Tuesday, March 9, 2010
If you listen to conservative talk radio and Fox News 24 hours a day, even while sleeping, like I do, one word you hear a lot is “elite.” And while my dictionary defines this word as “the best part,” they always use this word in a pejorative sense. The elites are always seeking to destroy America, or undermine democracy, or mock the values of normal, heterosexual, apple-pie-ingesting folks. Conservatives commentators never call themselves elite, but not out of modesty (ha!); in the conservative media dictionary, elitism is, like progressivism and socialism, just another synonym for “bad.”
See, elites don't respect God, America, or the Constitution. In fact, they hate those things. Elites want to get rid of these things, build a superhighway connecting the USA to Canada and Mexico,ban religion in the name of science, give the money of average hard-working Americans (average Americans are always hard-working) to minority groups who don't deserve it. Then they will go back to their fancy apartments in their large coastal cities, look at their prestigious degrees and awards (given to them by other elites), and make fun of Southern accents. Or at least that's the conservative view of the “elites,” personified by Laura Ingraham's book Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America.
As it is fashionable to do in literature these days, Ingraham merges fact with fiction, basically inventing a vast conspiracy against American values by people who are “tired of the American voter getting in the way of their agenda.” (It's unclear what their agenda is, but it sounds ominous.) It was published in 2003, so instead of Barack Obama and the health care bill—which was stopped thanks to the Senate, the less democratic chamber of Congress—she beats up on Michael Moore and Bill Clinton*, but the rhetoric is exactly the same: Americans are a God-fearing people who want lower taxes and don't want these big-city, Ivy-League media elites telling them what to do.
Well, that may be true—truer than some of the things said in that book anyway—but by anyone's reckoning, Ingraham is something of an elite herself. She grew up in Connecticut, went to Dartmouth (where she was the first female editor of the school paper), went to law school, even served as a clerk to a Supreme Court Judge, then went on to become a wildly successful media person. She's written three books—the last one was a New York Times number one best seller—and gets paid 20,000 dollars just to make a speech. She even quotes William Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! at one point, surely something only an elite would do.
Most of the right-wing “populist” radio and TV hosts are elites, maybe not according to their definition, but according to mine. To me, elites are talented, intelligent, driven people who work extremely hard to get what they want. They're good at what they do, and what they do is often important. Like Ingraham says, elites inhabit politics, media, academia (she calls this “ivory tower”), arts and entertainment, business, and international organizations, because those are the fields you go into if you want to make a difference, which is another characteristic of elites.
Do elites think of themselves as smarter than the general population? Some of them probably do, if only because they are smarter than the general population. Do elites control the media? Of course they do. You have to be elite to rise to prominence in a cut-throat business like that. Do elites tell ordinary people what to believe? Yes, and they have ever since the dawn of time. Do they mostly live in big cities? Well, they have to if they want to succeed at the kind of industries they're usually interested in.
The great thing about America—or at least the idea of America—is that most of our elites came by their status honestly. They aren't a hereditary aristocracy, they didn't buy their way to the top, and anyone can join their ranks as long as they're talented. Our Founding Fathers, who have been practically deified by the right wing, were the uber-elites of their day. Benjamin Franklin was the kind of celebrity politician that conservatives mock Obama for being, and the Constitution was written by extremely intelligent lawyers. America was founded by elites, is ruled by elites, and will be dominated by elites for as long as it exists.
Ingraham loves to slam Bill Clinton in her book, and there are plenty of reasons to slam Clinton from the left as well as the right, but the man started out with a lot less of money than Ingraham, suffered a pretty rough childhood, earned a Rhodes Scholarship, and became Governor of Arkansas at the age of 32 and President just a decade later. America can be a shitty, shitty place, but at least in America, the elites have the opportunity to rise to the top. And if some of them live in big cities and look down their noses at the rural Midwest and South, maybe that's because those are terrible places to live. Don't agree with me? David Byrne does:
*Another sign that the bill was written seven years ago is the sentence, “America has fought to protect Muslims all over the world,” which not even a talk show host would have the chutzpah to say in 2010.