Magazine | February 7, 2011, Issue

Your People, Sir, Is a Great Beast

The Nature vs. Nurture debate is back. Once a staple of eugenics proponents, it fell into disfavor along with eugenics itself until the Gay Rights Movement took it up to claim the existence of a gay gene. Now it’s everywhere. Cable news networks regularly speculate about whether some women are natural mothers, some men are natural fathers, and, since the midterm elections, “Is there a political gene?”

Judging by all the protest signs, tweets, Twitters, Facebooks, and my NR mail, the question ought more precisely to be “Is there an elitism gene?”

The word is everywhere. I remember the McCarthy era when everybody was accusing everybody else of being a Communist, but it was nothing compared to today’s elitist hunt. The Right says the Left is elitist because they go to Yale and Harvard and win Rhodes scholarships; the Left says the Right is elitist because they belong to country clubs and share Commodore Vanderbilt’s motto, “The public be damned!” Even frothier are the individual accusations when one person decides that another person is an elitist. It can be anything — drink wine instead of beer, like opera instead of country, own a car instead of a truck, cringe at balloon-and-teddybear memorials and somebody is sure to say “You think you’re better’n us” and call you an elitist.

I have even been accused of keeping a horse in the Central Park stables. At least I think that’s what the letter said. It was hard to read because the writer was trying to attack me metaphorically as payback for my elitist metaphors about Sarah Palin. The rest of his metaphors had me attending posh boarding schools and portrayed me soaking up culture at Vassar. Or maybe it was Smith; I forget. My correspondents have accused me of attending all of the Seven Sisters except Bennington despite the many times I have written about my education in the public schools of Washington, D.C., and American University, also in Washington. I must be the only elitist who not only walked to school but walked to college.

Our current elitophobia is the latest crisis in a long and fruitless search for a hierarchy we can tolerate. The first was the theory of the “natural aristocrat” favored by Jefferson, who was one himself, but it never caught on because Americans are loath to speak of aristocrats of any kind. The most fervent tea partiers never mention this theory and probably never heard of it. They much prefer that other Jeffersonism, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This has been recited so often that it has morphed into the version I heard somebody say on TV the other day: “You gotta have a revolution every twenty years.”

#page# (It took awhile, but 20th-century Americans, no longer subjected to classical educations, finally stumbled onto a way to speak of aristocrats without referring to them: They made fun of “hoi polloi,” which means “the common masses” in Greek.)

After natural aristocracy we tried its modern cousin, “meritocracy.” It came closest to the American ideal of writing your own ticket, for what is more impartial than Mother Nature’s inexplicable caprice? Brains and talent can turn up anywhere — and like murder, will out, leaving the guilty exposed to prosecution by a frantically egalitarian America committed to self-esteem for all. Bit by bit, equality of opportunity was replaced by equality of outcome until “A” was for effort and meritocracy was defined as intellectual snobbery.

Today we are grappling with what appears to be an elitism gene, but it’s not. It’s a conservative gene that has split and committed the same kind of mischief in utero that results in fraternal but not identical twins. Half grows into Conservatives by Politics and the other half grows into Conservatives by Temperament. Pol Cons are anti-intellectual, gregarious, and tough, while Temp Cons are bookish, aloof, and introspective. They ought to add up to two sides of one powerful coin, but there’s a catch: The Pol Con side produces the elitist-haters and the Temp Con side produces the elitists.

To illustrate, take the remark attributed to the Duke of Wellington that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Pol Cons, who hate posh boarding schools, would condemn this as elitist and wax sentimental about ordinary enlisted soldiers (whom Wellington called “the scum of the earth”). But a Temp Con elitist would ignore the specific military aspect, take the remark metaphorically as it pertains to the brutishness of today’s athletes, and condemn players who dance in the end zone, thrust their fists in the air on golf courses, or bellow “I am the greatest!” Why? Because the triumphant must show modesty and respect. This is called “sportsmanship” and elitists invented it.

Temp Cons may be introspective but we are not passive. We love to see gentility come out swinging, which is why we were thoroughly turned off by the locker-room pep talk delivered by the Tea Party’s favorite female candidates advising males of both parties to “put on your man pants” and “man up!” Fortunately for our body politic, elitists can offer as an antidote our own favorite locker-room speech: Edmund Burke’s defense of Marie Antoinette, in which he defined chivalry as “the unbought grace of life, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise . . . which inspired real courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness.”

Pol Cons in general and moralistic tea partiers in particular go ballistic whenever a male candidate removes his man pants in the wrong bedroom, but Temp Cons tend to hold our peace about adultery thanks to a singular act of female chivalry that is bound to appeal to all elitists. When England’s Edward VII lay dying, Queen Alexandra sent a car for his mistress so they could bid each other farewell. Pol Cons wouldn’t like that a bit. The grand gesture is, after all, elitist.

In This Issue



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