Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Our Ungrateful Elites

Kevin Drum doesn't think much of America's modern elites:

To a dispiriting extent, the top stratum in America no longer really seems to care about America. They care about themselves, and their money, and keeping themselves safe from the huddled masses, but for all too many of them that's about it. I'm not sure I have quite the rose-colored view of the ancien regime that Mike does, but he's certainly right about today's millionaires. No class, no gratefulness for their success, and no sense of bond to the broader society they live in. This is not a winning combination for a country that aims to lead the world.

There's been some talk lately, on the right, about how the rise of American meritocracy -- the best students get into Harvard these days, for example, instead of just the sons of the richest families -- has created a "ruling class" enamored of its own expertise and disconnected from American values. I'm not sure I buy the critique, entirely, but there's something about the word "gratitude" here that strikes a chord with me.

It seems to me that the prevailing ideology among the upper crust discourages gratitude more specific than generalized "proud to be an American" thinking. We're a nation of rugged individualists, the thinking goes, and people who end up with the successful Harvard applications and good jobs and well-appointed friends have come to believe that they have entirely earned their success. They don't consider how the institutions and foundations created by government -- and in the culture -- have made their success possible. What they're told, instead, is that they've been "free" to pursue that success. That's right, of course, but only partly.

I don't pine for aristocracy, but I can see how noblesse oblige might've developed. If you're the third- or fourth-generation of a wealthy or influential family, you might naturally believe that you're in your rightful place in life -- but it would probably be difficult for you to believe you had created your "success." Gratitude might be a more easily accessible emotion in such circumstances. Today's elites believe they're entirely self-made; they're not entirely right, but such attitudes create arrogance and a distance from the broader citizenry.

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