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"
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.