Thursday, April 24, 2008

Three Cheers for Elitism

Senator Obama is being called an elitist by both Republicans and Democrats alike for his remarks concerning bitter Pennsylvanians who cling to guns, religion and xenophobia. I think this is a bit unfair, actually, because although it might be that he actually does think people who embrace religion, own firearms, and oppose illegal immigration are motivated by bitterness, one can not logically infer that from what he said. In other words, people who are bitter may do X,Y, and Z, but it doesn't follow that those who do X,Y, and Z are bitter.

Anyway, it's the assumption that elitism is somehow a bad thing that I'd like to consider in this post. Like prejudice and discrimination, whether elitism is an undesirable character trait depends a lot on the kind of elitism we're talking about. To explain what I mean I've dredged up a column I wrote for the local paper about ten years ago and which I've revised only slightly:

The current election campaign has spotlighted a rift between races in this country and sparked some agonizing over what should be done about it. Perhaps I'm naive, but I can't help wondering how much of the apparent gulf between Americans is a function of race and how much of it is actually a function of class. I'm willing to be proven wrong, but I suspect that for many people of all colors, the great social fault line in our society runs between classes; classes as defined not by one's income, but as defined by the moral principles which inform and govern an individual's life and conduct. And surely Americans of every hue populate both sides of this divide.

Unfortunately, use of the word class distresses some who complain that it is just an insidious code word for race, and that when people try to justify distinctions based on class they're really trying to rationalize old-fashioned racial bias. This criticism is valid, however, only in the unlikely event that all members of a given race hold identical moral convictions so that to mention their race is to identify their values. Failing that, the objection reduces to the rather disingenuous ploy of defining another's words to mean whatever one wants them to mean.

Other critics will point out that in our politically correct post-modern world "everyone knows" that no individual's values are any better than anyone else's and that to think otherwise is to be guilty of elitism; to which the appropriate response is: So what.

In The Moviegoer, novelist Walker Percy puts it somewhat differently, if no less bluntly, when he has a Louisiana matriarch named Aunt Edna address herself to this very issue. She says:

"I'll make a little confession. I am not ashamed to use the word class. I will also plead guilty to another charge. The charge is that people in my class think they're better than other people. You're damn right we're better. We're better because we do not shirk our obligations to ourselves or to others. We do not whine. We do not organize a group and blackmail the government. We do not prize mediocrity for mediocrity's sake....Ours is the only civilization in history which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal....They say out there that we think we're better. You're damn right we're better and don't think they don't know it."

This proud woman wasn't about to apologize for the obvious political incorrectness of her "elitist" sentiments. Neither should anyone else. Elitism based upon moral principle, so far from being some awful sin, is in fact a virtue, a salutary antidote to the infection of moral relativism currently metastasizing within our culture. This may scandalize those who feel that nobody should be so chauvinistic as to think his principles to be actually better than the next person's, but the irony needs to be noted that those who feel this way evidently believe their own moral egalitarianism to be preferable to my moral elitism.

Aside from those enumerated by Aunt Edna, though, what exactly are the virtues which distinguish her "better" class of people? Without attempting an exhaustive list, it's probably correct to say for starters that, no matter what their race, men and women of this class take a great deal of pride in their work, their property, and their character. They assume responsibility for their actions. They strive to be cordial, courteous, and considerate of others. They're dependable, trustworthy, and temperate, willing to defer short-term gratification for long-term benefit. They're frugal, faithful to their spouses, and committed to the well-being of their families. They're mindful of the fact that children do not raise themselves very well and that properly ushering a child into adulthood requires an enormous investment of time, energy, and self-sacrifice. They enjoy and appreciate excellence, especially in the arts and other forms of entertainment. They esteem education, especially for their children, and possess at least a modest appreciation for the life of the mind.

Why should anyone shrink from affirming the pre-eminence of these qualities and from regarding those who share them to be of superior moral timber to those who don't? And why should the social levelers among us be allowed to succeed in making people feel there is something wrong with choosing to avoid the society of those whose lives and habits are the very antithesis of these values?

It must be said again that this is not a matter of race or economics. People of all colors and incomes cherish these virtues and feel uncomfortable around those who don't. Indeed, it is perhaps true to say that many people who share them feel more comfortable in each other's company, regardless of their ethnicity, than they do in the company of members of their own race who don't share them.

Moreover, when people are made to feel guilty for believing their convictions to be more noble than their contraries, or when substantial numbers of people are persuaded that the precepts one lives by are merely arbitrary preferences, none of which is any better than any other, then, as with money, the worse will inevitably drive out the better. The lowest moral classes will eventually succeed in establishing the behavioral norms of the culture, and the principles, or lack of them, which govern their own lives and which are in large measure responsible for their being lower class in the first place, will eventually percolate upward, like some toxic gas, and permeate the rest of society.

The denouement will be a social unraveling, corruption and disintegration that will substantially diminish the quality of life of everyone.

Three cheers, therefore, for Aunt Edna.