Anti-suburban snobbery

Lee Siegel, pondering the theme of “Revolutionary Road,” seeks the root of the elite intellectual’s anti-suburban bias:

In the ’50s and early ’60s, the postwar exodus from the cities to the suburbs was just beginning. . . .
It’s easy to see why artists and intellectuals felt that they had to alert the general public to the emergency of these sudden new places’ peaceful, leafy streets. . . . The suburbs were the embodiment of that period’s fashionable existential fear: “inauthenticity.” . . .
Most of the people leaving the cities for the suburbs in the 1950s were tradespeople, modest businessmen, teachers and the like. They were, in other words, members of the middle-class, the impassioned rejection of which has been the chief rite de passage of the modern American artist and intellectual. With the growth of suburban towns, the liberal American intellectual now had a concrete geography to house his acute sense of outrage.

Among other things, Siegel points out that “Revolutionary Road” is basically Sam Mendes’ remake of Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty.” Mendes is a talented filmmaker devoting his craftsmanship to an obsession with a perverse theme, namely that there is something wrong with ordinary people living ordinary lives. The Evil of Banality, as it were.

As Siegel says, this theme is puerile. Children dream of distant, exciting places, adolescents rebel against their parents, Bright Young Men think they’ll invent the world anew — well, most of us grow up. We acquire the mature perspective that the ordinary sort of life (job, marriage, mortgage, kids) is actually a very good thing, well worth the having, and in fact a more difficult achievement than we’d imagined back when we were smart-aleck kids bored by our own ordinary upbringing. The elite intellectual, however, succumbs to a Peter Pan fantasy, refusing to let go of the flattering childhood conceit that he is an extraordinary and superior being.

Remember being 19 and thinking you already knew everything? The elitist becomes fixated in that stage, a narcissist trapped in admiration of his own wonderfulness, and therefore sneers at the ordinary existence and ordinary attitudes of ordinary people in ordinary places. This arrested development accounts for the urban elitist’s disdain for the suburbanite.

Siegel’s essay is very good, more than 2,000 words, and the brief excerpts I’ve quoted hardly do it justice, so read the whole thing.

UPDATE: Excellent point by commenter Ronsonic:

Interestingly, this is not so different from the attitude of career criminals, not understanding the accomplishment of the ordinary, they think it beneath them. Incapable of the persistence and occasional tedium of life they insist on attempting to bypass it somehow. Thinking themselves superior to those around them, who they see as lacking vision and enterprise they justify themselves.
So we have the strange bedfellows of the counter-culture – upper middle class intellectuals and common street thugs.

This point, I’m sure, would be endorsed by Thomas Sowell.

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