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An American Aristocracy

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he looks at American aristocracy. See Lim’s previous OUPblogs here.

Decades ago, Louis Hartz wrote an opus on American exceptionalism – the idea that America is special because we were never marred by the disease of feudalism that had plagued Europe – and without a confining social order, individualism and the American dream was born.

Watching the Oscars on Sunday night, I wonder if we have established an aristocracy that is even more powerful than all the peers of the realms that Europe ever had. Our aristocracy is not only insanely wealthy unlike the declining nobility in Europe (or the old money in our east coast), they also set the standards of beauty, morality, and even politics. When I watched the movie industry celebrate its own achievements, I was reminded that for all the human warmth and joviality of the event, the glitz and the glamor are the same escape we seek in our modern aristocracy as we found in the old.

Celebrities are not normal human beings. They are stars. Bright, shining gems far far away even though each performance they make seem to bring them closer and deeper into our own hearts. There were a lot of emotions shared last night, but I’m not sure that universal tears aside, an average American understands what it is like to receive or not receive an accolade to which they are not even remotely eligible and probably will never be.

They say a civilization can be judged by how it treats its dispossessed. But in a country such as ours where everyone is apparently middle-class, we are better judged by the cultural elite we have created. Like the old aristocracy, our aristocracy have taken upon themselves the noblesse oblige to dedicate themselves to the people. They  have a duty to entertain, and it is their privilege to be loved in return. So our stars burn bright for as long as they are beloved by the people. Our aristocracy is not hereditary but quite temporary.

This is why it is unclear whether Sarah Palin bestowed on Barack Obama an accolade when she called him a “celebrity” in 2008. Perhaps when now his star is no longer burning so bright, he will stop being an entertainer and become a President. Or perhaps, as the new electoral college, the media establishment will today insist, he must embrace his cultural milieu like the Gipper and Slick Willy, and give us a show worth applauding. The people would not have it any other way.

Hartz was wrong. While we did not inherit a European feudalism, we have made an American one.

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