Caviar and Cornbread
These days, many have adopted an eclectic lifestyle, plucking bits of different cultures to suit individualized and wide-ranging tastes: the arts, food, entertainment, careers — all swirled into a customized amalgam. It’s quite possible to like both opera and heavy metal, design and writing, boxing and chess, caviar and cornbread. But presently narrowing economic realities are imposing new restrictions.
Inequality is typically viewed from a purely economic perspective, especially one of wages and wealth or lack of them. In the short-term, wage and wealth emphasis makes sense, but when the problem passes the generation mark, as wage stagnation combined with wage and wealth inequality have done, other aspects of inequality become an issue.
Social mobility is a chief example and has begun to receive serious attention. But discussions of decreasing social mobility usually circle back to wage and wealth inequality, often addressing inequality of opportunities such as education, but overlooking other important factors such as those engendered by elitism.
Old-fashioned snobbery, by comparison, is petty and more ridiculous than symptomatic. Older people might recall snobbery evident in a previous generation of city dwellers who migrated from farms and mill towns, while distancing themselves with a flagrantly supercilious attitude. For a long time, every white American understood poverty as a potentially interim condition, with African Americans eventually participating in the same hopefulness. Mocking those left behind deployed haughtiness and affectation — generally acknowledged pretentiousness — at a time when class distinctions were demonstrably fluid and even color caste stood a chance of fading. Elitism is different.
Elitism is attainment that has been maintained past its natural life, becoming fossilized privilege bequeathed like a sculpture representing itself. Elitism doesn’t need to do anything but take up space and be adored and worshiped from one generation to the next. It is remarkably good at what little it does, both possessing and being possessed.
Many of us recall elitism from an earlier period of the twentieth century; indeed, many of us never escaped it. Once glimpsed from below, the face of elitism stars in a recurring nightmare wherein genteel bondage morphs into torturous imprisonment terrorizing the night until, at last, it subsumes the day in horror also. But for others, dawn glimmered with something new on the horizon.
As incomes rose, so did the ability to reach out and acquire, not merely more stuff, but new experiences, broader thoughts and wider associations. While this hinted of education, it was much more and began to yield innovation both technically and of perception and approach to work. Expectations for a better life and more fulfilling career began to rise, also. The Industrial Age management mindset began to be threatened, not merely by new ideas or meritocracy, but also the enormity of robust activity that refused to be contained in vessels fashioned with the purpose of control.
Elitism answers the call of entrenched privilege to squelch the rise of change that threatens calcified dominion. Although it works partly through wage stagnation and income inequality, its intent is the age-old object of preserving the polo field for members only while circumscribing culture, thought and all possibilities not pre-approved.
Ironically, elitism is both feudal and futile, dominating generations grown accustomed to a perpetual rigidity that will snap under relentless assault from change it cannot ultimately control. If through no other means, the magnitude of diversity in the workplace will overwhelm gender and racial prejudice now considered mere collateral damage by those who inflict it. But while we wait for inevitable change, millions are being sacrificed for the privileges of a few that, unchecked, will redound to their discredit in the future.
Long ago, I knew an American aristocrat who refused to eat cornbread because, she said, “cornbread is for servants.” I’m willing to settle for cornbread, but I’m old. It’s not a food that should be callously dispensed to the denizens of a future that starts now.
Copyright © 2015 by Michael Driver
Follow on Twitter: @mdMichaelDriver
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