AT THE New Yorker Festival Town Hall Meeting last weekend, hundreds of New Yorkers gathered, in the words of New Yorker editor David Remnick, at the epicenter of all that Sarah Palin and her kin find so suspicious: the intellectual and elite.
The topic was “Race and Class in America,” a topic only the intellectual elite discuss. The conversation was mostly between liberal elites, including a Princeton professor at the pinnacle of elitism. The audience—whose elitist jeers Remnick had to hush with a commanding hand whenever the words “Sarah Palin” crossed anyone’s lips—was intellectually snobbish as well.
In fact, the arrogant arugula-growers seemed more interested in Palin than anyone else in the election, perhaps because she creates a target for elitist barbs that is as big and broad as Alaska itself. But also perhaps because she trashes their intellectual elitism in, well, just about every single speech and interview and 30-second soundbite she gives. My question, after watching the elites fret over how Palin gets away with this sort of thing, is this heretical one: What’s wrong with being elite?
Panelist Thomas Frank, author of What’s Wrong With Kansas?, noted that Republicans like Palin talk like leftists, pitting the working class against the eastern elites but redefining “elite” to mean “intellectual.” Obama was right about those who cling to guns and God, Frank said. People are bitter: “They’re f—ing furious. They have a right to be.” But why, he mourned, is Palin able to speak to that bitterness when liberals were not? How does she so ably manipulate populist language for non-populist policies?
Author and linguist John McWhorter acknowledged that the “less educated” find Obama’s diversity—his eclectic family, his academic past, his race—less stimulating. Perhaps, McWhorter delicately said, Obama’s character is such that he just has trouble communicating with a certain type of person—that shadowy “ordinary, working American.”
There was one beleaguered ex-Bush administration panelist, Leslie Sanchez, who was the lone token Republican everyone briefly but regarded each time she piped up with a token Republican statement. When the elites demanded to know how anyone would support someone like Palin, she offered, “Sarah Palin is a vice president for the rest of us.” That phrase “the rest of us” is an example of the baffling populist rhetoric in which Republicans now engage. Who exactly is included in this vaguely lovely phrase, “the rest of us,” and why is a powerful pundit among them and why is it now “the rest of us” against “them”?
Anti-elitism is the rallying whine of Palin’s candidacy. She didn’t have a passport because she was from the middle class, and middle class people don’t travel. When she can’t answer basic questions without channeling Miss “Like Such As” South Carolina, it’s not because she is inarticulate but because she’s “annoyed” with the eastern elite for playing “gotcha” journalism. When she decides to talk about energy policy after Gwen Ifill asks her about health care, it’s because she’s here to “answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they’ve just heard.”
While the liberals are nice enough to use words like populism, let’s call it what it is: class warfare, redefined. The hockey moms vs. Katie Couric. Joe Six Pack vs. the policy wonks. Common sense vs. education. Wasilla Main Street contra mundum. After she derided Katie Couric again, her supporters jeered at reporters and slung obscenities and racial epithets. The Secret Service is now investigating the report that one man yelled, “Kill him!” after she talked about Obama and Bill Ayers. While she can’t be blamed for what her supporters say, she doesn’t seem to mind massaging people’s prejudices.
But isn’t it basic conservative doctrine that elitism isn’t necessarily equivalent with exploitation? If someone has more, it doesn’t mean they’re exploiting the person who has less. Don’t make excuses. Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, work hard and don’t whine. Let the people with the most talent and determination rise to the top, and don’t blame them for getting there.
And once they’re there, don’t blame them for doing their job. As I tell my Journalism 101 students, playing “gotcha” is part of any journalist’s job: to push past generalities to specifics, to do the research needed to point out inconsistencies, to take control and guide the interview to get the information her viewers need. The interviewer’s job is not to make the interviewee look good or give her a forum for pontification. The interviewer’s purpose is to get information. Commentary and analysis—telling viewers what they just heard—is part of the media’s job.
Challenging all of us—the media, the politicians, and those elusive “ordinary Americans”—is one way the educated better “the rest of us.” Cornel West, the Princeton professor at the pinnacle of elitism, gave a passionate, rumbling criticism that lifted the dialogue above political minutiae: “The American empire is in decline,” he said, telling the audience to look at young people’s souls, at our emaciated democracy, and “the impoverished public conversation that we’re not having.” Obama can’t reclaim that, he said: “That’s all Obama is—a threadbare hope.”
If there’s any elite class based on actual brains and ability, it’s the intellectual elite. They would be less baffled and hurt if they simply embraced their elitist status. There’s a reason they’re leading the intellectual discussion: They’re better informed, better educated and more intelligent than the rest of us. We know that they think they’re better. It’s time to admit that in some ways, they’re right.
Alisa Harris is deputy editor of Patrol. She teaches journalism at The King’s College in Manhattan.
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