Jewish World Review July 27, 2001 /7 Menachem-Av, 5761

Lewis A. Fein

Lewis A. Fein
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Consumer Reports

Barbarians with No.2 Pencils: Or Class for the Classless -- MERITOCRACY is a strange word, for which Scrabble exists and Pat Sajak earns a living. But this gem of a crossword answer -- the sociological equivalent of May-the-Best-Man-Win -- is also a cultural nightmare. Simply explore any affluent suburb, and the evidence is abundantly clear: America's ruling class lacks even the most basic manners.

Yes, the address is correct --- pass the Kaplan SAT outpost; allow the Mercedes SUV to merge with traffic; and ignore the illegal help outside the bus stop. Substitute palm trees for snow, or vice versa, and the town is Beverly Hills or Brooklyn Heights. Inside, however, the institutional aroma of tofu perfumes the air; while the prodigal son, Breck (or Niles or Perry), completes his homework assignment: an essay about last summer's working vacation, including hurricane parties on Martha's Vineyard and Spanish lessons from the island housekeeper.

And no, the above is not a description of George W. Bush's childhood; the Vineyard's too liberal a place. In fact, W's upbringing -- including, presumably, elocution lessons and white slacks -- is far more reserved than the self-indulgence of today's spoiled brats, all of whom have perfect (or nearly perfect) SAT scores. Take, for instance, the second child of any professional couple.

Notwithstanding the Harvard or Stanford decal emblazoned across the family Volvo -- thereby signifying that, yes indeed, little Rebecca or precocious Peter carries those famous Schwartz or Montgomery genes -- the second child must further the meritocracy. The insignia from his future alma mater will also adorn the family's academic billboard, and community college or StateU is simply unacceptable. Then again, Bill and Roger Clinton strike a good balance; one is an exceptional liar, while the other is contentedly adequate.

Still, the meritocracy is most comfortable within its natural habitat: public places. Undoubtedly, the person elbowing patrons and enjoying a hands-free cell phone conversation -- thus legitimating every homeless schizophrenic's claim of sanity -- is some barbarian, clothing and resume sponsored by Dartmouth or Brown. Witness any recent film-going experience.

Before one's wallet empties and popcorn butter coats the floor, the meritocrats invade. Talk inevitably involves -- no, eavesdropping usually includes -- holiday bonuses, stock options and frequent flier mileage. Consider these individuals physical examples of sundry romantic comedies and inflight movies, only uglier. And therein lies another tragedy: Hollywood glamorizes the meritocracy.

The meritocracy, as defined by Hollywood, is professional bliss. How else to explain the spate of Billy Crystal films, orchestrations by Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday, depicting graduate school and romance as Woody Allen for popular consumption? Never mind the absence of any true substance, or the portrayal of suburban existence as a backdrop for cable knit sweaters and IKEA furniture.

In truth, the meritocracy is about nothing more than social status. Deportment and presence are, unfortunately, foreign concepts within the meritocrat's handbook. Rather, IQ points, SAT scores and liquid assets are the meritocrat's means of calculating individual worth. Hence the renewed popularity of pseudo-scientific garbage, repackaging eugenics as reproduction among the nation's Phi Betta Kappa recipients.

The meritocracy is also about rudeness and anti-social behavior. Its members are unusually gauche and politically inane. Too busy to obey ordinary social customs, the meritocracy concerns itself with weightier matters --- like the price of a decent latte. Meanwhile, they double park -- usually in spots reserved for the handicapped -- while aimlessly threatening pedestrians and even police officers. The final result merely confirms the necessity of anger management classes.

So, the next time someone inadvertently brushes beside you and says, "Excuse me," chances are he did not go to college.

JWR contributor Lewis A. Fein is a writer and Internet entrepreneur in Los Angeles.Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Lewis A. Fein