La “brain society” e le rughe di Topolino

Charles Murray – Coming apart

Nelle società contemporanee un’ élite sempre più ristretta tende a isolarsi e a vivere in un mondo a parte. Il guaio (o la fortuna) è che non si tratta semplicemente di “nobili” o di “ricconi” – come in passato –, bensì di “intelligentoni” (che cumulano ricchezza in breve tempo). Un’ élite cognitiva, dunque.


Il resto della popolazione si stacca dal vertice come mai era avvenuto prima e a questo scollamento contribuisce in modo rilevante una disaffezione dei ceti popolari verso le cosiddette quattro “founding virtues”: industriosità, religiosità, onestà e attaccamento ai valori familiari.

Tanto per capirsi, non avere una famiglia stabile è un guaio, soprattutto per chi non puo’ permettersi un lusso del genere. E indovinate un po’ chi fallisce più spesso quando si tratta di costruirne una?

Oggi, rispetto a ieri, nelle classi medie e medio basse, sono in molti a credere di poter rinunciare a una famiglia unita, magari istigati dalle star hollywoodiane o da qualche socio-psico-filosofo che predica la “liberazione del desiderio” per le masse. Salvo che, guardando bene ai dati, anche solo il semplice celibato pesa sulle entrate future del soggetto.

Altro esempio: l’ ateismo, sempre più diffuso negli strati bassi della società, in ultima analisi è un lusso per pochi. Non tutti hanno gli strumenti per sostituire la carica motivazionale di un “pensiero devoto”.

Altro esempio: sostituire la tradizionale etica dell’ “hard-working” con il piagnisteo continuo della cultura sindacal-democratica è un capriccio che alla lunga si paga caro senza neanche accorgersene.

Ora, a qualcuno la cosa apparirà strana, ma in una società fortemente meritocratica questi lussi erodono la condizione di chi se li concede ancor più  che non in una cultura plutocratica o nobiliare, dove per lo meno alle classi subalterne era pur sempre assegnato un ruolo stabile che le garantiva dalla “caduta libera”.


Per capire la cultura delle classi elevate, la cosa migliore è affidarsi ai telefilm americani, il più emblematico è Thirtysomething:

Two women in their late twenties or early thirties wearing tailored business outfits are seated at a table.

A vase with a minimalist arrangement of irises and forsythia is visible in the background. On the table in front of the women are their drinks—both of them wine, served in classic long-stemmed glasses.

Nary a peanut or a pretzel is in sight. One of the women is talking about a man she has started dating. He is attractive, funny, good in bed, she says, but there’s a problem: He wears polyester shirts. “Am I allowed to have a relationship with someone who wears polyester shirts?” she asks.

She is Hope Murdoch, the female protagonist. She ends up marrying the man who wore the polyester shirts, who is sartorially correct by the time we see him. Hope went to Princeton. She is a writer who put a promising career on hold when she had a baby.

He is Michael Steadman, one of two partners in a fledgling advertising agency in Philadelphia. He went to the University of Pennsylvania (the Ivy League one). Hope and Michael live with their sevenmonth- old daughter in an apartment with high ceilings, oldfashioned woodwork, and etched-glass windows. Gradschool- like bookcases are untidily crammed with books. An Art Deco poster is on the wall.

A Native American blanket is draped over the top of the sofa. In the remaining forty-five minutes, we get dialogue that includes a reference to left brain/right brain differences and an exchange about evolutionary sexual selection that begins, “You’ve got a bunch of Australopithecines out on the savanna, right?” The Steadmans buy a $278 baby stroller (1987 dollars). Michael shops for new backpacking gear at a high-end outdoors store, probably REI.


No one wears suits at the office. Michael’s best friend is a professor at Haverford. Hope breast-feeds her baby in a fashionable restaurant. Hope can’t find a babysitter. Three of the four candidates she interviews are too stupid to be left with her child and the other is too Teutonic. Hope refuses to spend a night away from the baby (“I have to be available to her all the time”). Michael drives a car so cool that I couldn’t identify the make. All this, in just the first episode. The culture depicted in thirtysomething had no precedent, with its characters who were educated at elite schools, who discussed intellectually esoteric subjects, and whose sex lives were emotionally complicated and therefore needed to be talked about…

Negli anni 60 in america non esisteva un vero abisso tra upper e working class, almeno negli stili di vita:

Ernest Hemingway was right in his supposed exchange with F. Scott Fitzgerald.5 In 1963, the main difference between the old-money rich and everybody else was mainly that they had more money…

Take, for example, the woman who was the embodiment of the different world of the rich, Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Heiress to the founder of the company that became General Foods, one of the wealthiest women in America, she owned palatial homes in Washington, Palm Beach, and on Long Island, furnished with antiques and objets from the castles of Europe.

She summered in the Adirondacks, at Camp Topridge, surrounded by her private 207 acres of forest and lakes. She took her sailing vacations on Sea Cloud, the largest privately owned sailing yacht in the world, and flew in her own Vickers Viscount airliner, with a passenger cabin decorated as a living room, probably the largest privately owned aircraft in the world. Hers was not a life familiar to many other Americans. But, with trivial exceptions, it was different only in the things that money could buy. When her guests assembled for dinner, the men wore black tie, a footman stood behind every chair, the silver was sterling, and the china had gold leaf. But the soup was likely to be beef consommé, the main course was almost always roast beef, steak, lamb chops, or broiled chicken, the starch was almost certainly potato, and the vegetable was likely to be broccoli au gratin.6 The books on the shelves of her libraries were a run-of-the-mill mix of popular fiction and nonfiction.

She screened the latest films in the privacy of her homes, but the films her guests watched were standard Hollywood products. The wealthy had only a very few pastimes—polo and foxhunting are the only two I can think of, and they engaged only a fraction of the rich—that were different from pastimes in the rest of America. By and large Mrs. Post, like others among America’s wealthy, spent her leisure time doing the same kinds of things that other Americans did…

Murray illustra la nuova cultura upper class prendendo in considerazione i loro bar, i loro uffici, le loro vacanze, come curano la salute, le condotte sessuali, gli orientamenti politici, cosa ascoltano alla radio e alla TV… leggiamo solo un passaggio relativo alla cura dei bimbi:

The children of the new upper class are the object of intense planning from the moment the woman learns she is pregnant.

She sets about researching her choice of obstetrician immediately (if she hasn’t already done it in anticipation of the pregnancy), and her requirements are stringent. She does not drink alcohol or allow herself to be exposed even to secondhand smoke during her pregnancy.

She makes sure her nutritional intake exactly mirrors the optimal diet and takes classes (along with her husband) to prepare for a natural childbirth—a C-section is a last resort. She gains no more and no less than the prescribed weight during her pregnancy.

She breast-feeds her newborn, usually to the complete exclusion of formula, and tracks the infant’s growth with the appropriate length and weight charts continually.

The infant is bombarded with intellectual stimulation from the moment of birth, and sometimes from the moment that it is known that conception has occurred.

The mobile over the infant’s crib and the toys with which he is provided are designed to  induce every possible bit of neural growth within the child’s cerebral cortex. By the time the child is a toddler, some new-upper-class mothers return to their careers, turning over daytime child care to a nanny (sometimes selected in part for the second language that the parents think the child should learn) or to a high-end preschool during the day…

Rispetto agli anni sessanta la vita dell’ élite si è trasferita su un altro pianeta, i genitori non riconoscerebbero i loro figli. Ma per il resto della società non sembra cambiato granché. 

Perhaps the most general cultural difference—one that can be bad or good depending on individual cases—is that mainstream America is a lot more relaxed than the new upper class about their children.

I don’t mean that other American parents care less, but that, as a group, they are less inclined than upper-class parents to obsess about how smart their baby is…

one of the major preoccupations of upper-class parents during their children’s teenage years, the college admissions process, is almost entirely absent in mainstream America.

Only a small proportion of colleges in the United States are hard to get into. Everywhere else, all you have to do is apply and attach a halfway decent high school transcript and ACT or SAT score.

Diversi fattori hanno scremato la nuova élite, innanzitutto il fatto che oggi il “cervello” conti come non mai:

In the early 1990s, Bill Gates was asked what competitor worried him the most. Goldman Sachs, Gates answered. He explained: “Software is an IQ business. Microsoft must win the IQ war, or we won’t have a future. I don’t worry about Lotus or IBM, because the smartest guys would rather come to work for Microsoft. Our competitors for IQ are investment banks such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.”

Persino l’ intelligenza pura ai limiti dell’ autismo, ieri destinata a soffrire, oggi spadroneggia:

What was someone with exceptional mathematical ability worth on the job market a hundred years ago if he did not have interpersonal skills or common sense? Not much. The private sector had only a few jobs such as actuary that might make him worth hiring. His best chance was to go into academia and try to become a professor of mathematics. His options were not much wider in 1960. What is a person with the same skill set worth today? If he is a wizard programmer, as people with exceptional mathematical ability tend to be, he is worth six figures to Microsoft or Google. If he is a fine pure mathematician, some quant funds can realistically offer him the prospect of great wealth

Purtroppo l’ intelligenza è un fattore che produce molta discriminazione, sia attiva che passiva:

The human impulse behind the isolation of the new upper class is as basic as impulses get: People like to be around other people who understand them and to whom they can talk. Cognitive segregation was bound to start developing as soon as unusually smart people began to have the opportunity to hang out with other unusually smart people. The yearning for that kind of opportunity starts young. To have exceptional cognitive ability isolates a young person as no other ability does. The teenager with exceptional athletic ability who becomes the star quarterback has lots of people who are eager to be his friends even if he is shy or socially awkward. The teenager with exceptional interpersonal ability is one of the most well-liked kids in school—that’s what exceptional interpersonal ability does for you. But the math star who possesses only average interpersonal ability is seen as an oddball…

All’ isolamento del secchione dotato è seguita la concentrazione di un élite cognitiva, hanno pensato a tutto le università di prestigio con il loro calibrato setaccio:

… the typical classroom in an elite school has no one outside the top decile of cognitive talent, and many who are in the top hundredth or thousandth of the distribution. Both sets of students are technically “college educated” when they get their BAs, but that’s where the similarity stops. Given this concentration of academic talent in a relatively few colleges and universities, the original problem has been replaced by its opposite. Instead of feeling sorry for the exceptionally able student who has no one to talk to, we need to worry about what happens when exceptionally able students hang out only with one another.

Entrare nel giusto College ti cambia la vita, ma pure lì in fondo sembra di vedere sempre le solite facce. Ma come, il merito non doveva liberare la mobilità sociale? Colpa del solito aumma aumma che blocca l’ ascensore sociale? Non proprio:

In The Price of Admission, journalist Daniel Golden documents the ways in which elite schools manage to find room for the children of alums, big donors, celebrities, athletes, the elite college’s own faculty, and wealthy parents whose estates might eventually make their heirs into big donors.20 The question is this: What would the freshman class look like if all of these considerations were eliminated and the decisions were made purely on the basis of test scores, extracurricular achievements, teacher recommendations, and high school transcripts? Answer: Socioeconomically, the change in the class profile would range from minuscule to zero… The reason that upper-middle-class children dominate the population of elite schools is that the parents of the upper-middle class now produce a disproportionate number of the smartest children…

Il college prestigioso segnala l’ intelligenza di chi lo frequenta, ma ricordiamo che l’ intelligenza non è qualcosa che si costruisce a scuola:

Educational attainment is correlated with IQ, but education does not have much effect on IQ after the child enters elementary school. By that, I do not mean that the absence of any education after age 6 wouldn’t make a difference, nor that exceptions do not exist…

Come sono cambiate dunque le cose? Una volta ci si sposava tra ricchi unendo le fortune e creando imperi e dinastie, oggi, poiché i college sono la più importante agenzia matrimoniale e in pochi college si concentrano le intelligenze migliori del paese, ci si sposerà tra “intelligentoni”, si avranno figli “intelligentoni” che frequenteranno i migliori college e s’ impossesseranno dei lavori più lucrosi…

… Highly disproportionate numbers of exceptionally able children in the next generation will come from parents in the uppermiddle class, and more specifically from parents who are already part of the broad elite…

… per questa via meritocratica si cumuleranno ricchezze sempre più imponenti e si attuerà una secessione sociale sempre più marcata…

“During the late twentieth century, in other words, the well educated and the affluent increasingly segmented themselves off from the rest of American society.”4 They were reminded of a phrase coined by Robert Reich when he first described the new class of symbolic analysts back in 1991: “The secession of the successful.”

Murray passa ad ispezionare l’ enclave dove oggi vive la ricchissima “élite cognitiva”, ecco una piccola parte della foto.

Previewing trends for the upper-middle class as a whole that I will present in detail in part 2, inhabitants of SuperZips are more likely to be married than elsewhere, less likely to have experienced divorce, and less likely to have children living in households with single mothers. The men in SuperZips are more likely to be in the labor force than other American men and less likely to be unemployed. They also work longer hours than other Americans. Crime in urban SuperZips is low, and crime in suburban SuperZips is rare. One of the most distinctive aspects of the SuperZips is their ethnic profile. As of 2000, the 882 SuperZips were substantially whiter and more Asian than the rest of America.

Vivere fianco a fianco con questa élite comporta parecchi problemi – dal loro isolamento decidono anche per voi senza minimamente conoscere o avere a che fare coi vostri stili di vita – nonostante questo, diamo a Cesare quel che è di Cesare dicendo che è meglio avercela che non avervela.

… as individuals, the members of the new upper class are usually just fine— engaging, well mannered, good parents, and good neighbors… When America got serious about identifying cognitive talent, shipping the talented to colleges and the most talented to the best colleges, it also augmented the nation’s efficiency in tapping its human capital by some unknowable but large amount. The result over the long term was that cognitive talent that in an earlier era would have been employed in keeping a store or repairing broken-down engines was employed instead in running large corporations and inventing new kinds of engines…

Conclusione: l’ élite cognitiva si stacca dal resto della popolazione visto che la società contemporanea premia l’ intelligenza come non mai. E fin qui il messaggio del libro è ambivalente, qualcuno sarà a disagio, altri meno, in fondo uno sfruttamento intensivo delle intelligenze potenziali è auspicabile. C’ è però una seconda parte destinata invece ad alimentare le controversie: le armi tradizionali in mano alla working class e usate in passato per non perdere il “contatto” con la classe privilegiata sono oggi venute meno. Per “armi tradizionali” s’ intendono le virtù canoniche: culto del lavoro, culto della famiglia, culto dell’ onestà, culto religioso. Chi incolpare per questo lutto? Poiché conosciamo l’ opera pregressa di Murray, ci sono pochi dubbi: la cultura progressista e welfarista con tutto il portato di infiacchimento morale che comporta inevitabilmente la sua diffusione.


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