03. June 2007 · Comments Off on The New Aristocracy · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Politics, Rant, World

For a people that with a great deal of fanfare and self congratulation threw over a monarch and the accompanying aristocracy over two centuries ago, Americans have displayed an avid interest in the doings of such parties, and a dismaying tendency to genuflect before a patent of nobility and a decorative coat of arms, no matter how dubious. Mark Twain sent up this tendency very aptly, with the Duke and the Dauphin, at a time when fabulously but newly wealthy American families were busy marrying off their spare daughters to impoverished European aristocrats. As a small ‘d’ democrat, and amateur historian who is more often amused by ancestor-worship, I wondered why they would bother: forking over tons of cash for the privilege of being condescended to by the descendents of successful mercenary soldiers, social-climbing whores of both sexes and businessmen whose initial successes were made centuries previous just seemed like a pretty bad trade. But this sort of social game is at least consensual; and the families involved at least got their houses fixed up, or built new ones, and presumably injected a little hybrid vigor into their gene pool. Whatever floats the boat – or the familial pretensions, and it gave good materiel to the likes of Twain, Edith Wharton and Henry James.

The domestic variety of aristo-worship has been around nearly as long in our dear old republic. Or at least since the early days of mass communications, and a voracious and fairly literate readership, many of whom were interested in whatever celebrity tidbits a newspaper editor chose to throw in their direction. No, newspapers in the 19th century were not all the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, or portentous deliberations about this or that great political matter. Quite a lot of the newsprint pages were taken up with pretty much the same fleeting concerns as the newspapers today: horrific crime, dreadful accidents, bad weather, scandalous doings among people who were supposed to have known better, and the doings (scandalous and otherwise) of celebrities. Yes, indeed, Lilly Langtry and Lola Montez, and Sarah Bernhardt (among others) were followed just as avidly by 19th century fandom as Paris Hilton is today, although none of them seem to have been quite as witlessly air-headed, and Lola Montez might have been just as rotten an actress. None of them showed off their whoo-whoo in public anyway, although in private might have been another matter. No, an interest in the doings of silly and aimless celebrities is no more a hazard than an interest in the doings of silly and aimless aristocrats. Such interest meets some kind of human need, sells a great many magazines, and provides amusement to people standing in supermarket checkout lines reading the tab headlines.

I can’t be quite so indifferent and amused by the third sort of American aristocrat, even though one particular clan has a tiresome propensity to overlap with the celebrity class as far as the tabloid covers are concerned. I refer to the Kennedys, of John F. and his ilk, and all their various descendents; they are the most colorful but not the first and least of our political dynasties. Such a family as that of John Adams, the Rooseveldts, the Bushes and Gores and all the rest of them where generation after generation gravitated into elected office or public office have served the nation well – but still, the whole notion of political dynasties in America gives me the heebie-jeebies. It’s one step away from a hereditary aristocracy and a bad precedent, operating on the assumption that a recognizable name constitutes entitlement to political office. This bothered me during the 2000 election; frankly I couldn’t see much to choose between either one of the candidates. But these political families have been around for a while, and on balance they’ve probably done us more good service than otherwise.

In one of Lois McMaster Bujould’s Vorkosigan books one of her characters remarks that an egalitarian has no trouble living in an aristocratic society – as long as they can be one of the aristocrats. It’s coming to me that we have become well-stocked around here lately with supposed egalitarians who nonetheless display an unseemly eagerness to secure themselves a high perch from which to lay down the rules for others. This would-be aristocracy runs the whole gamut from well-paid entertainers and journalists, active and retired politicians, to tenured academics and busybodies of every stripe and variety. They all have certain things in common; their personal lives are secure and comfortable, if not downright lavish – but they spent a lot of time in public venues of late urging the rest of us to eschew certain things which they themselves seem to have no intention of giving up.

These Marie Antoniette ‘Let them eat cake’ moments seem to be happening with more frequency. Cheryl Crow’s TP rationing, John Edwards humongous house, lavish travel arrangements and princely fees to make a speech about poverty, the high cost of Prius cars and other “green” accoutrements, intellectuals falling all over themselves rationalizing so-called national leaders like Hugo Chavez, and pricing the working class out of the labor market with docile work-gangs of illegal immigrants. Oh, it goes on and on, and I wonder sometimes in dark moments if such people are like the old Soviet revolutionaries, who overthrew the czar, and then lived in no less privilege and comfort, all the while giving lip service to the ideals of equality. I wonder if in their innermost hearts our would-be aristos wish to demoralize, impoverish and destroy the bumptious, unruly and independent middle class, the rock of any enduring republic. It is almost as if they would prefer a new and docile serf class, who would vote in easily controlled blocs as long as the bread and circuses kept coming – and never talk back to their betters. Who of course, know what is in their best interests. Lately, every time I hear someone sneer at flyover country, or the middle and working class, their taste and preferences in anything, I hear the ghost of Marie Antoniette, and I wonder anew about our new aristocrats.

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