Wednesday, August 1, 2018

In Search of Elitism

Norman Rockwell, "Election Day"

Recently I have been reading a good deal about elites and elitism in the papers, and it seems pretty clear that a lot of folks don’t like them or it.  Many of these elites live in coastal states, where they drink Sancerre and macchiatos—ingestive behaviors that have so provoked the non-elites, who live in landlocked states and drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and Doctor Pepper, as to lead to the election of President Donald Trump.  The denizens of Flyover Country are “populists” or at least suckers for “populism”—making it all the more confusing that Mr. Trump did not in fact win the “popular” vote.

For a long time I though elite meant “little writing”.  This is on account of an old Smith-Corona portable typewriter that was lying around my grandmother’s house.  It was an elite typewriter—meaning that it produced a line of type with twelve characters to the inch.  This seemed more elegant than the standard burly pica, with only ten characters per inch.  Many years later, when I began to learn something about printing, all this became clearer.  But since nobody can tell me what a “populist” is, I have came to think of Trump voters as the Picas.

American politicians were already wooing the Picas before Andrew Jackson.  If you are old enough you may remember Spiro Agnew, a disgraceful and indeed disgraced Vice-President in the Age of Nixon, notable back in the day for his pithy invective.  It was he, for example, who memorably characterized his critics as “nattering nabobs of negativism.”  Of course he only said that.  The actual author of the words was William Safire, a Republican speech-writer and long-time “word maven” for the New York Times.  But Agnew did actually say a few things on his own.  When criticized for being a mediocrity he uttered a plea of no contest but pondered aloud whether his critics didn’t think that the large number of mediocre Americans were deserving of representation.

            This was met with howls of derision, though it was in fact a classic American gesture of anti-elitism of the sort that has given so many of our politicians their annoying folksiness.  Once the Founding Fathers were gotten out of the way, claiming to have been born in a log cabin became one of the first requirements for major political office. The log cabin was the only maternity ward suitable for a serious presidential aspirant.  Having forebears who arrived on Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower was far less prestigious than having arrived in Dry Gulch in a covered wagon.  Oklahoma became a state in 1907.  It immediately became de rigueur for gubernatorial candidates there to boast of a strain of “Indian blood” not always clearly demonstrated by the handwritten genealogies in their family Bibles.  The current senior senator from Massachusetts, born an Okie, has carried the tradition into the twenty-first century.  No elitist can beat us.

            But the cold comfort of philology is that the American political system is and must remain inescapably elitist—at least so long as we remain committed to an electoral process.  As is true of many modern English word families, the vocabulary of election includes some words directly derived from Latin and some others indirectly derived by way of medieval French.  The Latin verb eligere means to choose, select, or elect.  The idea is that of identifying a preference among options.  The past participle of eligere is electus, and from that we get elect in its nominative and adjectival forms in both its theological (“Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth…”) and social (the Mikado’s daughter-in-law-elect) senses.  The process of choosing is called election.  The word elite is an old French equivalent of the Latin electus, and it too has entered the English vocabulary.

            What goes without saying often goes unsaid.  The idea of election or choice implies a perceived superiority.  If you have a choice among several options, you want to choose the best, the biggest, the tastiest, the freshest, the cleanest, the most valuable, etc.  When we speak of “elite schools” it implies that we think that Harvard University is in some sense superior to Podunk County Community College.  And not to choose something is to neg+elect it.  We now hear that Donald Trump is the revenge of a neglected electorate.  This is all rather curious.  The associations of certain usages of the word elite—especially that of snobbish superiority—point to a paradox in the electoral process.  All politicians crave to be elected.  None dares claim to be elite.

You or I may find that elitism renders puzzling results.  In an age more innocent of political correctness a witty British journalist came up with a witty apothegm: How odd of God to choose the Jews.  To which the brilliant riposte soon came: Far from bizarre.  The goyim annoy Him.  We still await the bard of the election of 2016.