Tuesday, September 30, 2008

In defense of elitism

I know that a few of you may be confused at the overtly political nature of this blog--that you clicked here or you come here thinking you're going to read about race in America or mixed-race issues, and instead you get these clips about Sarah Palin sketches, discussions about the 2008 Presidential election, and nostalgia for a defunct TV drama.

I am a political junkie. But beyond my personal preferences (should I say obsessions) right now, I think that the current presidential race is a great topic for a blog called "Mixed Race America." And I don't just say that because we have our first openly mixed-race Presidential candidate (and first African American candidate of a major party) but because race and politics have gone hand in hand from the time this country was first established. So OF COURSE I should be talking about politics.

[Of course, perhaps I could be drawing out the racial implications more concretely...I think I've tried to do that, but I will ponder this more for future political posts.]

But what I really want to talk about relates to the title of this post: in defense of elitism.

Let me begin with the disclaimer that I am being deliberately provocative. Because there really isn't anything about elitism that I think needs defending. But the charge of elitism that comes up time and again against Democrats, specifically certain Democrats like John Kerry and now Barack Obama, this is what I want to tackle.

Because it's not elitism in the sense of power or money (although it might be couched in those terms). The elitism that is being leveled at Obama is one that has definite racial connotation but it has larger educational overtones. In other words, he's elite because he's smart.

So really, this post is in defense of being the smartest kid in the room (or thinking you are the smartest kid in the room).

THIS, I have some experience with.

I have often been or thought I was the smartest kid in the room. I have often aspired to be the smartest kid in the room. I am told that I am a smart person. And I do believe that I am smart.

Do I seem conceited? Elitist perhaps?

That last sentence--I believe I am smart. That was a hard sentence to write. Because there are so many messages that I get that tells me that even if I believe this, I should never say this out loud. That to do so is to brag or to demean others or to overstate the case.

Why? I am a college professor. I am SUPPOSED to be an expert in my field, even if I know that "expert" is relative to my students (truthfully, I doubt that as an assistant professor I can claim expertise compared with my colleagues who have been doing this for over twenty years). But if you have a kid in college, you want and expect that his/her professor is going to be smart, right? And we expect our doctors and dentists to be smart--to have expert knowledge in his/her field. And the same is true for our auto mechanics and plumbers and electricians--fields not typically associated with formal education but which none-the-less have intelligence and expertise embedded in their specializations.

So why don't we want the president of the United States to be smart? And not only to be smart, but to say I AM SMART. To declare, forcefully,
"Hey, you know why you should elect me to be President? Because I'm a very intelligent guy. I went to some of the best schools in this nation, and our colleges and universities are among the best in the world, and I didn't just stop at getting a BA, I was so smart that I got into law school, and not any law school HARVARD, that's right--the best university in the world (according to some, especially those of us who went to school "in Boston"), and I was so smart that I got to teach law -- that's right, I was so smart that I became a professor. And I DO have an elite education and I AM often the smartest person in the room, and damn it you WANT the smartest person in the room to be the President of the United States because we have complex and difficult issues facing us. The current financial crisis? It's complicated--it's not as simple as saying we don't want to give free hand-outs to the Wall Street folks. Because Wall Street and Main Street are intimately connected and although I use this simple rhetoric, the truth is, what happens in our nation's economy has transnational ramifications--banks are now closing in Europe and Asia's market looks like it will also take a tumble. And we haven't even started talking about foreign policy. Or the environmental and energy crises. Or education. We NEED smart people and we should DEMAND that our leaders also be smart people and that the head of state, the President of the United States of America should be 10X SMARTER THAN YOU AND SMARTER THAN ANYONE YOU KNOW and NOT the person you want to drink a beer with. Because that's not going to solve the complicated and hard problems that face us."

I'm also not saying that a single type of intelligence is going to get us out of this mess. But I know this: complex times and complicated issues call for complex and complicated cognition. Who do you think is more capable of nuance and complexity? John McCain or Barack Obama? My vote goes to the liberal elitist.


Anonymous said...

Where to begin? :)

1.) As a fellow political junkie, I'm glad to see you taking an interest and using your voice.

2.) Why elitism needs to be defended...short answer, because people are talking about different things.
You may think people are calling Barack Obama elitist because he's smart, but I disagree...it's certainly not why I'd call him elitist (in fact, I don't usually call him elitist, but I can see why some others might).
The charge of elitism oft leveled against democrats (Kerry and Obama among them) is using this definition (I found it on numerous online dictionaries, in various similar forms): The belief that some people are superior to others and by dint of their superiority should have special priveleges (in this case, the privelege to lead the nation). Kerry and Obama et al. believe (some say) that because they are smart and highly educated, this suits them to govern better than others, so they should naturally be chosen to do so.

And I don't think being smart or well-educated disqualifies them. But the attitude, the idea that just because they have a high IQ or a fancy degree the rest of us poor ignorant peons should shut up and let them rule because they know so much better...I feel having that attitude disqualifies them.
I fancy myself a reasonably smart guy, but by no means a genius. I scored 1300 SATs, I graduated cum laude, I'm well-read. I never went to Harvard college, I never went to law school or med school, and I'm not a self-made millionaire. But y'know what? Big deal. None of those things are, in my mind, indicative of intelligence, or even necessarily competence (need I remind you, Bush Jr. also went to Harvard AND Yale, and is quite wealthy). What they do indicate (IMO) is ambition. I myself seriously lack ambition; I never applied myself as vigorously as I could have, and once I got married, I found being happy with my family is more fulfilling than pounding the career track and making a million bucks.
But that doesn't, to me, mean that somebody with a high IQ or a fancy degree are necessarily better fit than myself to run the country. And frankly...I distrust ambitious people. I'm an admirer of the Order of Cinncinatus, and I think the best person for the job is often the one who doesn't want it.

3.) I'm glad you have the confidence to admit your smarts, and I certainly don't doubt that you are smart (probably smarter than myself). That said...smarts are not everything, and smarts are not universal. I expect my doctors, lawyers, mechanics, etc. to have brains and know-how in their fields...but that doesn't for a minute mean that I automatically trust them to do a great job, or to do what's in my best interest. There are plenty of scholars who are intelligent, educated, well-read and widely published, who I feel hold views and opinions that are flat-out wrong. Part of it is differences in opinion, part of it may be simple dishonesty.
And even when doctors/lawyers/etc are smart and skilled in their field...that doesn't always transition to all fields. I don't want my doctor fixing my carburator, even if he is a genius with a doctorate. And I don't want my mechanic taking out my spleen. And no candidate is necessarily going to be an expert in all fields of statecraft, which run the gamut from sociology to economics to military science to diplomacy. Regardless of how smart a candidate is, that doesn't make him the best choice (necessarily) to run the country.

4.) Part of the reason not everybody agrees on what makes a good president (or senator/etc) is because not everybody agrees on what that person is supposed to do. What do you see as the president's role? The federal government's role? I'm betting I see it differently.

5.) I don't want the president to be 10x smarter than me or anyone I know. Because I'm smart, and I know a lot of smart people, and I don't think that guy (or gal) exists. And if somebody tries to stand up and say he's 10x smarter than me and everybody I know...yeah, I'm sorry, but I think that guy's being an arrogant jerk, and underestimating the intelligence of the people of this nation.
Along with his brains, I require a little bit of humility. I require a guy who's not going to tell the very people electing him that they're a bunch of dumb peasants who need someone to tell them what to do. Because we live in a democratic republic, not an intellectual aristocracy.

None of the above is meant to say anything about Barack Obama specifically...only about the foundation of why some people reject perceived "elitism", and why being smart doesn't mean you're necessarily best suited.

Disagreement/further discussion are welcomed, as always.

D.J. said...

I dont want to have a beer with my President! I want everything in the nation to be stable enough that I can go out afford a beer and enjoy it with the knowledge that the world is not crumbling around me. Is that too much to ask?

Jennifer Imazeki said...

I have to disagree with spartakos - people ARE calling Obama elitest just because he's smart. If you use the definition spartokos provides, i.e., the belief that one's superiority gives one special privileges, I don't see how you could ever pin that on Obama. I have never heard Obama say a single thing that remotely suggests he believes any such thing. The elitest label has been tagged on him by people who are trying to make *other* people think that he believes that but I really don't see how anyone could listen to him directly and walk away saying he's elitest (given that definition). Smart, articulate, educated, yes. Elitest, no.

FemaleScienceProfessor (I can never remember how to do HTML tags but she's at science-professor.blogspot.com) has a recent post about people calling Obama 'professorial' that makes some similar points. People say he seems aloof and condescending - I wonder if maybe I don't see it because I am a smart, articulate professor myself :-) but it seems to me that there's something about Obama's smartness and articulateness that bugs people and I have often wondered about the racial overtones of that.

Anonymous said...

J. Imazeki:

It's certainly your right to disagree with me, and I admit I could be entirely wrong...perhaps I'm giving the American people too much credit. That said, many people feel free to call lots of democrats (even white ones like Kerry) elitist for saying similar things, so I don't think it's necessarily a race issue.

What has Obama said that could be elitist? I honestly don't have many examples (and as I said, I don't really consider him very elitist myself). One that springs to mind was his comment about people being bitter and clinging to "guns and religion" because of how sorry their lives were. That was a rather condescending statement, IMO.
Perhaps people are calling Obama elitist because he's smart; I just tend to think it may be not what he's saying, but how he's saying it.

I read the article you linked to (thank you, btw), and actually agree with her..."professorial" should not be synonymous with "condescending" or "aloof". I had a number of professors who were very personable in how they taught. But that's taking issue with the word used to describe Obama's speech, not with people's impression of it, necessarily. I gathered from her article that people were misusing the word "professorial" to describe what they really felt/perceived about Obama's speeches: a sense of someone talking down to people, or using overly complex language.

As I said...I had a lot of college professors who were smart and articulate, but who still managed to convey that they were my equal, albeit one with a little more knowledge on the subject at hand. Maybe Obama isn't giving that vibe, and that's what people are reading as "elitist".

Again...I don't really perceive Obama as especially elitist; but if somebody else does, I don't think it's always just because he's smart.

Jennifer said...

Spartakos, DJ, and Jennifer Imazeki,

Thanks for leaving comments. I'm sorry I haven't responded sooner, but there were papers to grade and students to meet with and I could go on and on but I won't.

I will say that I'm about to write a new post about "In defense of knowledge" which may speak to some of the issues that both Spartakos and Jennifer have raised here.

I think, Spartakos, that you may be right in terms of the charge of "elitism" made of Obama, in that the word "elite" has different charges and nuances depending on who is leveling that charge at him.

But I agree with Jennifer that I think that an undercurrent in that charge has everything to do with his being associated with an intellectual elite--whether that's through his ivy league credentials or in the "professorial" way he answers questions. So breaking this down into simple components, it seems that one of the things people are accusing him of, is being smart.

And quite frankly, as a professor, it's something I'm aware of--that there is a way to be smart and then a way to be too smart. No one wants to be accused of being "dumb"--and we can probably agree that an education, high school, college, professional, or grad, doesn't guarantee that you will be intelligent or smarter than the person who doesn't hold those degrees.

That's not what I'm talking about. Which is why I was careful to include the electrician and plumber in my post--to demonstrate that intelligence is keyed to different registers and isn't linked solely to higher education.

But to get back to the issue of Obama being called an elitist, I think that people are uncomfortable with people they perceive as being much smarter than they are, because there is a sense or perhaps fear of being perceived dumb in comparison, of being condescended to, or feeling like you can't relate to this person.

Spartakos, when you said you didn't want a president who was 10x smarter than you, I was honestly surprised, but I was also struck that you immediately listed "humility" as something that was important to you, which then begged the question of whether you assume that someone who is very intelligent is also arrogant and not humble. I don't think the two go hand in hand. Someone I see as EXTREMELY intelligent and ENORMOUSLY humble is Jimmy Carter. And I've met a fair share of uber-smart folk in the university who never act like they are in contention for the nobel prize or who have won accolades from all quarters. They just quietly and simply do their work.

I don't know if you think that Obama is a jerk who underestimates the intelligence of American citizens. I've never gotten that impression from him myself.

Jay said...

(Spartakos here...openID wasn't working for some reason)

I think that people are uncomfortable with people they perceive as being much smarter than they are, because there is a sense or perhaps fear of being perceived dumb in comparison, of being condescended to, or feeling like you can't relate to this person.

Agreed...which is why I think the problem is not with smartness per se, but with how that intelligence is portrayed, demonstrated, and promoted.
There are plenty of smart people who can talk to others, and even explain complicated issues, without making those other people feel dumb (even if the speaker is much more intelligent). It takes a certain manner of speaking.
When people are accusing Obama of being elitist, I don't think they're saying "he's smart, and that's bad"...they're saying, "he thinks he's so smart and makes me feel dumb, and that's bad". Which is really something different altogether.

Spartakos, when you said you didn't want a president who was 10x smarter than you, I was honestly surprised, but I was also struck that you immediately listed "humility" as something that was important to you, which then begged the question of whether you assume that someone who is very intelligent is also arrogant and not humble.

Someone can be smarter (smarter than me, for instance) and still be humble. What I was saying is that I don't think anyone claiming to be "10x smarter than you and anyone you know" can be humble...because I don't feel that there is any person on this earth who is 10x smarter than me and everyone I know, and even if there WAS such a person, he has no way of knowing that...so making such a claim is sheer arrogance. That's not to say I don't want a smart persident; I just want one that doesn't think he's the cat's pajamas just because he's so much smarter than everyone else. Socrates, acknowledged a great thinker, said "all I know is that I know nothing". Now there's a creed for smart people to live by.

Part of being smart and humble is not talking up your smarts. If you're smart, you can demonstrate that through your actions and ideas. Again...I don't feel anyone needs to apologize for being smart; they just need to understand that being smart is not a qualification in and of itself.

I don't know if you think that Obama is a jerk who underestimates the intelligence of American citizens.

To be honest, in general I haven't got that impression. Again, there was just the one comment that rubbed me wrong (because it implied that the only reason for people to support things like guns and religion is because they're bitter and frustrated). But I also haven't gotten a lot of concrete stuff from him...I've heard him talk a lot about what he's going to change, but not a lot of "nuts and bolts" about how he's going to do it. And I don't accept the "the 'how' is too complicated for laymen" answer.

I will now proceed to the other thread. :)