Of Course They're Elitists! A Reply to Slate's Jacob Weisberg

I must weigh in on Jacob Weisberg’s rather strange piece on Republicans using elitist as a pejorative term:

Palin’s definition says elitists are those who think they’re better than other people—a category in which by Election Day, on the evidence of her autobiography, included many of the people working for her own campaign. Palin is raw with the disrespect she feels and takes offense at being condescended to by people who, she thinks, think they are better than she is. Her anti-elitism takes the part of all Americans who feel similarly snubbed, and not necessarily in the context of politics. This version is a synonym for social snobbery, with the wrinkle that it’s not based on family, ethnicity, or wealth, but rather on the status that in contemporary American society is largely conferred by academic institutions.

I think–although it’s not entirely clear–that Weisberg is trying to say that elitism is just an epithet and not a reality, or at least a reality shared by both sides.  But, as a bona fide Palm Beach raised elitist snob, I think I can address this issue cogently.

Weisberg is correct that the definition of who is elite and who isn’t has changed in the last half century or so.  In the old days, we had the WASP old money, with all of the cultural and social mores that went with that (although I’d direct Mr. Weisberg’s attention to pieces such as Best Friends: Jewish Society in Old Palm Beach.)   To some extent I am a representative of that, although things are complicated by all of the Southerners my ancestors married (including my New Orleans native grandmother and heavily Scots-Irish mother.)

Weisberg’s conclusion from noting this change is that we now have upward mobility, success and power based on merit: “In a meritocratic society, rejection can bring an even worse sting than under an aristocratic or hereditary one, because those who are less successful can’t blame outcomes on the arbitrariness of the system.”  But that’s debatable too, for the following reasons:

  • The shift to dominance of the successful (in government at least) of Ivy Leaguers hasn’t addressed the crying need for more scientifically educated people to direct a nation in a world driven by rapid technological change.  This is not to say that there aren’t excellent schools of science and engineering in the Ivy League (there certainly are) but most of the Ivy Leaguers that end up at the top of our government are lawyers with the occasional B-school interloper like George W. Bush thrown in for fun.  That’s an inheritance of our Anglo-Saxon culture that needs to be changed very badly, but you can be sure that the 1960’s era Luddites on the left will do what they can to block that.
  • It’s not clear that the Ivy League schools are as far ahead of the rest of the pack as everyone thinks they are (Victory at Last: You Learn More Away from Harvard, But…).
  • It can be shown that Ivy League admissions are prejudicial against working and middle class white people (Poor White People and Élite Universities: Beating the Dog in the Water).
  • The whole issue of character is lost in this new “meritocracy” (It’s Not What School You Went To, It’s the Kind of Person You Are).

Weisberg is correct that Sarah Palin and others feel deep resentment towards this relatively new situation.  But the attitudes that Palin and her supporters feel aren’t as widespread in this country as they used to be.  Barack Obama wasn’t shy about characterising people as bitter, holding to their Bibles and their guns.  There was a time when such attitudes were the kiss of death for a politician.  But Obama’s victory in 2008 was a demonstration that many Americans were no longer averse to being condescended to in this way.  It was in that wake that I changed the slogan of this website, figuring that being an elitist snob was where it was at in this country.

Unfortunately many Americans, underwater in their mortgages and out of a job, are not as admiring of our elites as they were just a few months ago.  And make no mistake about it, Mr. Weisberg: it’s an elite whose “merits” are being sorely tested in this election cycle.  What we really have in this country isn’t a system based on family or even merit but on credentials, which academic and governmental institutions are masters at handing out.  Such credentialism won’t cut it in the face of our foreign rivals, be they economic, political or religious, or even in the face of our internal folly.

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