Only one New Year’s resolution arose for me this morning, out of the blue, and that was: “Resolved, I will not use the word elites or elitist in 2020, and maybe ever.”
Ages ago I had a conversation with my dog Stanley, postmortem known as Spooky Stan, about whether I was one of the elites or not. I resisted the idea. I said that given where I came from (an immigrant), given I hadn’t inherited money, had worked my way through college and graduate school, and managed to avoid making money like the plague, how could I possibly be one of the elites? Spooky Stan thought I was plenty elitist.
Donald Trump, of course, uses elite as a label for anyone who seems to be against him, implying that there’s a segment of the population that’s:
-out of touch,
-feeding off the riches of the heartland,
-forms dubious ties with elites of other countries, thus betraying the USA,
-worships making money at meaningless jobs;
-too well educated (well educated is no longer considered a good thing);
-has no family values,
-has the leisure to worry about silly things like climate change, gender issues, immigration and reparations to African Americans when real Americans can barely make ends meet because the elites rigged the system;
-adore Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs; and
-live in big, overpriced coastal cities isolated from Main Street, all of which will be flooded out of existence soon due to rising seas according to elitist science, which would be a fitting end to elites.
Now I hear about elites from both right and left. Anyone who does something I don’t like is now an elite, including elitist scientists with their warnings of global warming and elitist bankers who’d like to see interest rates rise. Another way of saying that is that they’re the perps and I’m the victim, they’re the have-all and I’m the have-nothing. You hear of liberals decrying the political and corporate elite, writers decrying the New York City literary elite, not to mention the medical elite. Where Richard Nixon once saw enemies everywhere, we now see elites.
This morning I saw that my second favorite politician (after our President), Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel, is asking immunity from prosecution for bribery. According to him, the judicial elite is after him and true democracy mandates that he get immunity as long as he’s in office.
I miss the time when Elite was only the name of a chocolate bar with raspberry filling.
Here’s the thing. If you’ve lived in this country all your life, it’s easy to take for granted the institutions that provide a semblance of stability and trust. Not for everybody, I get it I get it. But all you have to do is live in some other countries without “judicial elites,” “political elites,” and yes, even “corporate elites” to get a sense of what happens in their absence. What happens when there’s a vacuum rather than an institution, when gangs and paramilitary groups take the place of police, when supreme court judges are suddenly told to resign (as they were recently told to do in Poland). When “academic elites” are evicted from college campuses and replaced by those loyal to the government (just watch what happens in Hong Kong). Try getting a passport in a government office that runs on bribery and nepotism, try getting a marriage certificate in time for your wedding and look at the hand that opens up looking for baksheesh..
There are minorities in our country that have not enjoyed the protection of our police, judicial, and economic systems, that in fact have every reason to distrust them. That’s a very real situation that has to be addressed and changed urgently. But it’s no excuse for everyone else to throw abstract labels out, gibing at and disparaging institutions we depend on and take for granted. Flawed as those are, people invested in them over centuries as a way of providing stability, continuity, and even integrity. A re-examination of our foundations, governing bodies, and values is one thing; tossing the baby out with the dirty water is something else.
As a writer, I’m most sensitive to how I use words, both effectively and ineffectively. I know how lazy I can get when I’m not ready to think deeply and rigorously, how easy it is to toss out labels and feel I said my piece. Piece yes, but not peace.
So I’m renouncing elite and elitist for 2020. My fingers will have to pause over the keyboard rather than press those letters, and maybe in that pause a new thought will slip into gear, something that never occurred to me before. Or even better and easier, I’ll have to stop and examine the question: So if they are not elitist or elite—then who and what are they?