Posted by: coloradokiwi | April 21, 2009

Elites With Humble Roots Should Eat More Humble Pie

This has been noted repeatedly for years, and accelerated in this economy, but part of what makes our political and media elites so infuriating is that they seem to think one’s humble beginnings give someone a lifetime pass on being able to relate to “regular Americans” and that by extension (and default) they are not inherently aligned with the interests of the establishment.  By “elite” I mean not only the wealthy and/or attendees of the Washington cocktail parties, but people who have a certain amount of influence, and they wield this influence within a set of parameters determined by the establishment.  In other words, these are folks who through whatever confluence of wealth and power are more influential than any of us mere plebes, and the influence the peddle (or reflect) is that of the status quo.  Where they got the idea that humble roots makes them a permanent member of the proletariat, and therefore able to commune with and represent the interests of regular people, is a tricky issue.  As DougJ puts it: 

How did this idea of humble, or humbler, beginnings become so important? It’s worth noting that it’s Randian as well—her heroes usually come from the working class, even if they spend their adult lives spitting on it.

Hear hear!

I think there are a couple of different things at work here, the axes which give shape to this ideological parallelogram:

1.  The American Dream:  the idea that due to our democratic and legal institutions, and the availability of economic opportunity, anyone can make it in America.  Of course what is left out of this equation is that, first, much of this foundation myth was based on the fact that “Americans” had nearly two centuries’ worth of abundant resources with which to make good—now that the frontier has been conquered and all but depleted, this aspect of the American Dream can no longer be true.  Even this, of course, was enabled by government policies, in particular free land and the socialized martial power that backed it up.  Then came the widespread subsidization of higher education and finally the (ultimately untenable) expansion of equity and credit.  Meanwhile, let’s be clear about what we mean by “anyone”:  it is “anyone” in the same sense that in the film Ratatouille “anyone” can become a cook:  it means someone from any group, but still a uniquely gifted and hardworking person who has also been granted opportunity and has not succumb to bad luck.  Not “everyone” can make it in society, and we need to face up to this and take responsibility for it.  So, I don’t want to downplay the accomplishments of people who have made it, or insist that the American Dream doesn’t exit.  It’s just that it is predicated on a set of circumstances whereby one should feel very grateful about what they’ve managed to obtain/retain, and fully realize how rare it is—which means acknowledging that having “made it,” you are now a member of the elite, no matter where you came from.  Obviously, the extent to which the American Dream is determined by very specific structural and innately human parameters tends to be forgotten or ignored, which means that having “made it” could be construed as a relatively rare thing, but also not particularly special, or at least, not requiring special treatment or circumstances, such that the ranks of the elites are actually populated by people from all walks of life—they are us.  

2.  Tribalized Consumption:  For some time now, someone’s class and their consumption have been intimately linked, which only makes sense:  you buy the things and eat at the places you can reasonably afford.  However, somewhere along the way a value system was built into this, whereby only “real Americans” were consuming things that indicated low (read:  humble) socio-economic status:  shopping at Wal-Mart, going to NASCAR, enjoying blockbuster movies, eating at Applebee’s, etc.  This started in part due to (I believe) a classic attempt to try to deflect the root causes of the structural injustices of our socio-economic system, whereby economic losers were made to feel that they were actually superior in every way:  more genuine, kind, and humble than the “elites” who consumed different things (the corresponding conflation of progressive economic policies and “liberal elites” is worthy of a whole other series of posts).  The problem is that this worked too well, and now people who would otherwise be “elite” in the former, more positive sense, must tone down the extent to which they are elite, even to the point of deliberately dumbing down their speech and consuming things and in ways they probably normally wouldn’t, and for some time now the fate of political careers (and now, possibly, media careers) hinges on that person’s ability to relate on this level.  Reagan famously visited a pub in Boston in order to seem more approachable, George H.W. Bush was infamously wowed by a supermarket scanner, George W. Bush of course took it to a whole other level (an Ivy-League educated, Connecticut-born son of a President from an oil baron family was considered to be a cowboy outsider who was so “genuine” and heroic that he could barely speak coherently), and Obama took a ding in the primaries by badly screwing up his effort to connect with the common folk.  I mean, who gives a shit what the policies are, can the ol’ gal chug a boilermaker?  Meanwhile, folks like Rush Limbaugh, who has assets in the hundreds of millions, claim to speak for “real Americans.”  Crimony, multi-millionaire Chris Matthews would have you believe he literally walked from a Philadelphia industrial district into the studio.  So it goes.

These are symptoms of what Marx would have referred to as “commodity fetishism,” and in tandem they perpetuate the idea that the economic realities that millions of Americans face are explained best not necessarily by particular movements in capital or policy, but rather according to the values and habits to which people in this class position are thought to ascribe.  Therefore, if one shares the cultural perspective of the non-elite, one is by definition not an elite.  And allegedly this cultural perspective is permanently inscribed on one’s psyche, from which one musters all of one’s wisdom.  When this foolishness is called out, people tend to get testy.  

What is particularly revealing in these defensive rebuttals is that they reveal what they think “humble roots” really are, and this ironically reveals how elite they are.  I mean, check out this passage from the WaPo chat DougJ cites:

That would be news to Brian Williams, who was a volunteer fireman as a young man and washed out in his first job at a tiny Kansas station. And news to me, a guy who went to a state university. And news to Katie Couric, who started out on the University of Virginia’s student paper and washed out in her first national job, at CNN. And news to longtime Post editor Len Downie, who went to Ohio State University and started here as an intern. And also news to me, a kid from Brooklyn who never met a professional journalist until my junior year at a state university.

God, I didn’t realize how tough these people had it:  they went to (gasp!) state universities!  And Jesus, only one of those is a Public Ivy!  Egad!  And you know, the tales they tell of Brooklyn sound pretty dire: almost a whole stone’s throw away from the world’s communications and financial center—it may as well have been Sudan.  And man, I had no idea that today’s media luminaries might have been fired once in their lives—surely nobody who makes it ever gets fired?  And of course you would never expect interns to move up through the ranks of a particular profession, even though, you know, that’s kind of the point of an internship.  These intelligent, driven, attractive, educated, white, middle class, English-speaking, American citizens did well to face down such adversity.

The thing is, nobody really minds elites:  we want elites, we want to be elites.  People who really despise elites just for their existence  either suffer from petty jealousy or are radical communitarians of some kind.  What’s insipid, however, is touting one’s (former) class credentials not only in order to insist that one is not elite, but also to insist that one’s (understandable, if somewhat lamentable) defense of the establishment is non-existent.  Look, you don’t have to actually be a man or woman of the people, you just have to understand where they’re coming from.  But you can’t do this by thinking back to yesteryear when you lived that way (things may have changed), nor can you imagine yourself to live a life that you do not, particularly if you haven’t lived it for some time.  You can do this by actually doing something called “journalism”, whereby you do some research and maybe a little footwork.

Ultimately what these people are doing is conflating tribal affiliation with class position (and to be fair, some of their critics are conflating this, as well), and in dire economic times as these, the difference between the two is far more stark, and therefore this line of bullshit has become ever more transparent.

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