Confessions of An Elitist

Two disclaimers: I am not at all party inclined, so if any examples seem unbalanced to you, perhaps the unbalance is with you? No, really, I tried to take examples of both political parties’ representatives follies for the most egregious examples of how insistence on ideological purity combined with political expediency lead to disaster. Second; this is long. I’ve never written a blog post over 3,000 words, and I don’t want to do it again. I just don’t want to work this into three different posts right now (it’s almost 3 AM). You can skip the scientific experiment description around the middle, and the Viet Nam footnote in the end, if you want to get through faster. But if you’re at all interested in the causes of the Viet Nam debacle with its parallels to current situation in Middle East; or if you like to read a description of a simple scientific experiment with surprising results, go ahead and read if you have time. Lean back and immerse in the weirdness of the world.

We have a new dirty “four-letter-word” in this language that I love so much: “Elitist” (those of you, who can count beyond four, will soon figure out that it actually has seven letters) has become a dirty word, which you can use to paint anyone you disagree with with the same brush. Kind of like in the sixties anyone disagreeable was  “reactionary” or “prejudiced”. It is clearly a part of an anti-intellectual attitude on the rise, especially in popular talk shows.

If your family is already used to your talking to yourself, say it out loud: ee-LEE-tist. (That would probably be the more popular American way of using “phonetic” spelling, and if I wanted to use the actual  International Phonetic Alphabet character set — that has been around since 1888 and has been updated since to keep up with discovered languages — I would have to make it into an image and embed it here, because I can count on most computers not being able to show them. There’s another elitist attitude for you.)

Let’s look at the dictionary meaning of the words elite and elitist (note the 7 letters and [gulp] three syllables! that must make me an elitist. Should I spell it wrong just to show I’m not really an egghead?). The most common usage of it seems to be a group that holds the actual power, or then those, who are especially good at something. I also checked some older, actual paper and ink dictionaries and they concurred.

In other words, it actually doesn’t matter how “folksy” you sound and look when you promote your ideas using the ubiquitous “talking points” in the manner of an “aw, shucks, I dunno much about this stuff, but I just think we need to make America great again” (how, exactly, and pay for it how?). What matters is, that if your ideas get the backing of voters — e.g. if we’d be talking about a hypothetical political campaign where your demagoguery gets voters motivated to actually register to vote and then vote — and get to a position where you can actually decide what public policies are, you yourself are a member of the elite (or often “power elite”) that runs the business now. After all that mocking of “elitism” you are now mocking the very thing you wish to become.

But in discounting the person you disagree with, if all other ridicule and belittling fails, throw in the word “elitist”.

This probably harks back to the John F. Kennedy Administration, which was loaded with people who were called “the best and the brightest” which was used ironically by pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Halberstam in his book about the Viet Nam war. The idea may possibly be condensed by the following quote from a Wikipeadia article about the author (site accessed Oct 13, about 19:00 UTC):

Halberstam next wrote about President John F. Kennedy‘s foreign policy decisions about the Vietnam War in The Best and the Brightest. Synthesizing material from dozens of books and many dozens of interviews, Halberstam found what he saw as a strange paradox at the heart of the Vietnam War: that those who crafted the U.S. war effort in Vietnam were some of the most intelligent, best-connected men in America —- “the best and the brightest” -— but that those same brilliant men could not conduct or even imagine anything but a bloody, disastrous course.

I will return to the aforementioned war in the end of this post in a footnote.

Now, let me get back to the word elitist and it’s connotations today. The word has also been connected with “latte-sipping (instead of something more like tar in a diner), wine-drinking (instead of beer like real guys do) Volvo-driving (how unpatriotic! — my Toyota has nothing to do with it!) liberals (another dirty word). This all hints to the habits of people, who have a high education (not necessarily a high income — think librarians, teachers, or even university professors), have perhaps a background in foreign study, Peace Corps, or stints working abroad, thus having their eyes opened to the fact that people can think and live different, and still lead happy, productive lives. Often they buy the old second hand Volvos (or keep the ones they bought for years on end), because they are very, very reliable and fixable, so you don’t need to get another lemon every couple of years.

Well, perhaps the Volvo may be snobbishness for some, but then how many of the “real” Americans buy the bigger, even-more-gas-guzzling SUV or an even louder leaf blower to show their neighbor they can at least keep up with them in consuming stuff they don’t need. Anyhow, these signs of “elitism” may seem strange to some, who think Baseball is a sport, but after all it’s mostly just a sign of having taken hold of their opportunities and tried to make the best of their lives.

But then let’s go to the core of the issue: The word elite may actually mean two kinds of people, based on how they have gotten to their status of power or greater knowledge.

Historically, there has been (and in some places is) a decidedly unfair way of being in both kinds of elites: Aristocracy — you are born to wealth and have all the opportunity to study whatever you like, and then settle down and start living your life as a gentleman, or a man who does not have to work, really. For them, the need to work is poverty. He usually just signs documents presented by his trustee, and lives on his annual interest and rents/duties from the serfs (in England peasants, who “rented” the properties they worked, and who had to pay the rent no matter how bad their crops failed — except with some enlightened landlords — which system is almost as bad as sharecropping).

Into this kind of elite you always must be born. The nouveau riche never attain it during their own lifetimes (they hang around the Money Elite, begging to get the inside track to their “goldmine” investment funds — like Berni Madoff’s ones — and hope to be accepted despite their “lower” birth). Their children or grandchildren may be called “ladies and gentlemen” but they still are just landed gentry, not Aristocrats (not part of the power elite). This is patently unfair and keeps the whole society’s standard of living down by creating artificial barriers to people’s creativity and social progress (upward mobility).

Another kind of elite are those, who have, through their own tenacity and hard work, earned degrees in the highest levels of educations. What’s more, they have put their education to use, and they read, study and ponder the doctrine of the Kingdom (see D&C 88:78-80 — again) from Scripture, Science, History, World Affairs and go to the trouble of getting past the max. 10 most popular articles offered by virtually all Internet news sites to actually know what’s happening in this world, and what really seems to be the cause and effect, not just pointing out accidental correlations in the manner of Freakonomics (I regretfully even type the name here as I know Google will render it searchable, but I won’t advertise them with one more link!). The major difference is, that this latter elitism is no respecter of persons. Remember God is not a respecter of persons, either. He doesn’t care one way or the other, who your parents are in regards of your own responsibilities. Your birthright is not something you can take by force (think Laman and Lemuel), but you need to show willing and worthy to receive it according to the rules.

In sum, the first kind of elite is exclusive, and we definitely wouldn’t like to have those people decide about our public policies. The second kind is inclusive, because you can become a part of it just by studying hard and learning your lessons, putting them into practice, and producing useful results for the society around you. Now, which elite do you think would President Obama belong, seeing that he was the dark-skinned son of a single white mother (which implies certain social ostracism in childhood, let alone having lived in Indonesia and having picked up funny habits and perhaps a funny accent), who worked hard for his advanced placement classes instead of having time to learn to bowl with his drinking buddies or concentrate on being a football star, and later worked through college, qualifying to Harvard scholarship. No wonder he grew a social conscience, actually. I have never heard or read him talk about it, but inasmuch as I know from experience what it is to be a minority, who is not considered fully equal, I can imagine what some of those scions of wealthy Old Money aristocracy might have said to a black poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks.

In all, if someone accuses me of being an elitist, I’m actually a bit flattered, to be honest. Not that I want to be. But if they think I belong to the elite, it means that I do sound like I know what I’m talking about for the most part, although I lack the gift of condensing it into 30 second sound bites and catchy slogans. But I am poor, and without influence outside my own home, let alone raw power, so I definitely am not in the power elite. But if I should need to decide between two candidates for a very difficult and complex job, I would definitely rather pick the egghead, who has some experience in successfully solving difficult problems instead  of the ideological purist, who will always pick the ideologically more orthodox idea.

(Just for example, school vouchers sound to me like a very good idea, as long as the schools are non-profit. For-profit schools already have a track record of students who either fail to graduate, or become accepted to higher levels of education or employment, because, corporate culture being what it is, they don’t really care about their students, who end up with worse opportunities and heavier debts, that they fail to repay, while in State colleges/universities the graduates are the most likely to pay up their student loans — of which  they, admittedly, need much smaller amounts — but the point is, they are more likely to find employment and remain employed. Here, ideological purism flies in the face of proven fact. Yet some ideologues want more for-profit schools.)

Moreover, if you think I belong to some kind of an elite, let’s consider this: You are fully welcome to join in. The only conditions are, that you forgo a few hours of soap or “reality” show or cable news per day for some study of science, world affairs, scripture (unless you’re a stout “religious” atheist who can’t stand the thought, but then you’ll miss out on a great deal of our common cultural heritage) and any kind of pure knowledge from all kinds of sources; that you learn to practise source criticism (not everybody who makes a claim has any proof); that you spend some time each day pondering your own relationship to all that you have learned; that you are not afraid to look for stuff that may challenge your world view.

Especially regarding the last one in the above list: If you are afraid of challenging your world view by learning about stuff that seemingly doesn’t mesh with it, you are reacting like the communist countries who claimed that their society was the Ideal Society, and that most people in the West were living at poverty rates close to starvation, and at the same time fiercely censoring all information coming in or/and circulated inside the countries. If they were the Ideal Society with the obviously better model, why not allow comparison? If your world view is better — and on stronger foundation — why is it so threatening to approach information that challenges it?

Remember, that “the unconsidered life is a life not lived at all”.

Additional info referring to the accidental correlations I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, which may interest the other elitists around here:

Correlation never was causation; sometimes coincidences actually DO happen. For example, if childhood obesity has risen during the time that U.S. children have been vaccinated, some fearmongers wound have you believe, it is due to the vaccinations. What about the wildly ballooning amount of calorie intake? Parents feeding kids sugar-coated Frosties and sugar-saturated soft drinks for breakfast instead of corn flakes and milk, let alone oatmeal (which I often have for breakfast) have nothing to do with rising childhood obesity and diagnoses of Type II diabetes? Which is more likely to be just correlation (two independent phenomenons taking place at the same time with no causal relationship), the vaccines or the diet — not to talk about the almost nonexistent physical exercise for so many of those who most suffer of obesity in childhood/youth. The unfairest thing about this is, you must work, go through trouble to find healthy and tasty food, and you need to teach yourself to get over the sugar cravings — but the unhealthiest food is always the cheapest, unless you live in the country and can grow stuff in your own garden (again, after you’ve lost a couple of crops to ignorance).

For an example about a very simple scientific experiment: I have myself was in a group, which created a study, where we created a way to flip/toss a coin with a mechanism that was completely resistant to manipulation: We could only put the coin in the slot (flipping it a couple of times without looking what side was facing where and blindly sliding it in — we tried in a separate test to see if the way it was facing in the beginning would predict the result of the toss, and coming up with no proof, but still, someone else may have conducted one where this was actually tested well) where it fit just snugly enough that it could only be placed “just so” but not too much so that it actually flew up, wildly spinning in the air, and  falling on the marble floor, where it bounced for a while. What would you guess was the longest set of consecutive heads or tails we got within well over a thousand tries? Well, the longest set was an exact fifty consecutive heads. Yet, in the whole experiment the probability was approaching 50/50, as was expected, and the further we progressed, the closer we got. But Tails ended up winning the contest there. By less than two percentage points in favor of it.

Finally, a little math test: In that experiment, when we had the 49 consecutive Heads up, what do you think was the probability of the next toss? The correct answer: Exactly 50%. That is the nature of probability. After that I have always taken with a grain of salt statements that go something like: “Coincidence? I think not.” Well, you’d probably think that it’s very unlikely to get the 50th Heads, but the probability of each and every toss remained the same 50%. The lesson: In even a very simple 50% mathematical probability experiment, nothing says you can’t have several of the same in a row, because each flip has exactly the same probability. And we also saw that the larger the sample, the closer to 50/50 we got. These long sets of consecutive same results from a 50/50 experiment points out that you can not make far-reaching conclusions based on your everyday life’s anecdotal evidence. Let alone if you’re thinking of vastly more complicated systems than flipping a coin.

Okay, enough about that. I promised the footnote the Viet Nam debacle:

I must say, that I am not well enough informed about the Vietnam war and its background, but I have understood — having followed the reporting towards and till the end of the war since mid-1960s along with some longer analyses published afterwards in books and magazines that are known for quality reporting (the first political news I remember was the Cuban missile crisis, which caused some panic about the coming nuclear war in my surroundings) — that the way that the war was conducted and how it ended has been considered shameful especially by military personnel (not all, nor even perhaps most). Probably the most powerful indictment besides the Pentagon Papers has been Colonel H.R. McMaster’s 1998 book Dereliction of Duty. The book was a part of his Ph.D. dissertation, and was quite thoroughly researched and analyzed — with 20/20 hindshight, to be sure.

But the reasons for why the U.S. ended up stuck in the middle of a civil war — and on the losing side, too — were not that these best and the brightest didn’t understand, what was happening, and what they perhaps should have done, but that for political, ideological reasons they could not conduct a policy that would have likely ended differently. I’ll mention just two:

Firstly, the Kennedy Administration was under fierce popular ideological pressure to not “look soft on commies”. Thus, some sabre rattling toward China was required to satisfy some hawkish citizens. The Democratic Party was held responsible for “losing China to communism” — although few have ever presented any real idea of what Roosevelt or Truman could have done to turn the Chinese civil war. Get pulled into the civil conflict in China right after the WWII, for example? How realistic — although the military industry would have loved it, because their boom would have lasted.

Secondly, the McCarthy witch hunts had purged State Department of people, who could be suspected for having “pinko” leanings — i.e. people, who have lived in Indochina, as it then was called, who know the language, the culture, who were at all familiar with that part of the world. I know that this is an exaggeration, too, but these days one seems to have to overstate, because hardly anyone understands sarcastic understatement any longer.

The popular opinion in the country turned against the war fairly soon, when people realized that there is a real civil war going on, where American soldiers were the especial targeted by the better organized and better motivated ones, thus ending up in an endless lines of coffins buried in Arlington under modest white crosses.

But according many military personnel the greatest problem in Vietnam was, that not enough troops where sent when there still was a chance to take control of the situation. This sounds familiar for a reason, in the context of current ongoing wars. Then it was that the U.S. couldn’t be seen too active in a area that the Soviet Bloc considered its own (part of which China originally was until, as with all communist movements, they started quarreling with each other). Not enough troops were sent in fear of seeing too many coffins return while increasing the number of draftees. In those days the press was free enough to get to document them — now it’s different. Now we just hear numbers; how different is a couple of hundred more last month among thousands, when you don’t see the coffins or hear their names?

How about now, by the way? Will the military attract enough volunteers to even keep up the current level, let alone escalate (something that Afghanistan would be in sore need of)? Why not introduce draft? Short answer: It would be the quickest and surest way to end what little popular support there remains for the ongoing Middle-East war. That the troops were never enough to take control of such a large area with lots of terrain that is very difficult to travel was… arrogant and foolish optimism fueled by the rhetoric that claimed that all Iraqis would welcome Americans as liberators. It was a dreamworld victory for people, who had never personally been involved in any kinds of military action, at least on the level where you may get shot at, or even feel real responsibility for the lives you know you are wasting, because your bureaucratic bosses that are beholden to political or financial interests won’t supply you with enough resources to achieve your goals. In a word, it was Hubris, if I’ve ever seen it. Well, live and learn…

The parallels to a civil-strife torn country where it is often difficult to tell an ally from an enemy on many levels are striking.

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Posted in Language, Mormonism, Politics, Religion, Sociology
2 comments on “Confessions of An Elitist
  1. […] Confessions of An Elitist « Velska's Blog […]

    Edited by Velska Oct 14, 18:55 UTC:

    Received this trackback a while ago.

    Naturally the wonderful world of automatically created “possibly related posts” was bound to bring this collision. I can’t see the possibility that this Philip McMaster is the same person as the Herbert Raymond McMaster, who is the author of the book I referred to. I just thought I’d point that out to you.

    Thanks for your attention.

  2. […] The busiest day of the year was October 14th with 38 views. The most popular post that day was Confessions of An Elitist. […]

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