Thursday, June 03, 2010

Elitist and Proud of It

A couple of weeks ago, stuck in a car at the crack of dawn with my husband controlling the radio, I involuntarily listened to a few minutes of Rush Limbaugh. He was belaboring the fact that so many of the current President's advisers and appointees graduated from Harvard. Limbaugh framed this phenomenon as, not exactly a conspiracy, but an example of blatant favoritism and "it's who you know, not what you know." He seems to view the circle of Harvard alumni around this administration (and I haven't done any investigation to find out whether he's exaggerating their prevalence) as evidence of contempt for non-Ivy-League universities and, in general, for anybody who doesn't belong to what he considers the "intellectual elite" of this country.

Now, I concede that if it's true that the administration overwhelmingly favors alumni of Harvard over those of any other institution, a bit more diversity might be welcome. The element of Limbaugh's rant that really made my teeth gnash was his mockery of what he presented as an upper-crust, Ivy League accent. By implication, the entire shtick seemed to denigrate intellectual claims in general. The attempt to make precise speech funny in itself implied that any pretension to a superior educational background is, per se, laughable.

I'm too young to remember Dwight Eisenhower's presidential campaigns against Adlai Stevenson; I was only eight years old during the second one. I've read, though, that a major reason for Stevenson's defeat was that the public saw him as an "egghead," too intellectual, as opposed to Ike's folksy persona. American culture seems to have a persistent anti-intellectual streak that I find quite disheartening.

My idol, C. S. Lewis, discussed this subject in "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," an appendix to his THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS back in the 1950s. The senior demon Screwtape advises up-and-coming tempters to encourage the human tendency to be suspicious of any claim of superiority. When taken to the desirable (from the diabolical viewpoint) extreme, people can be taught to consider any mere difference a claim to superiority, therefore to be suppressed. Mediocrity will reign, fueled by people's desire to be "just like folks" and fear of being accused of thinking they're "better than" anybody else. Screwtape tells the story of a tyrant in ancient times who visited a fellow ruler and asked for advice in governing his realm. The other tyrant walked into a field of grain and snipped off the tips of any stalks that towered over the others. The clear message, "Allow no preeminence among your subjects," reaches its logical culmination in the twentieth century, when a would-be dictator doesn't have to trim the taller stalks. They'll bite off their own tips in a desperate attempt to "be like stalks." And Lewis wrote this in England over fifty years ago!

A chilling short story whose author and title I can't remember (I think it was called "The Examination" or something very similar) takes place in a future society where all adolescents have to take the government's exam at a certain age. We get indications that the teenage boy protagonist's parents are rather dull, ignorant, and incurious, but we don't make the larger connection until after his examination ends—and the authorities send condolences to his parents. He has been euthanized because his test score was too high. (If this had been a full-length novel, I'd hope the author would have explained who runs the country after all high-IQ citizens are killed off. But it's still chilling.)

Nowadays, many of our media spokespersons treat "elite" as a dirty word. Especially the "intellectual elite," supposedly out of touch with the needs and aspirations of ordinary people. (As if a certain level of education disqualifies one from belonging to the people.) During the last presidential election, a Baltimore SUN columnist lamented the common politicians' ploy of trying to demonstrate that they're just like the rest of us, "just folks," not part of that dreaded elite. The columnist said she didn't want people just like her in charge of the country. She wanted somebody a lot smarter. I'll drink to that!

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. Hi, Margaret.

    That's another take. I wonder if Mr Limbaugh is being original or derivative.

    This email is in widespread circulation.

    The Lawyers' Party
    By Bruce Walker

    The Democratic Party has become the Lawyers' Party .
    Barack Obama is a lawyer.
    Michelle Obama is a lawyer.
    Hillary Clinton is a lawyer.
    Bill Clinton is a lawyer.
    John Edwards is a lawyer.
    Elizabeth Edwards is a lawyer.
    Every Democrat nominee since 1984 went to law school (although Gore did not graduate).
    Every Democrat vice presidential nominee since 1976, except for Lloyd Bentsen, went to law school.
    Look at leaders of the Democrat Party in Congress:
    Harry Reid is a lawyer.
    Nancy Pelosi is a lawyer.

    The Republican Party is different.
    President Bush is a businessman.
    Vice President Cheney is a businessman.
    The leaders of the Republican Revolution:
    Newt Gingrich was a history professor.
    Tom Delay was an exterminator. Dick Armey was an economist.
    House Minority Leader Boehner was a plastic manufacturer.
    The former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is a heart surgeon.

  2. That Lawyer vs. Various analysis is very interesting! It surely tells kids what to major in in school after choosing their Party affiliation.

    Oh, and I suspect all these "commentators" have to be regarded as derivative, not original.

    Now, what can we do with all this to generate a hot Romance plot?

    Truly, these political divides in the USA (actually not mirrored in other nations at the moment) make for a chasm as wide as human/non-human. Only one force I know of crosses that chasm without disaster.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. JL.

    "Carvill meets Matelin in outer space"?

  4. Rowena

    Well, that's a thought.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  5. One would have to give very careful consideration to the casting: one would need a shaven, buff and ripped Severus Snape type.

    Or a Spock-type on steroids.

    Possibly, Law-World would have to be like one of the habitable Moons in Flash Gordon.

    Maybe Lawyers would be the good guys on one Moon, and the villain-class on another...

    They could be Untouchables for completely opposite reasons on both worlds.

    This could be fun! LOL