“Elite” Is Not a Dirty Word

Rocket Surgery Elite
Combining two elite professions creates a very elite profession. / via ThinkGeek

D.G. Davis might be one of the more enlightened of his kind. Davis, along with a throng of Trump supports and other assorted everyday people, mistook NPR’s Twitter thread of the whole of the Declaration of Independence to be some kind of elite, anti-Trump propaganda. When their mistake was pointed out, many deleted their accounts, or a least the offending tweet. Davis, to his credit, apologized. That apology for utter stupidity contained a real pearl of wisdom: “If read to the average American, would they know that you were reading the DOI?”

And with that, Mr. Davis proved that while he may not recognize the founding document of his country, he does know his countrymen. The average American is not the brightest crayon in the box. And that’s not just me being mean; there’s data. A 2013 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found Americans ranked lower than average on every measure of skill. Another study found that only 13 percent of Americans are fully literate, meaning able to read at the college undergraduate level.

Too much money isn’t the problem. Too much brains is.

I bring up the extent to which “Dumb” is the Great American Default, because we are in the midst of an era in which the notion that the elite and elitism are the source of every problem has become fashionable. And, let’s be honest, when Americans say “elite,” they don’t mean rich people. They mean smart people. Case Study: The President of the United States. He was elected on a wave of anti-elitism. He’s a billionaire who re-tweets 16 year old boys. Clearly, too much money isn’t the problem. Too much brains is.

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But I humbly postulate to you, dear reader, that in a county as full of dumb people as America, we need our elites — badly. So instead of rushing to demonize coastal college-educated “elites,” we should be calling the foolish by their rightful name. You see, apparently, working-class white men in Appalachia are willing to destroy the Republic, because people in San Francisco make jokes they don’t get. That is behavior that should not be encouraged with praise, sympathy or pandering. Ridicule is the mildest reaction such nonsense should provoke. Disdain is entirely appropriate.

Scarecrow elite
Noble Everyman, enemy of the elite.

And what we really shouldn’t be doing is looking for the dumbest people in the group and trying to figure out by polling and divination what exactly they want. Because who are these noble Everymen to whom we all owe such homage? White people in rural areas and small towns without a college education. We are supposed to believe that this demographic, particularly its menfolk, is the most neglected and downtrodden group in the country. They are, we are told, victims of globalization and mechanization, which has left them in a state of “economic anxiety.” But when you ask them why they are willing to torpedo centuries of human progress, they aren’t shy about admitting that it was immigrants, college professors and Hollywood actors that upset them so. The “elite” hurt their feelings, and now we will all pay the price. That’s the behavior of petulant five-year-olds, not citizens of a republic.

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It is behavior that should not be rewarded with respect. That’s why I reject this wave of Regular Guy™ candidates Democrats are going gaga over, most famously Paul Ryan-challenger Randy Bryce. Instead I propose the “Elitists to Save America Candidate Survey.” These are the anti-Regular Guy questions we should be asking candidates on both sides:

  1. What is your favorite book? (Cannot answer “The Bible.”)
  2. How many languages do you speak? (Let’s be wary of numbers lower than 3.)
  3. What’s your favorite opera? Ballet? (How can we expect arts funding from people who don’t appreciate the arts?)
  4. When did you last use your passport? Where did you go? (If you don’t have a passport, maybe you shouldn’t be anywhere near foreign policy. Ditto if your travels have only ever taken you to Mexico and Canada.)
  5. Who is your favorite political philosopher? Have you read Burke? Paine? (Any good music teacher will tell you, theory first!)

Alcuin of York, the personal tutor of Charlemagne and two of his sons, had a sound piece of advice for his king:

We must not listen to those who say that the voice of the people is the voice of God, because the riotousness of the common people is always near to madness.

(Nec audiendi qui solent dicere, vox populi, vox Dei, quum tumultuositas vulgi semper insaniae proxima sit.)

Brunch is the best meal of the day and mimosas are delicious.

Alcuin’s warning is timely because we live in a era in which the elevation of the “people” in the form of the white-working class is threatening to undo the foundations of liberal democracy and carry us into an era that would make even Charlemagne blush. The demonized elites are the only force standing in the way of this fate. This is because there is good in the values now labeled elitist. Education molds better people. The arts are proof of civilization. Cities are the sources of innovation and bastions of tolerance. Immigration brings the best, the brightest and the most ambitious to places where that talent and ambition can be put to use. There are some jobs that require expertise. Vaccines save millions, if not billions of lives. The world is better when it is diverse and its borders open. Furthermore, brunch is the best meal of the day and mimosas are delicious.

When we reject these things, when we court the purveyors of contrary values to be our standard bearers, we become the enemy of all that makes human society best. We glamorize things truly meant for the trash heap of history: Unproductive and dying small towns and rural communities are imbued with a pastoral sanctity. Their ignorant and frequently bigoted locals are cast as wholesome and innocent victims of cruel technocrats and swarming immigrants. NASCAR is elevated to the status of opera and Mountain Dew becomes a substitute for fine wine. We declare stupidity superiority.

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This is the politics of the lowest common denominator. And who can expect much from that? There are real problems in contemporary liberal democracy. Economic and social inequality are among these. But let us not pretend that these problems can be solved by villainizing those most equipped to solve them. Instead of going and looking for our own brand of stupid, let’s demand more. Ask your congressman to name his favorite opera. Send his challenger copies of “On Liberty” until she reads it. Don’t vote for the monolingual. And ridicule those without passports who think they can make decisions about the world. Use the “Elitists to Save America Candidate Survey” to find out if your elected officials are elitist enough. The D.G. Davises of America are depending on it.

  • “Elite” is not a dirty word? Neither is “rural.” Though I expect a chat with you would be lively and interesting, you are painting with a too-wide brush in this piece. I am the daughter of one of these backcountry people you abhor–my father was a poor sharecropper’s child in south Georgia in the Depression. What could be more unpromising as a start in life? Not much. At 17, he joined the Army Air Corps and was a tail gunner on a B-17 (the Incendiary Blonde) in World War II. Afterward, he earned his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and was a researcher or professor for the rest of his life. All this happened despite the fact that he rarely met a teacher capable of seeing that ability could be walking around in ragged overalls. (I do think a rant on the lack of rigor with which we select our teachers is in order. And how about one on the increase of administrators at the expense of professors?) We just don’t know, gazing down at a newborn, what that child will become. My father is just one of many, many examples I can conjure of rural people with brains and drive and taste–people who, yes, visit Paris and Bangkok and many other cities. My life in central New York is not packed with “the dumbest people in the group.” And Glimmerglass Opera, founded by locals, is just a couple of miles down the road. Pax.

    • “It’s January 16, 1936, here in Des Moines, Iowa. At the Shrine Temple Auditorium, the curtain is about to rise on the encore performance of the opera, The Bohemian Girl. Regina Steele, 12 years old, dressed in a blue uniform, steps from the wings and, in a clear voice that carries to the last person in the audience of 4,000, reads the lines of the prologue that presents the principal characters and brings the story of the opera to the second act. The cast of 150 are from Polk Co., Shelby Co., Hardin Co., Story Co., Black Hawk Co., Butler Co. , Cherokee, Chickasaw — in fact, the cast represents 50 of your 100 counties. And they are all farm girls and boys, farm men and women. Twelve-year-old Regina Steele is wearing her blue 4H uniform.

      ‘Who can measure the rewards of such an event?’ wrote Marjorie Patten at the time. ‘Perhaps the greatest value lies in the rich experience of each person who took part in it, the growth through good training, the joy of having had a part in producing a lovely thing and the freeing of some craving for expression.’ As one cast member put it, ‘We have no new linoleum on the kitchen floor, but we have sung in opera!’ ”

      — from “The Joy of Producing Some Lovely Thing” by Dudley Cocke of Roadside Theater, who learned a thing or two about the complex cultures – and intelligences – of rural and urban communities from Civil Rights movement leaders, democratic labor organizers, and pioneers of grassroots & community-based arts.

  • Yannis Bizakis

    This is a bit simplistic but gets to the point and is in a way describing what the March for Science was all about.

  • Yannis Bizakis

    I do not think the author is calling rural America stupid – just more like all of America – I think the piece – podcast “S— Town” is a longer piece that basically says the same thing.

  • walt828

    Facts: about 28.5 million people who live in metropolitan areas voted for Trump; only. 6.8 million in cities and town under 250,000 voted for Trump. So no, rural Appalachians didn’t “give” America Trump, your metropolitan compatriots did.

    • Appalachia voted Trump.

      • walt828

        Not the point, Leonard. The point is that the idea that Trump was voted in by an uneducated rural populace is not supported by the facts. While the largest metropolitan areas went for Clinton, the fact is that Trump won more cities over 1M than Clinton did and overall the metropolitan areas provides more votes for Trump by far than did the small towns. Did the small towns vote for Trump more than Clinton? Yes. But their votes were dwarfed by the metropolitan areas. Nevertheless, our electoral system is set up to even the field between rural and city, and while I would have preferred Clinton to Trump by a long shot, I would not be in favor of eliminating the Electoral College to accomplish it. I would like to see the DNC pay more attention to rural poor issues (as the DNC used to before being pushed to the right) and broaden their appeal. As much as this author would like, the US is still a democracy and not an oligarchy. Plato’s idea of a Republic ruled by philosopher-kings is the opposite of a democracy. Y’all can wash your hands of the election and pretend that you had nothing to do with it (sort of like the North did in regards to 20th century racism), but the reality is that more urban people voted for Trump than rural people did.

        • A close, proper and fair read of Katie’s article makes it clear, not to mention indisputable, that she’s not advocating an oligarchy. But people can bring their own agendas and biases to whatever the discussion is, including that which relates to whether urban or rural areas was the primary cause of our great national suicide.

          • walt828

            Indeed, and comments exist for readers to point out your biases are showing. Otherwise, why allow comments?

          • To allow people to further point out when the commenter’s biases are showing. That’s why.

          • Yannis Bizakis

            You can’t claim a majority that does not exist sir – we have an electoral system that gives a greater influence to some states than others – therefore it is legitimate to state that rural areas in places like MI, PA, and WI gave us Trump – I know the author of this article – I think it lacks nuance – as I from rural America and have an advanced degree – trouble is I can’t live in my hometown and be employed – the article is listed as a rant – that is what it is – not a discussion on the nuances of bias in political leanings in rural and metro areas – and why they exist. I appreciate this article – but I don’t think it will convince those in need of convincing – and – the article was not drafted for that purpose – it’s a rant… and accurate.

          • walt828

            Oh snap.