The New Elitists
By SHAMUS KHAN
YOU can tell a lot about people by looking at their music collections. Some have narrow tastes, mostly owning single genres like rap or heavy metal. Others are far more eclectic, their collections filled with hip-hop and jazz, country and classical, blues and rock. We often think of such differences as a matter of individual choice and expression. But to a great degree, they are explained by social background. Poorer people are likely to have singular or “limited” tastes. The rich have the most expansive.
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We see a similar pattern in other kinds of consumption. Think of the restaurants cherished by very wealthy New Yorkers. Masa, where a meal for two can cost $1,500, is on the list, but so is a cheap Sichuan spot in Queens, a Papaya Dog and a favorite place for a slice. Sociologists have a name for this. 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. Barriers that were once a mainstay of elite cultural and educational institutions have been demolished. Gone are the quotas that kept Jews out of elite high schools and colleges; inclusion is now the norm. Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it.
This was not always the case.
In 1880 William Vanderbilt tried to buy one of the 18 coveted boxes at the New York Academy of Music on 14th Street by offering $30,000 for it. Vanderbilt represented new money, and to the old families controlling the academy his attempt to buy his way into a place reserved for them was a crass affront to their dignity. Money may be king in certain parts of New York society. But not everything can be bought.
Or so it seemed. After his bid was rejected, Vanderbilt joined other nouveaux riches families like the Goulds, Rockefellers and Whitneys and founded the Metropolitan Opera House Company. With 122 private boxes, there was plenty of space for the city’s expanding elite.
This new elite sought to supplant the old families from their long-held seats, but the transformation was hardly radical. While the old elite was ultimately forced to join the new elite at the Metropolitan Opera after its academy collapsed in financial ruin, they did so in a space that was still comfortable: an opera house. Modern temples of power were built on the foundations of the old. New elites were often conservative in their tastes — building mansions that emulated those of European aristocrats, buying up old masters and building shrines to European art forms.
In his brilliant work on the Gilded Age, “The Monied Metropolis,” the Harvard historian Sven Beckert argues that this era helped consolidate the American bourgeoisie. Originally, the old families of New York formed an elite caste defined by their lineage and were not threatened by the fact that they shared many of the same tastes as common men. Through much of the 19th century, cultural differences between elites and the rest were not so great. Shakespeare and opera held mass appeal. To attend an evening’s concert at the New York Academy of Music might mean hearing Verdi, but also some church music and perhaps vaudeville-esque interludes by popular comedians of the day.
It was the robber barons’ joining of the elite that forced a change. As access to elite status became less limited through family ties and more open to men of new wealth, New Yorkers found a new mechanism of social closure. They created an exclusive culture distinct from that of the common American, the result of which was something far more elitist. Through snobbery elites became a class. They developed a shared culture and sensibility. They also shared common enemies.
The Rockefellers were not the only “new men” on the scene. Others were pouring into Lower Manhattan. Elites feared the rabble who flowed ashore on boats from Europe — eight million people between 1855 and 1890. The wealthy moved uptown. Among their mansions they built an armory in 1880, “defensible from all points against mobs.” Many sent children away to boarding schools to escape the corruptions of the city.
Elites built moats and fences not just around neighborhoods but also around cultural artifacts. The Metropolitan Opera made cultural performances more “pure,” dropping the vaudeville. High ticket prices made the popular music of Verdi less accessible; soon it was the rich and not the rest who enjoyed this music. Even great public institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art were only nominally so. It was far from the homes of workers, closed on the one day they had free (Sunday) and known to remove working-class patrons for, as the director of the museum put it, “offensive odors emitted from dirt on their apparel.” The sociologist Nicola Beisel has shown how the fine-art nudes that had once circulated among workers on postcard replications were banned as pornography through the Comstock laws and limited to an imposing building that only “respectable” New Yorkers would enter.
This was the birth of the modern upper-class elite; its own schools, clubs and cultural artifacts made it quite distinct from other Americans.
HOW far we’ve come! Our modern omnivores have filled in the moats and torn down the fences. With exclusion and snobbery a relic, the world is available for the most talented to take advantage of. 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. If the world is open and you don’t take advantage of it, then you’re simply limited and closed-minded. Perhaps it’s these attributes that explain your incapacity to succeed.
And 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. When some students struggle, they can later tell the story of their triumph over adversity, often without mentioning the helping hand of a tutor. Other students simply fail without such expensive aids.
These are more than liberal platitudes. Look at who makes up the most “talented” members of society: the children of the already advantaged. 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. In suggesting that it is their work and not their wealth, that it is their talents and not their lineage, elites effectively blame inequality on those whom our democratic promise has failed.
Elites today must recognize that they are very much like the Gilded Age elites of old. Paradoxically the very openness and capaciousness that they so warmly embrace — their omnivorousness — helps define them as culturally different from the rest. And they deploy that cultural difference to suggest that the inequality and immobility in our society is deserved rather than inherited. But if they can recognize the class basis of their success, then perhaps they will also recognize their class responsibility. They owe a debt to others for their fortunes, and seeing this may also help elites realize that the poor are ruled by a similar dynamic: their present position is most often bound to a history not of their own choosing or responsibility.
It is past time for elites to give up the cultural project of showing how different they are from others. They should commit themselves instead to recognizing that there is a commonweal that we all have a responsibility to improve.