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