My brother, a religious Jew, once told me, “Precision with words is a spiritual practice.”
As a writer, I agreed. What wordsmith wouldn’t? But I’ve been thinking a lot about that statement since the election of 2016, and especially the word elite.
Several years ago I blogged about that word in a give-and-take with my deceased dog, Stanley (he wasn’t deceased then). I was still not clear, and maybe that was why I made do with a half-humorous conversation with a canine. I feel differently now.
Though I was born to an immigrant family without means, many would say that, what with a graduate degree from Columbia University and a decision to plunge into engaged Zen practice that took me to places and people I love and admire, I am now among the elite whether I like it or not. I don’t argue with that, though I wonder what is the value of a label that defines an Ivanka Trump and me. I haven’t met her, but my sense is that the means at her disposal as well as her values differ substantially from mine. But we’re both elites, right?
So what does that word mean? A dictionary definition doesn’t do it, I have to look at the cultural context to understand why this label, the E word, is flung around as widely as it is.
I live in a rural, low-income area where many people barely finish high school. Often there are alcohol and drug addictions; their children have lowered horizons.
Many others came here from New York and Boston to teach at our Five Colleges. They send their children to terrific public or private schools, with extracurricular activities that are not just sports but also dance, arts, and theater, preparing them to go to universities anywhere in the country and good jobs from there.
The former probably refer to the latter as elite, but both their children don’t usually stay around because this Happy Valley lacks a solid economic base. There are simply not many jobs around. It’s very common to find clothing store salespeople with graduate degrees, except that local stores are closing on account of online buying.
Who is the elite? The way some people talk, if you live in an urban or suburban setting, or anywhere on either coast, you are an elite. That covers a hell of a lot of people. It covers the urban poor and it covers a shrinking middle class that can’t afford a $400 emergency bill. It covers members of minority groups and legal and illegal immigrants. It covers people who’re not professors, politicians, or in media. It covers students saddled with humongous debt and retirees who work at a late age to make ends meet.
That’s a hell of a lot of elites, a big proportion of the population. If the country was benefitting us as much as people believe, we’d be immensely prosperous.
Elite has been used to pit people against one another. You can’t quite define it, and for that exact reason you can wave it as a red flag to incite confusion, misunderstanding, and hate. The more encompassing and less clear, the better weapon it becomes.
Since 2016 I’ve wondered why people who felt shut out of the American economy didn’t join forces. Why don’t white rural farmers join hands with the urban poor or those who lost their jobs because factories closed? Why didn’t students struggling with crippling debt join hands with migrant workers living in horrific conditions?
Why didn’t all the pockets of our population who’ve watched GNP rise while their share of wealth has sunk since 1980, the bigger part landing in the pockets of the much fewer wealthy—why didn’t they come together and fight for their share?
Many reasons are cited, including racism, American propensity to avoid revolution, and others, but elite is one of them. It’s leveled at anyone who’s not you. It’s been used to discredit, delegitimize, and stigmatize. It’s got nothing to do with people and valid needs and grievances, and everything to do with manipulation, deception, and trickery.
As a writer, I know that when a word incorporates so many different people and meanings, it becomes meaningless. I won’t use it.
I’m also clear it’s become a label of opprobrium used at best to cause confusion; at worst for shameful purposes. Lately the medical doctors and researchers leading our efforts against the coronavirus have been labeled elite. As a person who cares about spiritual values, I won’t use it. It’s adding wood to the fire, not to explain or clarify, but to aggravate the spin in the head.
On Tuesday I met with some 15 people from various undocumented families in a town nearby, introduced to me by my friend, Jimena Pareja. She called them on the phone and they came to get $50 food gift cards. I stood there and—what did I feel like? The E word came to mind.
The white woman with her dogs on the back seat of her red Prius (albeit 9 years old), who shows with every mumbled Spanish word how she doesn’t master languages other than English (I am fluent in Hebrew, not too helpful that day). The woman who, through genetic makeup (including skin color), schooling, support, hard work and maybe dumb good luck was now handing out $50 food gift cards to them, who don’t know when the next check will arrive.
That’s not all I am, I wanted to tell them. My parents were refugees. I remember eavesdropping on their fights about money when I was a child. I collect social security and have no pension, try to make my car last as long as possible. I’m nowhere as pinched as you, and don’t fear ICE like you. But you and I have more in common than in difference, and if I could get my Pimsleur Spanish to work better I’d find a way to communicate that to you, other than saying every week: “My friends gave me money to help you with food from the supermarkets.”
Some 10 years ago I walked early on a Saturday morning from a hotel in downtown Los Angeles to the Zen Center of Los Angeles, along with another Zen teacher and friend. We were both in LA for an annual gathering of teachers in our dharma family. It was around 7 am and I looked at the people on the street, white and of color, somewhat bleary-eyed as they came to work in the many fast food places downtown.
“I feel sorry for folks who have to come in to work here on a weekend morning,” I said to my friend.
My friend’s sangha was in a low-income area close to the Mexican border, and she worked a lot across the border. “That’s true,” she said, “but don’t forget that we also make our choices in life.”
What does elite have to say about that?