Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Deadly Schoolground Insult: Elite

Bullying was, and to my knowledge still is, a major problem in schools across the country.

The basic underlying tenet to most of these cases lie in the typical societal behavior of the strong oppressing the weak.  Those who are larger and more athletic pick on those who are not.  To the nerdy, awkward, and scrawny, a constant specter of physical and emotional violence looms over their developing years.  One of the small comforts they can take is the reassurance that once they get out into the world, the people who spent their school years with their nose in a book trying to learn something while the bullies laughed at them will be the ones actually running the show.  Just like a football player goes through endless drills and practices to perfect his ability to play ball in hopes of one day making it to the big leagues, someone driven by more academic goals will spend years going to school, doing research, writing papers, and learning all they can in order to excel in life and put those developing years behind them.

That is the way things should work, right?  The people who know the most should be in charge.  We don't want any average Joe off the street running things - that doesn't make sense.  The intellectuals, the smartest among us, they should be the ones in charge.

Well, not according to Washington Post columnist Charles Murray.

In his article "The tea party warns of a New Elite.  They're right,"  Murray details the case laid out by the tea party and its supporters.  The "Elite" of America; i.e; the highly educated, are out of touch with the country's working class.  He cites articles written by members of this supposed Elite class which defend their position, having the audacity to defend the merits of being smart.  Each one of these articles, I should mention, does a solid job of refuting each of his points, but I suppose that was lost on him.  It shouldn't be surprising - he's not one of those smart, Ivy league guys, after all.  Wait, what?  He went to Harvard? Hm, he conveniently leaves any mention of the fact that he's a member of the intellectual class out of his article.  Curious.

Now, Charles Murray is a smart man.   Which is why this article is so frustrating, so obscene in a way.  To see the very kind of person targeted by attacks on "the New Elite" write an article so clearly missing the point is disturbing to those of us who still cling to the hope that America is going to snap out of this crazy dream.  He's a smart man with a rich education and background advocating what Republican attack ads across the country are getting at - the end of meritocracy, the embracing of homogenization, and the dumbing down of America.

When you use the word "Ivy League" as an insult, you are an idiot.  There's no other way to put it.  When you imply that, in America, you're worse off if you enjoy soccer but can't recognize a NASCAR driver by name, you have missed the point of living in this country.  When you condemn a class of Americans because they're well-read enough to discuss literature without resorting to referencing Harlequin romances, I question sincerely how in touch you are, not with normal people but with reality.

The one good point his article attempts to make is that despite moves by the more prestigious Universities of the country to include students of all walks of life, the trend still tends towards upper-class white high schoolers coming from old-money families getting into the top schools.  What his article starts to address, and then moves away from, is the idea that a wealthy upbringing was a determining factor.  No, this is not to say they bought their way in, this is to say they went to better primary schools, received more time and attention from their parents, ate better, slept better, traveled more, and on the whole had every advantage over the poorer students across the country.  This article dismisses wealth as "affording a few SAT courses."  So while he is correct in postulating that the "Elite" class is becoming increasingly homogeneous, he completely misunderstands why- because of the widening gap between the rich and the poor.

I never thought I would see the day when being intelligent was attacked by so many across the nation at once.  It's like all the bullies in the country suddenly rose up and decided they wanted to go back to High School.  They're tired of these nerds lording over them with their fancy degrees, running their economy and government.  Even the President's an elite; after all, he was a mixed-race child from a single-parent home who got into Harvard - only an elitist would put that much work into things.  We should've gone with McCain, the millionaire son and grandson of Navy Admirals, the man who first started bandying around the term "elite" to describe Obama.  There's a man who's more in touch with the working class.

You see where this is going?  The people who were most vocal about this idea of "elistism" before the tea party picked it up were the richest white guys in the country.  It's baffling how anyone would actually buy a claim by CEOs and millionaires that they're being oppressed by a powerful elite who are coincidentally their political opponents.  Then again, I assume this backlash against intelligence can lead me to infer not a lot of the tea party members are very well-educated.

What you described, Charles Murray, is living the American dream.  Through hard work, one can get a good education, land a good job, live in a good neighborhood and send their kids to a good school.  If none of that plan involves reading the Left Behind series watching Two and a Half Men, that's pretty much your right as an American.  You did successfully identify the problem with it, in a backhanded way, that only the wealthy are being allowed access to it.  Yet you say nothing about working to fight poverty so that a wider area of the population can have access to better education - instead you complain that those who have it are out of touch with those who don't.  Not in a way that says they should do something about it either, but in a way which pretty clearly implies that it's their fault for having aspirations beyond working in a factory.

I don't want to take away the legitimacy of the idea that the professional class is increasingly out of touch with the working class.  That part can't be denied, and if the article had stuck to defining that issue I probably would have been more apt to agree with it.  Bullying as a metaphor may seem harsh - it inherently implies that I feel the intellectuals in this case have done nothing to earn the contempt placed on them, and that isn't true.  They're complicit in the system which put them where they are.  There are problems here which need to be solved, and the working class has valid complaints against the professional class that need to be addressed.  This article misses the point on how to do that by condensing the issue to that the elite are not well-versed in elements of pop culture. 

So the bullies are standing up and trying to relive their glory days by pulling the smart kids down off their thrones.  Remember that from school, anybody?  The kids who were smarter obviously thought they were better, and needed to be taught a lesson.  Or maybe you just couldn't cut it academically and decided to make it not seem so important by making fun of the smart kids - those know-it-alls are all facts and studying and meaningful insight, that stuff is stupid.  But you know who was worse than them?  Worse than the bullies, the ignoramuses, the glut of mediocrity determined to tear down and stamp out anyone they thought considered themselves better?

The smart kid who turned on the others so he could hang out behind the bullies, approving of what they do, laughing nervously, hoping they don't turn their attentions on him next.  Just so he can spend a little bit of time hanging out with the cool kids.

Congratulations, Charles Murray.  I hope it was worth it to you.


Christian said...

Three things:

1. I love this post.

B. Those richest people who decry elitism are part of the business elite, not necessarily the intellectual elite, a subtle but important difference in this country (for some stupid reason).

III. I find it funny that those who hate on the intellectual elites are themselves elitists, and that those who are the intellectual elites are not. Higher education tends to instill on people that there are multiple viewpoints, and that everyone should decide for themselves which to pick, and therefore, an intellectual elite is less likely (but certainly not immune from) holding their ideas/standards as being innately better than those of others; whereas, those who are uneducated tend to think their way is the best and only way that should be considered. E.g., the intellectual who is like, "You can have your football, I prefer soccer" versus the redneck who is like, "If you watch soccer, you're unamerican."

Fourth, The Tea Party and the Republican Party are generally both guilty of most often using the word "elite" as an insult as well as invoking the Founders in their speeches. I wonder if they ever stop to think for a second about how those Founders (like Franklin, Jefferson, Madison) were themselves huge intellectual elites and pretty damn proud of it.

B.Graham said...

yes. yes yes yes. thank you david pratt. also thank you christian.