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REFLECTIONS: On Elitism

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


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Elitism: The Charge Obama Can’t Shake
- Peter Baker, The New York Times - October 30

It occurred to me after reading this that I think, therefore I too am an elitist. As a kid raised on the streets of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn with an ordinary public school education who has worked all my life, I’d be glad to be considered “elite.”

But I wonder if that was really the problem for Obama. In 2000, Al Gore couldn’t shake the charge, made up by journalists, that he was boring, that he sighed at the wrong time in a debate with a lesser intellect in George W. Bush.

And in 2004, John Kerry, a war hero who didn’t dodge the draft like Bush, was depicted in the press as ”another liberal elitist” because had a rich wife and spent time wind-surfing.

Baker writes that although Barack Obama was raised in modest circumstances in a broken family by a single mother, he had become a talented, thoughtful, intelligent and studious mixed-race lawyer-politician, a man who had attended Harvard and Yale. Therefore he was seen as a “snob,” Baker quoted one columnist who had worked as a speech writer for Bush and a Republican official.

In view of how the right wingers have treated Obama, do you suppose that those critics harbor perhaps a tinge of racism toward Obama, as an “uppity n----r who wasn’t even born in America?” Nah. We’re past that.

As I said, this discovery that I am now and may have been for some time an elitist came to me on a recent trip my wife and I made to get our annual New York City fix. We stayed at the comfortable and expensive Empire Hotel across from Lincoln Center, where we were to attend an opera. And after breakfast, I sat in the sparkling sun drenched plaza smoking a fine imported cigar. That made me feel special, if not elite. I didn’t realize that was something to hide.

The plaza was busy with tourists watching the beautiful Revsen fountain erupt like a geyser. A lawyer walked his two dogs then sat to chat and take in the scene. Young men with backpacks hurried to classes at Fordham. Younger women - girls, really, with high boots and black stockings and legs up to here - were on their way to Julliard.

These people also seemed special; they were students, visitors and professional people who were in or of one of the great civilized places in the world, Lincoln Center in the City of New York, just a few steps from the homes of the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic and the New York City Opera. It’s a center for the very best in the arts, a place to feel elite.

So I wondered what is wrong with being elite? Certainly the President of the United States can be part of an elite; there aren’t that many presidents. Franklin Roosevelt, who came from wealth and solid Dutch-American aristocracy and had a relative who’d been president, was called "snooty” by his enemies. Although he spoke beautifully flowing English and was clearly a member of the nation’s elite, he was loved and even revered by millions of American, especially the poor and uneducated.

Today, we are conned by politicians like Bush who pride themselves on being like us when we need someone else, someone who has real brains, some knowledge and ideas on what to do about the mess we’re in and has the courage to do what he or she believes.

The idea that Sarah Palin or Sharron Angle or that O’Donnell person could lead the nation at this time seems absurd. We’ve already had a president like too many of us and look where it got us. After 60 years covering politics and a few presidents, I despair that we seem to be dumbing down the political system that was give us by the American elites of 18th century - Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Adams. I suppose that makes me an elitist fellow traveler.

My dictionary say that “elite” simply means “choice” or “select group.” And Wikipedia says,

“Elitism is the belief or attitude that some individuals, who supposedly form an elite – a select group of people with intellect, wealth, specialized training or experience...are most likely to be constructive to society...[and] especially fit to govern.”

Obviously, some members of an elite can be thieves or mad men but on the whole, who would argue that the best of us ought to represent us. That was Plato’s idea in The Republic. And it was the founder’s idea in fashioning the United States as a republican democracy in which Rousseau’s liberal self-government was tempered by Blackstone, i.e. the law.

Yet now, especially in the wake of the Great Recession in which millions of people have suffered because of the conduct of a business and banking elite, the people of the tea party movement purport to be populist and anti-elite, although it supports the policies of the very people who were responsible for the recession.

And they are among the strongest critics of elitism. If they were truly anti-elitism, they ought to count as egalitarians, favoring social security and even socialism. But they are the opposite. In fact, they are in league with the Grand Old Party of a business and banking elite. Go figure.

Jacob Weisberg, writing last October 2 for Slate where he is editor-in-chief, said,

“if there is one epithet the right never tires of it’s ‘elitism.’ Republicans are constantly accusing Democrats of it this campaign season, as when Kentucky senate nominee (and eventual winner) Rand Paul attacked President Obama as a ‘liberal elitist [who] knows what is best for people.’

“Republicans use it with connotations of education, geography, ideology. Taste and lifestyle – such that a millionaire investment banker who works for Goldman Sachs, went to Harvard and reads The New York Times is an elitist, but a billionaire CEO who grew up in Houston and went to a state university and contributes to Republicans, is not.”

In 2008, Senator John McCain and Sarah Palin identified with Joe the Plumber while tossing the elitist charge at Obama. As Weisberg wrote,

“Thus did the son and grandson of admirals, a millionaire who couldn’t remember how many houses he owned, accused his mixed-race opponent...of being the real elite candidate.”

Their complaint against elitism and Obama: He believes he knows better than Joe the Plumber how best to deal with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that why he wanted to be president? Anyone who seriously believes he/she can be president must have the background, maturity and confidence that he/she can govern.

Roosevelt, an aristocrat who had been a governor and Navy secretary, succeeded because he believed that his administration had some answers to the nation’s problems and that the Republican elite did not. Roosevelt did not compromise and turned out to be right. Obama compromised by catering to his critics and Republicans and has not yet succeeded.

There is what Weisberg calls a “counter snobbery” in the Republican elite-bashing. Palin, for example, held that those who live in the middle of the country, own guns, go to church are more the “real America.” To be gay, well educated, an agnostic, an atheist (God forbid) and live in New York or San Francisco and love classical music and (God forbid) opera, marks you as a liberal elitist.

Palin and company forget that the proletariat of Germany and Russia gave us the most murderous regimes in history. But like the tea baggers of today, they became useful idiots in the hands of the business and corporate elite. As Matt Taibbi writes in his book on the financial crisis, Griftopia, many of the tea party leaders in Congress know little of economics and high finance, and deny the science of climate change, evolution and stem cell biology.

“Common sense,” he writes, “sounds great but if you’re too lazy to penetrate the mysteries of carbon dioxide by the time you’re old enough to get to Congress, you’re not going to get the credit default swap...and understanding these instruments...is the difference between perceiving how Wall Street made its money as normal capitalist business and seeing...simple fraud and crime.”

That reminds me of a piece last February in Forbes by Pablo Triana Portela who fingered Robert Rubin, former Clinton Treasury Secretary and chairman of Citibank, as a personification of “America’s bad elitism.” For Rubin helped kill banking regulation, then made millions as a result and then, after Citigroup was driven onto the rocks, it (and he) were bailed out by taxpayer billions.

“When privilege is protected at the expense of the public purse,” said Portela, “America betrays herself.”

The question remains: Why have the elite – scientists, writers, artists, innovators, investors, the intelligent and thoughtful millionaires, teachers, journalists – come in for so much criticism? I found some explanations that ring true on a blog bripblap run by a fellow named Steve who says he is a well-paid financial consultant for Fortune 500 companies.

“Elitism has earned an ugly name over the past decade...political leaders sneer at elites,” he writes, “holding up underachievers as role models.” But many of the critics, he adds, are simply envious and “would like to be elite...

“You can disagree with the particular ideas or approaches chosen by elite members of society....In business, politics, science, art, religion...you need an elite. It’s not the elite as determined by birth, or Ivy League education. It’s the elite chosen by intelligence, by drive, by perseverance...I don’t know when that became an ugly attribute...”

Having survived the tough competition of journalism with a Pulitzer and a Nieman Fellowship, covering Texas and national politics and overcoming, so far, some grave threats to health, with help of a wife of 58 years and two darling daughters, sitting there in the sunshine at Lincoln Center, I felt privileged, like someone special - elite.

saulfriedman@comcast.net


At The Elder Storytelling Place today: Terry Hamburg: Dogs Back in the Good Old Days

Comments

I want to stand up and shout "Hurrah"

What a brillant essay which should be shouted from the house tops and printed in the WSJ and the NYT.

You nailed it.

Thanks

Excellent Saul, wish this was on the evening news.

While I appreciate your always thoughtful comments and especially these about elitism,
why is it o.k. to diss "the other guy" at every opportunity? Yes, I am a Democrat but if this country,which is in very serious trouble, cannot start pulling together how will we be
able to survive the storms to come? Aren't we all Americans who want the very best in every way for our country? Must we always always find the unpleasant underside of everyone? None of us has all the answers or are any of us perfect. Politicians have become fair game precisely because they are NOT perfect no matter how they (all) portray themselves.
Please, please let's remember we are all in this world together and save the real criticism for actual actions--unfortunately that still gives you plenty of latitude!
With best wishes for your health and continued writing!

Disclaimer: I cannot abide Sarah Palin, so the following is in no way an endorsement of her politics.

Who says Joe, the public educated plumber, can't be elitist, too?

Maybe I missed something in the read, but I disagee on the point that great leaders must have FIRST been bestowed with their Great Thinker Brains Certificate from the Ivy League Wizards of Oz before they are fit to lead.

Intelligence and the ability to "think deep" does not necessarily come from a rolled piece of parchment paper.

Maybe I just have my hackles up this morning, but this post rubbed me the wrong way.

Naaaah, we're not past finding names to call an "uppity ..."
And this is not a classless society, never has been, maybe can never be. We just give the ones who feel left out more than their share of the pulpits.

Dang, I've forgotten. Did Abraham Lincoln get his masters from Yale or Harvard?

I've long thought that the emotional salience that the charge of elitism carries for most Americans has something to do with grade school experiences where, in order to achieve control of the classroom, teachers separated the "dumb" from the "smart". Most people get their brains dissed before they get their feet under them and they take it out on the school winners for the rest of their lives. (See also, Rick Perlstein's Nixonland.)

I agree with Cowtown Pattie...

I lived in the U.K. from 1970-1983, first in london and then I moved to Bath. I finally left because I was afraid that my kids might get caught in the cross-fire of class warfare. We weren't "working class" nor were we part of what the Brits call "middle class" which refers to the people who go to " good Public Schools" (read expensive and very selective prep schools) and the "good Universities" - Oxford or Cambridge"
We were nothings- not English but not "wogs" either. We were definitely not members of the elite but not "working class either.
I asked a friend, who had recently returned from Saudi Arabia after ten years working in the oil fields as an engineer, why he came back to the U.K. instead of settling in Majorca or the Bahamas with all the money he'd made and saved in his ten years in the desert. He said "I like it here in the U.K. because I know exactly where I stand here - it's all very clear. My family was working class and regardless of how much money I've got, so am I and that's fine with me"
In England, you know where somebody was born, and what class he belongs to after you've heard him speak for a minute or two - maybe less.

You ARE special, Saul, and we love you.

As for that "rolled piece of parchment," cowtownpattie, that's proof of at least four years of focused hard work and study, hopefully of subjects relevant to governing a huge country in a complex world. Even bigger and more complex than plumbing, or even neurosurgery, for that matter. Nothing to sneeze at. And those with multiple parchments -- like Obama, Gore, Kerry -- have even more years invested in examining what has happened in the past, what works and what doesn't. Who wouldn't want a leader with a background like that? Maybe we should require Ph.D.'s in history, economics, sociology or law for anyone who wants to seek a presidential nomination?

Thank you, Paula.

Oh, Saul. Oh, Paula. Thank you for saying what I know to be true. There is room for elitism at large state schools too, Patti - think Indiana University's School of Music. It's not the where, it's the doing of it, as Paula says. I never understood why my kids' public schools spent so much more on those at the bottom of the spectrum than on those at the top.

Happy and Healthy Hanukkah to you and your wife, Saul.
a/b

Saul, your thoughts are so interesting and relevant, as always! My question is, what, then, would be the OPPOSITE of elite? Uneducated? (for what reason?) Ordinary or common? (What about Lincoln and so many others like him?) Maybe it doesn't matter! I'm with you on wanting a smart,thoughtful, creative, educated pack of leaders running our country! It's so nice to not have to cringe when our president speaks in public!

The opposite of elite: try Sarah Palin, Joe the Plumber and a lot of the Boehner Heads in Congress. Our legislators should be the best and the brightest but most of them are anything but.

In Australia they call it the 'Tall Poppy Syndrome'
and it a well-known fact of Australian life. Seems it is rife in the US also. I see it as the shadow side of egalitarianism. As Mythstar says, in 'old' countries where the class system has been established for centuries and there is no egalitarian myth, people 'know their place' automatically.

Bravo!

Beautifully stated. And let us not forget Adalai Stevenson - the nerve of the man running for President. He was, OMG, an intellectual. He actually understood complex issues. Not even the hole in his shoe sole could save him.

I'm with you, Saul!!! I want the best and the brightest running the zoo -- not a multi-college dropout/flunkout. Unfortunately, we've "dumbed down" education in public schools so much that I worry about the younger generation and the future of our country.

Geezer: Abraham Lincoln was an intellectual. He, like many others of his time, was self-educated which is sometimes the best way to learn. I'm come from a blue-collar family who encouraged me to learn all I could. I remember that one of my high school teachers (jr. year?)gave us a list of the greatest books ever written and I made it my summer project to read as many as I could. I don't remember how many I read but that list has served me well over the years. The things I read helped me immensely in college and in life. Am I an intellectual? I don't think so but I have taken the time to learn and wrestle with ideas and make my choices logically rather than drink the kool-aid offered by nut jobs.

There's a wonderful book by Susan Jacoby called The Age of American Unreason which explores the dumbing down of America. It's a very sad situation to think that ignorance is now an ideal.

Fact check: Bush had BETTER grades in college than Al Did. Kerry put his men at risk when he went back to pick up the guy who fell over board, against military protocol (he could have been court martialed). Dan Rather lost his job because he lied about Bush's military service.

I won't vote for Sarah if the Republicans put her up for president. Sharon and Christine are out of the picture, so why worry? If Obama swings more to the middle he'll get my vote. I LIKE him personally and I think he can be a great president if he decides to be president of all the people and not just the extreme left wing. I don't like extremism in any form, and some of O's cabinet members and Czars are too far to the left to suit my tastes.

I have an informed opinion, and I am very educated, therefore I must be an elitist.

Exactly, Kay. One need not have lots of advanced degrees to be an "intellectual." I worked (closely) for nearly 20 years with some 60 scientists who had Phd's. I claim many as friends, admire many others, and dislike only a few. I can think of about three I'd back for president.

"Elitism is the slur directed at merit by mediocrity."
--Sydney J. Harris, journalist (1917-1986)

I want my leader to be as elite as can be. I want her or him to be a full fledged intellectual.

I am all of those things and proud of it, why shouldn't my leader be?

First of all, thanks for writing this excellent little article.
Second, I have to say that it cracked me up to hear people bring up Abe Lincoln as an "anti" Elite. True, he was born in a log cabin, but he assiduously studied and read with the result that as president, the only thing common about him were his clothes. Try reading anything he said or wrote. Someone like Sarah Palin would not even understand what he was saying.

You have made my day, love all your work, but this is just what I need having spent the weekend with Obama haters of various persuasions..Elitism has become sadly a catchphrase as you say...but mostly a slur..I am about to be 70 so don't think I will be around for the books, etc that will analyze this time period in any meaningful way, but thanks for opening it right up..loved thinking about your FDR analogy..I always feared being an actor or politician or ball player because of the fickleness of the general public..they will cheer you like mad when you are winning, but have a bad year, cross them in any way and you are viewed as dog poo..just an aside..I grew up at l40 west 62nd st, right around the corner from the Empire Hotel that in the 50s was pretty seedy, a sort of welfare joint actually..after being run out by Moses as a slum dweller, it took me sometime to go back to the "village" where my great grandparents and the ancestors fled to in the l850s..I was just l9..anyway I too had cocktails at the Empire Hotel and with some friends who were also ousted we toasted how far we had come & it made me happy to see I was not a traitor to the cause to be feeling so "swank" in the now restored land we were run out of...little convuluted, but had to write it...Mary Follett

I would vote for any member of the TEXAS LEGISLATURE as opposite of ELITE! At least, that is what Molly Ivans taught me. Beverly Johnson
rhyshse@dishmail.net

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