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.