In an age of anti-elitism, the elitists have developed a neat trick for reveling in their privilege while seemingly waving it off: elite populism, the practice of critiquing the privileged class to which you belong.
The most recent example comes from William Deresiewicz, author of the forthcoming Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Deresiewicz, whose résumé includes two degrees from Columbia University and ten years of teaching at Yale, published an essay last week in The New Republic called “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” Subtitle: “The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies.” What followed was a familiar rant against the grade-grubbing and culturally isolated success-obsessives who prioritize “return on investment” over high-minded intellectual wanderings and a true understanding of their fellow Americans.
I say “familiar” because this type of complaint — from an elite insider who recasts himself as a populist truth-teller — is itself an Ivy League archetype, one that bizarrely performs the very privileges, shortcuts, and flaws it critiques. Elite populism provided the vehicle for an acclaimed memoir for Walter Kirn; launched New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s career; powered William F. Buckley and F. Scott Fitzgerald; and provided fodder for countless magazine articles and blog posts. So why is this paradoxical social practice so popular? As one who occasionally casts herself in this moderately annoying role, I have a few theories.
1. Elite populism is actually a how-to guide to elitism.
To critique something effectively you must understand it intimately. Deresiewicz’s essay is framed as advice for would-be Ivy League parents, after all, and he opens with a primer on the inner workings of Yale’s admissions office. It seems likely that aspiring Ivy Leaguers and their parents will use this the way a young Tobias Wolff used Vance Packard’s critical book Status Seekers: as a guide.
“This book explained how the upper class perpetuates itself,” Wolff writes in his memoir This Boy’s Life. “Its motive was supposedly democratic, to attack snobbery and subvert the upper class by giving away its secrets. But I didn’t read it as a social criticism. To seek status seemed the most natural thing in the world to me. Everyone did it. The people who bought the book were certainly doing it. They consulted it with the same purpose I had, not to deplore the class problem but to solve it by changing classes.”
2. Elite populism doesn’t threaten the elites.
The obsession with improving Ivy League conditions only further exalts those institutions. Deresiewicz toys with advising students to transfer to public universities or spend time working in the service industry so they will meet “smart people who do not go to a prestigious college, or to any college.” But even these solutions, Deresiewicz admits, are not “a satisfying answer.” He also advocates “reforming” Ivy League admissions standards and class schedules, while simultaneously improving public education. Does anyone disagree with that? As Rich People Things author Chris Lehmann points out, Deresiewicz “remains obsessed with the fine-tuning of elite experience,” rather than taking a meaningful stand against it. (Lehmann’s suggestion: “Nationalize the Ivy League.”)
3. Elite populism is an excuse for navel-gazing and the airing of guilt.
Since elite populism ultimately amounts to an intense discussion of the elite experience, it ultimately turns into a parlor discussion at the Harvard Club — albeit one that absolves participants from the shame of being the kind of person who hangs out at the Harvard Club, talking about Harvard with other Harvard people.
If that sounds bleak, imagine Harvard guy discussing Deresiewicz’s article with the human object lessons he meets at his service-industry job. Even worse, right? But Harvard guy needs to talk about Harvard. He can’t help it. After a childhood of Harvard-aspiring activity, four years of living and sleeping at Harvard, and a lifetime of Harvard alumni mailings, he has Harvard Stockholm Syndrome. But he also recognizes how silly that is. He carries some privilege-related guilt — not white guilt, since he is not necessarily white, but perhaps some kind of Crimson guilt. And so he channels some of that Harvard Stockholm Syndrome energy into Harvard critique.
Deresiewicz opens one paragraph: “Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit?” What a depressing query. Are young people really absorbing that much self-hate, simply by pursuing degrees while remaining conscious of future debt burdens? Why are they — or anyone — looking to a former Ivy League professor with two Ivy League degrees to answer that question?
4. Elite populism is stealth-snobby.
“I’m from Harvard,” the elite populist says, “but I’m not like those Harvard people.” Which ones? Whichever ones you hate, probably, but the distinction also boils down to a sort of micro-cultural divide that falls, strangely enough, along some class lines. Is college, as Deresiewicz argues, “an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance,” or is it an opportunity for upward mobility?
This well-intended imperative toward impracticality is perhaps the most irritating element of Deresiewicz’s essay. It reads like an indictment: “College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later.” Slate’s Osita Nwanevu replies: “This is perhaps the most terrifying sentence about higher education ever committed to print, one that feeds into the anxious, competitive mindset that Deresiewicz decries.”
Because in the end, waving away your own privilege — and looking with disdain upon those who aspire to it — is the most old-fashioned form of snobbery. It's Edith Wharton characters with austere taste and Dutch last names sniffing with disgust at the vulgarity of new money. It's the owners of decrepit New England family summer homes shaking their heads at encroaching McMansions. It's saying you went to school "outside Boston," ostensibly to avoid sounding like a braggart, but actually as a dog whistle for those in the know.
In other words, the pastime most likely to indicate a person’s membership in the Ivy League is complaining about the Ivy League in exquisite detail.