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Taste, class, and Mary Tyler Moore.

This piece appeard in 1975.

The work of Edith Wharton may seem an unlikely place to look for illumination of current affairs, but there is one respect in which her novels and stories cast light on the workings of our own world. That is the role which cultivation, in the sense of a sophisticated appreciation of the arts and of ideas, plays in the American class structure. Social standing, in the old sense of who your parents are, is no longer a criterion, although a touch of that sort of glitter still can be made to go a long way; the result is a more accessible elite, and a more interesting one, in the sense that talent rather than genealogical credentials is the surer ticket to social success.

The fact that the high circles are accessible to a variety of people, however, does not mean that people judge each other more liberally than they once did. In fact, a case could be made that, in the absence of a standard measure of acceptability, a far more obsessive and byzantine method of cataloging has evolved. The rapid, sophisticated computations of multiple labels-dress, job, school, intelligence, political attitudes, accents, and acquaintances-with which one person judges whether another "is one of us" make the old society's manner of judging (what's your pedigree-usually meaning how much money do you have and how long have you had it) seem more innocent than snobbish. Being "in" nowadays is a condition that must be constantly and feverishly maintained and can depend upon such unexpected attributes as knowing a Black Panther yesterday or being an aficionado ofthe "Mary Tyler Moore Show" today (don't rely on this one-it's already stale).

To a degree, this is just a more frenetic version of the value system Mrs. Wharton made fun of-the acquisition of the latest avant-garde paintings, rushing out to the Theater of the Absurd, quickly boning up on Malraux to add gloss to your cocktail conversation-more frenetic perhaps because a social aspirant now has nothing but cultivation to rely on to distinguish himself, has no listing in a social register to point to when this other, extremely vulnerable form of legitimacy begins to erode.

The chief damage done by the excessive preoccupation with and fear of philistinism is that it cramps growth and exchange of ideas. The endeavor to identify enduring values-in art, in political ideas, in ways of seeing-is a genuine one, but if one party is going to feel a withering panic when another adroitly brands his icon as phony no dialogue can take place, only war, a war of self-esteem. Thus in the name of the really important work of distinguishing between the genuine and the ersatz, ideas are turned into mascots and slogans in a struggle for a kind of personal ascendency.
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Title Annotation:Special Anniversary Section: Who We Are; What We Believe; Why We Believe It
Author:Lessard, Suzannah
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
Words:466
Previous Article:Community.
Next Article:Who's a snob and who's not.
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