The one $ituation where America embrace$ eliti$m…

Being called an elitist has always been the kiss of death in the United States of Mediocrity. It’s hard to think of a more damning insult one can suffer.

But there is one kind of elitism that is praised and aspired to in this country. More on that in a moment.

In a recent column, Richard Reeves points out the divisiveness of the word. Especially among Repuglicans, especially among conservatives, if someone brands you an elitist you are as shunned as an Amish with an iPhone.

That means speaking more than one language (English, of course!). It means reading Le Monde. It means having traveled abroad and seen other parts of the world, because you might realize there are many perfectly successful and happy nations where the people do not do things the American way. Knowing this is dangerous, because we’re then only one step away from realizing the sun does not shine out the backside of America and God does not have special beatifications for this country and this country alone.

Reeves says:

“Elitism” has become perhaps the most potent negative issue in American politics in our time. George Wallace, the racist former governor of Alabama and would-be president, used it to great advantage back in the 1970s, attacking “pointy-headed intellectuals who can’t even ride a bike straight.” He went a long way bragging that he was dumb and didn’t like smart people. George W. Bush got further by playing the regular guy — or at least the most regular of presidential sons who went to Yale — against the intellectual pretensions of Al Gore and the wind-surfing of John Kerry.

Both Wallace and Bush and a lot of other politicians coming from the right have clobbered liberals by claiming to be dumb and dumber. Lefties have been less successful, in recent elections, in trying to attack economic elitism.

Which brings us to this year. John McCain, the son and grandson of admirals, was doing just fine for a few weeks attacking Barack Obama, he of humble if exotic origins, as an elitist because he excelled at Harvard Law School and uses and understands a lot of big words — and made some money writing books all by himself.

Regular guy McCain — Obama is definitely not a regular guy — seemed to be doing right well in yelling that the guy with the funny name was not one of us…Now McCain seems to have tripped over his own elite rich wife and real estate status.

He’s talking, of course, about McCain’s recent house gaffe, wherein the Arizona senator didn’t know, in this age where so many people are losing their only home, how many he even had.

But there are certain kinds of elites we love in America—Michael Phelps or Barry Bonds or rockers who sell zillions of records or movie stars who have their every whim catered. We just don’t like intellectual elites. Being able to swim like Phelps is fine. Being a whiz at chess, or having the policy knowledge of an Al Gore or a John Kerry makes us feel insecure. (The exception is in the area of child prodigies, where we enjoy seeing amazing accomplishment, but we are not watching this for the sake of the accomplishment itself as much as for the “Wow” factor, the same way we’d watch a fire eater or a magician doing tricks.) And so I predict that McCain’s housing comment will not have the negative impact with voters that accusations Obama is intelligent and “talks down” to people will.

When it comes to politics, we want a man we can drink a beer with—a feller in blue jeans who has a dawg and drives a pickup truck. Never mind that that president is worth hundreds of millions and has his fingers in pies around the country ranging from oil interests to oil interests. He’s not snobby. He ain’t smart. He ain’t never read Le Monde. Or even the New York Post. (My Pet Goat is about as far as he ever got.)

Intellectual “pretensions” have been the target of our materialistic culture for decades, as was recently pointed out by Anthony Kronman in this book.

Not so material ones.

We have no problem in this culture with the material elites, those who have multiple houses, multiple cars, and far more accumulated possessions than they could hope to use and enjoy in a dozen lifetimes. That’s the American Dream, the real goal of existence, whether it’s overtly spoken or just subliminally understood.

My brother-in-law, a piece of Republican pond scum who measures everyone by how much money they have, is always talking about his “great friends.” He’ll reference them by saying “That’s Jim Johnson. He’s a great guy. He did fifteen million dollars worth of business last year…There’s Conrad Morton. He’s a terrific person, he owns six houses.”

In America, five SUVs is okay. Five degrees from Yale, no. You’re an elitist.

It’s only mysterious until you look at how America was founded. There’s the belief, both spoken and unspoken, that anyone can have anything. There’s no caste system. Well, we know that’s not strictly true. But there’s still the strong subcurrent that America is the place where any little boy (or now girl) can grow up to be president of the United States. Or a gazillionaire CEO. Or whatever. Anyone. Intellect doesn’t or shouldn’t enter into it. The goal is just the reward—the mansions, the cars, the money, the fame, the lifestyles. Mr. Gekko said Greed is good. And he was just the city-college son of a working-class guy, right?

So this kind of elitism—social and material elitism—is never really questioned, or even much recognized. Oh sure, every election the underdog candidate tries the old “My opponent is out of touch with the working people” tactic. It rarely reverberates. But tell them your opponent is an intellectual, a smarty-pants, and look out. Which is why the jabs that Obama’s talking down to people will hurt him more than Housegate will hurt McCain. Secretly, everyone would like to be like McCain and have seven mansions and so they root for him, even if they are just a lunchpail guy making $10 an hour. Hope’s spring’s eternal, and we all secretly believe we’re going to hit the lottery in this land of opportunity if we play long enough and the game isn’t really rigged against us. But we are suspicious and jealous of those more intelligent than us. They make us uneasy. America is supposed to be about anyone being allowed limitless material wealth; if you don’t buy into that you’re a Socialist who would rather see us end up like the Soviet Union! The popular culture constantly feeds us the myth that the simple folk, the Forrest Gump, can triumph in the end. We do not like to hear that there’s an intellectual requirement, that there are performance standards. That is why we look the other way when our kids cheat on tests in schools. If they get into a good college, what’s the harm? That’s why we don’t care so much that Barry Bonds took steroids. That’s why even Bush’s election-rigging doesn’t outrage very many of us. We resent having holier-than-thous raving in our face. By any means necessary, and we’d do the same thing because hey, the odds are stacked against us on our way to achieving material elitism. So we don’t want IQs or education or knowledge or accomplishment standing in the way of us and that awesome BMW X5.

So, to sum up, because in an anti-elitist society everything must be dumbed down to the level of retarded eight-year-olds, intellectual elitism—bad bad bad! Material and class elitism—good good good, the spirit of America, freedom!

The interesting thing is that de Tocqueville talked about the likelihood of this very phenomenon happening back in the 1830s, when America was just this little new experiment, and he was right. He believed it was the inevitable trajectory of a democracy founded on egalitarianism.

But, my bad, I’m citing an old historical text, and by a Frenchman to boot. How elite I must be…


One Response to “The one $ituation where America embrace$ eliti$m…”

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