Tag Archives: elites

Georgetown Beauty, Georgetown Power

8 Jun

My time at Georgetown was a complicated four-year blur, one I’ve struggled to relate back to non-Hoyas without falling into clichés. This past week’s five-year reunion was a chance to revisit it in all its madness: old friends together again, another afternoon of pitchers at The Tombs, of reminiscences of past exploits and ruminations of future plans, plus some hopeless overplaying of “Despacito.” I took a couple of extra days in DC to get some more one-on-one time with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and to run the Mall, dine in Union Station, and wander up around Dumbarton Oaks, those old haunts of a wide-eyed college kid. With time and distance the peaks and valleys fade into a haze, and above all I’ve come to realize how ridiculously fortunate I was to live out those four years.

After some time away, the most striking aspect of Georgetown was its beauty. There’s the beauty of the neighborhood, the first thing to strike me upon my arrival in DC ten years ago: pastel rowhouses, lush gardens, brick and cobblestones, perfect urban form, sheer aesthetic perfection. There’s the beauty of the campus, with its historic architecture and well-manicured lawns perched up over the Potomac. Sure, there was an unfortunate brutalist phase, but we’ve moved past that, and the most recent stuff, tasteful blends of modernism with the old brick and stone motifs, will stand the test of time in a way plenty of contemporary architecture won’t. And then there’s the beauty of the people: Georgetownites, both students and townies, men and women, are a remarkably attractive bunch. A walk around Georgetown is a constant brush with high fashion, sunny dresses, bronzed skin, casual elegance, and a certain excess of boat shoes and salmon shorts. My wardrobe for the weekend wasn’t exactly the one I break out for lazy Saturdays in Duluth.

Georgetown also knows how to throw a party to show off that beauty. Nearly any weekend night features a glitzy affair somewhere, with girls wobbling down cobblestone streets in high heels. College-era parties brought together the attractive people on back patios and rooftops and at the occasional event at an embassy. (They’re technically foreign soil, so lower drinking ages apply!) After final exams my senior year, there was a full week of university-sponsored partying, with various bar crawls and sporting events and a boozy journey to a farm somewhere out in Maryland. It culminated in a ridiculous night in which the university shut down Union Station to throw a final ball, its grand classical halls reimagined as elaborately themed rooms. The pomp and circumstance of commencement brought out Kentucky Derby caliber attire from the attendees. Reunion was no letdown here either, with a party at the Ritz-Carlton one night and candle-lit tents strewn around lawns on campus the next. These carnivals of beauty allow Georgetownites to revel in their own awesomeness, as inheritors of a claim to status available only to a select few.

I don’t have any illusions about what makes all this beauty possible: an incredible concentration of wealth. The neighborhood overflows with money and power. My graduating class featured more people from families in the top one percent of American households than it did from households poorer than my (very middle class) childhood. Most of my friends are now either employed by companies or attending graduate schools with very recognizable names. The dumpy off-campus house I lived in my junior and senior years, a rowhouse barely over 1,000 square feet with no garage and an eternal slick of Natty Light on its floorboards, sold for $910,000 last year. I could get myself a mid-level robber baron’s mansion in Duluth for less.

Moreover, a view of the Hilltop takes on a new light that it didn’t really have a decade ago. An electorate motivated by disdain for controlling elites is flexing its muscles, and there are few schools that scream “controlling elite” quite like Georgetown. While it may not have quite the prestige of the best of the Ivies, it has an East Coast bluebloodedness to rival any of them, to say nothing of the fact that it is located just two miles from the White House. Georgetown, with its steady flow of politicians in and out of the front gates, is as well-entrenched as any school in the status quo of the past half-century. The phrase “Georgetown cocktail party” has long been a slur directed at events for an out of touch ruling class, and at times some Hoyas do pretty well to live up to that ideal. Hoyas live a world apart, and Middle America has taken note.

Before heading back, I was curious to see if some of the snobbery I recall encountering as a freshman was impenetrable privilege or merely just the antics of pampered teenagers that one wasn’t apt to find in a Midwestern childhood. Said elitists are a minority, but among at least some, the standoffishness is indeed real. A friend and I theorized that this especially pronounced at Georgetown; for a certain brand of East Coast elite, it’s a second-tier school that comes up short of an Ivy, and the pressure to prove oneself looms large. These strivers don’t necessarily exude active disdain, but such a rigid class consciousness is also not something one finds in a place like Harvard, where simple acceptance is proof enough that one belongs. Whether we’re right or not, that struggle to break down barriers remains the greatest strike against elite schools. Some of it is just a desire to do as well as one’s parents, and to continue in the same orbits or edge into yet higher echelons; it’s hard to blame anyone for that. The trouble comes when those who enjoy Georgetown status fail to recognize it for what it is; when those who were born on second or third base think they’ve hit doubles or triples and make few or facile efforts to understand more. (I’m certainly not saying I started out at home plate, either.)

Even so, it’s a bit strange to now watch my former classmates (and myself, I suppose?) get labeled as the elite establishment, as children of a corrupt breeding ground of power and privilege that reinforces this country’s divides and sneers down at the plebes in Middle America. Above all, it’s just silly to picture most of my old peers that way after I spent four years having sloppy college parties with them, flailing about in certain classes with them, and joining them in a collective effort to figure out what one earth we were doing with our lives. Even though we’re five years older, so little had changed among us Hoyas, either in looks or in temperament: we’re still mostly a group of ambitious but uptight kids in search of the occasional release. Some of them have now maneuvered themselves into positions to make far more money than I ever will, and others of us are reaching out to grasp levers of power. We’ve been groomed for these sorts of lives, and are probably as qualified as anyone to lead them, but that does little to undermine the fragility of human experience, even in a world with so many layers of seeming sophistication. So few of us know exactly what we’re doing, and are often trapped in our own insular little worlds, no matter how outwardly cosmopolitan we may appear.

In spite of these critiques, the pride I have in those four years has only grown as I settle into a life in a land far from Georgetown. I certainly don’t mean to say Georgetown put me on a different level, but it also gave me a perspective that is fairly unique in a place like northern Minnesota, and while the world I now live in is far from Washington, I can still navigate that sea and enjoy it. I now hold a master’s degree from a flagship public university as well, and while that school gifted me with an irreplaceable group of peers and a handful of excellent professors and instructors, Georgetown now shines that much more brightly in contrast to some of the instructional mediocrity and bureaucratic rot I experienced at that institution. (There I go being an elitist again, I suppose.) I came away more convinced than I used to be that Georgetown deserves the status it projects, and that simply being there prepared me more for leadership roles than any sort of management education could have. Its brass runs a tight ship, and the academic and personal support networks are excellent. Georgetown also has a soul: its efforts at moral formation push above and beyond most other elite schools. The Jesuits still linger, even in a world where their level of commitment is increasingly alien.

At its best, Georgetown gives its students a few magical years of self-discovery, and an outlet for the hyper-ambitious among us who wouldn’t feel like we’re testing our potential to the extent that we should if we just stayed close to home. John Thompson Jr. likened Georgetown to heaven, and a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for? Any philosophy that tries to suppress that instinct, whether equality-obsessed liberalism or a more conservative ethos that lashes out at people who seem to rise above their stations, is fighting a losing war against the human psyche. I’ve joked that the Georgetowns of the world aren’t part of reality, but they are very real. I lived it, and will continue to live it in certain ways for the rest of my life.

To any northern Minnesotan who wonders how I could defend such a different world, Georgetown fuels my hunger to do what I do, and paradoxically, the intellectual backdrop I lean on to do it wouldn’t exist without these dips back in those swampy waters. To the Hoyas who struggle to understand why someone gifted with all of that privilege would give a measure of it up to head back to some northern Minnesotan woods, remember how fragile Georgetown’s beauty can be, something that I suspect the passing years will underscore more and more. The most powerful determinants of a life well lived lie beyond that narrow world, and its unquestioned perpetuation has consequences far beyond DC. But that beauty is a source of power and wonder, and drives us to heights we’d otherwise never know. Georgetown forever.

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In Defense of Washington

29 Jul

When I graduated from Georgetown, I made a conscious decision to leave Washington, D.C. I didn’t have a real plan, but I knew one thing. I wanted out. I needed to ground myself somewhere else: preferably back home, where I had some roots. My return to Minnesota, while not always the smoothest of journeys, has largely lived up to my hopes. Two years ago, when I’d attained some distance from DC, I wrote a critique of my time there. I could pick at a few things in that post now—I think I was too uncharitable to many of my Hoya peers, for example—but I still agree with its broad contours.

That post was directed at Georgetown, but Georgetown takes its cues from the city. After all, the university was founded by Jesuits who, in 1789, rushed to create a presence in the newly established American capital. DC, I thought, exemplified what was wrong with American democracy. A giant, distant bureaucratic beast that slowly accumulated more and more power, no matter who was pulling the strings. A city filled with people with more loyalty to ideology or career than family or country or humanity. It was toxic, and while I have plenty of respect for my friends who stayed to fight the good fight (or plan to head back there in the future), I made the right choice for myself.

I still believe that, but times change, and edges soften, to the point where I’ll now offer up a defense of that muddled city that I got to know so well. There’s been a lot of hate directed at Washington, and the “establishment,” from both the Democrats and the Republicans this election season. Much of it is justified. DC is often an elitist cocoon, filled with people who are ignorant, if not downright disdainful, of large swaths of the country. Power will continue to accrue there, no matter who wins this election; the question is simply one of whether it will be continuation of the gradual liberal march of the past eight years, or…well, God knows what the other guy would do.

Still, there are things to be said for Washington, and all it represents. More than anything, I thank Washington for cultivating a strong dose of realpolitik in me. It’s pretty to dream, and we need a few idealists to help frame the debate. But, whether we like it or not, managing a large, diverse country requires the death of some ideals, lest the perfect become the enemy of the good. Dirty compromises and back-room deals can lead to trouble and inefficiency, but they are also the most effective way of moving things along. This is the art of politics, and statecraft has always been a fine art of skillful maneuvers and occasionally yelling one thing while doing something somewhat different in practice. We don’t have to like it, but we can, at least, tame its excesses and funnel it all along on a slow, often uninspiring lurch.

Washington also stands for order, and an established means of doing business. Yes, there has been gross incompetence there over the course of this century, and probably back to the dawn of time. It is often a town filled with ugly backbiting, and the machinery devoted to tearing down its members—the vast majority of whom do earnestly think they’re doing some good, even if they are at times naïve, ignorant, or making sure that they (or their people) are getting a slice of the pie. Whatever advantages or outside help it might have enjoyed, this government managed to oversee a nation’s astonishing rise, and while the U.S. clearly has problems today, good luck finding places that are doing much better. DC is a world of paradoxes, as the government constrains our freedoms in the name of defending freedom. Yet the people want to blow it all up have no idea what forces they might unleash. Revolution is the dream of a leisure class, of people with enough free time and money that they can philosophize new solutions (or simply sit back and be armchair revolutionaries). Effective politicking in a nation filled with people who disagree with you takes a different set of skills.

I watched much of both of the Republican and Democratic conventions over the past two weeks. (Note to the wise: watch conventions on C-SPAN. No spin, no pundits, no commercials; just the speeches, and plenty of awkward dancing during the gaps.) The most memorable moment for me wasn’t Trump’s stark portrait of America, nor the Obamas’ speeches (masterworks of rhetoric, whatever one may think of their politics), nor the sincere relatives of the fallen that both parties trotted out. It was four-star Marine Corps Gen. John Allen, who unleashed a full-throated roar of American exceptionalism with a diverse cast of veterans behind him on the last day of the Democratic Convention. It was a stunning picture of how the parties have realigned themselves—though I’m well-aware that some of the flag-waving was to cover up the boisterous Bernie-or-Bust crowd. Most of the Democrats, however, ate it up, chanting “U.S.A!” as if the clock were winding down on the Soviets in Lake Placid. I normally prefer that idolatry confine itself to sporting events or at least to genuine human triumphs, and I’m a frequent skeptic of American military adventures abroad, whether conceived by Republicans in Iraq or Hillary Clinton and friends in Libya. And yet I found myself pounding the arm of the couch in rhythm.

We all know the U.S. has flaws and ugly histories, some of them glaring. But there’s more to it: it has the capacity to bring about reasonably orderly, careful change when it must, and that is no small victory. Octavio Paz: “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change.” To make it all work, even a localist will admit that there must be an apparatus at the top to keep things more or less in line. That thing is Washington, warts and all, and for all my criticism, it has a human side that the endless spin machine in the media loses in all its yelling. A republic needs some people to hold the levers of power, and by their nature, they’ll get slapped with the “elite” tag.  That machinery deserves some respect, and no matter who gets elected in November, it will continue its inertia-driven muddle through. Who knows; this depressing election cycle may even encourage a few of the D.C. denizens to get out a bit and see why they’re not so popular elsewhere. If so, I’ll welcome them. We’re all stuck with each other, so we might as well see what we can do.

American Dream, American Reality

15 Jul

What to do with the American Dream? On the Fourth of July I busted out the red, white, and blue attire, not out of irony, nor to follow a herd of over-the-top ‘Murica bravado that seems to think wearing certain clothing is a sign of patriotic superiority. No, it was an honest statement of belief: for everything this country gets wrong, it’s an exceptional place to be.

As I’ve written before, I’m both deeply committed to the Dream and an unapologetic critic of what it tries to do. My loyalty is conservative in nature: I’m unable to come up with any more plausible ordering principle for a society short of a fanciful revolution, and we all know how that worked out for those who tried it in the 20th century. It has withstood the demise of most competing ideologies, and it helps unite a giant, disparate nation. It taps into some fundamental aspect of the human psyche, and even when the revolts are abortive, its spirit can be found from Havel to Bolívar, from Tiananmen to Tahrir.

In a Mexican park back in 2010, I released myself from any obligation to a sense of political destiny. Ever since, I’ve oscillated between rallying cries for the Dream and building a bunker to guard myself against its impending doom. I wonder if and when its real weaknesses will come out into the open and doom the project, and what will happen in the aftermath. The question of our times is whether this abstract dream is enough to keep a nation united and strong. It’s supple enough to deal with changes over time, but runs a risk of vagueness and hypocrisy, should the Dream ever sour. It’s both human destiny and a sure disaster, a center broad enough that can unite the spectrum behind a governing vision or send it all into chaos as it narrows political reality into a stultifying elite class.

These questions became real during my final two years at Georgetown, a surefire incubator of the American elite. It’s not quite Harvard Law, and there are plenty of Hoyas who take roads less traveled, but let there be no doubt: most of its graduates end up on top of the heap, either in politics or business or in institutions that shape culture, from academia to the media. The trouble is that so few people who come out of these places recognize their status, or stop their relentless pursuit of dreams to meditate on what it means to be an elite. Sure, there are efforts to tell people to “check your privilege,” but these are often too wrapped up in a left-wing agenda to say much to most of the people involved. Many who are have worked (or been spoon-fed) their way up never really recognize how far they’ve come; others, born into the upper middle class comfort of those who rose up in a previous generation, don’t see it for what it is. It just seems natural, and with a dominant culture that emphasizes a comfortable suburban home as the peak of Americana, they don’t realize how out of step their experience is with the national mainstream.

This isn’t to say most of these people take their comfort for granted. Thanks to an uncertain economic climate, they’re understandably fixated on keeping what they’ve got. The upper middle class will defend its status with every weapon at its disposal. (Witness the looming war over enforcement of the Fair Housing Act in the wake of a recent Supreme Court decision.) In fact, they’ll win these wars because they mostly don’t see themselves as an entitled upper class, born to rule; they just see themselves as normal people defending what they’ve earned. And who could blame them? When liberal ideals collide with realities family life, the ideals usually wind up dead.

The superstructure of American politics reflects an underlying post-World War II cultural unity, where a consistent majority conforms to a few cultural touchstones that define what it means to be an American Dreamer. The U.S.’s two-party system, built on this consensus, all but guarantees governance by a meritocratic party of the center. For all the foaming mouths, and some noble exceptions aside, the leaders of the Democratic and Republican parties have much more in common with each other than they do with the bases for whom they claim to go to war. On the whole the arc trends leftward, given the cultural power of the media to shift the debate, but the Republican Party’s donor class is all on board, and we have it to thank for the likes of Mitt Romney and John McCain. The unity is clearly political, but even more significantly, it’s cultural. Any vocal opposition comes from libertines and libertarians who may be a bit radical for the center as a whole, but speak the same language and tend to be the vanguard for what may come. As guardians of rights and freedoms, they speak to that Dreamy consensus behind it all.

These powerful Dreams emote freely, play off simple passions and make the most basic ones the foundation of a culture. In a way, this is impressively universal: who doesn’t want to be free? But if the only thing we stand for is some vague cry to freedom with few details beyond, it runs the risk of playing to the lowest common denominator, and of course the cheap buck. Confronted with big questions about why we’re here, we shrug our shoulders and mumble a few platitudes about freedom, the arc of history, and gut instincts for what is right and what is wrong.

The result is a mass culture that reflects the vague morality. I certainly don’t pine for some past age of unquestioned moral absolutes, but most people don’t realize how much agency they now need to carve out a coherent narrative for themselves. Many abdicate on this responsibility, and it’s more than a little amusing how basically everyone, no matter their politics, winds up complaining about the ills of popular culture while sucking it all up anyway. It’s a natural outgrowth of the political, social, and economic world we inhabit, and with such a monolithic underlying morality, it’s a chore to pick good and bad things out of it without blowing up the whole enterprise.

And so people throw up ad hoc, incoherent barriers for themselves and their children, from sex to tolerance of violence to where we do our shopping to the groups of people we commune with. For many this is not a reflective process; one just puts up personal barriers based on family tradition and a few life lessons. Others (here I include my own childhood) play around the fringes, consciously sheltered from mass culture to varying degrees. Those who have a solid counterculture (usually of a religious nature) to fall back on can stay there, but most people, lacking such anchors, will drift back into the center of the stream at varying paces, and with varying qualms. We’re all sellouts, but considering an alternative would be far too radical, far too disruptive of this comfort in which we’ve ensconced ourselves.

Same as it ever was? Perhaps; it’s only right that we have to negotiate many of these things for ourselves, learning as we go. It can be an edifying, educational process. But economic and social trends seem to suggest that the wealthy and well-educated are much better at this than those who are not, and this only leads to increasing divides and discomfort over the proposed paternalistic solutions. There’s also something particular about this modern age, with blurred lines between public and private life and the intrusion of technology into most every facet, that makes healthy separation from the dominant culture that much more difficult.

This reality eats at many talented and thoughtful people, forced to negotiate the schizophrenic relationship between mainstream culture and our ambitions. We want to do great things, but to do so, one has to play on the mainstream playing field—a realm that immediately imposes conformity and chokes off the most daring dreams. Abandon that center and you’re a fringe figure who can only speak for one little area, a provincial afterthought who will generate little more than a cult following. And for all your efforts to convince yourself that you’re not running away, that you’re cultivating something worth keeping here in your own little corner of the world, the center may still come knocking and swallow you up.

It’s an old critique of democracy, one that resonates from Aristotle to Tocqueville to Nietzsche, and it holds up because it works. Democracy requires room for minority rights and clean avenues from the bottom to the top, or else it will calcify into a tyrannical majority, perhaps even totalitarian in its reach. Bread and circuses may amuse the masses for a while, but there’s no escaping the hunger at the heart of human nature that will push people to hunt for something more. Unless we medicate it away with enough drugs, I suppose.

And so we are left with an achingly slow fin de siècle. The continued suburban sort broke down the illusion of a solid white middle class that was the core of the postwar consensus, and an increasingly diverse nation has growing numbers who, quite understandably, find fault in that old ideal. For now, at least, we lack the existential threats that inspired past spurts of national pride; sure, al-Qaeda and its ilk make for a decent foil, but they’re no Nazis or Soviets, and we can go about our business most days without worrying too much about them. American wars, when not fought by drone, are now fought by a professional class of (largely low-to-middle-income) kids who do our unfathomable dirty work and let us sleep at night without a second thought. Atomism triumphs, with everyone retreating to their own little like-minded communities and getting their news only from those who agree. Kiss goodbye any overarching ideals, any inspired movements beyond whatever is fashionable for the pro-liberty vanguard. We are all ants within the leviathan.

It’s a paradox: even as the mass culture swallows all, people find it harder and harder to bridge their gaps. The early field for the presidency in 2016 is a sign of this exhaustion. The frontrunners, two scions of political dynasties, are relics of an old era. Even if they succeed in the short run—if Hillary Clinton gives new meat to a liberal agenda that has lost its fight outside of the courts, or Jeb Bush re-unites the two wings of his party that strain against one another in the image of Ronald Reagan—they are the end of the road. We’re so out of ideas that the most “fresh” voices on either side include an old guard socialist and a real estate mogul who has cast aside the dog whistle for the bullhorn. It’s hard not to argue that they’re the politicians we deserve.

And yet we’ve been here before. “Every time they’ve confronted a great crisis, the United States has examined its conscience. The whole world whacks at it, even at its head…then they change,” writes Octavio Paz. The American meritocracy, for all its imperfections, on the whole fosters steady, healthy cycles of turnover in the ruling class. So long as it continues to function at a reasonable level and people believe it works, there’s no reason to expect a sudden crash.

Maybe I’ll shrug and join the machine, follow this nation toward its destiny, whatever that is. Maybe I’ll deem it all doomed and look to carve out my own, distinct version of the Benedict Option where I can live in peace with those who matter as everything crumbles around me. Most likely I’ll settle for the nuanced view and muddle through, at times working with the Dream, at times pulling back. It’s all a cycle, after all, and no one knows what the endgame will look like. We may not know where we’re going, but we can have some idea how to go about that journey, and we know why we must. Those two little facts make all the difference.