Encouraged by a Frank Bruni column in The New York Times to read a piece in the arch-conservative National Review, I read it.
I almost wish I hadn’t.
The National Review article, by smug, class-baiting Kevin D. Williamson, verily seethed with contempt for America’s so-called “Ivy League elite,” the supposedly rarified folks that down-on-their-luck conservatives who voted for Donald Trump love to hate.
Williamson’s take-down of snobbery is only peripherally defensible and only in small part, while it is mostly prejudicial nonsense. The defensible part is that non-elites have always been viscerally envious of the elite in most societies, and the elite are often overtly smug and condescending about their status. That’s on them. But, still, their elite-ness is due to their embodiment of particular attributes societies have always generally viewed as superior. Elites have always been richer and better educated than non-elites, more substantive, one might say, and, because elite men tend to better attract beautiful women, often better looking too, genetics being what it is.
As Williamson writes:
“In Oliver Stone’s fever-dream Nixon, the embattled president stands in front of the famous portrait of the martyr John F. Kennedy, which he addresses with a mix of bitterness, self-pity, and awe: ‘When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.’ That is exactly right.”
And almost tragic.
Yet, despite its several compelling, engrossing moments, this hit-job of a column by Williamson is fundamentally unsound. He even admits at one point that he’s a member of the elite he is so contemptuously trashing:
“I myself am an unapologetic elitist; I am only pointing out the contradiction.”
No. More definitive is what he’s not pointing out: his hypocrisy. How can an honest person ruthlessly attack a group of people of which he wholly identifies and claim good-faith intellectual authenticity? It’s a rhetorical question whose answer is already apparent.
This current anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-elite moment in American politics is disconnected from the reality that none of those things is inherently negative or wrong or hateful. The non-elites just don’t like them, I suspect, because those capacities they denigrate in others make them feel inadequate, inconsequential themselves.
That is why in high school, say, there’s always a large subset of students who loathe the “cool kids,” who seem to have everything — looks, friends, smarts, status and a prominent role on a sports team, or secondarily, the presidency of the Student Council. Not to mention hot paramours.
The ‘faux-Hispanic progressive’
Williamson’s article about toxic snobbery focuses on Beto O’Rourke, the U.S. Senate candidate who tried but failed to unseat the unlovely and unlovable Sen. Ted Cruz in the midterms. He contends that elites like O’Rourke, which he disparages as “the faux-Hispanic progressive from El Paso,” condescend to the relatively unpolished likes of Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, who are then “lionized for standing up to the condescension.” He continues in that reverse-snobbism vein:
“Which brings us back to Señor O’Rourke, the most oleaginous, condescending, and sanctimonious man in American politics at the moment. He talks a good man-of-the-people game, as most progressives do, but who he is, is who progressives are and who they want to be: a rich white liberal with political power, from a family of rich white liberals with political power. He has the prep-school diploma and the Ivy League imprimatur, too.”
To which I say, so what? He’s a politician, and it’s the requirement of all politicians to fashion themselves in such a way as to be elected. But I think it’s O’Rourke’s natural appeal is far more simple than being a golden boy. The first thing I noticed about him is that he is a dead ringer for Robert F. Kennedy, who had possibly more heart-tugging charisma than even his gilded brother, Jack. O’Rourke’s mother must have noticed the resemblance, too, because she selected “Francis” as little Beto’s middle name, which is also RFK’s. That would be a boon to any politician, Republican or Democrat.
Elitism isn’t the problemBe that as it may, O’Rourke’s upbringing, education and eerie patrician looks are not the story. It’s his relative youth, fire-in-the-belly passion and image of humble humanity. None of which “The Donald” has, and he got elected.
So I see the conservative disgust with elites to be a kind of manufactured red herring. Whether you have class in spades, an Ivy League diploma, a wealthy family and a bulging bank account doesn’t make you special in any enduring sense. What counts is what you do, what you achieve, with all that — or, if you’re a non-elite, with none of it. Especially with none of it, which is even more impressive.
The danger of dismissing so-called “elites,” is that they often embody things eminently useful to societies, like a good education and the added knowledge it provides, a rationality rather than emotionality of judgment that liberal-arts learning encourages, and a focus and discipline that is required to succeed in the lengthy educational process. And expertise, that important quality that Trump and his minions like to poo-poo and go with their “gut” instead.
Well, without expertise — the end result of an “elite” education, which is open to most if not everyone — we would still be walking everywhere instead of driving. We would be howling at the moon instead of visiting it. We would be callously persecuting mentally ill people rather than helping them regain their sanity. We would be deeply impoverished in myriad ways that now we are not.
I humbly ask conservatives to not dismiss things “elite,” because they are important to the future, even if the non-elite are struggling and suffering today in a tribally divided, unequal, America. But if we can hold our tongues for awhile and get on the same page, the most expert among us can help right the wrongs, make life better for everyone. We are all allies when you get right down to it.
From my point of view, the answer is to give everyone an equal opportunity for an “elite,” meaning excellent, education. Then the rest should then take care of itself.
After all, the variable that most sharply delineates the two warring halves of America at the moment is not their relative amount of “class.” It’s level of education.
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