Sunday, March 7, 2010

An American Aristocracy

Decades ago, Louis Hartz wrote an opus on American exceptionalism - the idea that America is special because we were never marred by the disease of federalism that had plagued Europe - and without a confining social order, individualism and the American dream was born.

Watching the Oscars tonight, I wonder if we have an aristocracy that is even more powerful than all the peers of the realms that Europe ever had. Our aristocracy is not only insanely wealthy unlike the declining nobility in Europe (or the old money in our east coast), they also set the standards of beauty, morality, and even politics. When I watched the movie industry celebrate its own achievements, I was reminded that for all the human warmth and joviality of the event, the glitz and the glamour are the same escape we seek in our modern aristocracy as we found in the old.

Celebrities are not normal human beings. They are stars. Bright, shining gems far far away even though each perfomance they make seem to bring them closer and deeper into our own hearts. There were a lot of emotions shared last night, but I'm not sure that universal tears aside, an average American understands what it is like to receive or not receive an accolade to which they are not even remotely eligible and probably will never be.

They say a civilization can be judged by how it treats its dispossessed. But in a country such as ours where everyone is apparently middle-class, we are better judged by the cultural elite we have created. Our aristocracy serve the people like those in the Old World. Like the old aristocracy, they have taken upon themselves the noblesse oblige to dedicate themselves to the people. They have a duty to entertain, and it is their privilege to be loved in return. So our stars burn bright for as long as they are beloved by the people. Our aristocracy is not hereditary but quite temporary.

This is why is unclear whether Sarah Palin bestowed on Barack Obama an accolade when she called him a "celebrity" in 2008. Perhaps when now his star is no longer burning so bright, he will stop being an entertainer and become a President. Or perhaps, as the new electoral college, the media establishment will today insist, he must embrace his cultural milieu like the Gipper and Slick Willy, and give us a show.

Hartz was wrong. We did not inherit a European feudalism, but made an American one.

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