Elitism Is Bad (Unless, Of Course, It Is Good)


So all the talk about elitism and arugula (which I am yet to try) in the media, especially when it comes to a kind of dismissal of elitism from the supposedly non-elitist pundits, made me think about my own high appreciation of everything elitist: I mean, let’s face it, if everyone likes their coffee with a carefully mixed combination of soy milk, a touch of cinnamon, and a pinch of crushed roasted almonds waved in the close vicinity of a burning pink Japanese dogwood branches, then why would I go through the painful process of making my magic mix every morning? The very satisfaction of being an elitist is precisely this very being of an elitist – it’s not about the actual position of belonging to the elite of any kind, it is the attitude, we are told, of regarding others as not-so-worthy of our elitist level. This, of course, is suppose to make all of us educated elitists feel bad about our societal position and think twice before we decide to express our opinions and distribute our wisdom – “who do you think you are, elitist, to teach me about politics?” Yet it is difficult not to laugh and be all mean and unfairly intrusive when something like this comes out:

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin attended five colleges in six years before graduating from the University of Idaho in 1987.

Federal privacy laws prohibit the schools from disclosing her grades, and none of the schools contacted by The Associated Press could say why she transferred. There was no indication any of them were contacted as part of the background investigation of Palin by presidential candidate John McCain’s campaign.

Ok, my first assumption is that she was not very serious about her education, because I am an elitist and I think that anyone who is seriously contemplating a life of public service would probably think about their education and at least try to stick with it: was her family moving a lot? did she not feel like studying? was she exceptionally bright but misunderstood? is this even a factor in our late evaluation of this potential VP? I can hear all those non-elitists saying that there’s a difference between being educated and being smart and intelligent – certainly, but it is usually the exception, not the rule, that someone with poor educational background can come through and challenge the establishment, and Sarah Palin does not look like an exception. She was not elected by millions of people like Obama to run for her VP spot, she was picked at the last moment as a gimmick to the social conservatives by someone who is now trying to have his cake (conservatives who hated him yesterday and love him today) and eat it too (independents who are suppose to believe that he is the real agent of change, not Obama). In any case, one might, of course, say that education is not that important when it comes to belonging to political elite – in fact, as Terry Eagleton argues, belonging to an elite of any kind is mainly a question of expertise.

In a rather intriguing collection of essay Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth (Duke, 2007), Eagleton’s essay “Lenin in the Postmodern Age” raises an issue of Lenin’s understanding of vanguard in What Is To Be Done?

The distinction between spontaneous and acquired political consciousness, whatever historical disasters it may have contributed to, is itself a valid and necessary one. It is not a matter of the percipient vanguard versus the dim-witted masses, but of an epistemological distinction between types of knowledge that are the same for everyone. This, however, is not a particularly valued difference for a pseudo-populist culture that increasingly suspects specialist knowledge itself as elitist, and you knowing something that I do not as privileged. This is not a surprising reaction to a society where knowledge has itself become one of the most prized commodities, a source of rigid ranking and intense competitiveness; but you do not counteract that by a democracy of ignorance. [43-44]

This “pseudo-populist culture” of a “democracy of ignorance” would respond to any accusations that Palin simply has no educational and political background, whatever the justifications (from sane reference to “executive experience” to insane notions of “experience by osmosis” vis-a-vis Russia), are simply elitist gestures – the implication is, clearly, that anyone can be a politician even with a minimal amount of experience, and there is no need for special education.  To suggest otherwise is to be accused of elitism, i.e. of suggesting that there are areas of our public policy and governance that require special education, not just experience (of any kind) – my continual attempts to fix my car, even if without any visible success, are nonetheless part of my mechanical experience that I will bring with me to the car shop that I am applying to be a mechanic at… Bullshit, most will say, go to the technical school first, you need specialized knowledge to be a mechanic. To paraphrase Eagleton, governing a large state such as US is “more like brain surgery than beer drinking” – why then is everyone so excited about Palin? why is it not frightening that “one of us” could end up being the president? would anyone want someone who is “just like us” to perform brain surgery on one of our family members? George W. Bush had plenty of “executive experience” while governor of Texas and we can all see how that worked out – let the elitists like Obama and Biden with their educated advisers and policy makers take a shot at it, I say…

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