Elitism and the Common Man
– by David Matthews 2
“Most of our pocket wisdom is conceived for the use of mediocre people, to discourage them from ambitious attempts, and generally console them in their mediocrity.” - Robert Louis Stevenson
Now that’s an insulting term.
It’s insulting, divisive, polarizing, and it is meant to BE taken that way.
Accusing someone of being an elitist is to accuse them of being a snob, of being arrogant, and putting themselves above others for whatever reason.
Elitism is something that you hurl around when you want to side with “the masses”, and when you want to isolate the accused from the rest of the group.
The accusation of elitism is used to start revolutions by demonizing the other side. The American Revolution and the French Revolution both had a small group of “elites” that were the immediate target of scorn and bile. These were the people that were blamed for the suffering of “the masses”, whether through excessive taxes or through a lack of food. During the American Civil War (or “War of Aggression” or whatever you want to call it), the accusation of “elitism” was thrown by both sides to describe each other and to condemn their positions.
Elitism was easily thrown about during the rise of the Industrial Revolution, with big corporations making money by exploiting the masses and by hoarding power of governments large and small. Just about every antitrust rule and regulation out there today was put in place upon the accusation of “elitism” by big business.
During the Great Depression, banks were the new “elites”, as they were the ones holding all of the money, all of the power, and delivering nothing but misery for the struggling Americans. In fact, part of the reason why stories of bank robbers were romanticized was because of the demonization of banks as being “the elites” in America.
Today, though, “elitism” is bantered about by pretty much all walks of life. It’s no longer the tool for revolution or romanticizing bank robbers or rallying for controlling government. Instead, it is used to demonize ordinary people and local groups.
And most notably, it is used all-too readily in politics and in talk radio.
Conservative and neo-conservative talk show hosts LOVE to foist the banner of “elitism” against liberal groups and anyone they passionately oppose. According to Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and the rest, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the People for the American Way and any organization that champions individual rights and fights for the U.S. Constitution are considered “elitists”. They’re branded and condemned as “limousine liberals” along with the Democrats in Congress and civil rights workers and unions.
The hypocritical part, of course, is that these guys are FAR from having anything to do with being a “common man”. They make millions, and they have access to the things in life that allow them to make millions more. There are plenty of struggling and starving writers that would sell their souls to get so much as an appointment with a publisher, while talking heads like Limbaugh and Hannity can get a lucrative book deal in a heartbeat and have it be instant bestsellers. Most people are lucky to get a form letter supposedly from the President of the United States. These guys get private invitations to the White House to spend lunch with the President in person.
But that doesn’t matter, does it? No, what matters – at least according to these neo-con media demagogues – is that the ACLU and other like-minded people are “elitists” that are “out of touch” with the rest of the country. THAT is the message they are spreading. They are the “THEM” in the “Us Versus Them” game.
And it’s not just the conservatives playing this game either! CNN commentator and media personality Lou Dobbs does the same thing on his nightly TV show. He claims to champion “The middle Class” and claims there’s a “war” being waged on it. He also waives the flag and scolds Washington politicians for their ineptitude, and all on the claim that he is doing this on behalf of the millions and millions of hard-working Americans.
And maybe there is truth to some of the things he says and of the accusations he makes, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t also foisting the divisive charge of “elitism”. He is claiming with every broadcast that federal, state, and local politicians and businesses large and small are all elitists that are “out of touch” with the rest of society and that HE is speaking on behalf of the “common man”.
Now we have the 2008 Presidential Election season, and once again the word “elitism” is being foisted about by people who really have no business using the word.
Senators Hillary Rodham-Clinton and John McCain, and their myrmidons and surrogates, are accusing fellow Senator Barak Obama of being an “elitist” when he described small-town life in Pennsylvania as full of people who are “bitter” and cling to guns and religion. All the while, of course, both Clinton and McCain claim to champion the “hard-working Americans”.
Hypocritical? ABSOLUTELY! McCain is a career politician worth MILLIONS of dollars, and while Clinton herself is only a fledgling career politician, she has been the wife of a career politician for many years and she too has also raked in MILLIONS of dollars. There is NOTHING “common” about these so-called “champions of the common man”.
But that brings up a few things about both the charge of “elitism” and the cult-like worshiping of the “Common Man”.
First of all, let’s get brutally honest here… we are ALL guilty of being elitists at some point in our lives! We ALL are! We HAVE to; because it’s the only way that we can differentiate ourselves from the others.
All throughout life, we are herded into little groups based on any number of criteria. Age, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, hair color, genealogy, geographic region, personal preferences, hobbies, financial income, marital status… we are all judged and stereotyped and pigeonholed into all sorts of different demographics.
And the problem begins when that is ALL that we see people as being! Instead of seeing them as individuals, we see them as Christians or Muslims or Jews or Hindus or Atheists. We see them as a skin color, or a hair color. We see them as rich or poor or somewhere in-between. We see them as being men or women, children or adults, straight or gay, right-handed or left-handed, US or THEM.
It’s all about GROUP identity. And the name of the game here is to be on the side of “US” instead of “THEM”.
The downside to group identity and the “US Versus THEM” mentality is that in order for the collectivist mentality of “US” to win out, you have to crucify progress and achievement. You can’t win. And if you do win, then you can’t prosper from it. You have to be penalized for winning. You can’t even be recognized for winning. The moment you do that, you differentiate yourself from the “US”. You’re no longer “common” or “average”. You’re a winner, and that makes you stand out. That makes you “elite”.
Look at America’s current tax system! The more money you make, the higher the percentage you have to pay in taxes. You buy certain things that are clear signs of success and you get taxed EXTRA on them. What sort of message does that send people?
You have to work harder and harder to achieve the same. People are asking “who moved my cheese” and then rather than encourage people to go find the “cheese”, you’re told that it’s okay and that you just need help getting some more, and oh-by-the-way it’s all the fault of those “elites” that you don’t have your cheese.
Collectivism makes a religion out of mediocrity. It tells people that your whole purpose in life is to be just like everyone else. You can’t succeed, you can’t progress, you can’t achieve beyond “the norm”.
In other words, it worships losers. It celebrates FAILURE; because that means that you’re just like everyone else.
So when Hillary Rodham-Clinton, John McCain, Barak Obama, Lou Dobbs, and even Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity claim to champion “the common man” and the “average Americans”, they’re really advocating for mediocrity. They are advocating FAILURE.
And suddenly it all makes sense why Obama’s comments drew so much criticism by the demagogues. It’s not that what he said was false or wrong, but because it reminded the “common folk” of the REALITY of their situation. The demagogues don’t mind you talking about the “common folk” as long as you’re PRAISING them and CELEBRATING the concept of being “average” and “plain”. They need to constantly indoctrinate people that it is okay to be that way, because that makes you part of the “US” instead of being one of “THEM”.
At the same time, though, the demagogues that are pushing for the collectivist mediocrity really aren’t “US”. And no matter how many times they pretend to be like “US”, no matter how many times they enjoy a beer at your local bar, or show up at a local bookstore to sign copies of their books, or talk about their “poor upbringing in the woods”, or pretend to enjoy the restaurants that they plug on TV and radio, they’re really not “US”. They may put their pants (or their pantsuit) on one leg at a time, but that’s really all that they have in common with the great unwashed. They can’t be like the rest of the collectivist “common man”, because they happen to know the truth about this twisted web of logic and hypocrisy that has been woven from generation to generation. They know that the only way they can continue to succeed is to continue to spin the collectivist myth that it is okay to be mediocre.
The only way out of this trap, then, is to abandon the idea that you’re “common” and embrace individual achievement. Rather than say that you are JUST a Christian or JUST from Pennsylvania or JUST whatever demographic is being celebrated, you need to proudly proclaim that you are MORE than that! YOU ARE AN INDIVIDUAL!
And once you do that… and once you believe that… then the power that the demagogues have over you disappears. Their combative and divisive arguments lose any meaning because you demonstrate that you are more than JUST whatever demographic you identify with.
We are ALL guilty of being elitists and of advocating elitism. It’s called an identity, and it separates us from everyone else.