Since Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh emerged, I’ve had a couple of people ask me two related questions: did I know anyone who went to Georgetown Prep when I was in DC, and did the accounts of hyper-privilege and drunken sexual antics seem believable? The answers to those questions are ‘yes’ and ‘yes,’ but I’m not going to wade far into that debate that has been hashed out so thoroughly elsewhere. Instead, I’m going to highlight Ross Douthat’s Wednesday column, which is customarily on-point in its take on the different flavors of East Coast elite. The Kavanaugh affair is in part the product of power dynamics within a rarefied world of classes and sub-classes, and one that I’ve at least passed through in my life, playing Nick Carraway to the Gatsbys and Daisies and Toms around me.
I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the column. Douthat is right to note that the upper middle class strivers (of which there are many more than there are trust fund bluebloods) looking to raise their status are often far more showy in those efforts than those who already know they are on top. I also found that many of the members of these elite classes perfectly pleasant individuals to talk to one-on-one, even as their broader social circles remained difficult to penetrate. Douthat also nails the irrelevance of distinctions between nerds and strivers and the well-heeled, since everyone who goes to an elite college is basically all of these things, with the partial exception of the last one. We attendees of so-called elite colleges are the people who want to be all of the things at once, and whatever else we may say about it, American elite culture does seem to allow for this better than many less prestigious institutions. But, humans being humans, barriers and cliques inevitably arise or are bestowed by certain facts of personal history, and all of these distinctions silently emerge.
They emerge, but they don’t necessarily last: Douthat’s keenest observation is how so many people come to adopt much of the elite preppy culture, whether they realize it or not. I see myself here. While I didn’t come from poverty or a point of extreme naïveté, the world I came from was certifiably not something akin to an East Coast prep school. I spent my freshman year heaping scorn on the Vineyard Vines wardrobes that proliferated, and yet now I confess to owning a pair of boat shoes and multiple pink button-downs. (I have managed to resist the salmon shorts to date.) While I drank across all four of my college years, my partying habits also evolved from cautious remove to unabashed participation in many of the more traditional alcohol-fueled college festivities over time. Unlike a certain Supreme Court nominee, I will not try to pretend that I did not get very, very drunk on a semi-regular basis, and I hope many of my college-era friends are comfortable enough with who they were to admit that, too.
For that matter, I don’t regret those days at all. My move into that world was, on the whole, a force for good in my life. If I ever had an “I’ve made it” moment at Georgetown, it was never really academic, where I was comfortable from the beginning aside from some predictable mild college adjustments. Nor was it in my education in DC political culture; that had its fits and starts, but in retrospect I’m proud of College Me for how I handled most of that. It was instead social, and crystallized when I found myself participating in some good-natured heckling in a bathroom line in one of the senior Disorientation parties in the dining hall. (Yes, college students get drunk everywhere, but the Georgetown’s direct sponsorship of events like this separated it from the blind eye turned by, say, a major public school.) Even in an intoxicated state, I realized that I was suddenly one with the crowd, and probably had been for some time.
Alcohol played a major role in eroding class barriers on the East Coast. We all partied together, gave each other shit for it, and bounced back from any mildly stupid escapades. I am more confident, better-adjusted, and more able to take down barriers because I lived that way for a little while. We came from all over, but we could all slam shots at The Tombs, and whatever ridiculous antics that followed could build bridges and give us common ground, leading us to discover commonalities I never expected. Friendships require more than shared boozing, of course, but the way that lifestyle took down uptight kids’ inhibitions had value beyond basic lubrication.
This is not to say that this culture does not have its glaring dark sides. First and foremost comes the paradox of the necessary hard limits on acceptable sexual conduct while using substances that blur one’s sense of limits. The intersection of alcoholic self-medication, sexual uncertainties, and ambition to prove oneself will probably always run the risk of proving a toxic brew, and I do not have a good answer on how to prevent that beyond the standard demands for consent and a sense of common decency. I also watched alcoholism nearly wreck one good college friend, and had to reckon with how my own enjoyment of those reckless nights enabled his routine descent into a stupor because I was capable of stopping while he was not. (That friend, thankfully, has been sober for years now.) But this should not distract us from the fact that any prohibitions here are probably doomed to fail, and the vast majority of young men who participate in these activities never become alcoholics or commit sexual assault.
I’ve written a lot about the power of preppy East Coast culture on here, from the blurriness of American class lines (especially among the naïve members of the upper middle class) to the perceived failures of our meritocracy to the merits of a so-called elite education. For that matter, a piece of fiction I wrote earlier this year toyed with basically all of these themes and more. I’m not sure the writing in that story is as good as some of the others in this series; it’s certainly the most autobiographical, which can be both a help and a hindrance in fiction. Evan, a visitor to Yale from Minnesota, is a stand-in for me in my early Georgetown years in his stumbling efforts to make sense of his new class consciousness. But after that culture became a part of my own biography, I can now claim some moments where I am more the Mark character in this story, the one who delights in his rarefied world to its fullest extent.
My time at Georgetown, and particularly those times spent in a boozy blur, allowed me to blur between a modest Midwestern childhood and the halls of American power. Over time, it made me sympathetic to people I once resented, and at times still resent. As fun as it is to trash distant powerful people at times, I don’t think an elite class, however defined, is inherently any less moral or capable than any other group of people. Its flaws are simply magnified, given its proximity to power and notoriety. The transgressions of members of that class are far more likely to have consequences that reach beyond their own little circles. It is possible both to have empathy for and recognize the humanity of the people making their way here and at the same time demand higher standards for their conduct.
As generations reared on social media move into the public eye, it will become increasingly harder to hide any youthful transgressions. It therefore becomes essential to find ways to distinguish between juvenile yearbook comments and the facts of the case of an alleged crime. The early returns, with hysterical media coverage even from the few sources of journalism I trust and the histrionics in Senate hearings, are not good. The failings that enabled this crisis have innumerable root causes, but so many of them come from narrowness, from a young Brett Kavanaugh’s worldview to the blatantly political motivations of Republicans and Democrats.
That means pampered prep school kids need to get out and see a bit more of the world, yes; residing only in a narrow world of privilege does up the odds of thinking one can get away with things that everyone else cannot. I saw that firsthand. But it also means that the denizens of the upper middle class need to recognize the power they wield relative to the vast majority of the nation. While perhaps less directly problematic, this lack of perspective is widespread and damaging. And while I’d assign more responsibility for this sort of outreach to people with greater means to achieve it, those nowhere near elite circles should also do what they can to understand everyone else. No one gets off for free.
My own goal, perhaps inadequate but within my control, is to at once understand my place within a class hierarchy and how that feeds into the power dynamics around me, and at the same time recognize that this class-driven lens does not define anyone. We need more ways to look at the world. Maybe that starts with some drinks in a dorm room; maybe it comes up in any number of other improbable ways. The Mark character in my story is privileged by any definition, and sometimes very much plays the part. But he is self-aware enough to know it, and struggles against his worst instincts in search of something else. That, for now, is all I will ask for.
One thought on “Elite Consciousness”
This is your best Post I’ve read since I was invited into your blog.