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November 8, 2010

TT: Taking the test

Charles Murray's recent Washington Post essay about the emergence of a "new elite" in American life got talked about, and rightly so. But it was this part of the piece that caught my eye:

Far from spending their college years in a meritocratic melting pot, the New Elite spend school with people who are mostly just like them—which might not be so bad, except that so many of them have been ensconced in affluent suburbs from birth and have never been outside the bubble of privilege. Few of them grew up in the small cities, towns or rural areas where more than a third of all Americans still live....

With geographical clustering goes cultural clustering. Get into a conversation about television with members of the New Elite, and they can probably talk about a few trendy shows—"Mad Men" now, "The Sopranos" a few years ago. But they haven't any idea who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right." They know who Oprah is, but they've never watched one of her shows from beginning to end.

Talk to them about sports, and you may get an animated discussion of yoga, pilates, skiing or mountain biking, but they are unlikely to know who Jimmie Johnson is (the really famous Jimmie Johnson, not the former Dallas Cowboys coach), and the acronym MMA means nothing to them.

They can talk about books endlessly, but they've never read a "Left Behind" novel (65 million copies sold) or a Harlequin romance (part of a genre with a core readership of 29 million Americans).

They take interesting vacations and can tell you all about a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada or an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor, but they wouldn't be caught dead in an RV or on a cruise ship (unless it was a small one going to the Galapagos). They have never heard of Branson, Mo.

There are so many quintessentially American things that few members of the New Elite have experienced. They probably haven't ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or lived for at least a year in a small town (college doesn't count) or in an urban neighborhood in which most of their neighbors did not have college degrees (gentrifying neighborhoods don't count). They are unlikely to have spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line (graduate school doesn't count) or to have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian. They are unlikely to have even visited a factory floor, let alone worked on one.

Taken individually, members of the New Elite are isolated from mainstream America as a result of lifestyle choices that are nobody's business but their own. But add them all up, and they mean that the New Elite lives in a world that doesn't intersect with mainstream America in many important ways....

Up to a point, I think Murray is onto something—but only up to a point. Take, for instance, the case of yours truly. Yes, I'm an aesthete with an art collection who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, earns his living as a drama critic, used to play jazz, has written two opera libretti, and loves to stay in B&Bs. But that's not all I am, or all I've done:

SIKESTON%20POSTCARD.jpg• I spent the first eighteen years of my life in a small town, and I've never lived in a suburb, affluent or otherwise.

• I got my bachelor's degree from a Southern Baptist college.

• I watched the first three seasons of The Sopranos, but have yet to see a single episode of Mad Men.

• I had to look up Jimmie Johnson and the MMA, but I do know that Drew Carey replaced Bob Barker on The Price Is Right, and I've seen plenty of episodes of The Oprah Show from beginning to end.

• I've never read a "Left Behind" book, but I saw (and wrote about) Left Behind: The Movie.

• Not only did I spend countless nights in my father's various RVs, but I went to Branson for my first honeymoon, and I used to play in a country band.

• I won a Rotary Club speaking contest in high school.

• Most of the members of my family, both immediate and extended, are evangelical Christians.

So who am I, Charles Murray? Where do I fit into your system of cultural pigeonholes? How do you explain me—and might my very existence suggest that America is a more complicated place than you care to admit?

Posted November 8, 2010 12:00 AM

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