After I got back to San Francisco last night, I paged through the New York Times‘s list of most e-mailed articles. It’s one easy way to catch up and sort through the news after being offline and away from the papers.
I started reading Frank Bruni when he was in Italy. He’s now the principle restaurant reviewer. Here’s his article, which has moved up considerably on the list (the positions of all these articles have changed since when I took the screenshots).
I appreciate that when discussing the question of how food “should be,” one considers the possibility of elitism. But why doesn’t the question of elitism pop up in some of the other lifestyle and consumption articles on Sunday night’s list?
My question: When is it a good time to bring up the specter of elitism?
Maybe now just isn’t the time to talk about elitism when covering people busy buying Parisian pied-à-terres (one broker advises that if you’re looking at more than $1000/foot, you might as well buy in Manhattan), or how to find something to do at Lake Como (the writer dangles the prospect of seeing George Clooney shirtless), or the best ways to vacation with your pets (go with the private jet).
They are all interesting. The pet article does acknowledge the fashionably conspicuous consumption associated with its subject:
“Traveling with pets is in some ways the latest status symbol, a sign that travelers have the means to indulge themselves. Sure, anyone can load the family dog into the car and head to a beach house for a week. But checking into a hotel or resort with your pet undoubtedly carries a certain impression of affluence. Flying with a large dog means you’ve probably spent hundreds of dollars on transportation alone or, in places like Aspen, that you flew in the old-fashioned way: on a private jet.”It all has become part of the lifestyle — the whole trend of pets as accessory, ” said Joel Morales, the marketing manager of the James Hotel in Chicago.
I’m not particularly interested in piling on the Times for being elitist (those who do might be careful to differentiate between the lifestyle content and the news content). But last night I couldn’t help noticing when elitism was mentioned on the list, and when it wasn’t. Why do concerns about ethics and eating warrant a mention of potential elitism, while there is no mention of elitism in so many other articles? Perhaps the elitism is already settled there.
I should point out that the question of elitism doesn’t really crop up in Bruni’s article as much as it does in the capsule description of the article shown above–when it comes to actual food, the article gives quite a bit of space to the treatment of oysters, lobster, and geese (foie gras), which don’t usually grace the tables of most regular people, anyway. But Bruni does do a good job of highlighting the wild inconsistencies in our beliefs about how best to treat animals, given the space he has to work with.
When it comes to reporters’ interest in status and elitism, Slate‘s Tim Noah and Daniel Gross shed light on the issue. (Can we trace this interest to the 1960’s, when Clay Felker made status a subject of his New York magazine and would tell young writers he would make them famous, which he sometimes did, helping to create a generation of wealthy superstar journalists?) Noah wrote last year about journalists’ tendency to write about their summer homes and what it might say about their confused sense of equality. For example:
The offense against which I rail is not owning a summer house, but being clod enough to write about said summer house for a broad reading public that, in most instances, summers at the same address where it winters, springs, and falls.
Gross looks at the issue more directly, citing David Brooks’s “status-income disequilibrium.” He writes:
. . . .Given the types of lives many journalists wish to lead—and think they’re entitled to lead by virtue of their education and positions—the wages aren’t anywhere near sufficient.It’s ironic that much of the expanded coverage of both the Times (Thursday Styles, House & Home, Real Estate) and the Journal (the Friday weekend section, the Saturday edition) is dedicated to the sort of high-end consumption that reporters can’t really afford. As a result, there’s a nose-pressed-to-the-glass quality to much of the coverage.
So there’s a possible explanation about why elitism gets only a glancing mention in regard to these articles.
Now that we’ve figured that out, maybe the next step is not to keep asking whether the discussion is elitist (that’s like saying we need more research to determine whether global warming is happening or how to improve fuel economy: a stalling tactic), but to look at the bigger question of affordability–tackling the problem, for example, of making something like better food more available.
And so we’ll leave off with Michael Pollan, who recently wrote about Wal-Mart’s plan to bring organic to the masses (and was interviewed for Bruni’s article). He begins: “‘Elitist’ is just about the nastiest name you can call someone, or something, in America these days, a finely-honed term of derision in the culture wars, and ‘elitist’ has stuck to organic food in this country like balsamic vinegar to mâche.” With Wal-Mart’s decision, Pollan says, “all this is about to change.”
The question is less about whether Wal-Mart will make organic food affordable–it almost assuredly will deliver on that promise or something close–but how the corporation will make it so. And the answers, Pollan writes, may be far from ideal, entailing tasks of commerce, production, delivery, and probably lobbying and regulation.
But wait: We started here by looking at self-referential elitism and end by almost jumping into a discussion of production, scalability, and influence? (I stopped myself from going further–who would read it?) Oh, complexity! Maybe I am not cut out for blogs.