I should certainly not agree with Mr. Mill’s opinion that English people in general are dull, deficient in originality, and as like each other as herrings in a barrel appear to us. Many and many a fisherman, common sailor, workman, laborer, gamekeeper, policeman, non-commissioned officer, servant, and small clerk have I known who were just as distinct from each other, just as original in their own way, just as full of character, as men in a higher rank of life.
For my part I should limit myself to this, that the number of people who are able to carry on anything like a systematic train of thought, or to grasp the bearings of any subject consisting of several parts, is exceedingly small.
— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Fred Siegel’s excellent book, The Revolt Against the Masses, examines in detail how early twentieth-century “gentry liberals,” following a path blazed by intellectuals like Henry Adams, Herbert Croly, H.L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Randolph Bourne, and H.G. Wells, dropped all pretenses of championing the masses and began affecting scorn for all things middle-class and middlebrow, while pining for a European-style aristocracy of the intellect which would recognize and reward them as the superior, cultured sophisticates they believed themselves to be. A century later, having lost their naïveté and optimism, today’s gentry liberals are, if anything, different only by virtue of their bitter, melodramatic self-pity.
Periodically, you’ll see thinkpieces lamenting the “diversity” problem of the workplace, a first-world problem if ever there were one. Having worked in less glamorous occupations my entire life, I can assure these monochromatic hand-wringers that their problems would be solved if they were to leave their corporate jobs and go work in retail or manual labor, where they would meet a plethora of characters from all walks of life. But, like the irresistible force meeting the immovable object, the gentry’s patronizing concern for the objects of their pity would run up against their inclination to disparage their thinking and blame them for all sorts of political problems. Or, rather, like Ivan Karamazov, they would love humankind “at a distance” while being unable to forgive individuals for the fact that they smell unpleasant, that they have stupid faces, or that they once stepped on our feet.
My unusual means of earning a living bring me into regular contact with academics as well as auto parts workers, and my experience leads me to agree with Stephen: many people are interesting and intelligent without being intellectuals, and that’s probably not such a bad thing. It’s a shame that modern liberalism has spent a century being oblivious to that banal fact.