The Issue of Elitism

One shouldn’t discriminate. Discrimination is bad – you just don’t dismiss others as unworthy solely on the basis of their race or gender, or on the basis of their religion or lack of any religion (news items like this notwithstanding – “And it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists. I am fed up. Get out of that seat!”). You don’t dismiss gay folks because they’re gay – Andrew Sullivan is smart, insightful and compassionate, and Ellen DeGeneres amusing. And you don’t dismiss others as unworthy solely on the basis of their nationality, unless they’re French or Mexican, of course. In regard to the French some on the American right make exceptions for Jean-Marie Le Pen and Nicholas Sarkozy of course. There are few exceptions for Mexicans. You also do not discriminate on the basis of social class – the poor are noble and the fabulously wealthy successful because they’re extraordinarily resourceful and admirably focused.  


And so it goes. The idea is one does not dismiss others as unworthy on the basis of arbitrary characteristics – they have to be specific fools, in and of themselves. Discrimination is absurd. 


On the other hand, one should have discriminating tastes. One should drink only the King of Beers, drive a large, black Cadillac Escalade (if possible) and not some rusted-out old beater, and own the right things – the kids know all about this regarding sneakers and such. And you certainly don’t want to be caught dead listening to the wrong music or liking the wrong movies, or laughing at the wrong jokes – people will think you have bad taste, or no taste. That’s tasteless – the ultimate put-down. Of course what is precisely “wrong” is a matter of what sort of people are “your people” – and even then what is tasteful at the moment keeps shifting. But in these cases discrimination is good – it’s essential to your sense of self, to allowing yourself to feel worthy to even live. 


It gets confusing – no one wants to be Homer Simpson or, earlier, Archie Bunker. Except people have quoted both, and not always ironically. You want to be better than that, and you also want to be a man of the people. Balancing those two impulses is difficult and perhaps impossible – it can drive you crazy. 


For those of us who grew up in Pittsburgh and now live in Hollywood, Jeff Goldblum’s 2006 movie, where he puts his Hollywood actor life on hold to star in a Pittsburgh regional theater production of The Music Man, is painful. He goes back to his hometown. Each local encounter is excruciating, and his Hollywood agent is aghast – and he’s trying to play Professor Harold Hill, the slick salesman from out of town who fleeces the rubes but is won over by the beyond provincial Iowa folks, who turn out to be, of course, just good people (and the local librarian a real dish). The whole conflict is there, on many levels.  


But people born in Pittsburgh leave Pittsburgh and never go back – Gertrude Stein, Cecil B. DeMille, Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant, and Andy Warhol. They knew something – it’s like the Irish writers from Swift to Joyce to Beckett. You go where things are happening – Stein to Paris, Warhol to the Village arts scene, the others to Hollywood – as not much ever happens in Pittsburgh. There’s a big world out there. You want to be part of it. You don’t want to sit and grow old watching the tow-boats pushing barges down the dirty Monongahela, wondering what’s happening elsewhere, where things actually happen. 


Of course you end up being an elitist, like Jeff Goldblum – unable to reconnect with what is, after all, the life most everyone leads, a life they have found, one way or another, quite satisfactory, thank you very much. They have nothing but scorn for the so-called elite. 


So the issue, as you find in Wikipedia, is elitism: 


Elitism is the belief or attitude that those individuals who are considered members of the elite – a select group of people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience, or other distinctive attributes – are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern.  


This is the opposite of populism or pluralism, leads to no end of resentment – condescending or cynical comments about the rubes don’t sit well, and, on the other side, the elite do resent those who don’t really belong, the hangers-on and wannabes. And elitism does, naturally, encourage the exclusion of large numbers of people from positions of privilege or power – people do want to reduce the gap of power between “the elite” and “the ordinary.” Affirmative action, social security, luxury taxes, and increasingly higher progressive taxes for the wealthiest can do the trick – short of socialism or communism, but along those lines. 


And then there’s this: 


Pluralism is the belief that public policy decisions should be (or, descriptively, are) the result of the struggle of forces exerted by large populations (workers, consumers, retirees, parents, etc.) directly or indirectly in the policy-making process. This is contrasted with elitism which is the belief that decisions should be (or are) being made essentially according to the interests or ideas of elites. There is a difference, however, between the idea of being more able to fulfill a political task and the actual knowing of the specialization and specifications of each corporation or other group among the general population and its particular hopes and needs, which suggests a way of cooperation which has been recently put into practice in some countries between politicians and groups of citizens which have some remote resemblances to Corporatism. 


So, there may be a middle ground in all this. 


Don’t believe it. Consider these remarks by Barack Obama in San Francisco, made on April 6 but only coming to light late on Friday, April 11: 


You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not. 


And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations. 


See the gay but not happy Andrew Sullivan: 


You can see the point he is trying to make – it’s the Thomas Frank argument – and you can argue about its merits, back and forth. I don’t think it’s meant pejoratively about the blue collar workers Obama is trying to engage. But the context of these remarks is political gold for McCain and Clinton. Especially Clinton. You will hear these words on Fox News for a very, very long time. 


That happened, with a vengeance. Damn – Pittsburgh is a problem. And so is California, where Obama, spoke. See Mayhill Fowler at the Huffington Post here 


Obama made a problematic judgment call in trying to explain working class culture to a much wealthier audience. He described blue collar Pennsylvanians with a series of what in the eyes of creamy Californians might be considered pure negatives: guns, clinging to religion, antipathy, xenophobia.  


I’m not sure this is what at least this lot of Californians needed to hear about Pennsylvanians. Such phrases can reinforce negative stereotypes among Californians, who are a people in a state already surfeited with a smug sense of superiority and, as an ironic consequence, a parochialism and insularity at odds with the innovation, prosperity and openness for which California is rightly known. (Of course, this is a generalization, and as such does not fit everyone; but as a state characteristic I stand by it.)  


Californians might be better served by hearing that Pennsylvanians have a strong sense of their place in American history, for here California is wanting. California needs to hear that other Americans have gone through hard times and survived, humor intact. Since Barack Obama sees himself as the candidate best able to unify the country, these are the messages he needs to carry and his frank words about Pennsylvania may not have translated very clearly. 


And for those us who are Californians and were once Pennsylvanians, we understand what she’s getting at – you can feel elite, or special, either way. But Sullivan was right – the comments didn’t seem so offensive. That’s what that Thomas Frank book, What’s the Matter with Kansas, was all about. The book’s subtitle – “How Conservatives Won the Heart of America” – says it all. They channeled that bitterness and built an empire. 


Mayhill Fowler adds more: 


To give Obama his due, he spoke about working class Pennsylvanians likely because he had been thinking about them a great deal. And he spoke, as he often does away from large rallies, in a calm, even, matter-of-fact way. Every town hall meeting I’ve observed, from California to Iowa, Nevada to Texas, has showcased Senator Obama’s core decency and high measure of regard for each individual.  


It’s curious, then, that he often has such a hard time making a connection with many working class Americans. 


Maybe it’s the elite thing:  


For all his soaring rhetoric, there is a dispassion about him. And yet he blends rationcinative [sic] intelligence with empathetic understanding. This is a rare combination, and for many people, this aspect of Obama takes some getting used to. His Puritanical streak, moreover, while amusing to the press can be off-putting to everybody else. 


The Fowler link has his San Francisco comments in full, and the audio clip – you decide. This ex-Pittsburgher living in Hollywood cannot tell – you become a member of the condescending elite and such judgments become impossible. 


The Huffington Post provides a survey of all the reactions here, including this from Hillary Clinton:  


Clinton addressed the Obama statement without prompting. Telling the crowd that, “it is being reported that my opponent said that the people of Pennsylvania who faced hard times are bitter,” the New Yorker immediately sought to draw a contrast. 


“Well, that is not my experience,” she said. “As I travel around Pennsylvania I meet people who are resilient, optimistic, positive, who are rolling up their sleeves. They are working hard every day for a better future for themselves and their children” 


Of course she said he was insulting them, not just saying they were bitter and had a right to be bitter. She wants the nomination. 


The item also quotes McCain spokesman Steve Schmidt: 


“It shows an elitism and condescension towards hardworking Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking,” Schmidt said. “It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans.”  


And we learn that the Clinton campaign emailed around comments from two key Republicans: 


Grover Norquist, the anti-tax activist who leads an influential weekly meeting of conservatives, went as far as to argue that Obama’s line would cost Democrats the White House. “That sentence will lose him the election,” Norquist told ABC News. “He just announced to rural America: ‘I don’t like you.'” [, 4/11/08]


Republican strategist Ed Rollins: Q: “On a scale of 1 to 10 how damaging is this?” Rollins: ‘Ten.’ [CNN, Lou Dobbs, 4/11/08] 


That the Clinton campaign is asking all Democrats to listen to the wise Republicans is curious, but she does want the nomination. 


The Obama campaign emailed out this video clip from CNN – Gloria Borger, Jack Cafferty, and Jeffrey Toobin defending Obama on Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room: 


BLITZER: All right, Gloria, he’s already being hammered by Hillary Clinton and John McCain for that matter for supposedly being an elitist and speaking ill of the people of Pennsylvania by suggesting that the economic problems there are causing them to become bitter and buying guns and becoming xenophobic and all of that. What do you think? Is this a real issue out there?


GLORIA BORGER: Well, Hillary Clinton said today, you know, I don’t see bitter people out there, I see struggling people or whatever it is, but she said the people aren’t bitter. But I think the people are angry and maybe Obama’s terminology was inartful but I think he’s expressing a sentiment of mad-as-hell-voters, not going to take it anymore, that we’ve seen throughout this election. And that’s why perhaps voters are saying over and over again that they want to change. So I think Hillary Clinton is trying to make him into the elite candidate but he’s talking about people being angry.


That seems about right, and there’s this:


BLITZER: All right, Jeff. What do you think?


JEFF TOOBIN: I think that is so ridiculous. I mean that is not at all what Barack Obama said. I just think this is an example of how a campaign between the two of them can be purely destructive. And not elevate either candidate. I mean, Hillary Clinton is clearly distorting what Obama said. And by the way, what Obama said is factually accurate. It’s been true throughout history that people who have economic problems lash out against various others. I mean, I just think it is embarrassing for the Clinton campaign to hang on this as if it’s some sort of gaffe by Obama.


But Cafferty is priceless:


BLITZER: It’s not just the Clinton campaign, Jack it’s also the McCain campaign. They issued a statement saying it’s a remarkable statement and extremely revealing it shows an elitism towards and condescension towards hard working Americans that is nothing short of breathtaking. It is hard to imagine someone running for president who is more out of touch with average Americans.


JACK CAFFERTY: Really? And this is from John McCain?


BLITZER: No, this is from Steve Schmidt a senior adviser for John McCain.


CAFFERTY: Look, Jeff’s right. They call it the rust belt for a reason. The great jobs and the economic prosperity left that part of the country two or three decades ago. The people are frustrated. The people have no economic opportunity. What happens to folks like that in the Middle East, you ask? Well, take a look. They go to places like al Qaeda training camps. I mean, there’s nothing new here. And what Barack Obama was suggesting is not that the people of Pennsylvania are to blame for any of it. It’s that the jerks in Washington, D.C., as represented by the ten years of the Bushes and the Clintons and the McCains who have lied to and misled these people for all of this time while they shipped the jobs overseas and signed phony trade deals like NAFTA are to blame for the deteriorating economic conditions among America’s middle class. I mean, I’m a college dropout and I can read the damn thing and figure it out.


And it ends with this:


BORGER: You know, in this case the Hillary Clinton campaign and the John McCain campaign have the same goal and that is to portray Obama as this sort of (inaudible) elitist who doesn’t understand the real working class people or independent voters. And so they’re both on the same side on this one and it’s obvious why.


BLITZER: Go ahead, Jeff.


TOOBIN: I just think it’s remarkable that Barack Obama, this guy who grew up in a single-family household with no money, who lived in Indonesia, who came from very modest upbringings, somehow he’s the elitist? That’s really a pretty extraordinary sort of contortion of his background. I mean.


BORGER: It’s that Harvard, Yale thing.


CAFFERTY: He did not make $109 million in the last eight year did he?


BORGER: Right.


So much for that – but on the right they smelled blood. “Hindrocket” at Power Line asks his question – is Obama’s campaign over? – and Ed Morrissey at Hot Air says this is why rookies shouldn’t run for President. And Michelle Malkin offers Snob-ama disses pro-gun, religious, anti-illegal immigration activists in Penn. – “Before I get to Barack Obama’s snobbish, condescending, and arrogant comments about small-town Pennsylvania, I wanted to share a little more about my visit to Harrisburg last week….” You know where that’s going.


And see “Macranger” at Macsmind with Obama’s condescension – why are we surprised? That item offers this:


News for the Candy Man, we cling to religion – more specifically to God – not out of anger but out of faith, a faith you evidently know nothing about. Indeed Obama’s “faith” so far has evidenced itself as hate and racism, much like the one who baptized him. More and more do we see that Obama got a lot more from Wright than just “infuenced”, it appears he was tutored and mentored to the point where there is really no difference between the views of one or the other.


Put his statements together, the “Typical White Person” thread of statements over the last few months and a picture of an angry black man emerges. Someone whose excuses are lamer than the offense. Someone who is hiding who he really is but is nonetheless to a point where every once in a while it slips out.


People sure are touchy. And putting race aside – and fears of the angry black man from some low-budget exploitation film from 1962, Obama just said what was true. A whole of people, sitting quietly watching the tow-boats pushing barges down the dirty Monongahela, wondering what’s happening elsewhere, are no doubt bitter. Clinton and the Republicans say they certainly are not. This is all very strange.


But Obama is right. Maybe you have to have had grown up back there, earning money for college driving a forklift in a warehouse on Neville Island each summer, watching this and that close down, year after year, playing in this band or that at this Polish wedding reception or that, where they stuff money down the bride’s dress, and just seeing all the broken people, some angry, many just resigned. He got it right. This may be Hollywood, but he got it right.


But an elitist just said that to you.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Issue of Elitism

  1. Pingback: Damage Control « Just Above Sunset

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