Amerika

The lighter side of elitism

With the usual class warfare coming around, where the left wants to re-distribute wealth and the right wants a gentle Social Darwinism instead, you’re hearing a lot about elitism these days.

The media, with their usual elan for unsourced and vaguely defined terms, has begun making displeased noises about the “elitism” they perceive in those who don’t want to give up more money in taxes for brilliant government social programs.

Pundits, and others who are quick on the attack but slow to make recommendations, have begun to work the evils of demon elitism into their comedy routines. Elitism, they tell us, is a denial of equality; it’s a refusal to make sure that everyone has access to the same resources.

And your fellow citizens are joining in, by demanding that we stop according privilege to the top — instead, they say, we should focus on the bottom:

Does The Boston Globe believe that four hours of library use at Copley on Sundays by tourists, college students, and researchers contributes more to the city’s intellectual life than the array of services offered by neighborhood libraries year-round to low-income residents, urban families, seniors, and youth?

Cutting four hours on Sunday in any library is sad, but the true “civic tragedy’’ (to borrow the trustee chairman’s phrase) in this instance is the elitism of the Globe and of those who share its so-called vision for the Boston Public Library. – The Boston Globe

After all, it’s terrible that we prioritize service for the downtown library which serves the college students. Instead, brother, spread that wealth around — send it to the inner-city libraries. On the surface, it sounds reasonable.

Then you realize that everything in the inner city gets wrecked. It gets vandalized, stolen, or broken. And if you go into an inner city library, you’ll find more people at the computers (Facebook in heavy rotation) than anywhere near those books.

This is why where I live, at least, the bookish kids from the inner city migrate into the near suburbs and use the libraries there. No one stops them or discourages them. If anything, the librarians remain the same solicitous and helpful people they always are.

So which is a better bet, for society as a whole: subsidize the inner-city libraries, which are destined for mediocrity, or subsidize libraries for those who have already proven their desire to use them, such as college students?

Answer anything but “subsidize the inner city and do it now!” and you may be an elitist. Sounds bad, doesn’t it. Blind preference for any one thing over blind preference for everything being equal is considered an evil (equally) among politicians, corporate recruiters, television commercials, Hollywood cartoons and Maoist revolutionaries.

There’s a lighter side to elitism that no one seems to mention anymore. It’s that pride, and fear of screwing up, force us to move our behavior upwards instead of stagnating. If we are elitist, and demand that only those who show aptitude and willingness are rewarded, we move people toward that reward.

It’s true: not everyone will get there. Then again, most Americans are lazy fat slobs who sit on their couches and watch too much TV. If that’s true — here comes the un-PC part — it’s true in the tenements, ghettoes and low-income inner city neighborhoods too.

We’re cool with calling Americans lazy-fat couch-fused slobs when we mock the suburbs, but it’s danger danger territory to make fun of the poor; yet if we’re all equal, or even similar, they must do the same stuff, too. Even more, we know they do, because they are a clearly defined television market.

Elitism shows us that we must strive for something. Elitism says “you’re not OK just as you are — you need to achieve something first.” That can be a humble achievement, like finding a useful job and becoming a helpful member of a community. Or it can be bigger, like writing the next great American novel or teaching a Macintosh to hunt.

But either way, it keeps us striving instead of complacent. It keeps us wanting to do better, and to make ourselves better. It’s the opposite of the kind of decay that ended the Soviet Union. Elitism may sound scary to us, like challenging ourselves always does, but it may be the only thing that keeps us from fusing to our sofas.

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