Elites, and Those Who Love Them
A debate that won't go away.
Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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.