties to the motherland and a preference for foreign food but if you are very blonde and that motherland is Sweden and the food is herring, somehow you still get to be a "real" American. As I've personally experienced, people can think you are a recent immigrant and *still* think you are a better American than all the non-blondes floating around with yoga mats in NYC.

I guess my point is not that all attacks on cultural elites are based on explicit anti-semitism, but that anti-semitism is a condition of possibility for a certain sort of populist political organizing.

Forgive me if I seem over excited, it's just I study class (though not in the US), and I just read Moishe Postone's article on anti-semitism and National Socialism, and I've been thinking mulling it over in my head and its implications for the movements on the US right, mainly it seems on your blog.

Phoebe said...


This is interesting stuff - expect a post on it soon.

Phoebe said...

Oh, and Jews also (traditionally) eat herring. As with cured salmon, there's a bit of Cold Europe crossover, I suppose.