What is an elitist?
On last night’s “NBC News with Brian Williams,” Williams asked John McCain Sarah Palin to define “elitist.” Palin’s reply, methinks, was rather self-incriminating. This post will examine her reply, then move away from politics to provide a definition of my own, one that damns much of Dartmouth culture.
Did you catch that? “It's anyone who thinks that they're better than someone else.” This coming from the woman who has repeatedly implied that anyone who disagrees with her policies or comes from a large city is inferior and un-American. I also have to wonder a bit when McCain said that elitists are those “who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.” (Do you think he’ll still feel the same way after the voters decide against him?) On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today, host and former Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-FL) further defined elitism as, among other things, looking down on anyone who’s from a different city. Though Scarborough has defended Palin in the past, that definition would have to include her.
Yesterday I decried Palin’s smears as hateful and unethical, and I stand by that. I remember being equally incensed weeks ago when she told CBS' Katie Couric that Americans with passports are all rich preppies who never had a real job:
Couric: A lot of our viewers and Internet users wanted to know why you did not get a passport until last year. And they wondered if that indicated a lack of interest and curiosity in the world.
Palin: I'm not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world. No, I've worked all my life. In fact, I usually had two jobs all my life until I had kids. I was not a part of, I guess, that culture. The way that I have understood the world is through education, through books, through mediums that have provided me a lot of perspective on the world.
Listen, lady; having a passport doesn't mean someone has never worked. I've got a dear friend who went backpacking in Europe this past summer not because her parents were rich, but because she scrubbed dishes in a nursing home all year and sold her own (rather fabulous) knitting on eBay. This girl’s family is hardly super-rich; she is, however, a Fred Thompson-supporting evangelical attending a good state college. And Sarah, by actually seeing England and Germany, my friend understands Europe a lot better than either you or me. Tell me, if I read a few books and then said I know more about Alaska than your own family, wouldn't you be a little incensed and call me an elitist? Well right back atchya, m'am.
Palin and her boss should be ashamed of themselves and their divisive way. There should be no room for anti-intellectualism. Once upon a time, an elitist was anyone who was elite, and there is nothing wrong with getting a good education or growing a successful business. What’s wrong with learning things? Who WOULDN’T want their kid to go to Harvard? Unfortunately, the Republican Party has twisted that definition into a form of anti-intellectualism. When something scientific or academic doesn’t fit their ideology, it is quickly damned as elite and un-American.
But having said that, I will say that I am somewhat sympathetic to their point, if not their tactics. There are plenty of smug, arrogant, pop-collared elite Yankee twits hanging around the East Coast. Here, then, is my definition of elitism.
Elitism is not knowing how privileged you are. Anyone who thinks an annual salary of $100,000 isn’t a lot of money is an elitist. I got into such an argument with a classmate during a spring term budget seminar. It’s the only time I’ve ever gotten into a shouting match during class. I understand that $100,000 isn’t the benchmark that it was thirty years ago and that it may not be much in New York City, but how can anyone claim that an amount nearly 2.5 times the national median isn’t a lot of money? Less than a fifth of all Americans make that much; anyone earning even $80,000 a year is one of the richest people in history’s richest nation. Suggesting that that isn’t wealth is sticking your head in the sand and then super-gluing it in place.
One of my favorite Dartmouth professors takes time during each of his classes to share with his students some statistics they might not have known – numbers like only 20% of Americans own passports, and a full 83% believe in the virgin birth but only 28% believe in evolution. He talks about median incomes and educational backgrounds because he wants his students to realize how privileged and abnormal they are. While I’m thrilled he takes time to do this, I was appalled at my class’ reaction – THEY LAUGHED. They laughed and roared, rather derisively, at their fellow “simple-minded” countrymen. Now THAT’S elitist arrogance.
Elitism is also passing derogatory judgment on large groups of people even if you haven’t met a single one of them. Anyone who looks down their noses at this country’s evangelical voters because Pat Robertson is an idiot is an arrogant elitist. Yes, many of the mainstream media’s favorite evangelicals are obnoxious blowhards, but, while I generally disagree with the people in the pews (or padded stadium seats, as the case may be), when you take the time to get to know them you will often find that they are good, decent, and often bright people.
So that’s my definition of elitism. There’s plenty of it on the east coast and in the Democratic Party, so I can hardly blame heartland evangelicals for feeling slighted and angry. Nevertheless, when they sink to the same level and smear millions of good Americans in one breath, they are no better than the popped-collar country club schmucks they seek to decry.
I will say just one thing more. If a man believes a person isn’t rich unless they make $5 million a year, and if he can forget just how many houses he owns, then he too is an elitist with no concept of privilege.