Tilting at Windmills

January/ February 2014 Why bad news should always trickle up … Polyester and merlot … The hippest fund-raiser in New York

By Charles Peters

Then a few years later came an article called “What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?” by James Fallows, who told the story of how he had starved himself to avoid the draft, but when he was standing in line for his physical, he realized the average guys standing beside him might be going to die in his place. This piece had the greatest impact of all, I suspect because Fallows was writing in 1975, when the threat of the draft was no longer imminent, and because he was telling the story as a fellow sinner. In any case, the Fallows article marked the beginning of the turning of the tide. People whose attitudes toward those who had served in the war had once bordered on contempt gradually began to give respect to people in the service. Not to the point, however, of joining up themselves.

Status inflation

Unfortunately, if we helped end one kind of snobbery, we had little impact on another, the kind that’s continuing today—as evidenced in the Times Styles section. In 1975, the same year as the Fallows article, we published “Taste, Class and Mary Tyler Moore,” in which another young editor, Suzannah Lessard, described how, in order to prove their elite status, people had begun dropping the names not of an ancestor, but of a writer, artist, restaurant, or even a television show. But those names had to be the right ones, and they could change before you knew it. “Being ‘in’ now days is a condition that must be constantly and feverishly maintained,” she wrote. Publications like New York, the New York Review, and Rolling Stone flourished as guides to what was “in” and what was “out.”

One name that became essential to drop was the name of the college or graduate school that you or your offspring attended. In the world of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, the identity of one’s college made little difference, but by the mid-’70s, the right identity was limited to the Ivy League and a relatively short list of acceptable alternatives. The SAT scores needed to gain admission to one of these institutions became the new Holy Grail. This led to a whole new industry of test preparers like Kaplan and to a new emphasis on finding the right prep school, the right elementary school, even the right nursery school, in order to get your kid on the surest path to acceptance at one of the most highly selective institutions. This, of course, usually turned out to require a bundle of money.

Dropping names

There’s probably no other place where American’s meritocratic and celebrity cultures are as intertwined as they are in New York City. The Styles section notes that its fashionable fund-raiser, Audrey Gelman, attended Oberlin with her pal Lena Dunham, the star of Girls, and finished her degree in political science at New York University. (Both Oberlin and NYU are, of course, among the acceptable non-Ivies.) How did Gelman and Dunham meet? “My mom was Lena’s shrink for eight years,” Gelman explains. They would run into each other in the mother’s waiting room. Gelman’s boyfriend, Terry Richardson, is described in the Times as a photographer “known for pornography chic portraits of skin-baring celebrities.”

Paying through the nose to turn up your nose

Even today, as we hear more and more complaints about the soaring cost of higher education, the Journal’s Melissa Korn reports that some students and parents still believe that a high sticker price means a more selective, and therefore better, institution. If the school sweetens the pot with even a token merit-based scholarship, the higher sticker price becomes even more acceptable. In what may be the ultimate example of meritocratic snobbery, Korn cites a study showing that “families overwhelmingly preferred a higher price and scholarships over a low sticker price with no aid.”

Keeping up with the Rockefellers

Education is just one of the ways this kind of snobbery to prove taste has raised the cost of living. If you drink the best wine, eat at the best restaurants, drive the best car, clothe yourself at the best tailors and designers, and stay at the best hotels, you need to work on Wall Street—which is exactly where many of the cleverest meritocrats headed in the 1980s.

Oh, darling, you never order the merlot

Over the years, more people have become aware of the absurdity of the more obvious kinds of taste snobbery, like wine snobbery, and began instead to talk about their favorite beer. But within a few years, even what beer you drank became a way to indicate your taste too. First it was a series of imports, then it was one new microbrew after another, and then it was back to Budweiser. If it’s any indication of where the needle stands now, at Audrey Gelman’s fund-raiser, the Times notes that the “guests were sipping Peroni.”

The problem, of course, is not that someone prefers good wine, or that someone else might choose a single-malt scotch over a microbrewed bourbon, but that many of these people actually think that those preferences make them better than the other fellows—a fact that the other fellows often sense and resent.

The “We” Generation?

Ronald Reagan and Rush Limbaugh proved geniuses at exploiting that resentment, helping them not only to convince people that all snobs and elitists are liberals, but also to turn average guys into potential recruits for the Tea Party and making them as selfish as the Wall Streeters. Indeed, beginning with the Me Decade, selfishness and self-absorption have become more and more widespread. “What’s in it for me?” seemed to become the nation’s new motto. If it’s too corny to again ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country, maybe we can at least begin to think about what’s best for everybody.

One hopeful article in the Times in December reported that Millennials are less materialistic and more concerned with helping others by, among other things, working in the government than were previous generations. One immediate test is presented by Obamacare. Will enough young people sign up for a program that helps many Americans but whose benefits are less immediately obvious to them? Another test will be whether Millennials, unlike young people since the ’60s, actually run for unglamorous offices like the state legislature, and are willing to serve in the trenches of government, helping to implement programs like Obamacare and working to make the system better.

Well-managed government can work

Soon after the president pledged to fix the Affordable Care Act Web site, Jay Leno began his monologue, “When was the last time the government fixed anything? We’ve still got troops in Korea.” The big laugh he got from his audience reflects the automatic antigovernment attitude that’s so pervasive today. I disagree with the attitude, but I understand it. To explain, I have to go back to my beginnings in West Virginia.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.

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