You are aware of the rules.
You want people to think you’re smart, but you never want to be seen as a self-consciously intellectual. You benefited from great teachers your whole life but you represent yourself as self-taught. You loved college but you now argue that college isn’t worth it. You might have a graduate degree, but never a doctorate, and you now represent your masters as some embarrassing thing you did in the past, its contribution to your earning power notwithstanding. You want to be known as well read, maybe even a reader, but not a reader reader. You want to have had exposure to “the classics” but not to be the kind of person who reads them now. You don’t mind being ignorant but you have stress dreams about appearing affected. You run all of your conspicuous cultural consumption through an exquisitely crafted defensive process, a mental machine that you are only partially in control of which eliminates from your cultural repertoire any commitments that risk being seen as showy, willfully obscure, or academic.
You are to be the kind of person who “overthinks it,” enjoying the protection of the preemptive irrelevance that term contains. You use the traditional literary analysis tools of symbolic reading and references, but you never apply them to actual literature, only pop culture– movies, or even better, TV. You will have a long conversation about the Christ allegory in Breaking Bad but would never dream of doing the same with “A Hunger Artist.” You rage against a high culture that no longer exists, but you are contemptuous towards anyone who has not absorbed a vast and subtle range of attitudes and opinions towards the middlebrow media you treat as scripture. You call True Detective operatic but disdain opera; you call violence in the latest Tarantino movie balletic but despise ballet. You are quietly patronizing towards people who enjoy CBS sitcoms and procedural dramas, but you are openly enraged by the notion that your cultural consumption should ever involve hard work. You complain that cultural disrespect towards video games and comic books narrows the realm of the possible and then insist that no one could ever read Gertrude Stein for pleasure.
More tragically, you want your life to have narrative and meaning, but you are so desperately afraid of appearing pretentious– the cardinal sin– that you have systematically eliminated from your life those aspects of it which were once most moving or treasured to you, to be rescued only, perhaps, when you become a parent, and can pawn off the work of being yourself as the work of making someone else.
We have entered a phase of the life of the mind and of culture that is the intellectual equivalent of “spiritual but not religious,” a time where everyone wants the social privileges that accrue to the smart but where no one wants to risk the social punishments that fall on intellectuals. Everyone wants to be sophisticated; nobody wants to be perceived as a sophisticate. They want to be cultured but never to be associated with what was once called “culture.” We lament ignorance but we are utterly corrosive towards the work of becoming smart. We love information; we hate to be taught. People have only those commitments that they can shroud in so many layers of plausible deniability that they can be discarded, when necessary, without real cost.
I can take all of it but the hypocrisy. I know that I’m a snob. I don’t think much of many people. I feel that way because I exist in the world, and I see the way that stupid people ruin the world every day. But I can deal with the choice to be ignorant. What I can’t deal with is the people who simultaneously deny the legitimacy of expertise while writing for publications that get millions of hits, who make feints towards egalitarianism while they are involved in the incredibly inegalitarian world of online writing, who are able to be seen waxing populist precisely because they are in decidedly non-populist environs. Don’t tell me that we’re all the same when You have to decide if you think being smart is better than being stupid, if you think education is better than ignorance. Then just live that and leave all of the bullshit kabuki out of it. If I have read you, you are no everyman. If I have read you writing about art and culture, congratulations, you are pretentious, even if you have assiduously restricted your analysis to topics covered by the AV Club and have mercilessly trimmed anything that might appear to take art, yourself, or your audience seriously. You are already pretentious, so please, drop the pretense. I cannot stand the fake, inconsistent populism. I can’t take it.