"Know thyself," the Greek sage advised. But of course this is nonsense. Truly happy people live by the maxim "Overrate thyself." They are raised by loving parents who slather them with praise. They stride through life with a confidence built on an amazing overestimation of their own abilities. And they settle into an old age made comfortable by the warm glow of self-satisfaction. Each of these people is a god of self-esteem, dwelling on a private Olympus.
Imagine two of these gods meeting at a nursery-school parents' social. She is an anthropologist at a community college and chairs the local globalization study seminar. He is an upper-level executive who was recently named Payroll Person of the Year by the West Coast Regional Payroll Professionals Association.
She appears before him with her Tibetan-motif dangly earrings, Andrea Dworkin-inspired hairstyle, peasant blouse, and open-toed sandals (left-wing activists of a certain bent have a strange tendency toward toe exhibitionism). She has constructed a life that "validates" her at every turn. Her Working Assets cell-phone rate plan, her yeast-free spelt bread, and her membership in the Chain Store Boycott League all remind her of her enlightened values and commitment to social justice.
Her accomplishments are really quite impressive. Her journal essay on Latino urban quilting generated intense discussion in the field. She is by far the best outdoorswoman in the Georgia O'Keeffe Hiking Club. She has a reputation in her circle as something of a salad connoisseur, and her views on progressive bluegrass festivals are sought by people she barely knows. In short, she can enter any room aware that she is a person of consequence.
Unlike the anthropologist, the payroll man does not live the sort of lifestyle that is unimaginable without futons. He has never once wanted to free Mumia, or had any views whatsoever concerning Mumia; he doesn't even know who Mumia is. He is more interested in college football and tassels. His loafers have tassels. His golf bag has tassels. If he could put tassels around the Oklahoma-football vanity plate on his Porsche, his life would be complete.
At the parents' social he is a bit disconcerted, because he's not used to socializing in a room that doesn't have a wet bar. Nonetheless, he, too, has constructed a life that reinforces and magnifies his self-esteem at every turn. Every piece of plastic in his wallet reminds him of his own significance. His American Express card is platinum, his United Airlines frequent-flyer award level is Premier Executive, his Hilton Honors category is Deity.
His watch is wafer-thin. He is always the favorite in closest-to-the-pin contests at resort-hotel motivational conferences. Yet his greatest source of pride is that he, like most American men, considers himself a master of transportation. He knows a secret parking spot close to the entrance of his local airport. Every bag he owns is on wheels, for easy maneuverability. He has memorized his seven frequent-flyer numbers, and he never, ever sets off the metal detectors. He knows which Boeing models have the widest emergency aisles (for extra legroom) and which first-class lounges offer the best mimosas. He glides through his travels infinitely more knowledgeably than the queued-up mortals around him.
When these two impressive individuals meet at the hors d'oeuvres table, they naturally detest each other. The anthropologist secretly reflects that whereas her four-year-old can sing the entire alphabet song, can identify six of the first ten numerals, and was clearly the most promising student in the Parent-Toddler Poetry Workshop, Mr. Payroll's little boy spends all day on the ground staring at toy-truck wheels. Mr. Payroll is thinking that whereas his little guy is so mature that he leads the class in tearless morning drop-offs, the anthropologist's girl sobs hysterically and clings to her mother's legs as if she were being abandoned to the Khmer Rouge whenever her mother tries to kiss her good-bye.
Despite their feelings of mutual contempt, the two manage to have a pleasant conversation, mostly about the wonderfulness of the nursery school they have selected for their kids. Then they retreat to their respective cultural klatches feeling greatly superior to the person they have just left behind.
We have democratized elitism in this country. There is no longer a clear pecking order, with the Vanderbilts and the Biddles and the Roosevelts at the top and everybody else down below. Everybody gets to be an aristocrat now. And the number of social structures is infinite. You can be an outlaw-biker aristocrat, a corporate-real-estate aristocrat, an X Games aristocrat, a Pentecostal-minister aristocrat. You will have your own code of honor and your own field of accomplishment. And everybody can be a snob, because everybody can look down from the heights of his mountaintop at those millions of poor saps who are less accomplished in the field of, say, skateboard jumping, or who are total poseurs when it comes to financial instruments, or who are sadly backward when it comes to social awareness or the salvation of their own souls.
Communications technology has expanded the cultural space. We now have thousands of specialized magazines, newsletters, and Web sites catering to every social, ethnic, religious, and professional clique. You can construct your own multimedia community, in which every magazine you read, every cable show you watch, every radio station you listen to, reaffirms your values and reinforces the sense of your own rightness. It is possible, maybe even inevitable, that you will slide into a solipsism that allows you precious little contact with people totally unlike yourself. But in your enclosed sphere you will feel very important.