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:
-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.