Why does anyone bother publishing things like Susan Jacoby's hilariously titled New York Times essay "Stop apologizing for being elite"?
The only thing more fatuous and boring than listening to a rich and powerful person apologize for his or her flourishing in a painfully insincere manner is hearing the same types explain that, actually, they are proud of the inordinate amounts of wealth and privilege they have accumulated thanks to the vagaries of fortune and their possession of pieces of recycled paper stamped with Latin phrases. Which is not to say that I have any idea what Jacoby, the author of numerous anti-Christian polemics and a book about the "dumbing down" of culture, is talking about when she insists that one of the most pressing crises in American public life is the self-esteem of our elites. Jacoby cites one conversation with a friend and one article written by a law-school professor as evidence of this non-existent phenomenon, as if our coastal cities were being overtaken by processions of grave-faced Goldman Sachs vice presidents and tenured Harvard faculty members clad in sack-cloth and ashes whipping themselves with nettles and chanting penitential psalms.
If anything, I would suggest that we are living in the middle of a golden age of upper-middle-class white professional self-satisfaction. From the Panglossian airport nonfiction of Steven Pinker — the only sort of book that most people of Jacoby's class will ever encounter after finishing college — to the endless smug Vox and NPR interviews with the authors of treatises on rural white degeneracy to the recent sneering about the distribution of GDP from Hillary Clinton, the dowager empress of American liberalism herself, the supply of elite self-satisfaction seems to me well-nigh inexhaustible.
Jacoby never bothers to adumbrate the supposed virtues of the elites she wishes poorer Americans were capable of emulating, but it is clear that one of them is apparently "reading," that well-known pastime of brunch goers from Washington to San Francisco. Nor is she very explicit about what she thinks can be done about the epistemological crisis that makes it possible for unnamed Michigan voters to believe President Trump's conspiracy theories. But it is clear from her piece that this president of an atheist think tank has pretty much the same answer as Ben Sasse, the painfully sincere evangelical pseudo-highbrow Republican junior senator from Nebraska. Both Jacoby and Sasse believe that most Americans are ill educated, crass, lazy, and, probably, fat. What they need to do is broaden their cultural horizons by reading improving books.
Self-improvement has been the clucking nostrum of scolds in all ages and all climes. It was ridiculous in the 19th century when Sir Robert Peel suggested that the English working class should spend less time at pubs and more time reading books about geology. It is even more absurd now, when the likelihood that the average American will have the mental and spiritual resources necessary to engage in meaningful intellectual pursuits is lower than it has ever been.
Does it really not occur to people like Jacoby that the same relentless financialization and technologization of the economy blindly championed by people of her class regardless of their party affiliation has been a disaster for the average American, not only economically but intellectually? How does she expect to convince people brought up on a steady diet of 900 television channels, anti-musical top 40 hits, video games, and streaming pornography, people whose economic horizons have been receding all their lives even as their opportunities for distraction have been multiplied infinitely, to drop what they are doing and read Tolstoy or listen to Mozart? How does she think she will be able to spring them from the algorithmic prisons of "entertainment"? The example of aspirational reading she gives is of her own grandmother, a working-class woman who was born more than a century ago. Has it really never crossed her mind that if Gran were a young woman from a working-class background living today she would very likely be watching home improvement shows on cable and trying to decide whether she should dump her porn-addicted manchild of a boyfriend while still being able to afford rent rather than applying her mind to difficult works of literature?
This is to say nothing of Jacoby's ludicrous pretense that serious reading is an activity in which persons of her own class actually engage. The truth is that our meritocratic elites are themselves painfully ignorant of virtually everything that does not involve their own careers and social lives. The same half-educated morons who forced computers into classrooms, who devised elaborate pedagogical theories about the irrelevance of rote learning, who have been empty apologists for the neoliberal atomization that has enabled their comfortable lifestyles, were too busy preparing for the economy when they were in college to be moved by Wordsworth. For them reading is just another talisman to be clutched to the breast whenever the specter of obese opioid-addicted Trump supporters is raised. Meanwhile the only enjoyable conversations I have ever had about, for example, Proust, were with elderly people in rural America, one an employee of a public television station, the other a pair of shabby-genteel china collectors at a St. Vincent DePaul charity store.
Jacoby's essay is only one example of a widespread cultural phenomenon that demands resistance. Do not listen to these think tank presidents and Northern Virginia wine moms and dog park aficionados when they attempt to justify their ill-gotten gains. There is a word for introducing instant gratification of our basest impulses to hundreds of millions of people in the name of economic growth and then clucking at them when they do not spend their Saturday mornings reading the New York Review of Books with their feet on the fender. It is gaslighting.