This heady topic is one that we debate often here at OTC. And as Capitol Hill here in Washington, D.C., prepares for an ideological and partisan handover, that word is again popping up. “Elite.”
Grab a brandy and settle into your distressed leather club chair, this is a long one. Enjoy and of course, feel free to discuss. And please don’t despair; we’ll shortly be diving into such weighty subjects as the history of Brooks Brothers and OTC’s favorite grooming products.
While the stunningly elegant halls of Congress are a mere five-minute stroll away, OTC is not a political site. Indeed, classic taste reflected in modern times favors no party or ideology. Frankly, if you are able to hold a reasoned debate over any mildly complex or potentially volatile issue (and order a Hendricks & tonic without losing your train of thought), you’re halfway to having great personal style anyway.
That said, the theoretically pejorative term “elitist” is starting to get tossed around again, and since we all clearly fit that description, it’s worth a look. Wait, you don’t think you’re one of them? You aren’t an elitist? Really…
Are you jazzed by dead stock selvage denim straight from the warehouse in Tokyo? Are you all about working surgeon’s cuffs and double vents? Do you know what the heck a surgeon’s cuff is? Do you carry a Filson briefcase to highlight your “authentic American workwear” aesthetic? Do you tweet about vintage Rolex auctions or dig ACL’s co-branding project with J.Crew (do you automatically know what ACL stands for)? Do you have or want anything custom made? Do you have a favorite brand of khakis? Do you read Monocle?
Like I said…
America has always celebrated the underdog – it is part of our national psyche. We appreciate hard work, determination and sacrifice. We relish our ability to overcome the randomness of one’s initial station in life and make of it what we wish. That previous list of elitist pastimes and obsessions holds no interest to real folks. Jeans? You should have one pair and not give a hoot who made them. And if cost more than $25.00, well, your priorities are mixed up.
We loudly tout the honesty and satisfaction of a tough fight to the top of the heap over the soft gifts of heredity and privilege; that is of course until we are the beneficiaries of such heredity and privilege. Then, maybe, it’s not such a bad thing. Perspective…….you know.
As a culture we admire the iconic all-American blue collar worker who earns an honest living and whose common sense usually works better then the highbrow babble of out-of-touch politicians and Ivy League “thought leaders.” We temper the idealized image of middle-America with an appreciation for the fruits of hard work: financial success and advancement, education and intellectual growth.
We tell our kids to value learning and to reach for the stars, to work towards a better life while not forgetting where they come from. And always we hear the same mantra repeated across all socioeconomic classes: I want my kids to have it better than I did.
How is it then, that being smart, well educated, worldly and cultured is a bad thing? Striving to achieve great success though hard work and dedication is a positive trait, but actually achieving it seems to be negative. Appreciating different cultures, expanding one’s horizons and enjoying the finer things in life are portrayed as an abandonment of “real” America.
This being Washington, President Barack Obama tends to be the poster child for the classic Ivy League, white wine sipping, arugula eating, overly intellectual elitist. The subtext is clear – if one is overtly smart or refined, worldly or intellectual, it would appear that he is an “elitist.” The tone often accompanying this pronouncement reminds me of when people were slapped with labels like “commie” or “pinko.” It is meant as an insult; a sort of cultural betrayal.
The president did graduate from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was also president of the Harvard Law Review; three things, by the way, I would be quite proud to to announce whenever possible had I achieved any of them. He is handsome and photogenic, dresses well, can give one heck of a speech (at least on the campaign trail) and is clearly an intellectual sort of guy, occasionally to his detriment.
And yet all of that hard work and sacrifice, all of that dedication is often chalked up to elitism in the most pejorative use of the word. Has he not done what we counsel children every day to do? Mr. Obama was not given any of these successes as gifts – he worked for them. But the question remains: does any of this make him an elitist? And what exactly is an elitist? And even if he (or you or I) is one, why is that bad?
My mother once sent me a newspaper clipping titled, “In praise of social climbing.” She liked the fact that the author put that often-maligned practice into context: social climbing is nothing more than networking with a purpose. It helps you succeed in a career, meet new people, take advantage of opportunities and just get out there in the world. Today we call such social climbing “LinkedIn.com.”
That is how I view this elitist brouhaha: it’s a PR issue. Take the genuinely impressive accomplishments of one man’s life and slap the label of elitist all over them and he is reduced to the caricature of an effete and out of touch snob. Regardless of your political leaning, that’s just wrong.
To be bipartisan about this, let’s remember that President George W. Bush graduated from Yale and Harvard universities. And he didn’t go to public high school, he attended Phillips Academy – about as old school prep as humanly possible. President Bush’s family history is riddled with elitist lawyers, senators, governors and of course presidential parents. He is a member of Yale’s legendary Skull & Bones secret society and his significant wealth is primarily inherited – fine with us by the way. Now, that’s elitist!
Encouraging growth, success and intellectual expansion but then bashing its achievement is indeed a bad thing. Tossing around polarized labels like “elitist” not only encourage small thinking but also creates a deterrence to the open appreciation of things like art and music, wine, culture and intellectualism.
It sends our kids a mixed message, but it also makes me look bad. I went to college and earned two master’s degrees – what a royal mistake that was. I like good food, design and, obviously, well made clothes. Worse, I ponder such issues as global relations, the long term social impact of our acquisitive culture and when I can afford a nice pair of handmade brogues.
I have written on such arcane topics as merino wool trumping cashmere and the unlikely role of Ralph Lauren as a historian of American social culture. You have willingly debated with me which mechanical watches are the best. Yep – we are all über elitists.
And what of it? This wonderful forum has grown into a global resource for nearly 25,000 people every month. Readers from more countries than I can count stop by to learn something new, leave a comment or find an inspiration for expressing their own personal style.
We question and challenge each other and each, hopefully, walks away with a better perspective on life. We celebrate craftsmanship and individual style because to us, each represents an expression of personal achievement. We are not happy being provincial and holding to a tunnel vision of the world.
So, if all that makes me an elitist, I will proudly wear the label ( I hope you do too). Happy New Year and look for even more changes for OTC in 2011!