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Careerism vs. Celebrity Culture

June 28, 2011

Apologies for the delays in updating – as I noted before, I have two exams, tomorrow and the day after on ancien régime France and post-1979 Iran – the establishment of and the reformation of political order, basically – and was in London this weekend visiting friends. The latter was a great time: with unusually warm weather in the UK of around 80 degrees, the sidewalks of the South Bank fluttered with sun dresses, street performers, and bicyclists, and after strolling around for a bit, and a couple of pints with a friend at The Roebuck, a great pub in Southeast London, it was time to retreat into the shade of a friend’s flat for conversation time.

The Roebuck, a lovely pub in Southeast London!

While speaking with the friend, and her partner, we came on a topic that I’ve found myself discussing again and again with other twenty-somethings my age, something that I believe animates and frustrates a lot of people. If we can count this as a first draft towards a bigger discussion I’d hope to return to again in the future, I’d call it the clash between bourgeois and celebrity values.

C Wright Mills' The Power Elite

C. Wright Mills' Concept of a "Power Élite" Underpins a Lot of My Argument Here

What do I mean? For many of us (young meritocratic twenty-somethings who often identify with the educational institutions they’ve been to, and who harbor professional ambitions), we’ve been told again and again for most of our lives that we’re the most talented generation ever. I’m not just talking about the stories of participation awards, of the coddling of feelings that is stereotypically held to have taken root in America in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather, think back to the times you went through a selective applications process, or graduated from high school, or spoke to alumni of your college or graduate school. I’ll bet you head something along the lines of, “Gosh, you know, I could have never gotten into this place. When I was applying here, I only had a (SAT score several hundred points lower than the median for the institution today),” and so on and so forth. In part, I suspect, they’re right. True, on a system-wide level, economists have argued that the amount of work put in by college students has dropped quite a bit: from 40 hours a week in 1961, to 27 hours a week in 2003. I have little reason to doubt this, beyond the fact that it supports the ideology of some baby-boomers that the Millenial Generation is incredibly lazy, and indeed, many of my friends and colleagues who went to institutions that people, well, don’t invest several thousand dollars in for the sweatpants-sweatshirt set, have plenty of anecdotes that confirm this picture. (All of this is not to say that there were not plenty of lazy students at Princeton, too.) Still, when I look around to those who were good – and there were plenty – I see plenty of people I admire. I have friends who are professional-level musicians, who I have no doubt will make great diplomats, bankers, and, though less likely, politicians. Sure, they get stressed out. Sometimes, they become reclusive, and I myself, like many others, have allowed my own passions to get in the way of being the best friend or partner I could be. But while there is, of course, plenty of laziness among students, I look around at many of my close friends, and hope that not too many of them will be peeled off into, well, less useful ventures: living off of trust funds in Brooklyn or Berlin, becoming speculators not investors on Wall Street, or writing on academic obscurantia without thinking more about teaching or intellectuals’ role in the broader society.

Excessive amounts of school touting your alma mater: part of the wardrobe of any successful meritocrat

A common thread in many of their life narratives, and one underscored by research presented in, among other places, David Brooks’ The Social Animalis that although these young meritocrats have ambition, they tend to channel it through existing institutions. We’re hardly a revolutionary generation. We are distant from the culture that, although it sent many young men to Oxbridge, followed by a tour of the empire before settling at the India Office in London, produced writers, thinkers, and adventurers like Patrick Leigh Fermor. While Patrick Pichette strongly encouraged me, in talking, to try to, essentially, pull a Rory Stewart – going off the grid, going on a great adventure, and finding someway to rebrand it on the market of literature – he himself, as I have underlined, arguably failed to represent this set of values in his own life. More recently, at a meeting with the American Rhodes Secretary Elliot Gerson, Gerson encouraged American Rhodes Scholars to divorce themselves from the (extremely common) thought of “Ah, well, this is what I really want to do, but a stint at McKinsey or Yale Law School would put me into even better position to do this.” (Gerson himself went to Harvard, Oxford, and Yale Law in the 1970s.) All fair enough, but many of my contemporaries look, increasingly, to the institutionalized routes to middle-upper class success in the Atlantic World: PhD programs in the States or British doctorates on élite fellowships; sojourns to Harvard and Yale Law School, often with some sense of a political or policy career in mind; medical school, preferably at Harvard and in combination with an MBA or PhD to make it more impressive, and so on. Careerism, as Chris Hedges has emphasized, becomes the leading ideology of the liberal class.

This car for the History Faculty, the next one for Corpus Christi College ...

And yet I cannot blame them. If I might make a historical parallel, it reminds me a bit of one aspect of Soviet society under Stalinism. This past summer, I read and reviewed a neat book, To The Tashkent Station, by Rebecca Manley, a professor of Soviet and Central Asian History at Queen’s University in Canada. The book, which focuses on the experience of evacuation from the European Soviet Union to, among other places, Central Asia and especially Tashkent (one of the biggest and most important cities in the USSR), brings up an interesting fact about everyday life in the socialist state. As people were evacuated from, say, Leningrad or Moscow, they were often grouped into the different train carriages according to the institution they worked for. Families were allowed to evacuate together, occasionally, but the most important thing, according to the official mind that organized the evacuation, was that institutions and their affiliated employees be kept together. While the United States in the 2010s differs, to make a controversial statement, from Stalin’s Soviet Union on a number of counts, this strikes me as something of a parallel, at least when talking about meritocrats and the American élite. People identify much more strongly with their alma mater institutions in the United States than in Germany or the UK, and friends who have worked for firms like JPMorgan, McKinsey, LEK Consulting, Boston Consulting Group, and others often have similar stories: they live lives in hotels and on medium-term business trips with their fellow consultants, sequestered into their working groups and interacting relatively infrequently with people outside of the consulting job or their team. If half of your friends are decamping to Cambridge, MA, New Haven, or Palo Alto to be students at the institutions that dominate those relative cities, then you will feel out of step if you are not a part of the lives of those institutions, too. The point? Try telling someone that you’re taking the crazy job or doing the opportunity that really interests you (I’ve been occasionally eyeing this position with American Councils in Turkmenistan, and while I’m probably not qualified for it at this point in my career, I know that the programs the group runs are effective), and you will get the shiver in your spine, the jump in your stomach, that you’re somehow stepping outside of the established path. There’s always the tension between doing what someone like Pichette might advocate for – taking the huge risk even though he didn’t necessarily didn’t do it himself – and sticking to the party ideology of careerism, preferably through the major institutions.

American Councils

Programs like FLEX, run by American Councils, do awesome work in the former USSR. But tell someone you're working in Turkmenistan rather than going to Yale Law School, and they'll think you're nuts.

And yet the alternate problem that constrains the decision-making of many meritocratic élites is that of celebrity culture, the problem of the celebrity. At the risk of stating the obvious, we live in perhaps the most-celebrity obsessed culture in human history. Reality television shows dominate American television as does coverage of celebrities’ latest escapades. Our most celebrated pop star of the day, Lady Gaga, earns fascination in part because of the way she reflects on her own fame and celebrity. The problem of celebrity, however, isn’t just confined to pop culture. Without naming concrete names, friends and I often bemoan the rise of Wunderkinder who, after a quick sojourn to the Arab World, Eastern Europe, or Afghanistan find ways to reinvent themselves – often exploiting connections back in the United States, quick book deals, or other patronage networks – as policy analyst celebrities in spite of not actually speaking the languages of the places they profess expertise on, not having lived in the regions in question for significant amounts of time, or not knowing the literature or history of the land, as real intellectuals like Fermor did. One particularly egregious case which I will not name concretely involves a former fancy fellowship winner who, following one deployment to Afghanistan, wrote a memoir and got a position as one of our current President’s Afghanistan advisers. And while I am not deeply in touch with military or policy-making culture today, this is maddening. While in Dushanbe, I met several American soldiers at holiday parties who were on a relatively easy posting (Tajikistan) after multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with no book deal or White House job afterwards. More recently, while staying at a hostel in Florence, Italy for a conference, I had dinner with another Army solider (not an officer) who was returning home to Wisconsin after a total of three deployments to Iraq. While lacking the pretension or Wunderkind aura of policy celebrities, he did know the routes that Iran used to smuggle arms into Shia militias in Iraq. I found his lack of ambition to found an NGO, write a book, and be interviewed multiple times a day on TV refreshing. Aaron Snipe, a US Foreign Service Officer in Iraq who maintains an excellent web site and blog, was mentioned to me by Foreign Service Officers in Dushanbe as an example of the kind of person that best represents America overseas, but I do not see him building up his media empire, or basing himself out of Midtown offices while holding court on, say, the meaning of the recent bombing of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul.

Lady Gaga's Frog Outfit

The essential choice in life: wear outrageous frog outfits, or join the power élite

But here’s the problem: many meritocrats I know know that the celebrity route, even if it were accesible to them, is stupid. You don’t get to be a good officer by going on the lecture circuit; you do it, as Army friends have emphasized to me, deploying enough that you can command respect from a group of soldiers who themselves have been on multiple tours. While a good education, be it in the academy or a la Fermor might be a useful preparation for a life in international affairs, you don’t necessarily learn a lot about the world, or how US policy might be modified to serve the country’s interests from your midtown office, or even from Cambridge, MA – or Oxford for that matter. Still, many friends and colleagues feel constrained by the culture. They tell you, often, that we need more people with experience living in the crazy places, that they want you to take more risks. But look around, and more often than not I see élites disdainful of people in, say, the position of Snipe or the Turkmenistan job, all while they are ready to devour books on how Twitter will revolutionize Turkmenistan (Internet penetration in Central Asia remains quite low, and the media/information situation in the FSU is so complex I will reserve it for another post.) And so faced with the prospect of genuine risk-taking, or adhering to the established institutions, where, true, adventure and deep learning may not take place but the route to the Manhattan lifestyle might be open, they choose the latter. Reforming the cultural values that shape the decision-making processes of meritocrats is, of course, a long-term project, this only a first draft of some of my thoughts on the matter, by no means definitive. Be in touch with your own thoughts on what I think is an important cultural issue.

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