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Thursday, July 01, 2004

Elitism

Jesse has a slight problem with Barbara Ehrenreich's column today about the "liberal elite". His point is that "elite" as it's used by conservatives means something very different than the way she's using it. He probably should have pointed out that the way she's using it is actually the correct meaning of the word, that the "elite" are those with money and power. And her point is that money and power do not a liberal make, and she's right.
And his point is that Republicans don't mean "money and power" when they say "elite". The word is just a nasty epiteth to throw at whichever liberal is being attacked. And yes, we've all heard rumpled, fat Michael Moore from the working class called "elite". I've been told I'm an "elitist" by people who know damn well that I drink cheap beer and read gossip columns. So, Jesse is right, too.
The problem of how they can both be right--does "elite" mean rich and powerful or just liberal politically--can be best looked at how conservative attack dogs play with the connotations of the word. "Elite" is a word that always means that someone is in a superior class, and it's almost always used politically to elicit resentment. In describing the larger society, "elite" does tend to make people think of social class, and this is how Ehrenreich uses it. But what conservatives do is they attack some other "elite" trait, usually education or taste, and use that to imply social class, even about people that are not in that social class.
Think about how broadly that can be used. There are very few people that don't have some kind of "elite" trait that can't be singled out and mocked. Which Jesse points out--he reads novels, and that's all it takes. Now all the Limbaugh-ite who wants to attack him does is claim that he's thinks he's better than us because he reads more, which makes him "elite", which causes the audience now to think that Jesse is both in a social class above us and also that he thinks we're stupid. What it means that Jesse reads novels, however, is that he likes novels.
As has been repeatedly stated, David Brooks is the master at this. He screeds against elitists who are out of touch with real America are actually rather convincing and entertaining. And they seem harmless enough, since he goes after people's tastes, which is the time-honored way to mock somebody without cutting too deeply.
But the real danger of the deliberate attempts to make the word "elite" an ambigious tool for atttacking liberals is that it mostly functions to devalue education. After all, what, besides taste, is the sure-fire way for a conservative attack dog to label a liberal "elite"? Well, you point out how well-educated that person is and then imply that book-larnin' causes the common sense wires to trip. You know, what elite educated types call "creating a false dichotomy".
You see the right working this false dichotomy like a mofo right now. The Shrub and Kerry are both Yale-educated rich boys. But one of them treated his education like it was a drag and the other took it seriously. So the Shrub gets to run around claiming he's one of us and Kerry's not because, apparently, the Shrub is a two-bit moron and Kerry can speak French. What amazes me is that the whole "I'm a two-bit moron just like y'all" thing actually works. Aren't people insulted? I guess the word "elite" really does trip people up.
It is a great benefit to the actual elite, the Lear jet, Lincoln bedroom, Enron-owning crowd, to convince the proletarite that education is a bad thing that scrubs your common sense out of you. Now, I will agree that for us working class peeps, if we had to choose between common sense and knowing who wrote War and Peace, we would have to choose common sense because that's what's going to keep the mortgage paid and the refrigerator stocked. And of course, if we had to choose between understanding basic economics and foreign policy or our common sense, we'd have to go with common sense.
Is it a coincidence then that the real elite are filling the airwaves with right-wing pundits who are pushing the idea that education and thoughtful analysis of politics are elitism, and that we the common people are the opposite but at least we have common sense? I know I was dutifully informed by my high-school educated family members as I was preparing to go to college that I needed to be careful not to pick up liberalism in the elite college enviroment. I have to pause and wonder how elite could it be if they let me in?

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