Another thing I found while cleaning out the mental attic was this post over at Harry’s Place. The post is basically aghast the Senator McCain has the audacity to call Senator Obama “elitist” when McCain married an heiress and owns lots of houses. I found it a typical misunderstanding of American culture, and had an exchange I have been meaning to report here (click here to skip to the interesting bits).
In the USA, “elitism” is not being richer or better than others, it is believing you are better than others and, more significantly, believing as a consequence that you know better than others what is good for that other. It is that busy-body nannyism that is the essence of what Americans mean by “elitist”. It is the air of someone who thinks he is a master and the rest of us peasants. Here is Rick Perlstein demonstrating that attitude in discussing Senator ObamaA commentor named Nick replied
[I]f Barack Obama is elected president with a significant popular mandate, a number of Democrats riding his coattails to the House, and enough senators to scuttle the filibuster of his legislative agenda — all of which seem entirely possible — he will inherit a historical opportunity to civilize the United States in ways not seen in a generation.
Perlstein goes on to recommend that, basically, Obama lie about his actual policies by governing like an Old Labor leader despite his campaign rhetoric. Why should he do that? Because it’s for our own good as Americans and we’re too stupid to figure it out so our “betters” need to lie to us to get it done.
One may argue about the acuracy, morality, and efficacy of such a policy, but arguing it’s an attitude that is popular in the USA is ludicrous. And that’s what Senator McCain’s charge of “elitist” means, and why it’s an effective charge that doesn’t work against McCain. It’s re-enforced by the McCain “Straight Talk Express” vs. the Obama’s campaign’s excessive document security, exemplified by the whole birth certificate imbroglio, which gives credence to the “Obama knows best what you little people need to know about him”. Anyone who projects an attitude that is compatible with uttering “little people” is going to find winning elections a hard uphill struggle.
I responded to that
Err … isn’t that the point of being president ergo McCain is an elitist. I mean, the nature of his military and political achievements have long since removed him from the realm or ordinary guyness - as I believe Benji pointed out above.
The fundamental nature of Western democracies is that through the democratic process we basically put our future safety and wealth in the hands of an elite whom we like to believe are competent to manage them. In other words, we abrogate the right to run large parts of our life in a manner of our choosing.
I suppose what i’m trying to say is that you’d have to be a fool to believe McCain’s “aww, shucks, I just speak it like I see it” schtick as though he were some schmo down the local boozer you’d be happy to hand control of the nation’s finances and military to.
isn’t that the point of being president […]?
No. Americans can’t stand Presidents who think that way. Read up on Adlai Stevenson for the archetype of that.the nature of his military and political achievements have long since removed him from the realm or ordinary guyness
You misunderstand my point. Others can believe that about McCain. He is not allowed to believe it about himself. He is very specifically not allowed to think it makes him deserving of being President. To think that is to take the decision away from the citizenry, who alone decide who is deserving of holding that office. McCain can go on about how he is qualified, but to me that’s a very distinct thing.The fundamental nature of Western democracies is that through the democratic process we basically put our future safety and wealth in the hands of an eliteNot in America. We put our future safety and wealth in our own hands. The government is a tool we use to help us with that, and the people who serve us in government better do a good job or they’re fired. You may think of elected officials as rulers, Americans think of them as the equivalent of contractors hired to take care of things we’d rather not do ourselves. For that same reason, we like to hire people we can think of having a personal relationship with, not someone who thinks we’re idiots who need their expertise. And that goes right back to the previous point, which is people don’t mind contractors who are up front about their qualifications for the job, but can’t stand ones who presume they’re entitled to it.I suppose what i’m trying to say is that you’d have to be a fool to believe McCain’s […] schtick
Quite possibly. But the subject wasn’t whether McCain’s technique would work, or work on non-fools, but (1) why it would be effective if it did work and (2) why it has very little to do with how much money or how many homes McCain has. Beyond that, even a cynic recognizes hypocrisy as the tribute vice pays to virtue. McCain at least cares enough to fake it. If a candidate isn’t even willing to do that or is so out of touch that he isn’t even capable of faking it, that’s a very bad sign.
I think this hits on a common misunderstanding of how the American Street views its government. I will admit that it’s faded over the years and isn’t as strong as it was in the past, but the American Street still, by and large, views its elected officials as hired help, rather than a ruling class, because the USA is a non-intrinsical class system. The USA has a class structure, but it’s flexible and changeable, not something determined at birth. I suspect that’s why Senator Obama is so popular in Europe and Governor Palin so despised. Obama is very European — he speaks well, sounds off on big things, and has a cultured disdain for the little people, who will be told what he thinks they need to know, and told to work and shed their cynicism. Other than that, and surrendering to the forces of darkness in Iraq, I haven’t seen any real explanation for what’s good about Obama. Even his supporters are generally reduced to “well, I hope he’ll do the right thing, even though his stated positions are completely different or all over the map”.
Palin, in constrast, is a hick with a bad accent. Her ascension is a massive affront to the very idea of a ruling class and its ideals. That’s the real reason for the viturpation, not her policies, as we can tell from the fact that the viturpation started before she announced any. Her very presence provoked paroxysims of rage, which tells you that it is, in fact, her appearance that’s enraging. Unlike Obama, with Palin there’s no good way to delude yourself that she’s what you want, instead of what she is. That, to intellectual elite, is True Evil.
This has also lead me to think that while America is an anti-intellecutal culture, one must keep in mind that “intellectual” doesn’t mean smart or even educated, but someone who believes they are of a superior kind because of it. Americans like smart people, and they like educated people. Just think of Albert Einstein’s or Stephen Hawking’s reputation on the American Street. But they do insist that such people do something useful with their intelligence and education and not just claim superiority.