The Hyper-Deflation of American Cultural Capital

Posted: October 12, 2012 in Experiences, My moral code
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You know, 20 – 30 years ago, when I was a young man, every time someone got to know me they’d tell me I was a “Renaissance Man“. I always took that as a huge complement.

I was a guy with a degree in music composition from a prestigious art school; working in the aerospace industry as a test engineer; studying computer science; listening to Opera; taking modern dance classes; reading Barthes, and Nozick, and Habermas, and Ayn Rand, and James Joyce; spending my weekends at the Museum of Contemporary Art; drinking beers and dancing to the Talking Heads at Al’s Bar; going to Symphony Concerts; studying technical stock analysis, watching Antonioni films; and, generally, doing a range of things that did not fit together in any rational pattern.

And, you know what? I was proud as hell that I was broadly educated and didn’t fit some other guy’s conception of how a FLIR test engineer should act. They said I was a renaissance man because of a diversity of which I was proud. I remember, once, having a co-worker introduce me to a friend as “Dr. Bilow”. There are a couple “Dr. Bilows”, but I’m not among them. So, I asked why she thought I was a “doctor” and she said she thought I “had to have a PhD in something” because I “knew so much”. That, my friends, is something which we used to call “cultural capital“.

“Cultural Capital” used to be a big thing back in the 20th Century. It was a huge thing in the early 1900’s where, even if you did not have lots of money, you could still be well-respected for being a musician, a writer, or a thinker of some sort. In those days you could be poor or middle-class and still be respected for what you knew and for your involvement in society. But it seems to me that the 21st century is different.

Today, 12 years into the 21st century, especially in America, cultural capital has been massively devalued. Certainly in American society, very few people respect a young man who wants the PhD in music that I once dreamed of. The same is true with students of art, art history, philosophy, theater, history, sociology, classical studies, even some of the basic sciences, or any of myriad other intellectual disciplines.

Today, millions of people are respected for their MBAs – not even their HARVARD MBAs – ANY MBA, far more than a PhD in just about anything else. Now, don’t get me wrong, an MBA is cool. I wish I’d finished mine. But, my point is that pure intellectual prowess, or, as I said “cultural capital”, has almost no value in America when compared to “financial capital”. The exchange rate is virtually non-existent.

I’m basically a laissez-faire capitalist so I have no problem with money. I don’t even have problems with people who have LOTS of money. Most of them should be proud. But I do have a problem when a culture values financial capital to the exclusion of everything else. I do have a problem when society so devalues “cultural capital” that becoming a philosopher, a writer, or a cultural historian, (or a composer, for God’s sake!) is something to be disrespected. In my opinion, a vibrant, exciting, rewarding society is one which balances cultural capital and financial capital in such a way that everyone who strives to achieve something can be respected. Let me be clear, I don’t think this should happen through government coercion. That’s NOT what I’m saying. All I’m saying is that I, personally, am saddened to see that being a “renaissance man” doesn’t carry the weight it once did – or, ANY weight, for that matter.

If it sounds like this is the writing of a bitter old renaissance man with a lot of worthless cultural capital, well… it’s really not. It’s not, because I’ve worked hard over the years to avoid letting my self-worth be defined by other people. So, I’m as proud as ever of being well read and diverse. But, it does bum me out when I look around and see that most of the people who seem to be perceived as “successful” or “business savvy” aren’t the most well-educated, the smartest, or the most interesting people I encounter. They are the ones with money.

Okay…. maybe I am just a little bitter. But how many of the rest of y’all are reading Proust tonight?

I am. And…. I’m okay with that.

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