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Works and Days

Pity the Postmodern Cultural Elite

July 18th, 2010 - 5:34 pm

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.

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