the cultural elite

Kenny Rogers is not in the "cultural elite." While he still knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, none of his songs are currently shaping American culture. But Madonna certainly meets the entrance requirements. Ted Kennedy has been expelled. But Dan Quayle is a member.

Dan Quayle? Obviously Quayle would not identify himself as a part of the cultural elite he so actively denounces. He spits the words out, trying to win votes for the Republican ticket by creating a social chasm: Us versus Them, with the Them being dangerous Hollywood and media types inflicting their sinful values on the rest of Us regular folks. It's a time-honored, divide-and-conquer approach, and one that's had surprisingly little political bite this year. "We in Hollywood did not audition for the role of Willie Horton, and we're not going to play it," says Gary David Goldberg, creator of shows like "Family Ties" and "Brooklyn Bridge." Polls show the voters overwhelmingly think the whole fuss is a distraction from their real concern-the economy.

But whatever his motives, the vice president is on to something. If the cultural elite isn't a proper political issue, it's at least a compelling sociological one. While the United States has never featured the rigid social and cultural hierarchies of Europe, some kind of elite class has always existed here. It has often produced this country's most brilliant inspirations, from the Constitution to Holden Caulfield. It continues to ensure that museums and orchestras and the other remnants of old culture survive. What's changed in recent years is that the cultural elite has become much less intellectually elite-and much more connected to commerce. With the help of television, that elite has expanded to produce all of America's powerful and highly exportable mass culture, including our smelliest trash.

Without question, Americans are dissatisfied with the tone of their popular culture. As the wild-and-crazy baby boomers become parents they are trying to protect their children from being kidnapped by Freddy Krueger, and worse. According to a NEWSWEEK POLL, only 26 percent think parents have the most influence on their kids, a poor second to television's 49 percent. Fully 80 percent believe that movies contain too much violence and sex. But poll respondents conclude that what matters most to the creators of this culture is money, not politics. Only 33 percent agree with Quayle's idea that a cultural elite in the news and entertainment business was trying to push its own values on the public. Nearly 60 percent thought the real motive was just to appeal to the biggest possible audience.

Who are the people who comprise the CE? What are their values? How influential are those values, especially on children? Can Hollywood be persuaded, finally, to take responsibility for the gratuitous sex and violence it produces? Just by raising those issues this year, by generating agitated discussion, Quayle is helping to shape the debate, which is the only real requirement for membership in the cultural elite. You're in, Dan, whether you like it or not.

If it's any consolation, NEWSWEEK and other major news organizations are also part of the cultural elite, as are academics and government officials who affect the national dialogue. So are smaller publications and cultural hunter-gatherers who move stories up the great media food chain. So are the people who write or publish important books, who produce, direct or "greenlight" movies, who sketch our visual landscape. As the tiresome battle over "Murphy Brown" suggests, prime-time television-where even a flop reaches more people than most movie hits-is at the white-hot center of this universe.

At a recent Hollywood fund-raiser, Bill Clinton said that he had "always aspired to be [in] the 'cultural elite' that others condemn." (That was another sign that Quayle's political punch was not hitting home; if it had, Clinton would never have admitted membership.) Lynne Cheney, conservative director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, acknowledged last week that while the term is so broad as to be almost meaningless, "I suspect that it includes me." Most de facto members are less honest. The usual reaction is, no, not me, but that person over there is-just as many Yuppies denied being "Yuppies" in the 1980s. They want the rewards of elitism but not the stigma that comes with it in a democratic, idol-smashing society. But it may be time to assume the burden of leadership. While the cultural elite slumbers, Wayne and Garth are running the country.

The idea of a meritocratic elite has gone by many names over the years. In his once trendy 1956 work, "The Power Elite," C. Wright Mills wrote of "prestigeful men and women" who "displace the society lady and the man of pedigreed wealth." In those days, the attack on Hollywood came from the left, not the right. The idea was that the TV industry manufactured bland and conformist "Father Knows Best" images that were badly out of touch with the diversity of American life. The "counterculture" was just struggling to be born. Now many old hippies run the CE.

It used to be, of course, that "culture" meant serious literature and art. Prof. Alfred Appel of Northwestern University says that at first he thought Quayle's definition of "cultural elite" was a poor use of language: "Opportunistic, greedy, ill-educated, boorish TV and movie producers-is that culture?" But Appel concluded: "Movies and TV are the center of our culture, alas. The literary culture has become very minor. In the '5Os, Time could put an intellectual like Jacques Barzun on the cover. Now you can't imagine a news-magazine cover story that would feature a writer unless it was Stephen King."

For all of its connection to commerce, the new cultural elite is not the same as the economic elite-the people who control this country's wealth. Quayle would never have attacked that elite; it's mostly Republican. Much of the time, anti-elitism is democratically healthy. Unfortunately, it too often takes the form of what the late historian Richard Hofstadter called "anti-intellectualism in American life." In most nations (except, say, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge), it's rare to attack someone for going to a prestigious university. Not in the United States. When Yale man George Bush condemns Michael Dukakis for being part of "the Harvard Yard boutique" and Bill Clinton for going to Oxford, only a few "egg-heads" (the 1950s term of derision) find it peculiar.

Wherever they matriculated, members of the CE are well schooled in hypocrisy. Conservatives who complain about lax family values don't seem to mind when Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger casually wipes out a few dozen fathers, sons and husbands up on the screen. Liberals who profess to be concerned about mayhem almost never manage to speak out about rap music that advocates killing cops. (Imagine their reaction if a group called "KKK" sang about killing blacks.)

The conservative critique is unassailable on one point: the cultural elite is not made up of "average" middle-class Americans, though many were born that way. They are better educated, richer, more liberal, more mobile, less religious and less connected to conventional standards of morality than most of the public.

The citadels of the CE that Quayle identifies-Hollywood, the press, top universities-include a disproportionate number of Jews. "We can drop the Republican code for cultural elite," director Mike Nichols deadpanned at the Clinton fund-raiser. "Goodevening fellow Jews." From McCarthyism, to Nixon's crack on the Watergate tapes ("The arts, you know--they're Jews, they're left wing"), to the constant rumblings on the far right and far left about the "Jewish-dominated media," resentment against the cultural elite has often boiled down to simple anti-Semitism, though Quayle's Jewish speechwriters could hardly have meant it that way.

In truth, when Jewish studio bosses really ran Hollywood-in the old days-the movies were full traditional values, as Neal Gabler points out in the book "An Empire of Their Own." Nowadays, there are large numbers of Jews-many of them nonreligious or intermarried-at all levels of the cultural elite. But at the top, power is fragmented and increasingly shared not just with Christians but with owners back in Japan. The pointlessness of the whole argument is conveyed by the fact that the only network owned by a Jew--CBS--is also the network under the most fire (for a "60 Minutes" story) from supporters of Israel.

A more useful way of understanding who comprises the cultural elite is to look at it as a web of interconnected institutions. Each venue uses various spawning grounds-e.g., the Harvard Lampoon, the Yale Daily News, the USC School of Cinema-but also employs large numbers of people who worked their way up without early connections. The values-or lack thereof-are shared. "There are three elite groups in this country that professionally understand that they must function amorally: Hollywood, the media and politicians," says Howard Suber, cochairman of UCLA's film and TV producers program. Each promotes and feeds off the other, as the "Murphy Brown" hype suggests. It's no wonder that so many Americans think "they" are all in it together.

Here are at least three ways to analyze the CE:

Under what could be called the Spiro Agnew analysis, "an effete corps of impudent snobs" injects the culture with condescending liberalism. Clergy and businessmen are generally portrayed as bad guys. Gays and minorities are generally portrayed as good guys. Republicans are people to laugh at. Obscenity is dressed up as "free expression" and sometimes paid for by the government. Jaded 23-year-olds from Harvard write breast jokes for sitcoms that will still be seen five years from now on some cable system in Minsk.

Then there's the Thomas Jefferson definition. He described "a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents." This is the cultural elite that Clinton identified as a source of national pride. While still tilting too much to both coasts, it reflects a social hierarchy in which people get ahead through education and moxie, not wealth or birth. Begrudging them their success-their elite status-is to denigrate that which is good

and successful in American life. And finally, the Andy Warhol analysis. "Art? I don't believe I've met the man," Warhol said. Under this theory, art and politics come in a distant second to cash in modern-day American culture. Or as Mike Medavoy, chairman of Tri-Star Pictures it: "We have to make movies that make money, not preach." People in Hollywood, says director John Milius, "don't have a shred of honest ideology among them." Like Washington's supposedly liberal lawyers who spend their days representing polluters and tobacco companies, their work and personal attitudes rarely mix.

Could the "cultural elite" represent all three approaches? Could it include both cynical purveyors of mindless junk to our children, and artistic geniuses? The CE-like any elite-reflects the best and worst of what the culture sends toward the surface. Both fresh cream and pond scum rise to the top.

Quayle's central point is that the pond scum is the result of value-free liberalism. But when money's at stake, amorality knows no political bounds. The truth is that while all of the off-screen left-wing posturing by celebrities may be irritating to conservatives, it is largely irrelevant to the vast bulk of what is actually produced. "Murphy Brown" and a few plugs for AIDS prevention notwithstanding, the mass media are so politically incorrect, its affronts to taste so numerous, that legions of p.c. professors make careers of deconstructing the racism and sexism they see in it.

Similarly, most TV shows are situated in homey-not hostile-surroundings. Despite the mind-numbing vulgarity, TV programs still maintain an elemental morality, where the crook gets caught in the end. The vast majority are still about families, albeit extended or untraditional ones. "There's this perception that we sit here and ask, 'How do we change the public's tastes?'" says John S. Pike, president of Paramount's TV division. "We don't do that. We are trying to produce mass-appeal programming." Indeed, as box-office receipts show that boomers with kids are turning out for "G" and "PG" movies, several studios have, for strictly business reasons, promised to make more of them.

In the news media as well, the only meaningful ideology is capitalism. From Kitty Kelley to Gennifer Flowers, the tabloid press is yanking the CE's chain. As the conservative William Bennett has argued, liberal reporters will almost always subordinate their personal politics to a good story. How else to explain the media feeding frenzies that afflict Democrats at least as often as Republicans? Quayle has undoubtedly taken more media punches because he is conservative. But the cultural affinity between media elites and liberal political elites doesn't always work on behalf of the Democrat. It makes for more leaking, which can hurt the politician. By any standard, Jimmy Carter received far worse press than Ronald Reagan. And Bill Clinton's press has veered between positive and negative extremes.

The conventional defense of Hollywood comes from Jack Valenti. "Movies reflect society. When people ask why Hollywood doesn't make movies like it used to, my answer is, "Why isn't society like it used to be?'" Under this theory, all the Hollywood cultural elite does is hold a mirror to the world. "The last place any Hollywood producer wants to be is out in front of, or different than, the audience," says TV producer Gary David Goldberg. "This is a business that really runs on testing, polling, focus grouping." If they were honest, Goldberg's counterparts in publishing and politics would admit the same thing.

The mirror argument is convenient. But it dodges the question of ultimate responsibility, especially for what children so often see. Of course images affect behavior. If they didn't, there would be no such thing as advertising. Barry Diller, now retired from Fox and more at liberty to ponder these questions, says the role of studio executive should be more like that of a publisher who takes ultimate responsibility for what is produced. "There should be a process for companies to be sensitized to what the data tell us. The data says: films and TV have an effect." Apparently the process hasn't yet "sensitized" the coarseness at Fox: shows like "Married ... With Children" and "Studs" are still very much on the air.

On the other hand, as Freud might have said, sometimes a laugh is just a laugh. If movies about sex directly affect behavior, why do most of the people who see them lead so much duller sex lives? If the liberal news media have so much clout, why have conservatives been running the country for 20 of the last 24 years? That could change next month, but it won't because the liberal cultural elite ordered America to dump George Bush and Dan Quayle.

It may be that the CE is less influential than we imagine-a conditioner of culture instead of its creator. At bottom, says critic Todd Gitlin, "The culture industry can lead, but it can't lead people anywhere it likes. It can take them down the road, but it doesn't build the road in the first place. "Building a new moral road (or just voting with your ticket stubs and channel changers)-that's where the American public's ultimate power over the cultural elite comes in. If we build it, "They" will come, with a different set of wares to sell us.