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Works and Days

Elitism, the Culture Wars, and the Campaign

September 21st, 2008 - 6:00 am

You are a damn elite, not me!

That sums up the current political debate—whether we look at charges that John McCain has so many houses he can’t remember any longer the actual number of them; or that poor Barack Obama is depressed at the soaring price of arugula; or that Fightin’ Joe Biden once bootstrapped himself up at ten in Scranton; or that moose-hunting Sarah snowmachines as naturally as Barack Obama trips over himself in a bowling lane.

A nation of wood-cutters

In short, we remain log-cabin America, formed as the frontier antithesis of Europe. Apparently, we are determined, at least in mind, to stay that way—rightly or wrongly sneering at both natural Francophile John Kerry’s spandex, and also poor forced and uncomfortable duck-hunting John Kerry, decked out in camouflage, and looking as uncomfortable with a dead duck as Mike Dukakis in a tank helmet. We don’t like snooty elitists, and don’t give them a break when they clumsily try at election time in the eleventh hour to morph into one of the people.

A state of mind

So what is elitism? And who is an elitist? We can start by remembering that objecting to elitism in hardly anti-intellectualism. Elitism itself cannot be defined necessarily by social status, money, blue-chip degrees, or tony zip codes—though all that can make an elitist’s task much easier than can a CSU Bakersfield BA and residence in Oildale.

Rather, elitism is a state of mind. It is a world view in which one’s refinements from the commons—whether they are natural or acquired tastes and interests, whether they be intellectual, musical, artistic, architectural, or simply social—are seen as exclusive rather than inclusive.

Looking up with, rather than down at, others.

Poet and intellectual Dana Gioia, the head of the National Endowment of the Arts, is not an elitist, primarily because he works to bring his knowledge of poetry, music, and art to Middle America, rather than to subsidize yet another talentless endowed Professor of Art’s postmodern pornographic paper-machês that could not exist as art, outside of the university lounge. He believes that music or poetry not only enriches life, but that most in rural areas, or the ghetto, or the middle-class suburbs agree, if only they are given steady opportunity and encouragement  for such enjoyment, and the arts are presented in a context of shared tastes and the desire for commonality and fellowship, rather than the condescending bestowal from a superior to his pawn.

Renaissance man Teddy

Teddy Roosevelt was not for long seen as a snooty Ivy-League bore once he went West, fought with the Rough Riders, and in his fifties ended up with malaria in the Amazon, determined that the value of his education was to lead others and enrich his own rather full and often arduous physical life. He read Tolstoy while chasing outlaws out West. In that sense, his Harvard education was of benefit only to the degree learning acquired in Cambridge proved in the real world of some value in sharpening Roosevelt’s acumen, his sense of beauty, his judgment, his knowledge, and his ability to enlighten others. It surely did in matters intellectual, since Roosevelt wrote persuasively about the West and South America, as he drew on word and deed.  If education does not do such things— and it often does not for many—then refinement and intellectual prowess are as valuable as a crystal paper weight: sometimes impressive to the eye, but more frequently of no utility, not quite art, not quite an implement.

Something gained, but something also lost
Second, elitism is the deliberate deprecation, in active or passive fashion, of the other world of physicality and pragmatism. The true elitist values his books, his music, his refined taste in furniture, food, and fashion to the neglect of how one makes a book, to the absolute uninterest in the construction of a violin, a chair, a fig, or a pair of pants. The elitist always fails to appreciate, (1) that his existence, and his much cherished rarified world, are impossible without others that are as smart and as skilled as he, and thus due commensurate thanks and acknowledgment, and (2) that in the zero-sum game of life, hours spent at the piano, Smyth’s Greek grammar, the Sunday morning opera, or the Guggenheim Museum are a tragic trade-off in which one forfeits commensurate time invested in the physical challenge of chain-sawing limbs, the aesthetic sense of accomplishment in weeding an overgrown garden, or the satisfaction of re-roofing a house. The elitist, in contrast, simply cannot imagine that such tasks are as necessary as his own, or that such muscular experience can reflect upon character and knowledge as much as those interests of his own softer and more sophisticated world. Again, knowing how to chain-saw or hammer may be more valuable in dealing with Chavez or Putin than distinguishing Virgil from Horace.

Forgetting Plato’s warning about wisdom

Third, the elitist, by his very nature, proves overreaching. That is, he seems in anti-Platonic fashion, to think his expertise in one field is instantly transferable to another. The good tractor mechanic may, with dirty nails and the odor of diesel, instinctively sense  that he has shorted rhetoric and diction, and so has to prepare and tread carefully when  dealing with the probate lawyer, county assessor, or local professor at night school.

Again, in contrast, the elitist seems to think that his Harvard Law Degree or Stanford PhD, or Victorian on Pacific Heights instantly makes him a far better guide to human nature, diplomacy, warmaking, and governance—almost anything—than does the sheet-rocker or crane operator (cf. the Obama sermon on clinging Pennsylvanians). That is, the elitist does not understand that his admirable hours spent investigating French provincial furniture or understanding the pedigree of good silverware may be of no more utility in cultivating logic, good judgment, and moral character than in mastering checkers.

William F. Buckley, who knew something of the Ivy League, was not being (just) flippant when he quipped
“I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.”

 The Anger of the Annoited

The Democrats are furious—and have been so throughout the last thirty years in which they have nominated the less than savvy products of law schools—that the public does not appreciate their concern for the poor and middling classes. This angst plays out in a sort of ‘What’s the Matter With Kansas’ sneering, akin to Marxist false consciousness, that the yokel simply has been hoodwinked by the Machiavellian Karl Roves of the world to vote against his own economic interests by electing a NASCAR-going, nuclar-speaking George Bush, who, the liberals cry out, is really a snooty product of Yale and Harvard determined to protect his own class.

 Ivy League–sometimes good, sometimes bad, depending…

How odd that while the media informed us that Obama’s Harvard education was a pivotal consideration, we were never reminded earlier of any advantage in Bush’s own as lengthy pedigree in the Ivy League. If Obama would release his transcripts, we could compare Bush at Yale, and Obama at Columbia to ascertain the more serious student. Legacies were as important perhaps in Bush getting into Yale as affirmative action was for Obama to enter Columbia and Harvard, given his actual GPA. I just did an interview for CNN (probably won’t be aired) in which the interviewer after arguing that the Ivy League should be a proper barometer of talent, then blurted out but “Yale and Harvard didn’t help George Bush.”  Odd to see someone trying to make and reject her case all at once.

 Rove made them do it

The question liberal Democrats must ask is not whether George Bush fooled Middle America—but rather how was he able to do it? And the answer is a pontificating and hypocritical Al Gore, or a ponderous and sanctimonious snob like John Kerry made it easy. Long gone are the Harry Trumans, Scoop Jacksons, and Hubert Humphreys, all smart, widely read and sophisticated leaders, who nonetheless sought to include others rather than relied on social status, education certificates, pedigrees, zip-codes, tastes and fashion to remind the less blessed that their own cultivated landscape was proof of singular intelligence and competence.

In the arena

Like it or not, this campaign has turned into a cultural war in which elitism is center stage. Everyday some celebrity like a Chevy Chase or Woody Allen, whose own lives are hardly worthy of emulation, gives a nasty, condescending lecture about how inept Palin is, how dense we are, and how embarrassed they would be should we pass on Obama and disappoint “the world”.

When Obama talks ad nauseam about Biden’s “Scranton upbringing” (moved away at ten), we know he’s afraid of his own impression that he is elitist. And that is not helped by his lectures to Americans about their inability to speak French (he doesn’t himself), or praise to Europeans about world efforts to save Berlin during the airlift (mostly a US effort), or braggadocio that he doesn’t look like most American officials who come to Germany (false; cf. Powell and Rice).

I don’t think a Bob Herbert knows anything because he writes for the New York Times, ditto a Sally Quinn who sometimes op-eds at the Washington Post.  Matt Damon’s ideas about Palin are no more valid than my vineyard renter’s, but far less logical and sane. I take Obama’s lectures about French about as seriously as I do any backpacking student’s.

Paths taken and not

We are all a sum total of what we’ve read, how we’ve been taught, where we lived, what we’ve done and not done. Given our tragically short-lives it really is a zero-sum game, in which each choice entails a choice not to do something else. I grant that in theory sitting in front of a sofa watching sit-coms could be a bad choice if done serially. But then so could be acting in that silly sit-com day after day a bad choice of time, even if such performance sometimes brings one the money and status to fool others that it is not.

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