Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I'm Less Than 30% Elitist! (How About You?)

Via the wonderful Camassia, I learn that Charles Murray is warning us all about the new elitists out there, and that one helpful blogger has turned his warnings into a handy quiz. Let's take it, shall we?

Q. Can you talk about "Mad Men?" A. I know the name of the main character, and I know it takes place in New York in the early 60s. That's about it, so "No."
Q. Can you talk about the "The Sopranos?" A. Again, I can name the main character, and I know it takes place in present-day New Jersey. So again, "No."
Q. Do you know who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right?" A. Oh come on, ask something hard.
Q. Have you watched an Oprah show from beginning to end? A. Never once.
Q. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga? A. I've learned a couple of positions from my wife, who is passionate about it and takes local classes our YMCA, but really, the answer is "No."
Q. How about pilates? A. Also no.
Q. How about skiing? A. Nope.
Q. Mountain biking? A. No. Street bike racing or bicycle commuting though, I can definitely hold my own
Q. Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is? A. No.
Q. Does the acronym MMA mean anything to you? A. No.
Q. Can you talk about books endlessly? A. Absolutely.
Q. Have you ever read a "Left Behind" novel? A. No.
Q. How about a Harlequin romance? A. I'm not sure. I was fourteen or fifteen, and the main character was a woman whose husband didn't understand her, and there was plenty of panting and heaving breasts. I bet that counts as a "Yes."
Q. Do you take interesting vacations? A. Well, I think they're often interesting, because I find my colleagues and family and friends--in Washington DC or Kansas City or Dallas or Portland or Salt Lake City or Seattle or St. Louis interesting. I kind of suspect that the answers Charles Murray is looking for would oblige me to answer "No," however.
Q. Do you know a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada? A. I've only ever driven through them.
Q. What about an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor? I had to Google "Boothbay Harbor" to find out where that was.
Q. Would you be caught dead in an RV? A. I'd rather not die in one, but while growing up our family traveled in ours all over the country. Does that count?
Q. Would you be caught dead on a cruise ship? A. Melissa and I took one cruise back in 1997, when the family business was doing pretty well and my parents sprang for a trip for their married children, but to be honest, it really wasn't our cup of tea. The whole experience seemed like a conspiracy to keep us eating and buying tourist crap, and we never spent a decent amount of time in any port; however can you explore the art galleries in St. Maarten if you have to be back on the ship by 2pm? So basically, I'll have to answer "No" to this one.
Q. Have you ever heard of of Branson, Mo? A. Oh give me a break. We lived in Arkansas, dude; we took the kids to Silver Dollar City and spent a couple of days in Branson. Still have a t-shirt from there too.
Q. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club? A. No.
Q. How about the Rotary Club? A. No.
Q. Have you lived for at least a year in a small town? A. How small? We spent two years spent in towns of under 10,000 in Mississippi and Illinois, and three years in a town of 50,000 in Arkansas. And now we live in Kansas. By the measurements of many of my students here, we still have never lived in a truly "small town."
Q. Have you lived for a year in an urban neighborhood in which most of your neighbors did not have college degrees? A. If the inner suburbs of Wichita count as an "urban neighborhood," then yes, we've spent the last five years living in exactly such a place.
Q. Have you spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line? A. Oh don't get me started.
Q. Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian? A. Several.
Q. Have you ever visited a factory floor? Yes.
Q. Have you worked on one? A. If a chicken-processing plant counts, then the answer is "Yes."

I suppose Murray might want to dispute some of my answers, but by the strictest reading of the quiz, I give only 8 "elistist" answers out of 27, meaning I am less than 30% out of touch with the common man. I knew it! I am, to quote Murray, not only someone who loves my country, but I am (or at least 70% of me is) "of it" as well.

There is, of course, a serious point to speculations about elitism; I wouldn't be so fond of populism if I didn't think so. But Murray is, by and large, just riffing off the complaints of the Tea Party and bunch of half-baked generalizations that, were they really thought through seriously (such as: "What are the cultural consequences of global capitalism's undermining of the options for social advancement which blue-collar factory jobs once provided for the urban working class?") could be part of strong critique of America's religiously and regionally stratified society...but in his hands, barely amount to more than what you might see in one of David Brooks's weaker columns. ("This just in: Harvard graduates are woefully uninformed about Carrie Underwood's dating habits.") The truth is, of course, that I'm a member of the "elite," as almost any member of the academy invariably is, and yet I can pass his quiz with (mostly) flying colors. If nothing else, that ought to be proof to him that whatever the real force of the confusions and animosities which have helped make the Tea Party possible, using their lazy rhetoric as about who the "real Americans" are as a guide for thinking about elitism in America today is a less than brilliant idea.

9 comments:

Jacob T. Levy said...

"ever heard of Branson" was the line in the column that made me not care about even finishing it. Lazy and out-of-date. Once there was a time when that would have been a useful distinguishing mark-- but, after all, Branson's now been on the Simpsons, which is where we elitists learn about Real America.

But, being from New Hampshire, I do know a thing or two about real America anyways. One thing that I know is that Rotary and Kiwanis are for respectable local business elites, and that the overlap between Rotary membership and the reading of Harlequin romances or having worked on factory floors is quite small. He's trying to paint the elites with a comically broad brush, but the way he's construing the "other" category might be even worse.

And, as you note, "small town" is a strange category these days. Most Real 'Murricans, by population, don't live in them. They live in exurban communities that range from large towns to medium-sized cities in their own right.

Russell Arben Fox said...

One thing that I know is that Rotary and Kiwanis are for respectable local business elites, and that the overlap between Rotary membership and the reading of Harlequin romances or having worked on factory floors is quite small. He's trying to paint the elites with a comically broad brush, but the way he's construing the "other" category might be even worse.

Excellent point. Any thoughtful reader of Jefferson knows that there are no elites who ought to take greater umbrage at being mixed indiscriminately in with the masses than local elites. The small-town lawyer, the country doctor, the businessman-turned-philanthropist funding an extension on the local library--to characterize them as "marginalized" alongside a bunch of NASCAR-watchers by some vague hypothetical bunch of Maine-vacationing Harvard-educated New Yorkers is, frankly, pretty insulting to their own integrity. Why should the president of the local Kiwanis tremble with rage at the supposedly insulting things being said about him on Desperate Housewives?

Most Real 'Murricans, by population, don't live in them. They live in exurban communities that range from large towns to medium-sized cities in their own right.

Also true. I haven't seen reliable data on it, but given the age and racial demographics of Tea Party supporters, it would be highly unlikely that more than just a smidgen of them really were "small town" dwellers. The great majority of them, I suspect, are exurban dwellers whose "small towns" are extended suburbs and/or bedroom communities for nearby metropolitan areas.

Ricketson said...

Thanks for bringing up this topic. I look forward to more discussions of it, because I cannot understand what people are talking about when they cry "elitism!" I sometimes think that it is just something that Republicans say to get under the skin of leftists...figuring that they can distract us with self-examination while they take over the world.

(tangent: A college classmate of mine recently suggested that I was being "elitist" because I disagreed with him and Newt Gingrich about the fabled "WTC Mosque". This is really ironic to me, because when we were in school, he was the rich kid with the Hummer (and the same basic political attitudes he has today).)

As for the quiz questions, Mr. Levy had a good point regarding the Rotary and Kiwanis. I looked into participating in the activities of these clubs, and got the impression that they are "invite only" types of clubs, and I have no way to get any such invite.

Several of the questions actually seem to be testing your age, gender, and employment status. Oprah is a show for housewives. "The Price is Right" is for retired people (though I knew the answer for that one). Romance novels are for women.

Why didn't he mention Football?

As you two indicated, Murray has just picked out the traits that distinguish one of many cultural groups in America, and made some trivial observations. Any of these "elitist" issues can probably be summarized in a "socio-economic status" index, and it would avoid the contrivance of calling 1/4 of Americas "elite".

Camassia said...

Some great points here, and thanks for the link. For those who haven't seen it, Wil Wilkinson also pointed out in more detail how Red America has its own counter-elite to the type of elite Murray is describing.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2010/10/tea_partys_suspect_populism

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the link, Camassia. I disagree with Will about many things, but on this point, he's right on:

Very roughly, churchgoing non-coastal rich people are Republicans, while the more secular coastal rich are Democrats. What we are now seeing is not a showdown between the vast non-ideological middle-class and some rising Acai-swilling, assortatively-mating bobo aristocracy, but a standoff between rival elites.

Indubitably. Which, unfortunately, just leaves "populism" again in the position being mishandled as a near rhetorical football by Republican elites, and fled from by Democratic ones.

Ricketson said...

That economist article was interesting, as were the comments associated with it.

FWIW, I found an SES calculator.

Oddly, they say that only 10% of Americans have a bachelor's degree, whereas the US Census bureau says that about 25% do.

Another thought on Murray's quiz: many of the traits he defines as "elite" (e.g. bookishness) are traits that distinguished me from my friends growing up, and even from my brother to some extent.

It makes me wonder if this talk of "elitism" is just good old nerd-bashing.

Anonymous said...

For me the tell line was "The members of the New Elite may love America, but, increasingly, they are not of it." Increasingly? Because the old elite was of America? I grew up with some of the kids of the old elite. Hell, I practically am the old elite except for the fact that my economic mobility has been straight down. The old elite wasn't "of America" thirty years ago.

-Western Dave

Ricketson said...

Western Dave,

Murray may have been comparing today's "New Elite" against the "New Elite" of 30 years ago.

For a wider perspective, Kevin Carson has written a bunch about "the New Class", which is basically what anarchists and communists call Murray's "New Elite".

This group originated with the progressive movement of the early 20th century, and has become steadily more influential since then (during the post-War and post-Industrial phases of American economic history). However, it's really only in the post-Industrial phase that the New Class has grown large enough to potentially become a distinct demographic group (as Murray is suggesting it has).

Stuart said...

There are 25 questions, by my count. If so, you are a little more elitist than you thought.