Elitism was once synonymous with snobbish exclusivity, but some say the face of navel-gazing has changed. In a recent article for the New York Times titled The New Elitists, Columbia University sociologist Shamus Khan argues that “cultural omnivorousness” has replaced the exclusiveness of old upper-class culture as a means of shoring up its status. Khan believes that elites cultivate a wide range of tastes that set them apart from others who don’t have the resources to indulge, and hold their broadly cultured palate as a sign their wealth-worthiness. He contends that this omnivorousness is fundamentally a tool of separation, used to lay responsibility for a lack of success on those our democracy fails to serve:
With exclusion and snobbery a relic, the world is available for the most talented to take advantage of. To talk of “elite culture,” it seems, is to talk of something quaint, something anti-American and anti-democratic. Whereas the old elites used their culture to make explicit the differences between themselves and the rest, if you were to talk to members of the elite today, many would tell you that their culture is simply an expression of their open-minded, creative, ready-to-pounce-on-any-opportunity ethic. Others would object to the idea that they were part of an elite in the first place.
You can take or leave Khan’s ideas, or take issue with them as many surely have. However, his thesis is fairly interesting, if only for identifying a new phenomena. Judging from his previous works (like this one where he condemns collegiate ideas of meritocracy), the writer has a penchant for courting controversy. Read Kahn’s musings in their entirety here.
Image: J.P. Morgan striking photographer with cane, 1910. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.