Are we the “New Elite?” I didn’t get the memo.

Intellectual_elite

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Today the Washington Post published this report about the state of the tea party movement. One of the questions they were obviously seeking to answer was whether all the groups and organizations that have sprung up have anything in common. 

They concluded that the answer was, sort of:

If anything tied the groups together, it was what motivated their members to participate. Virtually all said that economic concerns were a factor, and nearly as many cited a general mistrust of government.

Nowhere in this report was there mention of any other unifying ethos. Tea party members themselves said there is a lot of disagreement.

And yet on the same day, also in the Washington Post, Charles Murray asserted that there was indeed something all tea partiers agreed on:

The tea party appears to be of one mind on at least one thing: America has been taken over by a New Elite.

Murray then goes on to grasp vainly for a way to define this group of Americans. Some of the things he mentions as defining the “New Elite” are:

  • having an affinity for Mad Men;
  • living in an urban environment;
  • knowing who Oprah Winfrey is, but never seeing an episode of her show from beginning to end;
  • not knowing who replaced Bob Barker on The Price is Right;
  • not knowing what MMA is;
  • not knowing much about football;
  • having an affinity for yoga, pilates, etc.

If I were to use these things as a litmus test of whether I am a member of this elite, I would score only 5 out of 7. It’s more than 50%, yes, but hardly decisive.

These idiotic characterizations aside, Murray seems to base his conclusions mainly on studies done on the graduates of Ivy League schools. He cites statistics like these:

When they leave college, the New Elite remain in the bubble. Harvard seniors surveyed in 2007 were headed toward a small number of elite graduate schools (Harvard and Cambridge in the lead) and a small number of elite professional fields (finance and consulting were tied for top choice). Jobs in businesses that provide bread-and-butter goods and services to individual Americans, which make up the overwhelming majority of entry-level openings for aspiring managers, attracted just 1.7 percent of the Harvard students who went to work right after graduation.

How about, oh, everyone else who has gone to college and/or graduate school but not done so at an elite institution like Harvard? Murray is mute on that demographic which is surely quite large. There is, after all, a lot of light between Harvard and a community college or a public university. And what of people who did not attend college at all? Are they automatically in the non-elite category? Even if they have attained wealth, status or at the very least a fairly comfortable middle class lifestyle? 

His other source of intelligence on the “New Elite” is even more tenuous. It is that definitive barometer for the rest of the nation. Yes, the New York Times marriage announcements section:

When the New Elite get around to marrying, they don’t marry just anybody. One of the funniest and most bitingly accurate parts of “Bobos in Paradise” was Brooks’s analysis of the New York Times’s wedding announcements. Go back to 1960, and the page was filled with brides and grooms who grew up wealthy but whose educations and occupations did not offer much indication that they were going to set the world on fire. Look at the page today, and it is studded with the mergers of fabulous résumés.

I know what you’re thinking. But wait, you’re saying to yourselves, a particular section of a New York newspaper is not really an effective way to generalize about a large group of people. Congratulations. You’re already smarter than Charles Murray.

An acknowledgement of the lack of some sort of hard facts is actually made, but then swiftly brushed aside:

It is hard to get numbers — no survey has samples large enough to calibrate precisely what’s going on with the top percentiles of the population that I’m talking about — but the numbers we do have, combined with qualitative data provided by observers such as Brooks, Florida and Bill Bishop, in his book “The Big Sort,” are persuasive.

Here’s a newsflash for Murray: anything can seem persuasive when you are ready and willing to be persuaded. If you go looking at statistics and anecdotal evidence expecting to find something, you’re probably going to find it.

*****

As mentioned above, I may or may not be a member of this “New Elite” that Murray has imagined, err, described. In case I am a member, allow me to answer the charge that myself and my compatriots are out of touch with ordinary Americans.

To be blunt, I disagree entirely that we are out of touch, in a bubble or whatever other description of detachment someone can come up with.

I categorically reject the notion that if one is not themselves part of a certain lifestyle, one cannot understand it. Interestingly enough, no one ever claims that those who are not elites cannot imagine what life is like in the upper echelons of society. Presumably, if one is poor one can imagine what life is like if one were rich. If one is poorly educated, one can imagine what life is like with a good education. If one lives in a rural area, one can imagine city life, and on and on. If all this is true, is not the reverse possible as well?

What has all our education, reading and learning amounted to if not an ability to understand the plight of others? And if we have, as Murray claims, used all our knowledge to build an edifice of willful ignorance around ourselves, then why are so many people engaged in trying to better our world? If we were really only aware of ourselves and no one else, wouldn’t we be content with simply slogging through life and doing nothing to help our fellow man? 

Indeed, there are people like that. There are also people who only work towards social justice for their own self-aggrandizement. For those people we have terms like self-absorbed, shallow and selfish. There’s nothing “new” or “elite” about that.

9 Comments

  1. Anonymous October 25, 2010

    At least I know what MMA is…

  2. Anna Tarkov October 25, 2010

    Hahaha, as do I :) Where do you score on the elite-o-meter otherwise? How many out of those 6?

  3. Anonymous October 25, 2010

    I get a check for every one but the MMA one. Though Orland Park might not be “urban” enough to make the cut for some.

  4. Anna Tarkov October 25, 2010

    Uh, yeah, it’s not urban :) Then again, it IS a fairly affluent suburb so I think that rates too. Well, I guess now that we know you’re in the elite and I’m less so, you’ll stop associating with me. It was nice knowing you :)

  5. Anonymous October 25, 2010

    I was thinking “urban” as opposed to rural… it’s a tough call to make. whatev. I’ve got a private super elite jet plane to catch.

  6. Anonymous October 25, 2010

    The problem here is that each side thinks the other side is out of touch with Americans, as if there is just one type of “American”…. can you only be a real “American” if you come from some rural town?

    If anything, these so called “tea partiers” are the freaking elite. They are all white, they all come from economically stable households, and most of them own property. They’ve probably never had to worry about police brutality, public transportation, or if there is a good school near their home. They’re out of touch with America…. and with the growing Hispanic voting block.

    As someone who campaigned for Ron Paul (I am an independent, usually there is more than one solution to a problem – I hoped Obama’s intelligence would help him compromise but I never counted on Republicans not willing to do so)…. I am almost offended by Mr. Murray’s “New Elite” piece.

    And yeah, I live in an urban environment and I like “Mad Men”.

  7. Anna Tarkov October 26, 2010

    Fruszina, that’s really well put and something I didn’t even consider before. While the “non-elite” group doesn’t consider themselves elite, they certainly do act in a superior manner. And I also never gave thought to the fact that a lot of these people probably DO own property, come from stable families, etc. I looked around a bit and found this piece from February which seems to support this notion: http://tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2010/02/meet-the-tea-partiers-male-rich-and-college-educated.php

  8. Anna Tarkov October 26, 2010
  9. Anonymous October 27, 2010

    So Murray bangs on blacks for not being smart enough (“The Bell Curve”), and on white liberals for being too smart. It seems there’s no pleasing this guy.

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