Manhattan Upper West Side brownstones
William Deresiewicz has an uncharacteristically self-critical commentary on the aesthetic sensibilty of the urban-based community of fashion elite.
[N]ow I wonder if there’s also something new. Not middlebrow, not highbrow (we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of), but halfway in between. Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).
The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world. (Think, by contrast, of some truly disruptive works: The Wire, Blood Meridian, almost anything by J. M. Coetzee.)
There is a sociology to all of this. As Clement Greenberg pointed out in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), the predecessor to Macdonald’s essay, high culture flourished under the aristocracy. Mass culture came in with mass literacy, while Midcult is a product of the postwar college boom, a way of catering to the cultural aspirations of the exploding middle class. Now, since the ’70s, we’ve gone a step further, into an era of mass elite and postgraduate education. This is the root of the so-called creative class, the Bobos, the liberal elite as it exists today. The upper middle brow is the cultural expression of this demographic. Its purpose is to make consciousness safe for the upper middle class. The salient characteristic of that class, as a moral entity, is a kind of Victorian engorgement with its own virtue. Its need is for an art that will disturb its self-delight.
California is a kind of laboratory in which the bacilli of modernity germinate and grow at a preternatural pace, giving the rest of us a glimpse of our own dystopian future.
Norman Rogers takes a shot at describing life in the particularly lush Petri dish that is Northern California’s Marin County.
The population of Marin is overwhelmingly white, Democrat, and financially well-off. In 2008, nearly 80% of the vote went to Obama. The main minority consists of Spanish-speaking immigrants who prosper by providing services such as gardening, house-cleaning, and child care. The going rate for babysitting is close to $20 an hour. Although official statistics say that the Hispanics have low incomes, those statistics are based on the assumption that landscapers and babysitters, often in the country illegally, carefully report their earnings to the government. ...
Marin is a refuge for upper-income people. It is a place where they can escape the crime and congestion of San Francisco or Oakland. Above all, it is a place where their children can escape the generously funded but abysmal public schools of San Francisco and other urban cities.
In Marin there are shared values, and it is expected that the residents will toe the line. One of those shared values is a kind of make-believe tolerance. The reality is that the inhabitants of Marin are just as conformist and narrow-minded as are the inhabitants of flyover small towns ridiculed by Hollywood or Ivy-League sociology professors. Deviations from expectations will usually generate silent disapproval rather than verbal correction. However, if you depart too far from expectations, you may experience vigorous disapproval. ...
Charles Murray, in his new book Coming Apart, points out that a new social class has been created due to the greater economic value of brains, a consequence of the impact of new technology. These workers tend to be in the high-tech industry or the financial industry. They have a privileged position and are isolated from the rest of America. They tend to marry each other, and they cluster in certain places like Marin County. Because their skills are in great demand, they are unacquainted with economic hardship. The idea that, for example, environmental goals have to be compromised for economic goals is foreign to them because such difficult compromises are not something they have had to face in their personal lives. Since they have led such charmed lives, they see no reason why everyone can’t have similar advantages. So Obama’s message that he is going to fix everything resonates with them. Many members of this new class went to universities where doctrinaire and anti-capitalist ideology is rampant. Thus, they lack historical perspective, or even basic historical knowledge.
Smart people lacking a solid education are susceptible to crackpot ideas, be they global warming, the evil of plastic bags, radio waves making people sick, or Steve Jobs’ theory of healing cancer with nutrition.