Amid the scores of divisive debates currently roiling America into a giant melting pot ocrazy is the question of whether or not the political and mainstream pundit class is elitist in nature or attitude.
This is not really a new question. Back when Dan Quayle was criticizing sitcom heroine Murphy Brown for promoting single-parenthood in a way that could negatively affect society, he was roundly jeered at for referring to those running most media and most academic institutions as the cultural elite.
The accuracy and power of the phrase was demonstrated by the vehement denials that issued from both coasts; the very rich, very insulated people who traveled from Beverly Hills to the Upper West Side to Southampton to Telluride while associating mostly with the like-minded, insisted that there was nothing elitist in their notions or their values. They were just the kinder, gentler part of the nation and the antidote to cruel moralists who would inflict their hang-ups on others, just to keep them down.
In 2005, in a prescient piece, Peggy Noonan identified the elites and seemed to read their minds: Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us, she wrote.
I refer specifically to the elites of journalism and politics, the elites of the Hill and at Foggy Bottom and the agencies, the elites of our state capitals, the rich and accomplished and successful of Washington, and elsewhere. I have a nagging sense . . . that many of these people have made a separate peace. That theyre living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas . . . I got mine, you get yours.
Senator or editor or lawyer, they were making their lives a little fortress.
Lately, the elitist notion has turned into a hardy grapple between the mainstream and alternative punditries. The mainstream, in a tacit admission that they are elitist, sniff Whats the matter with elitism? and”in a staggering display of distortive spinmanship”chide their lessers as being anti-education.
The alternative crew volleys between amusement and disdain while wondering whether the ignoble elite”who seem educated but not particularly smart”should more properly be referred to as the credentialed gentry.
Elites or gentry, the people who described the electorate as ineducable in 2004 but enlightened in 2008 are running out of big words with which to condemn their unpersuaded lessers, and so for 2010 they are falling back on calling them yahoos and referring to their non-elite preferred candidates as crazy or dumb. If the preferred candidate is a female, the credentialed gentry”including their liberated women”feel no compunction in labeling her as crazy, dumb, mean, or even a whore.
Is there an elite class in America, and if yes, what renders it so? Is it mere money or Ivy League polish? Is it because they have great social and political connections and what we used to refer to as their rolodex? Is it education? Social skills? Empathy? Enlightenment? Or does one become elite simply by dint of ones ability to sustain an illusion”to fool oneself and others”that one is a counter-cultural egalitarian, while living what formerly would have been thought a country-club life?
Every Sunday I meander through the New York Times like a mildly ADHD-afflicted canine in Central Park, who moves excitedly from plant to tree to park bench because there is just so much to sniff.
And every Sunday I finally close the paper and think, this is a publication which editorializes on the evils of capitalism, praises European-style socialism, and so disdains middle-class folk like me and my family that”were it not for our subscription”we would not exist in their awareness. It showcases a weekly hardship-story or two but is otherwise chock-full of people so rich I have never heard of them, people who breathe rarefied air and move their conclaves between Town and Country, between Sothebys Manhattan and Sothebys Southampton, so to speak.
The paper serves these pretend-egalitarian school-choice opponents, who send their own children to private schools”the folks who cry racism at Arizona but would likely never encounter a working-class immigrant or have one on their property, illegal or otherwise, except to erect the extra-high walls around their fortresses, or cook their meals, or stain their decks.
The New York Times postures. A powerful corporate entity that is part of the firmly-entrenched cultural establishment, it fancies itself the radical student-idealist speaking smack to the man, and that cognitive dissonance clangs and reverberates amid those who aspire to live the lifestyle it promotes, and it helps them to live the illusion that their gentrified lives are somehow part of an ongoing struggle.
And maybe that is what defines an elite: the lip-curled reproach to anything that has come before this privileged and smug generation”tradition, faith, heroic self-denial”and the illusion that their disdain is somehow a broader and more enlightened love.
For the most part, the yahoo non-elites do not begrudge the gentry their private jets, their private clubs, and their private schools. They do, however, begrudge them the superior dismissal of their values, and the constant attempts to control how others get to live their lives.
The ineducable masses begrudge the hectoring about their taste for gas guzzlers, from people who ride in limos. They dislike being dismissed as provincial or parochial by people who only associate with others of the same neighborhood and mindset. They are weary of being portrayed as less compassionate, less well-meaning, gosh darn it just lesser people because they believe in giving an equal-opportunity hand-up, rather than an impossible-to-sustain equal-hand-out.
The elites dont want to be called elite. But they reinforce the perception with every tax-shelter they pursue, every privilege they grasp, every tax bill they cant be bothered to pay until theyre forced to, and when they pretend that middle-class wages are undertaxed, greedy, ignoble, selfish, and unfair.
Peggy Noonan had it right. The Dont-Call-Us-Elites-You-Low-Class-Wretches types accrued wealth and power over the last three decades, and used them in pursuit of a deconstruction that would remake America into a socialist state, Theyve come so near their goal, too, in the last two years; theyd hoped to put into place a façade of equality that would make them the most equal of all.
Which is why theyve been building fortresses. Castro lives in one, too.
Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer for First Things . She blogs at The Anchoress .