Freaks and geeks

In late October, Charles Murray wrote a piece in the Washington Post called “The tea party warns of new elite; they are right.” I meant to comment on it at the time, but forgot to because of the impending election.
Murray’s thesis is that a new elite has developed that is no longer in touch with ordinary Americans. The new elite consists of folks who attended school “with people who are mostly just like them.” 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.”
For Murray, the new elite is defined, once its members leave school, primarily by its tastes:

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.

I have always admired Murray, so I was disappointed by the pop-sociology served up in his Washington Post piece. Like the bright high school student who ticks off the tastes and habits of the freaks and the geeks, Murray probably isn’t all that wide of the mark in his description of a particular cohort. There is an identifable group of Americans who went to top schools, and a small subset of that group shares some (maybe even most) of the tastes Murray mentions.
But is this group an elite? There’s a place where one can reasonably aspire to be part of the elite based on taste in TV shows, books, and recreational activites. That place is high school (or maybe middle school). In the adult world, elite status depends mainly on the money one accumulates, the things one accomplishes, and the power one exercises.
Murray doesn’t attempt to show that the elite, properly defined by these criteria, is out of touch with ordinary Americans in the ways he describes or in some other ways. He does describe, not unconvincingly, a relatively small group of very well educated and well-off adults that is out of touch with ordinary Americans. But’s that’s nothing new. Today’s member of the new elite (as Murray views him) is yesterday’s egghead, except that the egghead was, for me, a more impressive species who didn’t watch TV at all and who preferred chess to mountain biking and yoga.
If Murray were to analyze the real new elite — defined by their wealth, accomplishments, and power — he might find a cohort more in touch with ordinary Americans than the elite of yesteryear. He would probably find a more diverse group in terms of race, gender, and economic background. Indeed, it’s my impression that the schools Murray says are producing his new elite — and that may be producing, as they traditionally have tended to, a disproportonately large portion of the real elite — select more diverse student bodies than they did a generation, and certainly two generations, ago.
But these are just my impressions, not real sociology. As such, they shouldn’t be taken very seriously. Neither, it seems to me, should Murray’s piece.


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