The New York Times’ Problem with Promoting Elitism

Published March 18th, 2018 - 03:07 GMT
Positive Elitism is not very positive (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
Positive Elitism is not very positive (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)

 

  • The New York Times has an op-ed out asking for elites to be positively elitist
  • The op-ed follows a trend of championing elitism in American discorse
  • Intended to bring America together, it will likely isolate less-educated U.S. residents
  • The only answer elites can give to others in the U.S. is "be more like us."

 

 

In an age of increasing polarization between haves and have-nots, rich and poor, educated and less-educated, Democrat and Republican, an opinion piece in The New York Timeshas a novel idea on how to solve the myriad divides plaguing American civic life: elites should stop trying to understand the concerns and perspectives of others and refuse to communicate with them in language they understand.

Thinking that too many ‘elites’ in the U.S. are trying to dumb down their language to reach the ears of their working class counterparts, or to enlighten them, the author argues that they should just stop trying.

She pins the blame of regressive discourse on a general lack of education and on the poorer Republicans’ distrust of universities, rather than any other demonstrably proven reason why people don’t go to college, like the fact that it is prohibitively expensive.

In so doing, she is contributing to a myth that the less-educated don’t suffer from structural deprivation but simply stew in an inferior culture of laziness, stupidity and banality from which they need to be rescued by the ‘positive elitists,’ in order to be introduced to “privilege of citizenship.”

This narrative has been peddled for decades, and is finding a new spark among those NeverTrumpers who are seeking an answer to the question of “where did my Obama-voting, equality-loving country go where facts mattered and racism was a thing of the past?”

Another popular example is New York Times bestselling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis,” which argues that the working class of America only have their toxic culture to blame for their low wages, regressive attitudes and laziness.

 

An Advocate for Elitism

Nassau Hall, Princeton University (Wikimedia)

 

The author of the article lays out that ‘elites’ AKA the well-educated of the U.S. are apologists for their own education and sophistication and shouldn’t have to be. They shouldn’t try to ‘denigrate’ themselves to the level of less-educated Americans, they should rather hold themselves up and expect less-educated Americans to meet them at a higher level of engagement, discourse, and discernment.

The author calls on America’s ‘elite’ to “share the fruits” of their “advantages” with the U.S.’ less educated.

How? “Only by being themselves instead of pretending to be ‘ordinary folks.’”

The author contends that by continuing to be ‘elite,’ and refusing to apologize for it, less-educated Americans will learn to finally respect the degree and stop believing in ‘fake news.’ In other words, it is the ‘ordinary folk’ who need to listen to the elites and use their language, rather than the elites who need to listen to the ‘ordinary folk.’

She maintains that, “the American dream has never been about denigrating education but about seeing that the next generation has greater access to learning. Who is in a better position to help Americans who want that chance than those who already benefited from the generous side of the dream?”

An anecdote she uses to show the futility of understanding the world of the less-educated revolves around a professor’s inability to convince his family of a particular fake news story. Trump falsely stated that thousands of Muslims celebrated 9/11 in New Jersey, and this professor’s family believed it to be true, despite a rigorous attempt to show otherwise.

“Why should he feel guilty, I asked, if his relatives had chosen to ignore extensive evidence that the cheering never occurred? ‘I guess because I feel I ought to speak their language and I don’t,’ he replied.”

She then goes on to explain, “I have frequently heard the phrase about not speaking ‘their’ language from academics, journalists and political strategists. Here is a fact, not an alternative fact: Blue-collar workers speak English.”

According to her however, there is good and bad English. One basic and telling example is that well-educated people should stop saying ‘folks,’ and start saying “ladies and gentlemen,” which the author uses and swears by as a sure-fire way to cut across all barriers and reach the hearts and minds of the masses.

The ‘elites’ that the author mentions who want to speak the ‘language’ of less-educated Americans aren’t trying to say they want to speak a dumber or simpler version of English, but to find common points of perspective upon which to draw.

Understanding and being able to convince and persuade are useful applications of the education the author espouses. Investigating why people feel the need to fear Muslims and thus believe that Muslims celebrate violence against people in the U.S. is another useful skill that can be learned.

She evidently doesn’t want people to do these things.

She presents less-educated Americans’ “language” as one that must be disavowed, refined, and made to be more like the elites. It’s not a class so much as different positions of class, power, perspective.

To truly speak a common language, the author wants more people to go to college.

 

Confusing Cause and Effect

An abandoned school in Florida (Pixabay)

 

Despite her call for more Americans to go to school, she offers no concrete steps to make higher learning more accessible.

To the ballooning student debt, now standing at $1.4 trillion total with over $17,000 of debt for each student on average, the author is silent. To the fact that a vast majority, 70 percent, of all U.S. students now graduate with debt, thus suppressing their wages and discinenticiving others from trying to go to college, the author has no plan.

The author also left out the inconvenient fact that Clinton lost the white college graduate vote to Trump by four percentage points, meaning the rise of alt-right politics that she so fears may have less to do with education and more to do with race.

On top of that, the author casually conflates working class people as less-educated: they are two separate groups. In fact, Clinton actually won the majority of votes in the under-$50,000 bracket AKA the working class, while Trump won on all income levels above that. Working class people may be less educated on the aggregate, but many middle and upper-middle class people supported Trump and his conspiratorial politics.

Skipping a college education, thereby giving up the opportunity to be in the ‘elite,’ speaking simply, and believing fake news are not so much causes of problems as it is a symptom of larger concerns.

 

 

The author is looking in the face of skyrocketing costs of education, stangating real wages, longer working hours, and ever-diminishing prospects of upward mobility and telling people “go to school,” so that then they can reach the level of ‘excellence’ that the more-educated maintain.

By blaming the culture of less-educated people as a kind of ‘low’ and heralding the U.S.’ elites as a transcendental high, the author contributes to the stratification of American society she so desperately seeks to solve. She does this by saying things like “intellectuals must speak up, not down, to everyone.”

In trying to force those who are skeptical of the elites in power to accept, love and emulate them, she is just giving millions of Americans more reason to isolate themselves from elite establishments that explicitly revile the culture they came from and cherish, even if parts of that culture must be rigorously examined as racist, xenophobic and so on.

Despite her attempts to gift-wrap elitism as ‘positive,’ she is foreclosing the option of going to college for them to actually be integrated into the privileged ‘elite’ class that she advocates for.

Having a model of civic engagement towards which one can aspire is one thing. Having a stratified elite class that refuses to understand ‘how the other half lives,’ is another.


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