Sunday, July 08, 2012

The New Elitists: Cultural Omnivores

Craig Ward

Sociologist Shamus Khan, writing in the New York Times, July 8, 2012, on the tastes of today's elite. Some excerpts:

Poorer people are likely to have singular or “limited” tastes. The rich have the most expansive...Today’s elites are not “highbrow snobs.” They are “cultural omnivores.” 

Omnivorousness is part of a much broader trend in the behavior of our elite, one that embraces diversity...Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it...

To talk of “elite culture,” it seems, is to talk of something quaint, something anti-American and anti-democratic. Whereas the old elites used their culture to make explicit the differences between themselves and the rest, if you were to talk to members of the elite today, many would tell you that their culture is simply an expression of their open-minded, creative, ready-to-pounce-on-any-opportunity ethic. Others would object to the idea that they were part of an elite in the first place.  

But if you look at the omnivore from another point of view, a far different picture emerges.
Unlike the shared class character of Gilded Age elites, omnivores seem highly distinct and their tastes appear to be a matter of personal expression. Instead of liking things like opera because that’s what people of your class are supposed to like, the omnivore likes what he likes because it is an expression of a distinct self. Perhaps liking a range of things explains why elites are elite, and not the other way around. 

By contrast, those who have exclusive tastes today — middle-class and poorer Americans — are subject to disdain...

so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation. Their rhetoric emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to “make it.” Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we refuse to socialize these costs. To be an outstanding student requires not just smarts and dedication but a well-supported school, a safe, comfortable home and leisure time to cultivate the self. These are not widely available...

Today America has less intergenerational economic mobility than almost any country in the industrialized world; one of the best predictors of being a member of the elite today is whether your parents were in the elite. The elite story about the triumph of the omnivorous individual with diverse talents is a myth...

[elites today] deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited.

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