YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

May 10, 2011

What is an elite/elitism?

Medusa

As my readers know, I used to be active at Pacifica radio in Los Angeles (KPFK-FM), especially as program director, but also during my series “How Do We Know When We Are Not Fascists?” that ended in the late 1990s. My project then as now was to defend the Enlightenment and science against its numerous anti-intellectual detractors. There were moments when a barrage of angry phone calls accused me of “elitism” though that term was not defined by those who use it regularly. Later in my career, a Canadian follower of Charles Olson accused me of having written “a Medusa book.” What I did not see then was that for many of these [populist] name-callers (always male, by the way), elite meant Jews–the demonic Jews who supposedly infested Hollywood and the mass media; Jews who had planted a computer chip in their brains that set them against authority and/or their parents; such mad scientists and masculinized women were emissaries of Our Great Adversary. Had I polled my most vehement critics, I suspect that each and every one was a follower of Noam Chomsky–a great favorite with the Pacifica audience and with such New Leftists as populated Z Magazine or South End Press.

This will be a short blog. In the olden times, before the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, then the American and French Revolutions, the term elites referred to the monarchs of Europe, the Catholic Church, and the aristocracy, whose wealth was usually based on the land and the rents their tenants provided. (During the age of exploration, some aristocrats merged their interests with the rising bourgeoisie, so we cannot say that every aristocrat was an agrarian. See Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution.) The point is that class mobility was limited in the various old regimes. There was a definable elite, and the lower orders stayed put. They had no intellectual or political or economic apparatus to lift them from the mire.

All that changed in the age of Revolution, the start of which I date with the invention of the printing press and the subsequent, gradual rise in mass literacy. Along with that came a new confidence in “the lower orders” as they were buttressed by empiricism, science, and the evidence of their senses. Such momentous, life-transforming developments destroyed the customary deference to the great families and instilled confidence in the common reader. There was now the possibility of a democratic polity in a republican form of government. I can say with great certainty that the old elites did not take these transformations lying down. When they could not destroy their challengers, they attempted to co-opt them by taking the best and brightest into their ruling institutions. This website is mostly devoted to tracking these usually successful attempts and to warning the autodidacts to beware of false friends, but also that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: to imagine that all “experts” are swindlers is to throw away the competence that has changed the world for the better.

In our would-be democratic republic, the intellectual and emotional demands on the electorate are unprecedented in the history of our species.  If we choose, we may turn away from the difficulties in discovering the truth, and hew to the party line, and I include every political faction that exists. Or we can constantly test our leaders and representatives, using every tool and resource at our disposal.  What we cannot do is blindly follow the leader and react emotionally to the appeal of demagogues who denounce all “experts” or “elites” in the name of vox populi. Such persons, while supposedly attuned to the voice of God speaking through the People,  implicitly embrace nihilism, a philosophy wherein all truths are contingent and relative–except those spewing from the lips of the celebrity or pundit or cleric or public intellectual du jour.

I have just finished reading Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Contarini Fleming. My jaw dropped as I read its final three paragraphs, for I had not expected this noted organic conservative, surely an avatar of the European elite, to end Contarini’s romantic memoir with these modern sentiments:

“When I examine the state of European society with the unimpassioned spirit which the philosopher can alone command, I perceive that it is in a state of transition from feodal to federal principles. This I conceive to be the sole and secret cause of all the convulsions that have occurred and are to occur.

“Circumstances are beyond the control of man; but his conduct is in his own power. The great event is as sure as that I am now penning this prophecy of its occurrence. With us it rests whether it shall be welcomed by wisdom or by ignorance, whether its beneficent results shall be accelerated by enlightened minds, or retarded by its dark passions.

“What is the arch of the conqueror, what the laurel of the poet! I think of the infinity of space, I feel my nothingness. Yet if I am to be remembered, let me be remembered as one who, in a sad night of gloomy ignorance and savage bigotry was prescient of the flaming morning-break of bright philosophy, as one who deeply sympathized with his fellow-men, and felt a proud and profound conviction of their perfectibility; as one who devoted himself to the amelioration of his kind, by the destruction of error and the propagation of truth.”

Truth and Perfectibility: those are fighting words in a meritocracy.

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