The Magazine

Elites, and Those Who Love Them

A debate that won't go away.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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We may sooner than you think look back at 2008 and need to be reminded that this was the year when the stock market crashed, the banks reeled, the streets of Athens ran with blood, Obama captured the White House and invited the Clintons back in, the GOP collapsed, and Chris Buckley and David Frum left National Review. Instead, we will remember 2008 as the year of the great Lionel Trilling revival.

It's not just that Trilling's essays have been republished in two new handsome paperback editions, each introduced by an intellectual pooh-bah at opposite ends of the LaGuardia-Reagan shuttle: Louis Menand of the New Yorker and Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic. It's that a particular set of Trillingesque ideas have seized the imaginations of our best and brightest. Trilling thought that Americans have been shy about examining questions of status, of manners, and of elitism. "Americans will not deny that we have classes and snobbery," he wrote, "but they seem to hold it to be indelicate to take precise cognizance of these phenomena. Consider that Henry James is, among a large part of our reading public, still held to be at fault for noticing society as much as he did."

If you look around, you will hear America singing a Trillingesque defense of elitism. You will notice many Republicans joining this chorus: deploring the verbal attacks on elitism and elites--in journalism, entertainment, and the right and left coasts in general--committed by conservative personalities in the media and by the now-forgotten young person who ran for the vice-presidency last year.

The rumblings began before the election, but erupted in earnest soon after. On November 5, David Frum wrote a notorious column in the National Post in which he demanded a reinvented Republican party. He imagined a GOP that could win the hearts and minds of the elite--or as he described it, the votes of college graduates and Connecticut residents--because such a party would stand up for the social issues and American values that Bachelors of Arts and Nutmeggers hold dear on abortion, the environment, and keeping religion for Sundays.

Last month, Toby Young, who has made himself famous and rich because Graydon Carter fired him from Vanity Fair, wrote a rare serious article: in Prospect upon the 50th anniversary of his father, Michael Young's famous intellectual satire, "The Rise of the Meritocracy." Young pondered a mystery he sees taking place in Britain. The old class system--and more, the elaborate set of manners that was native to the upper class, while setting the tone for all the others--has disappeared. "As a student in the mid-80s, I was proud to call myself an 'Oxbridge Gooner'--one of several dozen students at Oxford and Cambridge who regularly attended Arsenal games." It was rare then, but common now. "The rich and the poor no longer live in two nations, at least not socially. .  .  . Mass culture is for everyone, not just the masses." Strong words from a man who, in his intellectual days, founded a journal subtitled "Low Culture for Highbrows."

And last week, Melik Kaylan, writing in Forbes, deplored how conservatives in America have associated themselves with opposition to elite values.

Suddenly, the orators of the right have taken up the 1970s leftist obsession with overthrowing "elites." Certainly, it's true enough that 30 years on, those leftists have become the elites, in academe, in art, in Hollywood and many parts of the media. But advocating class war, even intellectual class war, is hardly a sound conservative policy.

Conservatives, he thinks, are no longer intellectual like Bill Buckley, but his opposite.

When did conservatism become a lowbrow pursuit? Traditional values created the greatest churches, paintings of the Renaissance, country houses, book collections and a love of learning. As it stands, these days, the conservative masses mostly consume entertainment, and culture is considered elitist. This is nonsense. We need an aesthetics of conservatism.

What can we make of this? First of all, I must say, in keeping with my theme, that not only are Messrs. Frum, Young, and Kaylan admirable writers who enjoy no little status among a select readership, but each one of them is a friend. The David Frums bequeathed their jewel of a child-minder to the Sam Schulmans when they left New York for Washington. Melik Kaylan and Toby Young were my confreres at "Taki's Top Drawer" in its first incarnation as a section in the once-great New York Press. In those innocent days, "Top Drawer" expressed a confident irony regarding the social elite, to which our owner Taki both belonged and energetically undermined. But what has turned David, Melik, and Toby into defenders, not mockers of the elite--and me into a namedropper?

It might be the consequences of defeat. Politics, like theater, is a heartbreaking pursuit. To see your ideas misrepresented and shunned, your comrades in tatters, is to some a personal affront. At such a moment, to proclaim that you were rejected because you pretended to be something you are not is comforting. For my distinguished friends, it may be a temptation to decide that it was not their ideas that were rejected, but the shabby populists who were the incompetent champions of those ideas--talk show hosts, TV scolds, counter-jumpers from faraway states of which we know very little. But what they have still to learn is that a change of party brings only a change in personnel among the elite--not a move up or down the scale. There was a story that I heard about the 1964 election in Britain that swept the Tories from power. At last, they said in certain Oxford common rooms, we won't have a cabinet full of all those bloody men from--well, it would be snobbish to mention the name of the Oxford college (of which my friend Leon Wieseltier and I are both members). But when Wilson named the members of the new Labour cabinet, it contained just as many members of the college as the Tory cabinet had done.

Such is the way of the world. But Toby Young, despite his sophistication, is shocked that the proportion of graduates from elite public schools in the learned professions has remained the same in the last 50 years. He forgets that idealistic politicians in the Labour party (to which his father devoted his great talents) systematically destroyed the free grammar schools that offered the brightest children of the masses an equivalent education. As a result, only those children who have attended the British equivalents of Punahou School, Lab School, and Sidwell Friends have the opportunities which children from ordinary families--like Margaret Thatcher and Edward Heath--once enjoyed.

Speaking of schools, I hope that my neo-elitist friends notice that Richard Just in the New Republic is responding to their unilateral disarmament by taking up the anti-elitist weapons they have abandoned. To Just, the notion of appointing Caroline Kennedy to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat is social elitism reminiscent of the worst excesses of the Republican party: "along comes the ultimate symbol of social elitism to stake her claim to a powerful place in the Democratic Party."

The irony here is wonderful--but I think that Caroline is hugely qualified to be senator. Have I told you about the super job she did chairing the search committee to find a new headmistress for my daughters' school in Manhattan?

Sam Schulman, a writer in Virginia, is publishing director of the American.