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R. R. Reno
Our liberal establishment is fragile, far more so than its members realize. It’s a conclusion I came to last month when I accompanied my wife to her 25th college reunion at Yale.
My wife’s gathered classmates provided a fairly representative slice of America’s elite establishment. The reunion featured some panel discussions with notable high-achievers: former government officials, white house speechwriters, best-selling writers, founders of non-profits, etc. Notable or not, most of my wife’s classmates were successful people. Some were lawyers; others doctors. Some founded companies; others worked on Wall Street. As I said: a representative slice of America’s elite establishment.
It was not a bohemian group, not by a long shot. Yes, the reunion program genuflected to the usual multi-cultural concerns, but only with the most cursory bow. And, yes, some classmates spoke of their “partners.” But twenty-five years down the line the overwhelming majority of Yale ’87 are organizing their lives by fairly conventional bourgeois concerns. They have been advancing their careers, accumulating wealth, and worrying about their kids. Most of these Yalies were engaged by their jobs, ambitious and successful in ways that you would expect from people who as children and young adults won the competition for Ivy League acceptances.
But for many, their proper pride in their accomplishments was intermixed with expressions of guilt, or if not guilt than at least regret. It’s one thing to be a successful lawyer, or head-up a corporate division. It can be lucrative; it can require a great deal of intelligence, drive, and self-discipline. Yet most members of the elite today are socialized to discount the ways in which the workaday world both encourages and requires virtue. It’s still thought of in 1960s terms: a sell-out, careerist, soul-crushing. Willy Loman, the beat-down “hero” from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, continues to haunt our imaginations.
This was clearest at a panel I attended. The topic was supposed to be about whether books still matter in a digital age. But the four writers really wanted to talk about themselves. Their books still matter, thank you very much.
Bruce Feiler, the moderator, opened the session by reminding his classmates of just how marvelously successful he is: “one of only a handful of writers to have four consecutive New York Times nonfiction best-sellers in the last decade,” as he quoted from his Wikipedia site. In itself this authorial vanity was unremarkable. More striking was his trump card, which he could not resist playing. “I consider myself very lucky,” he proudly announced, “because my writing has allowed me to make a living without ever needing to get a regular job.”
Although the room was full of highly educated and supremely motivated men and women, most of whom were deeply engaged in their “regular jobs,” nobody jeered, nobody stood up and walked out. In spite of the fact that Feiler had in effect spit on them from the lofty heights of his bohemian superiority, everybody was smiling. “Yes, yes,” their faces seemed to be saying.
It was then that I found myself thinking that we are coming to the end of a cultural era. When the Yale class of ’37 met for their 25th reunion in 1962, I don’t doubt that bourgeois platitudes dominated many minds. A classmate might have spoken about satisfactions of bringing modern business methods to the auto industry. Perhaps another, recently made an Episcopalian bishop, exhorted the class to recognize their duty to be a leaven in society. Meanwhile, their actual lives had already shifted toward the changes that would become so evident later in the 1960s. In 1962, the official rhetoric and consciously affirmed pieties were at cross-purposes with personal behavior and the actualities of life. The haute bourgeois establishment was experimenting with bohemian dreams.
Something of the same seems to be the case in 2012, but in a different direction. Whatever bohemian platitudes our liberal elites say and nod to, this is not what most of them are doing in their lives. It’s this disconnect that makes the liberal consensus so fragile—and opens up the possibility of a better settlement in the future.
Of course, we are not returning to the 1950s (nor, really, should we want to). In the main, elite women wait longer to marry and have children. And they and their husbands worry, a lot. They worry about whether their kids are well adjusted, about where their kids are going to elementary school, high school, and college.
Percolating through their concerns is an underlying anxiety about our culture. The overwhelming majority are not just worried about their childrens’ achievements—they want to protect their kids from the very culture that the post-sixties Left has done so much to create.
In a couple of conversations, these mid-forties parents chuckled about their adolescent pecadilloes and the general atmosphere of the decadent hedonism of their youth. But for the most part they didn’t want their children to get too close to its excesses. Nobody wanted to say that drug use is immoral, or that it’s wrong for high school students to have sex. That would be judgmental and conservative! But they were doing their best to guide their children away from these sorts of “unhealthy choices.”
Reunions are about nostalgia, self-congratulation, and connecting with old friends—not piety. Yet Yale would not be Yale without at least a gesture toward the pieties of the liberal establishment. And so the reunion had something of a theme: sustainability. Reunion literature reassured the alums that their gathering had received a “Green Event Certification.” Food was carefully labeled: organic, locally sourced, grass fed, and so forth. We were reassured that our plastic cups were compostable.
Sustainable. Who can argue with it? After all, unsustainable is, well, unsustainable. But the word struck me as apt for this particular Yale reunion, because it evokes a dream of perpetual stability and changeless peace. Today, the liberal elites of my generation both believe and don’t, they pledge their loyalty, and yet live disloyally—and then perhaps pledge their loyalty all the more earnestly as compensation for their betrayals. It’s complicated, as are all cultural moments, and it’s fragile. And in spite of the complacent cultural confidence of liberal establishment institutions like Yale, it may not be sustainable for much longer.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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