I’m an egghead, I’m an egghead,
I’m an egghead happily.
And I’d rather be an egghead
Than a bonehead G.O.P.
Sung to the tune of “Oh My Darling Clementine” in 1956 by supporters of Adlai Stevenson
I’ve been watching former Wal-Mart director and self-styled woman of the people Hillary Clinton, who with her husband earns approximately $16 million annually, with increasing embarrassment and shame lately, and wondering if perhaps Susan Jacoby would surface to say anything. As you may know, last fall saw the publication Ms. Jacoby’s book, The Age of American Unreason, which is more or less an updating of Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter, along the lines of plus ça change. Which I suppose makes me elite, if not effete, at least in Kentucky. Or should that be élite? As an aside, once upon a time, long before I arrived in in this corner of Alberta, our little town had a popular eating spot called the Elite Cafe, called by locals “The Ee-Light”.
Pity the poor word “elite,” which simply means “the best” as an adjective and “the best of a group” as a noun. What was once an accolade has turned poisonous in American public life over the past 40 years, as both the left and the right have twisted it into a code word meaning “not one of us.” But the newest and most ominous wrinkle in the denigration of all things elite is that the slur is being applied to knowledge itself.
Senator Hillary Clinton’s use of the phrase “elite opinion” to dismiss the near unanimous opposition of economists to her proposal for a gas tax holiday was a landmark in the use of elite to attack expertise supposedly beyond the comprehension of average Americans. One might as well say that there is no point in consulting musicians about music or ichthyologists about fish.
The assault on “elite” did not begin with politicians, although it does have political antecedents in sneers directed at “eggheads” during the anti-Communist crusades of the 1950s [psst...think Nixon]. The broader cultural perversion of its meaning dates from the late 1960s, when the academic left pinned the label on faculty members who resisted the establishment of separate departments for what were then called “minority studies.” In this case, two distinct faculty groups were tarred with elitism — those who wanted to incorporate black and women’s studies into the core curriculum, and those who thought that blacks and women had produced nothing worthy of study. Instead of elitist, the former group should have been described as “inclusionary” and the latter as “bigoted.”
The second stage of elite-bashing was conceived by the cultural and political right. Conservative intellectuals who rose to prominence during the Reagan administration managed the neat trick of reversing the ’60s usage of “elite” by applying it as a slur to the left alone. “Elite,” often rendered in the plural, became synonymous with “limousine liberals” who opposed supposedly normative American values. That the right-wing intellectual establishment also constituted a powerful elite was somehow obscured.
“Elite” and “elitist” do not, in a dictionary sense, mean the same thing. An elitist is someone who does believe in government by an elite few — an anti-democratic philosophy that has nothing to do with elite achievement. But the terms have become so conflated that Americans have come to consider both elite and elitist synonyms for snobbish.
All the older forms of elite-bashing have now devolved into a kind of aggressive denial of the threat to American democracy posed by public ignorance.
During the past few months, I have received hundreds of e-mail messages calling me an elitist for drawing attention to America’s knowledge deficit. One of the most memorable came from a man who objected to my citation of a statistic, from a 2006 National Geographic-Roper survey, indicating that nearly two-thirds of Americans age 18 to 24 cannot find Iraq on a map. “Why should I care whether my mechanic knows where Iraq is, as long as he knows how to fix my car?” the man asked.
But what could be more elitist than the idea that a mechanic cannot be expected to know the location of a country where thousands of Americans of his own generation are fighting and dying?
Another peculiar new use of “elitist” (often coupled with “Luddite”) is its application to any caveats about the Internet as a source of knowledge. After listening to one of my lectures, a college student told me that it was elitist to express alarm that one in four Americans, according to the National Constitution Center, cannot name any First Amendment rights or that 62 percent cannot name the three branches of government. “You don’t need to have that in your head,” the student said, “because you can just look it up on the Web.”
True, but how can an information-seeker know what to look for if he or she does not know that the Bill of Rights exists? There is no point-and-click formula for accumulating a body of knowledge needed to make sense of isolated facts.
It is past time to retire the sliming of elite knowledge and education from public discourse. Do we want mediocre schools or the best education for our children? If we need an operation, do we want an ordinary surgeon or the best, most elite surgeon available?
America was never imagined as a democracy of dumbness. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written by an elite group of leaders, and although their dream was limited to white men, it held the seeds of a future in which anyone might aspire to the highest — let us say it out loud, elite — level of achievement.
Also happy to read the always fascinating and thought-provoking Stanley Crouch, who wrote a Daily News column the other week, “Enemies of ‘elite’ Barack Obama show contempt for education”. From which,
Nothing has been quite as exciting and as disappointing or even disgusting as the grand drama of this Democratic contest for the nomination. …
As Patrick Buchanan predicted, the only hope for Obama’s foes was to knock him off of his pedestal and into the mud-wrestling we have seen define our politics. But the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was the big bomb that didn’t quite go off.
Wright’s ethnic Gong Show — and the vast right-wing conspiracy that Hillary Clinton joined when she helped to give it credence — may have allowed Clinton to greasily slip through the door of victory in Indiana, but it raised issues that should make us stop on a dime.
Columbia- and Harvard-educated, bad-bowling Obama is an elite, the conservatives – and the Clintons – claim. He is out of touch with the working class, they say.
It has become commonplace for the predictable millionaire puppets of Fox News and their conservative talk radio counterparts to present themselves as the voices of the working class in combat with an educated elite from places like Harvard.
But beneath those cliches fester ideas that are deeply anti-democratic.
They are anti-democratic because they scoff at this basic truth: Education is the key to social mobility in our country. The stereotyped working class has no innate limits. It has produced the majority of doctors, engineers, architects, educators and others who realized the dreams of their families by studying hard and moving into careers quite different from those of their parents and their neighbors.
Education has always been viewed as suspect by everyone from slave owners to totalitarians. Wherever in the world you find them, they share one hostility: They hate books.
The presidency is not an Academy Award for Best Performance as a bowler, a fast food gobbler, a whisky and beer guzzler, a hard-hat-wearer or a hunter. We ought to know how far leadership capabilities are from surfaces, slogans and costumes.
And we should be ever suspicious of anyone or any group that scorns education, that pretends to believe that only the simple and the uncomplicated can express the national ethos.
That is absolutely ridiculous in a country from which so much technological and scientific innovation has come. Tell that to Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers or Bill Gates, none of whom were from the upper class. Or are we to believe they were just simple men looking for a loud bar and a cold beer?
The precious opportunity that our democracy provides is the chance to stop, look, listen and think through all that history has taught us about the bottom and about the top.
Real leadership is something internal, not superficial, and should be judged by substance, policy and solutions that are empathetic but realistic, inventive, fiscally responsible and feasible. No one knows the taste of pie in the sky, but we have all felt and smelled the putrid humidity of hot air.