“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.