October 10, 2019

THE LAST WASP IN PRIMETIME — What the 1950’s quiz show scandals can teach us about meritocracy and the elite:

[Herb] Stempel’s grievance was doubtless legitimate, regardless of whether [Charles] Van Doren missed a handshake or whether [Dan] Enright cheated him out of a job. But that grievance’s effectiveness ultimately had more to do with congressional desire for good publicity and Van Doren’s own mistakes than its own justice. Van Doren did his part to undermine public acceptance of WASP privilege, not only by cheating, but by going on Twenty-One in the first place. He hoped his participation would promote elite education and erudition as attainable for everyone—but if it’s for everyone, then people like Mark and Carl Van Doren had no unique claim to it, or to the position of America’s teachers. Twenty-One subjected Charles’s aristocratic virtues to meritocratic standards, and he didn’t live up.

Popular memory considers the ’60s a moment of great disruption, including of the WASP elite, but that disruption began earlier, at the height of WASP popular cultural influence. Today’s elite stands at a similar apex of influence, cooperating with mass media not to spread knowledge of literature, history, and philosophy, but of diversity, inclusivity, and intersectionality. But this cooperation can be risky. There may be no better way to create and spread discontent with reigning elite values than broadcasting them nationally. Mass media might end up making promises that elites can’t keep. And no matter how entrenched and widely beloved a cultural elite may seem, it can only take a few years, a slighted outsider, or a broken public promise to change everything.

Read the whole thing, which perfectly captures the end of a bygone era.

Related: The Ethics of a Movie on the Quiz Show Scandal.

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