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Works and Days

Pity the Postmodern Cultural Elite

July 18th, 2010 - 5:34 pm

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 elite s— 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.

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