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Essence of elitism

June 1, 2008

I just finished reading all the entries in the very first Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards and it was an entertaining yet uplifting and humbling experience.  Not just because of my dissatisfaction with my own writing but because its so much fun to see the ways different people explore the same theme.  Some of them were just hilarious, some touching or inspirational.

One that I found particularly moving was Lirone’s entry at Words That Sing; Playing small doesn’t serve the world.  Here’s a sample:

“…That light seems to shine brightest in young children, with their endless curiosity. I think it’s sad that, for some people, that light gets turned off as they grow up. They learn to feel stupid, or are told that certain interests are not for them. They are told not to ask certain questions, or give up asking questions because they never get answers.

Some types of elitism do have the effect of stifling that interest. But actually I think anti-elitism has a far more serious effect. In a society where knowledge and learning is valued but kept for the few, it is still there to be aspired to, and the excluded can fight for their just deserts. In a society where knowledge and learning is not valued, people learn to hide their intelligence in order to fit in…”

There’s more, a full-strength dose of sadly needed inspiration for children of all ages. 

Carl Sagan said he would rather meet a class of grade-school kids than a class of high-school kids.  He said that kids in grade school usually tumbled all over themselves with enthusiastic questions – they wanted to know everything.  By the time they got to high school, the light had pretty much been extinguished, and they were reading questions in wooden fashion off 3×5 cards without much interest in the answers.

Check out John Pieret’s Thoughts In A Haystack for another one I wish I’d written, Be all the bastard you can be.  Here’s a small sample:

And here is where the “elitist” comes in.

We’re not talking about a sense of privilege based on birth or bank account. Far from it. In fact, it is hard to think of anyone in the United States who is derided for possessing those sorts of assets. The term, as it is used today, is a slur aimed at anyone who is not satisfied to live down to America’s plastic culture; anyone who values art, literature, science and the other grand legacies of civilization over “reality” television shows, video games and “sporting” contests featuring drug-inflated multimillionaires…

Our elitism, on the other hand, is not exclusionary. We welcome everyone to join. It is neither an aristocracy nor oligarchy. It is not even a meritocracy. All that is needed to be our brand of elitist is a willingness to learn and the determination to go on trying, regardless of how far you get.

The social attitude that thinking and learning are somehow suspect allows “elitism” to be used as a weapon—by creationists against educators; by corporate flacks against scientists who deliver inconvenient truth; and by politicians, often themselves in thrall to the wealthiest sliver of society, against any opponent who lets it slip that they have any erudition.

It’s just exciting to me when I see writing that good.  Go check it out!

Categories: Education
  1. June 2, 2008 at 06:18 | #1

    The best thing – the absolute best thing – about organizing this Carnival was getting to read these entries.  And having the honor to introduce them.  And that includes yours.  So I’ll hear no more of this “I’m not as good as they are” talk, thankee so very much.

    You’re a tremendous writer, George.  That’s the reason I come here every day.  You leave me refreshed each and every time.  I can’t tell you how valuable that is.

    You, sir, are a tried-and-true Elitist Bastard!

  2. June 2, 2008 at 12:17 | #2

    As I read your entry on how children have this magic of asking all kinds of questions that light up their life and as they age the light disappears I felt my heart jump a bit at that truth.  Within my own family during the last couple of months I have heard a young teen told that her question was not important.  That she didn’t need to know the answer because she would never be in that situation.  Yes an adult was turning off the light.  I thought I should say something but didn’t want to risk hard feeling.  But believe me next time despite feelings I’m going to intercede.  Thank you George for turning my light on!

  3. Les
    June 2, 2008 at 15:47 | #3

    I was going to submit something to the carnival seeing as I’m already running a blog with the word Bastard in the name, but I couldn’t come up with anything that seemed Elitist enough to submit. Perhaps I’ll come up with something the next time around.

  4. Ted
    June 2, 2008 at 18:56 | #4

    Some types of elitism do have the effect of stifling that interest. But actually I think anti-elitism has a far more serious effect. In a society where knowledge and learning is valued but kept for the few, it is still there to be aspired to, and the excluded can fight for their just deserts. In a society where knowledge and learning is not valued, people learn to hide their intelligence in order to fit in…”

    I don’t mean to be offensive, but in both this entry and the previous one, it appears that a strawman is set up and then parried against because that’s easier than the actual arguments, and not only in your post but in the quoted texts as well.

    It is fairly obvious that the term elitism is being conflated with intellectualism (or specifically with anti-intellectualism). By definition, elitism is:

    a.  A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status: “In addition to notions of social equality there was much emphasis on the role of elites and of heroes within them” Times Literary Supplement.
    b. The best or most skilled members of a group: the football team’s elite.

    In other words, not inclusive but exclusive with a focus on ranking. This is the redefinition worthy of the worst sort of babble that Republicans and demagogues employ when they say that war is peace, insecurity is security and so forth.

    By general convention, elitism is a celebration of exceptionalism and is the enemy of the working class. The conflation of general education and curiosity with elitism is puzzling because if we were to educate the underclass as they deserved, elitism and exceptionalism would disappear. But then how would we distinguish the special from the lazy rabble? (You know, the black welfare queens that drive around in taxpayer subsidized Cadillacs.)

    I just don’t get it and both of these threads strike me as fundamentally anti-democratic; the tenor of the posts dovetails with the Socratic view that the masses should be governed by the fittest to govern—and how do they become fit to govern? Through privilege, access and class that’s passed on generationally.

  5. June 2, 2008 at 19:17 | #5

    Ted, when did you start worrying about being offensive?  :coolsmirk:

    You get it just fine; we’re not trying to change the language, we’re just engaging in an in-joke.  We’ve had it with “elitist” being used as an insult against intellectuals by powerful people who make a virtue of ignorance.  Their elitism such as it is and which they carefully hide, comes from exactly what you said; privilege, access and class that’s passed on through generations.  From the kind we’re talking about, no one is excluded; John Pieret’s entry explains it pretty well.

    And yes, I think people who make decisions of governance should know something about the topics on which they decide.  We’ve had enough of political hacks doing what actual experts should be doing.  If that makes me an elitist, OK.

  6. Tedn
    June 2, 2008 at 19:36 | #6

    And yes, I think people who make decisions of governance should know
    something about the topics on which they decide.

    What is it they decide? Does it have direct impact on me? I thought I know that part better?

    The general argument here (if we dismiss elitism as a fufu term) is the credibility and value of academic knowledge vs. experiential knowledge.

    Ditchdiggers, electricians, laid off rustbelt workers, etc have an experience that is foreign to those with heads buried in PhD thesis. Are they qualified to govern the rabble? To influence the outcome of their lives?

    When does the rabble have anything to say about the quality of life they prefer for themselves and their children?

    So many decisions to be made for the underclass by their betters. Governance is tough work, and I’m glad that the educated class* can step up to that thankless task**, although I doubt that the country would move forward one iota if the vocational class didn’t do their thing.

    *Some class conscious paranoiacs might say that there’s a whole industry dedicated to education vs. training subsidized by the class elites.

    **Governance devoid of a thirst for power.

  7. June 2, 2008 at 19:54 | #7

    Having known many educated “vocational class” people (self-educated and even formally educated) I don’t accept that learning is only for some imaginary upperclass.  To name one example, my father-in-law was a steelworker, and also extremely knowledgeable about opera and lots of other stuff too. Another example: my dad’s best friend owned a hot-rod shop back in the ‘50’s, but the power company kept bringing him in as an engineering consultant. 

    Now for a governance example that affects you, the taxpayer.  Put an unqualified political hack in charge of redacting NASA climate publications, and our government continues to be part of an environmental problem instead of part of the solution.  It leads to wrong decisions with your tax money.  Ditto the political hacks sent in to rebuild Iraq, the political hack who decided it would be a short war, etc.  Get somebody in FEMA who knows about disaster management, somebody in Iraq who knows about… well, disaster management.  Stop taking climate advice from science-fiction authors. 

    And who connects dots?  Does a fisherman in the Gulf states have the power or authority to make midwestern farmers stop nitrate runoff that is turning his fishing waters into a dead zone?  Or does he even know that’s what is causing it? That is where government becomes your friend all of a sudden. 

    If you want to argue that there should be basically no government, try Somalia.  Not much government there.

    The race does not always go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor the correct decision come from the expert, but that’s the way to bet.  Turning every election into an ideological purity contest where historical and scientific perspective is scorned guarantees a demagogocracy.

  8. Ted
    June 2, 2008 at 20:22 | #8

    No, you’re answering the wrong question (to my ears anyway).

    1. Let’s start with with the difference between education and training. I didn’t say that the vocational or training class was stupid or unwilling to be intellectual. I implied that there’s a reason for the difference between education and training, and that reason is social and class based. I can pull constant exceptions as well. A population of 6.5B guarantees it.

    and 2. You seem to be compartmentalizing in some odd fashion that implies proper people can be found to govern, and that they’ll contribute altruistically without regard for getting power and keeping it.

    Hell, even ignoring the current chimpy and his cronies, Bill Clinton was great for my wallet and terrible for my soul. Power is so addictive that we had two bushes and seem to think it’s perfectly natural to have two clintons as well (it’ll meet the minority test, right?)

    I’m not arguing for anarchy, per se—as you might interpret it. But I do think that fundamental human right documents should be expanded to include the right not to be molested by those that perceive themselves to be intellectually my superior and that categorize me as a moron unable to make basic decisions for my own outcome or to characterize my desires as undeserving.

    …Which is why on a routine basis, we gather all the intellectuals up (or elites if you will), place them on trains, and set them to places where work makes them free.

    PS: I get it. You want competence. Me too, but I want dignity for others to be part part of the package. And I want it guaranteed through a human rights document, to abridge the demonstrated desire for personal power that accompanies what passes for governance.

  9. June 2, 2008 at 21:15 | #9

    What you’re describing, Ted, is checks and balances on power, which our constitution does a lot to preserve and which the current administration has done a great deal to erode.  You want dignity?  Work to educate everyone so they have a better baloney detector, enabling them to pick less bad leaders. But if you want some kind of society where nobody does anything they don’t wanna do because they voted for the other guy, or they want the benefits of living in a society but not the responsibilities, then yes, you’re pretty much advocating anarchy.

    To choose one example, if someone thinks the world was created 6,000 years ago despite all evidence to the contrary then yes I think he’s a moron and shouldn’t be allowed within a mile of education policy.  Elitist?  OK, fine.  Who decides?  I do, and so do you, and we convince as many people as we can and one of the things I’m doing is to try to convince people that the ring of truth is struck by science not myth, not wishful thinking, not political ideology.  Maybe I’ll fail to convince them.

    I’m not gonna try to make a perfectly fine-tuned argument against status-elitism because they’re not listening.  Better in my mind to mock them, steal their insults, and celebrate curiosity, learning, and the human intellect.  I hope having had several different careers in vocational class work, plus having read several thousand books, and known some fascinating people along the way, enables me to recognize intellect when I see it.

  10. zilch
    June 7, 2008 at 06:26 | #10

    Exactly.  If “elitist” now means “a member of the reality-based community who isn’t ashamed to aspire to learning more about the world”, then I’m on board too.

  11. Kit
    September 26, 2008 at 20:43 | #11


    You asked about Leroy Werkhoven look at his blog at leroypedals.blogspot.com

  12. September 26, 2008 at 20:51 | #12

    Thank you Kit!  Why does it not surprise me he would end up doing something as awesomely cool as this.  I will be featuring his blog soon.  :coolsmile:

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