I Am Not An Elitist! (Or Am I?)by Saul Levine, Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry at UCSD February 26, 2018
Elitism’ has become a “dirty word,” at least among some people who feel that elites are despicable. I hereby declare “I am not an elitist” (…or am I?)
As I write this self-serving statement, I’m reminded of the words, “I am not a crook!” spoken by Richard Nixon on national television in 1973. He was protesting that he had nothing to do with the infamous Watergate break-in. (His words were carefully chosen, well-articulated…and blatant lies.)
While the word “crook” refers to someone who breaks the law by stealing, in contrast, ‘elitists’ are doing nothing illegal. Nonetheless, they are seen by President Trump and many of his supporters as nefarious and sworn political enemies.
Trump’s version of elitists are snobs and entitled liberals who profess to have superior intellect and values. To him they are the educated classes, professionals, scientists and artists, the sophisticated urbanites who populate college towns and large cities. He accuses cultured urban elites of being unaware and uninterested in how “the other half lives,” and of abandoning his base of fervent supporters.
I must admit to having a strong distaste for much of what President Trump stands for as a person and as president, but is there any truth to his perspective?
I am certain that he would lump me with his detested elites, even though I originally come from humble working class, immigrant beginnings. My late father came here as an uneducated, impoverished immigrant who spoke no English and started his adult life as a manual laborer. Similarly, my uncles and the fathers of my street and school friends were all employed in jobs like plumbing, carpentry, bricklaying, cloth cutting, upholstery, machinists and others, which are a far cry from urbane sophistication.
My parents and those of my childhood friends believed in education, family values, hard work and the American Dream, and their hopes were indeed fulfilled. My peers and I achieved beyond our wildest dreams: We all became professionals, professors, physicians, lawyers, teachers, businessmen, writers, teachers, actors and similar career pursuits.
Given our backgrounds, surely we can’t be accused of being the uncaring elitists described by Trump! As children, we personally experienced what it was like to be outside the mainstream, poor and frowned upon, and as adults we prided ourselves on our compassion and empathy: We understood ordinary workers and their families who feel “left behind.” Why, we were just like them just a few decades ago!
But then I look at some “real facts.” Aside from people doing jobs for us, or workers we come across in the course of daily activities, we all tend to live and work in our own “echo chambers.” Our family, friendship, collegial, professional and business contacts are almost all with people like us, with similar educational socioeconomic attainments, race, neighborhoods, values and attitudes.
Do we really know any coal or metal miners, construction workers, daycare and retirement home attendants, hotel cleaners, and dishwashers? How about other myriad important but underpaid and overlooked jobs? Are we really close with any farmers, fishermen, loggers, police officers, soldiers, sales clerks and bus drivers?
With few exceptions, the elites and the workers tend to live in separate, socially walled off physical enclaves, or even social universes. There are few or no opportunities for meaningful communication with each other, but there is an abundance of ignorant, prejudicial feelings and animosities.
We are living in an increasingly polarized society, with widely diverse and unequal opportunities in education, health and socioeconomic status. We somehow have to transcend these “Two Solitudes” (a classic book about living apart in a shared society).
This can be partially accomplished via city planning, mixed neighborhoods, better public transportation, educational upgrading, job training and opportunities.
But it will take far more: It will take the will of all of us, individuals and groups, to be assertively proactive. We have to open our minds and hearts. We have to get to know each other as real people, and learn and understand each other’s challenges and experiences.
This goes for all of us, you and I included.