I've always found the thousand dollar dinners more unsettling than the twenty-five-thousand dollar ones --- if someone pays the Republican National Committee twenty-five thousand dollars (or, more likely, fifty per couple) to breathe the same air as Charlie for an hour or two, then it's clear the person has money to spare. What breaks my heart is when it's apparent through their accent or attire that a person isn't well off but has scrimped to attend an event with us. We're not worth it! I want to say. You should have paid off your credit-card bill, invested in your grandchild's college fund, taken a vacation to the Ozarks. Instead, in a few weeks, they receive in the mail a photo with one or both of us, signed by an autopen, which they can frame so that we might grin out into their living room for years to come.
When distinction of any kind, even intellectual distinction, is somehow resented as a betrayal of the American spirit of equal opportunity for all, the result must be just this terror of individualistic impulses setting us apart, either above or below our neighbours; just this determination to obey without questioning and to subscribe with passion to the conventions and traditions. The dilemma becomes a very real one: How can this sense of democratic equality be made compatible with respect for exceptional personalities or great minds? How can democracy, as we understand it today, with its iron repression of the free spirit, its monotonous standardisation of everything, learn to cherish an intellectual aristocracy without which any nation runs the risk of becoming a civilisation of the commonplace and the second-rate?