Is the 'New Elite' really so out-of-touch? Does it matter?
I'm pretty sure when Charles Murray talks of the "New Elite," he has something like me -- or at least many of my friends -- in mind. No blue blood in my veins, I still grew up comfortably, got educated at name-brand schools and have life goals oriented around getting paid to think. Hell, I'm part of the elite mainstream media, so I've got to be out-of-touch, right?
And, yet, as I read through Murray's estimation of the cultural preferences he assumes I and my friends have, I couldn't help but think that he was the one who was out-of-touch. Not only, as Anne Applebaum points out, with the popular culture he criticizes others for not understanding. But also with the elite preferences he describes -- with such confidence that he doesn't feel the need to provide much actual evidence of his very detailed account. Murray admits hard numbers are difficult to find -- "no survey has samples large enough to calibrate precisely what's going on with the top percentiles of the population," and he cites Bill Bishop's "The Big Sort," among other work. But even after cautioning that he can't fairly describe his New Elite in detail, Murray goes on to give a curiously detailed description of the cohort's habits, an analysis that seems to rely as much on decades-old stereotypes about effete Ivy League intellectual types.
A few friends of mine -- all at least as deserving of the title "New Elite," particularly given their background in higher education, about which Murray obsesses -- gathered with me to examine the essay's litany of specific cultural references that we weren't supposed to appreciate. Here are some of the results:
Murray writes: "With geographical clustering goes cultural clustering. Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows -- 'Mad Men' now, 'The Sopranos' a few years ago. But they haven't any idea who replaced Bob Barker on 'The Price Is Right.'"
Drew Carey. Duh. As someone who used to watch The Price Is Right with my late grandfather, a retired nurseryman, every morning, I almost take that one personally. Almost all of us got that right.
Murray: "They know who Oprah is, but they've never watched one of her shows from beginning to end."
Fine, but how many NASCAR dads can say they've watched a full episode of Oprah?
Murray: "Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking. But they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them."
A friend -- and Yale grad -- responds: "A bizarre serious of assertions. I am a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth baseball fan. I used to know about both Jimmie Johnsons, but I hate the Cowboys and don't care about NASCAR. I always found MMA boring, though. It's like boxing. Too much hugging, not enough kicking ass."
Murray: "They can talk about books endlessly, but they've never read a 'Left Behind' novel (65 million copies sold) or a Harlequin romance (part of a genre with a core readership of 29 million Americans)."
This one seemed to be a particularly inappropriate barometer of cultural awareness. A Jewish friend of mine retorts, "No, of course I haven't read a book about the end times."
Murray: "They take interesting vacations and can tell you all about a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada or an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor."
One friend -- a Beltway attorney -- responds: "I don't even know where Boothbay Harbor is." Another: "As far as I'm concerned, Sierra Nevada is a beer."
Murray: "They have never heard of Branson, Mo."
All of us knew about Branson, Mo. Growing up out West, I got to Las Vegas more often.
Murray: "There so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven't ever... 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)."
There were metal detectors in my middle school. In high school, undercover cops posed as students. Half of my freshman class dropped out by senior year.
On the other hand, another friend -- a Harvard grad -- says: "I grew up in a town called Prunedale. Our neighbors raised goats and horses. We raised ducks."
Murray: "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."
I grew up in very conservative Christian faith -- Mormonism -- and made any number of evangelical/otherwise conservative Christian friends -- at college in the Ivy League, no less. I wasn't the only one in my little focus group.
"They are unlikely to have even visited a factory floor, let alone worked on one."
Nearly all of us have been on a factory floor.
When I got to college, the first thing that surprised me was that, for all the alleged similarities, particularly socioeconomic, it was much more diverse than I had expected. Particularly when it came to regional diversity and the varied tastes that it brings. My first week of college, a guy in my freshman dorm told me that his favorite movie was "Varsity Blues -- because that's what growing up in the Midwest is like."
Of course, some of the items Murray lists were true for me and my friends, though rarely the same ones for each of us. Which is to say that Murray's probably not totally wrong. I have little doubt, though, that his weirdly specific description vastly oversimplifies the relationship any "New Elite" has with popular culture, in which pretty much everyone, Harvard degree or no, indulges these days. And he does so -- one can only guess cynically -- to exaggerate divisions in American society that aren't nearly as well-defined as he insists and then to imply that a group of Americans increasingly lacks the legitimacy to participate in governing.
I also get the sense that Murray is thinking more about Americans his age than those of us who are going to college and beginning our professional lives in an era in which financial aid and outreach is particularly robust at top universities, where popular culture is ever more pervasive. Perhaps Murray's most ludicrous claim to those of us in or just out of top American colleges is that his New Elite is becoming ever more detached from America. I had precisely the opposite impression -- that American culture everywhere is actually becoming more homogenous, including at the Ivies. I had classmates who became more culturally in-touch over their four years.
Regardless, instead of Murray's clumsy, worn-out and probably inaccurate us-vs.-them critique, the more interesting question is, if there really is a New Elite with a culture that can be usefully distinguished from that of much of the country, in what ways does that matter?
A Harvard alum friend of mine puts it well:
"On the one hand I can see why it would be dangerous if policymakers, journalists, and academics truly didn't understand the tastes and perspectives of the rest of the country. But [Murray] seems to suggest they should also share them. So what if I like Mad Men and someone else likes NASCAR? (Not to say you can't like both.) Where Murray sees lamentable elitist ignorance, I see cultural pluralism. I'm a lot more concerned with increasing opportunities for working-class kids to get into college than with what they choose to do on the weekends after they graduate."
Posted by: seabelly1 | October 26, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: termiteavenger | October 26, 2010 5:00 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: dansey | October 26, 2010 10:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: dansey | October 26, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: AlexRemington | October 26, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: darling_ailie | October 26, 2010 11:11 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: dfhjadfjsdf | October 26, 2010 11:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: suegbic1 | October 27, 2010 4:43 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: JohnSutton1 | October 27, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: lensch | October 27, 2010 8:30 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: allsides | October 27, 2010 8:54 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ndc1963 | October 27, 2010 9:01 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: NNevada | October 27, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: markrichardc | October 27, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: nicholasgrossman | October 27, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: AMviennaVA | October 27, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: nicholasgrossman | October 27, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: AMviennaVA | October 27, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: nicholasgrossman | October 27, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: DM_Inf | October 27, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: santaregina | October 27, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: texasnative46 | October 27, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: ctharwick | October 27, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: knjincvc | October 27, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: PeteMoylan | October 27, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: sjpatejak | October 27, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: sheilafresco | October 27, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: AMviennaVA | October 27, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: texasnative46 | October 27, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: pwynn | October 28, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: texasnative46 | October 28, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: Observer691 | October 28, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: SDub | October 28, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse
Posted by: aj14 | October 28, 2010 5:54 PM | Report abuse
Posted by: markrichardc | October 30, 2010 9:54 AM | Report abuse