Superiority Complex

We have democratized elitism in this country. Now everybody can be a snob
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"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.

This is not all bad: in this segmented world everybody gets to be successful. If, like me, you believe that human beings are motivated primarily by a desire for recognition, rather than a desire for money, you have to applaud, at least a bit. Unlike money, grandiosity is in unlimited supply; we can all feel tremendously significant. As a journalist, I naturally believe that those who spout their opinions in magazines and on TV—contributing to public discourse, we call it—are leading worthier lives than those whose passion is casino design. The casino designers no doubt think that pundits are pathetic. I recall a Hollywood starlet who remarked at the White House correspondents' dinner a few years ago that it was cute to see all the nerds trying to have fun.

In some ways the health of a society can be measured by how many avenues to self-importance it opens up. In America, which is a successful society, we can all be celebrities in some little sphere, and we are very impressed with ourselves. During the most recent presidential election a Time magazine-CNN poll asked voters whether they were in the top one percent of income earners. Nineteen percent reported that they were, and another 20 percent said that they expected to be there one day.

We are a nation in which almost everybody is above average. We are convinced that we are running our own lives quite well, whereas the idiots around us are screwing up theirs. The journalist David Whitman called this "the optimism gap" in his 1998 book of the same name: my kids' school is good, but the nation's schools stink; my congressman is wonderful, but members of Congress in general are bums; my neighborhood is safe, but crime in general is rampant. It's similar to the attitude that George Carlin says many people bring with them onto the highway: I drive responsibly, but people who drive faster than I do are maniacs, and people who drive slower are idiots.

From the archives:

"The Next Church" (August 1996)
Among the labels one hears are full-service churches, megachurches, seven-day-a-week churches, and shopping-mall churches. Whatever the name, these large and dynamic congregations are the fastest-growing ones in the country. By Charles Trueheart

Still, this pluralism does have its downsides. First, it can't be good that most Americans have entered their own little worlds of self-validation and know very little about their countrymen outside. Consider how little a New York television-news producer probably knows about people who are active in Willow Creek and other megachurches. Or how little a Texas rancher probably knows about people who care whether Cornel West teaches at Harvard or Princeton. Not long ago these different people would have had Life magazine in common, or Walter Cronkite. A generation ago compulsory military service threw diverse people together. But none of this is the case any longer.

Second, pluralism of this sort encourages an easygoing relativism: I feel good about the code of honor in my little social set. Those people over there feel good about the code of honor in their social set. As long as we don't try to impose our values on anybody else, we will all live in harmony. That sounds like a recipe for moral mediocrity.

Third, it leads to national stagnation. The great radicals all felt in some way frustrated; they felt that society was blocking their expectations and must be fundamentally questioned and reformed. Think of the African-Americans who led the civil-rights marches, and the New York Jewish intellectuals who saw the top echelons of society closed to them. But now the civil-rights activist becomes a talk-show host on Black Entertainment Television, and the Jewish intellectual becomes the president of the Modern Language Association. Successful in their own worlds, they feel little compunction about not even speaking the language of those outside. Each segment of society becomes a purer version of itself as the nation as a whole becomes more static.

Surely it would be a good thing if people were encouraged to climb outside their milieu. It would be nice, for example, if AmeriCorps became a rite of passage for young Americans, so that at least for a year of their lives they would be with people unlike themselves. It would be nice if adults who rail against the religious right would go into megachurches or Christian bookstores and actually learn something about the millions they disdain. It would be nice, in other words, if everybody spent some time playing sociologist, and learned about the strangers who are our fellow citizens.

On the other hand, it is delicious to feel oneself the Lord High Achiever of one's own little community. So perhaps it is inevitable that we will just sit back and acknowledge the continued segmentation of our society. In which case I propose a new monument for the Mall in Washington: a huge circular structure, with gleaming marble on the outside and magnifying mirrors covering the walls within. You could walk in and admire reflections of yourself from all angles. And when you reached the center, a great neon sign would flash on, broadcasting to the world the credo of the age: "I Please Me."

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David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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