I'm honestly getting to the end of my rope with The New York Times. Every single time I have opened this paper in the past couple of months, I have seen something annoying and weird.
Today's opinion column, for example, has revealed to me that the person to blame for the fact that more and more Americans get deeper and deeper into debt is . . . me. And other people like me. In the article "Is the American Dream Over?", David Brooks suggests that people "who can manipulate ideas and abstractions," who have "unique mental skills," and who are highly educated are to blame for the growth of the uncontrollable culture of consumption that drives people into debt. At a first glance, this point of view seems completely bizarre. When you read Brooks's line of reasoning that led him to this strange conclusion, however, you realize that, in terms of bizarre, you truly ain't seen nothing yet.
These highly educated people, says Brooks, "have tremendous cultural influence" and "unwittingly set the norms everybody else must live up to." Television networks, for example, fall over themselves to depict our upper middle-class, highly educated lifestyles. For Brooks, these educated cultured lifestyles consist of having "the bigger house (which now seems normal) or the multiple cars or the flat screen." People who don't have our high educational levels and the same sophisticated set of skills try to catch up with this lifestyle that we, the educated people, uphold and advertise. However, since they don't have the same set of skills, they go into debt, and "the consumption merry-go-round will begin again."
As a university professor with five degrees from extremely prestigious schools, I have to say that Brooks's vision of how educated people with "tremendous cultural capital" live is extremely strange and evidently inspired by silly TV shows. My current house is big, but it is rented, as I have no interest whatsoever in buying real estate ever. I don't drive, so there is no question of a single car, let alone multiple ones. And my TV is tiny and cost $260. The last time I shopped for clothes was May. And not because I don't like clothes, but because shopping is very boring to me. Over 20% of my income goes towards buying books. Otherwise, you have to possess a really wild imagination to see me as participating in the "the consumption merry-go-round."
Honestly, I'd love to have more influence on setting the cultural standards. I sincerely believe that everybody would win if we spent more money on books and less on cars, gas, expensive huge TV sets, and silly crap like that. Somehow, however, I don't feel that my high education has turned me into a cultural icon. A lot more people are influenced by the lifestyles of Paris Hilton and the like than by the way of life of even the most prestigious thinkers and philosophers.
The conservatives' favorite bugbear is the "educated elites" who have supposedly colonized mass culture and tell everyone how to live and what to do. (Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America talks about it beautifuly and hilariously.) This article is one more attempt to present people with high degree of education as hateful, superficial, and bad. If you take Brooks's argument to its logical conclusion, it seems that the best way to repair the US economy and cure people from consumerism would be to remove the educated people altogether, or at least to reduce our number significantly. This hatred of the educated people by the conservatives is very logical on their part. Anybody who is even marginally acquainted with what it means to think for yourself would be incapable of buying into any single item on the Conservative agenda. They need mindless drones, who would produce and shut up. Anybody with a mind of their own is potentially dangerous and should be silenced.
It is still curious to see, however, how far some people go in their desire to blame the educated people for every single of the world's ills.