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Thursday, June 11, 2020

It’s Not About Privilege, It’s About Class–The Enduring Relevance Of The Elite

There are still privileged enclaves of European ancestry in the United States.  Although the younger generation of families living on Fifth Avenue, Rittenhouse Square, Federal Hill, Farmington, Beacon Hill, and Georgetown – have left , the ethos has not disappeared. A sense of fidelity to the old, aristocratic English ways  and a pride in the intelligence, artistic taste, and aristocratic values of this class of Americans still live on.

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Locust Valley, an exclusive neighborhood of Washington, DC, has been one of the areas where the children of these old families have relocated – homes built in 1989 but whose architecture, landscaping, conservatories, and formal gardens are evocative if not reflective of that of 1780 and 1850. The neighborhood is just as privileged but not as insulated as the ones from which they came.  A sense of heritage, fidelity to Federalist wisdom and Enlightenment inspiration, patriotism, military service, and honor is still strongly held here, but under scrutiny.

There is no shame in being descendants of English kings and queens, Roman administrators, and Greek thinkers, say the residents of Locust Valley.  Why, have they be singled out as oppressors when on the contrary they are and have always been proud standard-bearers of historical Western principle and rectitude.

Who, especially the intellectual elite of Locust Valley, could deny the importance of racial equality in America? But who could ignore the pernicious, persistent, and irreducible social malaise of the inner cities? What we stand for, they argue - the legacy of English aristocracy, Greco-Roman values, and Enlightenment philosophy -  is as relevant today as ever, if not more so. Aristotle, Plato, Aeschylus, Augustus, Constantine, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Sun King are examples of the best that society can produce, not the worst.

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The residents of Locust Valley, wealthy and influential as they were, did not represent privilege so much as class.  Those who had grown up with the Classics, educated privately, nurtured by family and priests to adopt and incorporate  traditional European and Christian values; those who had been  brought up to appreciate classical art, architecture, literature and thought, were an important but dwindling class, once indeed privileged and granted power, but now standing alone amidst a radically pluralizing and often chaotic society, loosed from its historical moorings.

Hamilton argued with Jefferson that his idea of popular, populist democracy would lead to chaos and the destabilization of the new society.  What evidence was there to justify trusting the majority, the mob? Shakespeare gave ample fictional evidence in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. There could no trusting popular aspirations and the ignorant idealism of the masses. The educated, well-heeled, moral elite was necessary, Hamilton argued, to leaven the passions of the majority, to provide temperance and rational judgment.

The residents of Locust Valley, all descendants of those who fought in the American Revolution and members of the DAR or offspring of the more respected and elite officer corps who led American troops and now members of the Society of the Cincinnati felt that they were part of this Hamiltonian vision.  Their storied history and privileged legacy was something to be valued - never touted or used to belittle, but to stand out as a model of right, dutiful behavior.

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Why should popular movements of protest necessarily  marginalize those who have contributed social grace, moral probity, ethics, and religion to America? This Hamiltonian elite? America was founded on European, Christian, and Greco-Roman principles.  The kings and queens of Europe and the emperors and philosophers who preceded them are America’s legacy.  Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams were not accidental arbiters of this tradition, but fully supportive and endorsing of it.  Without the empires of Europe and the wealth and knowledge that they promoted, the new Republic would never have prospered.

Perhaps most importantly the residents of Locust Valley regretted the attempts to erode the notion of class.  As Hamilton well knew, human society had always been organized by social echelons. The patrimony of France, said the Viscount d ’Armagnac, heir to a storied aristocratic family, is in our hands.  We are the custodians of a past which includes Charlemagne, Descartes, Sartre, and the popular culture of fashion and cuisine.  The principles of our class – intellectual sophistication, cultural appreciation, and historical respect – are indelible.  Social, temporal preferences may change, but underlying principles of taste and high estimation will not.

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While Hamiltonian at heart, the residents of Locust Valley were also true to the Jeffersonian principles of equality, opportunity, and the universal pursuit of happiness; and they  never hesitated to express their support for those who had failed in their attempts to secure a place and the table.  Given the rightness of the democratic economic principles of American free market liberalism, it was only a matter of time.  Eventually racial distinctions would disappear as minorities joined the economic mainstream.

America is a classless society, or so the popular meme goes.  An equal-opportunity society with fungible social lines, always to be crossed and populated by the newly rich who will acquire new wealth and privilege, but who never refuse entry to others.

The ideal is still valid – the children of inherited wealth and privilege give way to the aggressive entrepreneurial ambitions of the middle class; and slowly but surely the old Anglo-Saxon and European traditions will give way to more popular expressions of privilege - wealth, power, and influence.  Gone will be the Townsend tables, Ethan Allen chairs, Sheffield silver, Audubon prints, Persian carpets, Edo woodcuts, symbols of taste, elegance, and a respect for the past. 

Yet in those increasingly reduced quarters of the best neighborhoods of Washington, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco restrained, elegant taste remains.  No amount of radical populism can intrude. These last bastions of good taste may soon disappear, but for the time being they are iconic anchors – not as nostalgic memories of a lost era, but a daily reminder of the importance of a high, principled, irreducible culture.

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