Shaffer: The right kind of elite

I hate the phrase “liberal elite.” A grating cliche, it’s like “gay agenda” or “evangelical” — poorly defined and too often spoken in a paranoid tone. But the repetition of the phrase shows its wide appeal. American citizens feel dominated by a privileged few who don’t understand them. I’m beginning to worry they’re right.

The problem with the liberal elite isn’t that they’re liberal, but that they’re elite. Not elite like Olympic athletes — in the sense of demonstrably the best. Elite in the sense of powerful — rich, crafty, popular.

We often get the two meanings of elite confused, but they’re very different. Nietzsche observed that the powerful are always regarded as spiritually superior. They get to choose what is valued, and unsurprisingly, exalt their own characteristics. Nothing inheres in an accent to make it good or bad. But accents from socioeconomically depressed regions are considered crass. The accents associated with the wealthy are considered superior — though a linguist would wonder why. In patriarchal societies, “manly” is a term of approbation. Everywhere the names for oppressed minorities take on negative connotations. A pathology of power is the inevitable result of inequality. The top condemns the immorality and crass speech of the bottom, and imagines itself quite objective in doing so.

Ideas are called stupid not because of what they are but because of who has them. Chauvinists think something stupid not because of the idea itself, but just because a woman says it. We project goodness and badness, intelligence and stupidity, onto people, according to their status. The powerful are seen as morally superior, and the powerless as stupid and bad.

It’s not just chauvinists and racists. It happens wherever there is social inequality. Look at Hollywood’s portrayal of the ordinary American. I am always struck by the nobility of servicemen and servicewomen I meet. But on the silver screen they’re remarkable only for their evil. I went to the theater to enjoy the special effects of “Avatar,” but found instead a finger-wagging fable about how racist America soldiers are. Just one example of a trend.

I had the misfortune of watching television recently. It was “Law and Order,” an episode based off the Terri Schiavo case. I don’t have a strong opinion on the case itself. Both positions — one that life should not be destroyed no matter the inconvenience, the other that government should stay out of such matters — were intellectually defensible and morally serious. The media circus was terrible but no one side was to blame.

But the writers for “Law and Order” saw no nuance, just as the writers for “Avatar” can see no good in an American soldier. Among evangelicals I’ve met the greatest crime has been a tendency to smile too much for my liking. But in “Law and Order,” they decided to murder their legal opponent. In reality, they tried to save a life, as they saw it. In the television revision, they kill for fun. Among the upper-crust and pretenders, the anti-euthanasia position was considered ridiculous not because it was irrational but because it was held by lower-middle class evangelicals — so it must be bad! And to advertise high status, the rest rushed to sharply differentiate themselves with condemnations of the right-to-lifers.

This is to be expected. The writers in Hollywood come from the schools and circles with few soldiers or evangelicals. There, sympathy for them means social excommunication. So those people — not flawless, of course — become the stigmatized “other.” Get enough men in a room with no women, and you’ll hear chauvinism; enough straight people, and you’ll find homophobia. And get enough elite writers or academics in a room, and they’ll make a grotesque and cruel caricature of ordinary Americans.

Imagine this: You’re a lower-middle class mother from a small town. You sent your son to Iraq, and you were once persuaded that Terri Schiavo should be kept alive — in your best conscience you thought both were right. Your son was wounded or killed, your efforts with Schiavo failed. When you turn on the television you see writers from Hollywood — who make 10 times your salary, who were privileged enough for the right schools, whose family members would never enlist in the army — portraying you as a superstitious murderess and your son as a barbaric racist.

I think you’d be justified in being pretty mad. You might start complaining about the liberal elite.

The phrase should be an oxymoron. It’s a sign of the confusion of our political labels. But it’s the end result of the radical chic of the ’60s and ’70s and the anti-bourgeois rhetoric required for bourgeois respectability in the ’80s. Leftists were once the enemies of the powerful; now, they’re the new establishment. Elites call themselves liberals, adopting half the postures of the old left, enjoying all of the self-satisfaction of privilege.

When I came to Yale, I used to relish considering myself elite, because I felt better than the kids I didn’t like in high school. But over time I’ve had a few humiliating blessings — going to Marine Corps Officer Candidate School and being so outdone by community college students, for one. Now I think we’re not so much better, just privileged. Elite like the Bush family, not like Michael Phelps. And this power is a dangerous pathology. It perverts our understanding of others.

We should be less elite and more liberal in the best sense — more generous in our sentiments, more tolerant, more inclined to assume the best of people, more vigilant against the injustices of power inequalities, more loving of the ordinary man.

We should be leaders among the people. Not elites spitting on them.

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.

Comments

  • good message

    thank you, matthew, for letting us know just how elite you are. I hope your friends listen to you.

  • y ’09

    I always enjoy your columns. Your writing and insights are wonderful.

  • Pea-pickin humanitarian

    Jimmy Carter IS an evangelical. “W” is pretty close.

    Jimmy has done an awful lot of good in this world even if he does have a pea-pickin accent.

    George—well, no comment.

    PK

  • Recent Alum

    “The problem with the liberal elite isn’t that they’re liberal, but that they’re elite.”

    No, the problem with the liberal elite is that they’re liberal.

    William F. Buckley was elite, but was never part of the problem.

    Oh, and PK, you are probably one of those who still believe that Obama is a Christian, so I don’t think you qualify to judge who is an evangelical.

  • Pailinite

    Ordinary Americans do an awfully good job of creating and promoting their own “grotesque and cruel caricatures” of ordinariness, which you’ll have duly noted over the past two years of political frenzy.

    You are hitting a strange point with Avatar. Yes, it is finger-wagging, has one-dimensional characterization and offers a less than congratulatory view of the American military. And yet the American public has dropped huge sums of money to see it repeatedly, so either it’s just so incredibly pretty that people are not genuinely put off by that message, people don’t actually care about that message, or that message is effectively counterbalanced by the vast numbers of other cultural products that are full of silly adulation for military service (watch some television).

    What makes a mass media producer elite is not its ability to moralize, but its ability to target an audience and capture it. It’s hard to have sympathy for the will of an audience that feels talked down to, but is so unconcerned by it that it keeps going back to see the movie again and again for $12 a pop. When you keep throwing your change at the elite, the elite clearly does have some kind of edge on you. But maybe that analysis is too Marxist in its orientation to gain traction here.

    Also, your portrayal of the apparently unsophisticated thinking of a lower-middle class mother is pretty offensive.

  • Hieronymus

    I have mixed reactions to this article. I want to applaud your move into Marine ROTC, but certain sentiments, in your words, “grate.”

    To wit, the whole “You’re a lower-middle class mother… When you turn on the television you see writers from Hollywood — who make 10 times your salary, who were privileged enough for the right schools, whose family members would never enlist in the army — portraying you as a superstitious murderess and your son as a barbaric racist.”

    Hard, yet, to escape your elitist bubble, huh? Most of what you would deem “lower middle class” do not think of themselves as such (almost everyone in the US self-identifies simply as “middle class”). Further, most folks either don’t know or, more importantly, don’t CARE about huge salary differentials (indeed, it is mainly the Liberal Elite that care about “wage disparity”).

    Also, your comments re: your (Yalie) performance versus “community college” kids sounds REALLY disingenuous. In what ways, pray tell, did they outperform? Physically? Are you a wuss of a jarhead or something? Did they outperform academically? If so, you should be ashamed.

    All that said, I am loath to criticize harshly; you will undoubtedly–UN DOUBT EDLY–have some SEMs (“significant emotional events”) in your upcoming career that will serve well to shift your perspective.

    I would be interested whether your marine corps brothers share your views regarding liberalism and elitism (btw: “The few, the proud, the marines” self-identify as military elite, but you knew that).

    Good luck, Godspeed.

  • The Contrarian

    Our so-called Meritocracy has produced Leaders without Followers.

    The Meritocrats believe that they deserve everything that came their way, and they did everything all on their own. The Old Elite certainly knew they were privileged so they were devoted to service. The New Elite is only devoted to self-enrichment and scolding others. And what have they really done, except please their teachers in order to get good grades?

    Yes, there are exceptions, but they only prove the rule.

  • If only there were a “recommend” button…

    if there were, it should be pressed multiple times for this column.
    “[W]e’re not so much better, just privileged.”

    This sentence should be underscored and bolded.

    When I clicked on the headline, I was bracing myself for one of those “I’m a Yale man, and elites shall henceforth be acknowledged as rightful rulers” columns (not going to mention names of columnists, but…) I was pleasantly surprised.

    Sure, students at Yale are talented, but for every brilliant one I know, there is one who is of average intelligence but was boosted by family support (extra SAT prep courses, exotic study abroad and foreign volunteer trips where other kids had to work summers at menial jobs, music lessons, private tutors all gobble up cash) and/or knowing how to play the game. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself. Where we go wrong, though, we who hail from lucky circumstances, is to pride ourselves on being inherently “better” or more deserving because our advantages have helped up to build up better resumes than other students who had zero family support.
    More of these columns, Shaffer.

  • Auntie PK

    “Jimmy has done an awful lot of good in this world.”

    JC, the “anti-president,” has done such good things as:
    **Writing to members of the UNSecurity Council — including Mitterrand’s France and Communist China — in the run-up to the First Gulf War (the good one), urging them to thwart the Bush I administration’s effort.

    **Going against U.S. law to visit Cuba and show support for Fidel Castro.

    **Describing Kim Il-Sung as “vigorous, intelligent, surprisingly well-informed about the technical issues, and in charge of the decisions about this country,” adding “I don’t see that [North Koreans] are an outlaw nation.”

    **Of Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceaucescu stating “Our goals are the same: to have a just system of economics and politics… We believe in enhancing human rights.”

    And, of course, there is Carter’s anti-Semitism:

    Carter’s book lays the blame for Palestinian conflict (and, indeed, all Middle East conflict) squarely on Israel.

    Carter left the Holocaust out of his book, despite the fact that the existence of Israel is intimately bound up with that seminal event of the twentieth century AND many Arab leaders in the 1930s and 1940s were actively in favor of Hitler and his persecution of the Jews.

    The Anti-Defamation League has argued publicly that Carter was getting to a point in which one could call him an anti-Semite, writing to Carter that “In both your book and in your many television and print interviews you have been feeding into conspiracy theories about excessive Jewish power and control. Considering the history of anti-Semitism, even in our great country, this is very dangerous stuff.”

    Here’s an interesting, if bitter, article on the topic:
    http://97.74.65.51/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=1049

  • Matt Gerken

    Good column, Mr. Shaffer, but I think there is more going on than just inequality. In the past (feudal society or the polis or whatever), people separated by class still interacted with each other on a daily basis. So even if it was true that the mannerisms and beliefs of the lower classes were stigmatized by the upper, the two were still aware of each other’s nature and had the possibility to connect respectfully in certain ways. This is mirrored in the American experience through the public high school, which in the past thrust together the rich kids with the riff-raff of any town, resulting in a good many movies, both good and bad, about how the two classes could thus be reconciled (usually through friendship or romantic love), even if that basic inequality never disappeared.

    It’s a peculiar feature of the last 60 years or so that the modernity-fueled mass mobility has turned turned the normal social stratification into geographical stratification (all the rich people in the same cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods sending their kids to private or rich public schools, all of the poor in the urban ghetto sending their kids to schools that are a stepping-stone to jail). It’s this totally unprecedented almost complete separation of the elites from the poor that perpetuates a lot of the false stereotypes you discuss (evangelicals and rural folks especially).

  • FailBoat

    There’s nothing wrong with being elite, as long as you remember that it would be better to be governed by the first two thousand names of the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard.

  • Yale ’11

    This is bizarre. Matt Schaffer, who are you?

  • Judge not lest ye be judged. . .

    # 4
    I think Jimmy Carter proclaims he is an evangelical. W’s conversion story sounds like evangelical choreography to me, but you’re right. Who am I to judge.
    And as for Obama? I don’t know anything except that I could not have sat quietly and listened to his “hometown” preacher more than once without letting my opinions be known.

    PK

  • Um

    Recent Alum–How is Obama not a Christian? I guess he is trying to make it so thousands of Americans don’t die every year just because they don’t have health care, so I guess that is pretty Satanist.

  • ’10

    A strange but somehow pleasing mix of left-wing and conservative sensibilities…

  • Hieronymus

    Dear Mr. Gerken:

    You wrote: “[A]ll the rich people [live] in the same cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods sending their kids to private or rich public schools, all of the poor in the urban ghetto sending their kids to schools that are a stepping-stone to jail.”

    Is there ANY nuance in your outlook? I myself often use generalizations, but this is just… silly.

    Just look around you: New Haven comprises delicate Victorian mansions, with “ghettos” just two or three (parallel) streets away. It has people of all cultures, it has students at several of its colleges from all walks of life–are they ALL either “rich” or “poor”? (Is Yale barbelled that way?).

    I, for one, am much more interested in what you might think of as the anomalies, i.e., those folks who go the other way: the “rich” Anglo New Havenite whose children attend Wilbur Cross; the “poor” immigrant child who must translate for her parents, each of whom work several jobs to afford the rented property in the town with the good school system (I know of such a family personally–the father overcame not just enormous odds and obstacles, but repeated failures and setbacks).

    This is, again, a fundamental difference between Liberals and Conservatives (here comes the generalization): Liberals so often look out and see vast injustice and wish to, from their lofty and lauded perch, direct resources to reshape a situation (whether the “recipients” consider themselves “poor” or needy or suffering or slighted or not).

    Conservatives so often delight–and seek to assist–those who clearly have the desire and drive to change their own situations. The irony of reveling in the statement “G-d helps those who helps themselves” is that, in addition to G-d, those who help themselves make their OWN opportunities, and their actions invite opportunity-making from and among others.

    Who am *I* to decide who is happy and who is unhappy merely by their observed circumstances? Are the “poor” of Tahiti or Papua New Guinea or, heck, Afghanistan really so unhappy? (At least some Afghanis sure do seem to prefer their current situation over change…).

    Do you *really* believe that money buys happiness?

    Is it the destination or the journey? If the journey, are not Liberals, by soothing all possible wants, denying man his satisfaction, his purpose, his happiness, his dignity?

    What happens to so many lottery winners versus those who build a successful business and therefore attain wealth?

    Both Mr. Gerken AND the author of the article bring great depths of their own pre-conceptions to their thinking. I am quite confident that Mr. Shaffer, at least, is bound to have his thinking forcibly reshaped (and for that he will be grateful). About Mr. Gerken, I have no such information.

  • Matt Gerken

    Whoa there buddy. Whatever my faults, I’m pretty sure I’m one of the least liberal people on Yale’s campus and have never believed or implied in writing 95-100% of the things you are attributing to me. I resent the accusations.

    Perhaps you simply misread my original post, which flows from the conservative idea that embracing rather than eliminating inequalities is the right thing to do, as they are a natural part of the human condition and because (as you mention) they do not actually prevent happiness or flourishing. I simply think it is a matter of fact that this was done better in the past then it is now, when people of all classes and social statuses lived in communities with each other, interacted on a daily basis, cared about each other, etc. Mass mobility (resulting in things like white flight) and geographical stratification are undeniable trends in the modern world that break down the conventions and institutions that facilitated community involvement between all people (insert Burke: “vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness”) and, in my opinion, providing openings for some of the stereotyping phenomena that Mr. Shaffer is writing about.

    Also, it’s true that I used sweeping generalizations, but unfortunately that’s how it goes when you discuss vast societal trends, or for that matter, any sort of category. Exceptions to the class segregation phenomenon that I was talking about are unremarkable, since the “exceptions” had been the rule of the day for thousands of years. What is remarkable is the trend itself, being new and relatively unprecedented.

    And finally, on a technical note, it might help you to know that in the phrase “all the rich people in the same cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods sending their kids to private or rich public schools” I intended the subject to be “all the rich people in the same cookie-cutter suburban neighborhoods,” implying that people who fit ALL of those qualifications send their kids to really rich schools, not that all rich people both A) live in cookie-cutter suburbs and B) send their kids to rich schools. Reread the phrase and think a little about how qualifying prepositional phrases work. Same goes for the part about the urban poor.

  • Really.

    I imagine you sat listening to “Simple Man” by Lynyrd Skynyrd when you wrote this, picturing wheat fields as far as the eye can see, with men nobly working their land, ignorant of the world around them. I don’t know who should be more offended by this article, the “elites” or the “ordinary americans”.

    I find it hilarious that in an article about how the elite over-simplify and villanize “regular americans”, you manage to oversimplify both classes, while villanizing “the elite”. First off, Hollywood produces about as many movies that glorify the military and war as they do condemn it. The very man who directed Avatar also directed Aliens (with its military gravitas and all); not to mention that right before I watched Avatar, I sat through a 5 minute recruitment add for the Marines.
    If lack of nuance or acceptance is your complaint, then you obviously haven’t listened to what some of your community college marines tend to think of Yalies. The problem isn’t that the elites have turned the middle class into charicatures, it’s that all Americans have fallen in love cartoonish versions of reality, one in which there are “bad guys” and “good guys”.

  • y ’11

    Nicely articulated. I really appreciate this article from a “liberal” perspective – I’m a resident of the Pacific Northwest whose extended family lives exclusively in the Deep South. My mother occasionally wears a “Don’t Mess with Texas” T-shirt to her place of employment and gets comments I don’t care to repeat. My hometown is much more tolerant of GBLTQA folks than Texans. Neither Portland, OR nor Corpus Christi, TX are “elite” by any of the definitions you present, but sit two generic residents of those two cities down at a table together and the conversation will more likely than not end in a shouting match. More likely than not the Portlander will have started it.

  • Jordon Walker

    “When I came to Yale, I used to relish considering myself elite, because I felt better than the kids I didn’t like in high school.”

    Best quote ever.

    @#5 “And yet the American public has dropped huge sums of money to see it repeatedly, so either it’s just so incredibly pretty that people are not genuinely put off by that message, people don’t actually care about that message, or that message is effectively counterbalanced by the vast numbers of other cultural products that are full of silly adulation for military service (watch some television).”

    No it is because the American people are too stupid to understand the subtle, underlying racism.