Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Giving elitism a bad name

In Kurt Vonnegut's novel The Sirens of Titan, there's this church congregation called Barnstable First Church of God the Utterly Indifferent where as a matter of faith, they handicap themselves so as to make sure that no one has an advantage over their fellows. The head of the congregation, a Reverend C. Horner Redwine carries about on his person 48 pounds of lead shot in bags on his chest, his back, his ankles and wrists. These weights represented "his handicaps in the race of life". Stronger persons would carry more weight, weaker ones would carry less, so that no one has an unfair edge in the race of life.
Everyone wore handicaps of some sort. Most handicaps were of an obvious sort — sashweights, bags of shot, old furnace grates — meant to hamper physical advantages. But there were, among Redwine's parishioners, several true believers who had chosen handicaps of a subtler and more telling kind.

There were women who had received by dint of dumb luck the terrific advantage of beauty. They had annihilated that unfair advantage with frumpish clothes, bad posture, chewing gum, and a ghoulish use of cosmetics.

One old man, whose only advantage was excellent eyesight, had spoiled that eyesight by wearing his wife's spectacles.

A dark young man, whose lithe, predaceous sex appeal could not be spoiled by bad clothes and bad manners, had handicapped himself with a wife who was nauseated by sex.

The dark young man's wife, who had reason to be vain about her Phi Beta Kappa key, had handicapped herself with a husband who read nothing but comic books. (Copyright © 1959 Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)

That fictional congregation has taken upon itself the responsibility of eliminating the elite. At this point in this blog post, I'd like to make a confession: I am an elitist. I say it not proudly nor shamefully, but only as a matter of fact. I believe this country should be ruled by the best and the brightest, and I do not believe that all men are equal--some people have more ability than others. In a blog post a few months back, I submitted that an elite, a moral and intellectual one, should have the sole authority to select our leaders, to try to wrest this authority from the amoral and unintellectual aristocracy who have been manipulating our electoral processes. Let me clarify something though. I believe that all men ARE created equal in that we all have equal rights given to us by nature and nature's God, that each human life is equally precious, that each human life is important. I just dont believe that we're all the same.

When I said I am an elitist, I take the word to mean a very specific thing which I mentioned in the last paragraph, that is, the belief that the best and the brightest should run the country. Also concomitant to that is the belief that the existence of an elite isnt bad, that it isnt something we can eliminate unless we can enforce the rules of the Barnstable First Church of God the Utterly Indifferent, or the rules of the Soviet Union and Red China. But over the years, elitism has acquired a distasteful meaning. The American Heritage Dictionary (via Dictionary.com) has this entry for elitism:

e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism (ĭ-lē'tĭz'əm, ā-lē'-) n.
1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.

2. a. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
b. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.
These definitions are distasteful and is not the sort of elitism I believe in. (Dictionary.com gives 'practice of or belief in rule by an elite' as a definition, which is closer to mine.) In definition 1 of the AHD, it says the elite deserve favored treatment. No one should deserve favored treatment by virtue of being part of an elite. Definition 2a, it hardly needs saying, is the type of elitism demonstrated by a Manila Standard Today columnist for which she was justly pilloried. Definition 2b is slightly better, but not by much. It says 'control, rule, or domination', which is different from 'run' or in Filipino magpatakbo. Magpatakbo is different from control, rule, or domination; it is more like being a conductor of a symphony who allows individual sections of the orchestra to shine on their own.

The MST columnist I mentioned gave elitism a bad name. In fact, her attitude has debased elitism to the category of crime: Let us punish her for her elitism. No. Let us punish her for being a boorish--I was going to say bitch, but she has taken that term of opprobrium as something of a point of pride. Let us punish her for being a boorish, barbarian, wannabe-member-of-the-creme-de-la-creme. Your application for membership has been rejected, ma'am.

Another thing that gave elitism a bad name is the idea of class struggle. The noble, heroic proletariat against the predator elite. Granted, the elite has indeed been predatory. Parasitic even. Hence the idea of class struggle was born. But as history has shown, one predatory elite has just been replaced by another predatory elite in the era of class struggle. It is time we rescued society from predators, and we can do that via an elite that isnt waging class struggle, but via an elite that has the interests of the whole nation in mind and is willing to work together with other classes instead of exploiting them. One that recognizes that by helping the masses, they help themselves. There are those who have expressed doubts that such an elite exists, but I live in hope.

Towards the end of his book A Guide for the Perplexed, E.F. Schumacher wrote that whoever thought of the motto of the French Republic--Liberté, égalité, fraternité--was truly inspired. The first two words are opposed to each other and can only be reconciled by the third. Freedom unbridled will result in the strong lording it over the weak and would be remedied by equality enforced, such as the one in Kurt Vonnegut's novel, or in Communism. The two can only be reconciled by 'brotherhood' where the strong will look after the weak because they are brothers. That's the kind of class struggle that would save us all: The struggle to be brothers.


Baldagyi Hatipoglu said...

i'm on leave but i'm back. this is a thoughtful entry on elitism. hmm, politically, you seem to favor liberalism over democracy.

wait, i thought you were quoting from vonnegut's harrison bergeron, or ami confusing titles?

Jego said...

Im all for democracy. Although Im beginning to lose faith in representative democracy. Beginning? I could say I have lost faith in representative democracy at this point. But yes I still vote in elections. I live in hope kasi. :-)

Sirens was the novel I was quoting from. The short story Harrison Bergeron, where he developed the egalitarianism theme, was written later I think.

Baldagyi Hatipoglu said...

i find nothing wrong with liberalism really, as long as individual freedoms are not trampled upon. and as long as it's ultimately the people who choose the people they trust will choose the best national leader. like in the US

cvj said...

Jego, the benefits that you ascribe to elitism are more suitably ascribed to specialization. It is impossible to be 'elite' in all (or even most) respects. As i told Bencard, modern society is characterized by differentiation across different functional systems. This is in contrast with the hierarchichal form of organization which characterizes earlier forms of society (under feudalism or a monarchy). Elitism while at home with the latter, is incompatible with the former.

Elitism is an attitude of superiority, a sense that the person, because of attributes that he is born with or has cultivated, develops a sense of entitlement to rule or make decisions for others. It also reveals a lack of humility which comes from self-knowledge.

Baldagyi Hatipoglu said...

cvj: wow, that's a very nice definition!!!

Jego said...

cvj: It is impossible to be 'elite' in all (or even most) respects.

That is true. I was talking about an elite in terms of governance whose characteristics should include BOTH intelligence and character. These are the people who are supposed to be running the country, but as we can see from our present system, they arent. In our present system, people who do not have the qualifications for governing our country, lacking in either intelligence or character, or both, can do so.

I accept your distinction between elitism and specialization, though. Like I said, the dictionary.com definition is closer to what I believe in than the one in the American Heritage dictionary.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jeg, cvj,

Allow me to butt in by referring to elitisme as I know it in France.

The definition of elitism that cvj wrote about here describes more accurately the way 'elitisme' is defined by the common Frenchman.

"Elitism is an attitude of superiority, a sense that the person, because of attributes that he is born with or has cultivated, develops a sense of entitlement to rule or make decisions for others."

In fact elitism in France is not borne of pure wealth, old or new, but of a distinct appartenance to a clique, i.e., through superior education and therefore as cvj points out, socially 'cultivated', social standing because the person has a name that rings a bell which makes him belong to a social clique, eg, of the old nobility or a being a minor aristocrat, etc., this in spite of that person's penniless status; an elitist is culturally adequate because the person has immense knowledge of the arts, etc., etc.,

André Malraux, who was identified with the left (just like the couple Beauvoir and Sartre) was known for his elitism, his attitude of superiority, wanting to mingle only with those who are equally cultured... He cultivated this image at length.

'Elitisme' is in fact a state of mind and not necessarily anymore, a pedigree that's accompanied by wealth.

The likes of Malu Fernandez would be looked down on by some groups I know in France. She'll be called a nouveau riche, and that tag is not exactly a compliment.

True elitists don't like to dispense vulgarity. They may act it but they wouldn't want to be linked to anything or anyone that's vulgar, hence, avoid being vulgarly offensive or being outrageously politically incorrect.

In other words, 'elitisme' is an art in the purest tradition.

Fernandez' brand of elitisme is not art in the purest tradition. Her combination of political incorrectness and vulgarity certainly does not make her an elite, not where I sit.

(Jeg, This is Anna of Manila Bay Watch, sorry, finding it difficult to log into my blogger account so can't sign either as Hillblogger or MBW.)

Jego said...

Thanks for that, Anna. I can live with that sort of elitisme. If they can back up their feeling of superiority with nobility and a superior intellect, then I say more power to them. But as you pointed out, Ms Fernandez doesnt have 'it'. She displays none of the sense of noblesse oblige of an elitiste.