Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Elite Strike Back

While it was a bit strange to read a piece in which a congregation of true-believing, left-wing democratic socialists defend "elitism" of any sort ("vanguard of the proletariat" maybe?), this one managed nevertheless to make me think, again, about exactly what it is I mean when I level the charge "elitist".  The article is a little long, but it might do the same for you too, if, that is, you can get past the several, snarky, anti-Bush, anti-Palin, anti-anything-right-of-center asides.

But, then, that is part of their argument.  As they see it, the anti-elitism of today comes from the Right and is directed chiefly, foolishly and unjustly so, at the cultural elite, the "chatterers and scribblers" who attended the nation's finest private colleges and universities.
The resentful right, under the banner — hoisted alike by Beck, Huckabee, and Palin — of common sense, flatters deprivation as wisdom by implying to the uneducated that an education isn’t worth having. The violence this bigoted proposition has done to the talents and capacities of millions of people is incalculable, unforgivable.
Among other aspects, the thing about the article that captured my attention is that a similar case is sometimes made against the anti-elitism, the so-called "populism", of these same people by others on the Right, the non-resentful Right, I guess.  This bugs me.

First, the argument is a straw man.  Not Bush, not Palin, not me, nor anyone else who comes to be associated with this position (however that happens) ever suggested that an education is not worth having.  Frankly, this is a very old, and very tired, caricature that is now most often employed in order to free one from actually having to make a real argument.  What matters is the content of the education, but back to that in a moment.

I will admit that I'm sometimes sloppy with the word "elite", using it when I should use "elitist".  But when I'm being careful, "elite", for me, carries with it no pejorative connotation whatever.  I mean, simply, a person or group of people with influence disproportionate to their number in a society.  That influence can be the product of talent, treasure, or position, it can be deserved or not, and it can be wielded justly or unjustly, no matter.

However, when I charge someone with being an "elitist" it gets a bit more complicated.  The authors of the piece get close to what I mean it with this:
The noxious thing about the cultural elite is supposed to be its bad faith. Everyone else in America more or less forthrightly confesses that they’re trying to grab as much money as they can, and if somebody has meanwhile forced a liberal education on them, that doesn’t mean they’ve had to like it. Upon making their money, real Americans are furthermore honest enough to spend it on those things that evolution or God have programmed humans to sincerely enjoy....Half the idea is that genuine, honest people differ not so much in their tastes as in their economic ability to indulge those tastes; there exists an oligarchy of money but no aristocracy of spirit. The other half is that less sincere people — elitists — lie to themselves and everybody else about what’s really in their red-meat hearts. Instead of saying I’m pleased with my superior class background, they pretend to like boring books, films, and sports.
But even more so with this:
An apparent political lie often corresponds to the one about taste. Take Walter Berglund at the end of Franzen’s Freedom (where the culture wars usually mediated by the media are waged in a face-off of neighborly harassment). Tragicomically, Walter tries to get his neighbors to outfit their cats with bibs, to protect the local songbirds. Ostensibly he is agitating for a better world. But his SUV-driving neighbors feel that he is mostly showing off, exhibiting himself as a better person with superior values. Instead of saying I have a deep neurotic craving to regard myself as a good man — a confession that, as Franzen makes clear, would be true enough — Walter, so his neighbors feel, fancies himself a lover of birds, an environmentalist. (It was in college, of course, that he became obsessed with overpopulation.)..."[P]rogressives” mainly want to suggest they’ve achieved a kind of moral progress — thanks largely to a costly education — that nobody else has.
While the nearly always attendant hypocrisy of an "elitist" gets under my skin like almost nothing else, the one thing that does manage to surpass it, and thereby actually defines "elitist" for me, is its smugness.

While self-confidence rubs some people the wrong way, chiefly the insecure, I, like most, find it extremely attractive.  But to be self-confident is not the same as being smug. To be smug is to be self-assured without grace, without gratitude.  A posture of thanksgiving is altogether missing, whether it be thankfulness to God, to country, to community, to family, to anyone or anything.

So, what's wrong with the content of the education our most fortunate sons and daughters receive from our "elite" universities?  Many things, but with respect to far too many of them being susceptible to the charge of "elitist", it's not so much what they're taught as what they're not taught:  Manners.

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