HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 28, 2008
From Liberty Street

Should I, or Should I Not?

John Turner


I've been wondering if I should take up the badge of elitism and wear it proudly. I have a moderate inclination to do it (considering who the critics of elitism are) and probably would, if I could figure out what the word means.

One thing's for sure: if it's got anything to do with money, I'm excluded. All the people I see on TV denouncing elitism have more money than I do, and not just a little bit more. Chris Matthews, for example, of Hardball, is reported to make five million dollars every year.  I have to confess: I never made that much. So, if elitism is a matter of possessing money, and Chris Matthews is still consigned to denounce it, then where am I?

I've read in a couple of places that money is not exactly the conferring agent. But if it's not money, what is it? Some say it's taste. If you like certain things, you're an elitist and if you don't like certain other things, then maybe that's an even more sure sign of your elitism.

Beer seems to be a big factor in the overall elitism detecting process. You've got to like beer if you're going to be a regular person, and it's for sure that no regular person can be an elitist. But how about this? Is failure to be a regular person a sure sign of elitism? I don't think so. Consider Charles Manson, for example. Nobody would call him a regular guy, but on the other hand, you wouldn't find many people calling him an elitist either. So having a tepid taste for beer, as I do, can't be taken as a sure sign of elitism (for all I know, Charles Manson may like beer and if he does that's one more piece of evidence that beer-liking is not the perfect yardstick).

I suspect you would find the same imperfections in any other taste, whether it be for guns, or wearing a certain kind of hat to church, or baseball, or a passion for Mickey Spillane. Not even ballet is a perfect measure (for the record let me say that I used to like ballet until I found out what has to be done to make a person into a good ballet dancer, and then my liking cooled considerably).

Taste, though it may give a few hints, will not tell you reliably where you stand with respect to elitism.

So, what are we left with? There are habits of mind and what you've done to develop them. We sometimes pick up a current of suggestion which says that if you're a person of instinct, and don't pay much attention to reasoning, you escape the tag of elitism. This doesn't help me much. I do my best to reason things out, but I'm probably not very good at it, and there are times when instinct takes over. Just the other night, for example, I went to a panel discussion about how to assist people when they're dying. All the panelists were kind and thoughtful ladies, but as I listened to them, I began to think they were going to kill me. I got a stomach ache, and I haven't had a stomach ache in more than a year. Finally, I began to feel desperate. I kept saying to myself, "It wouldn't be polite to jump up and run like hell,'' and that thought kept me glued to my chair. But just as soon as the presentation was over, I got out of that room as fast as I could. What reason did I have for feeling like that? I can't think of any. But the truth of the feeling was undeniable.

Does that mean I can't be an elitist?

We come finally to the issues of reading and books. I confess that I sometimes enjoy reading books, and even reading books that are not current best sellers. I'm certainly not a great reader. I haven't read nearly as many books as I used to think I would have by the time I reached my current age. Still, it may be the case (although about this I have no way of being sure) that I read more books than the mythical average person. So, if I want to be an elitist, I probably have to hang it on that practice. But there may be a problem here too.

I've noticed that in order to be a surefire, without question, elitist, you've got to know about books without having read them. It goes even farther than that. You've got to be able to convey the impression that you understand what a book is without having read it and, definitely, without ever saying anything intelligible about it. Truth is, it helps a bit if you can manage to give a completely erroneous impression of a book, without, of course, referring to its actual text.

With respect to these skills, I'm pretty much of a failure. I've got by occasionally without being exposed. But I've never had the sense I was really good at them. That has to mean, in turn, that I don't adequately understand them and, therefore, can't say what they do for me.

So, I'm left uncertain about my status as an elitist. It would probably be more accurate to call me a wannabe elitist, and there's hardly anything lower than that.

Consequently, I have to say to any politician who wants to employ me as an advisor about how to escape or to attain elitism that he should save his money.

Maybe he should go to Tucker Carlson and get the straight scoop.


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