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Posted by on May 15, 2008 in Politics | 5 comments

Elitism: Good for Basketball; Good for Politics?

Obama snob

Watching America today features an article from Italy’s La Stampa, entitled “Competence Isn’t Elitism”.

How very correct.

The final paragraph of the article, translated by Boyd T. DeLanzo, is worth quoting in its entirety.

Universal suffrage is only one half of democracy; the other half is education. Only if citizens are put into a condition to know and understand what they are doing, can their vote be counted as being significant and authentically democratic. Otherwise, any charlatan can come along and say anything to please the people and win their consent. Why is it that American citizens understand this when one talks about going to the doctor or deciding who is the best football player, but when one talks about choosing a leader, they prefer people like Bush? How does this demonstrate competence or ability? How is it that a critic can say that Obama is an “elitist” politician or that it is “elitist” to listen to the advice of economists, but that same critic would never get away with saying that Kobe Bryant is an “elitist” basketball player? Is it because these citizens are better educated to understand the fundamentals of basketball rather than politics?

What is elitism, exactly? According to one American dictionary,

1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.
a. The sense of entitlement enjoyed by such a group or class.
b. Control, rule, or domination by such a group or class.

I don’t hear from Obama any tax cuts for the rich – or the clever, or his friends. I don’t hear any sense of entitlement to the Presidency from Barack. It’s not like it runs in his family, now, is it? And as for the control, rule or domination by the small, formalized elite on Capitol Hill and in the White House, whatever Obama may or may not mean in the specifics, he’s the one who keeps banging the drum of change of that system.

The use of labels to avoid political debate does a disservice to voters, and always tells the truth about the labeler – as either a cheap point-scorer or too facile to articulate meaningful ideas.

Labeling as proxy for debate is a rather American folly. It happens everywhere, but not like here. “Liberal”, “Conservative”, “Neocon”, “Left” and “Right”, should probably banned, at least until Nov 08, since they refer to nothing that can be uniquely identified, have no explanatory power, and actually disable the speaker or listener from addressing an issue with an open mind and without being forced to take a side before he starts.

For what it’s worth, Londoners last week elected a new mayor, Boris Johnson, a colorful fellow who has the accent and complete lack of hair styling that characterize the old-fashioned British “elite”, in what one English commentator quipped, was the “return of the toffs to British politics”. “Toff” is a derogatory term for people with that classic upper class accent (the one many Americans do when they are badly impersonating a Brit), perhaps an aristocratic heritage, and certainly a history of attendance at the best schools and universities in the country. In other words, “toff” is the elite stereotype.

But the commentator did not mean “toff” as a criticism. It was more of a wry observation. Everyone knows Boris’ background, and it is a background that is quite alien to the overwhelming majority of the Londoners who voted him in as mayor. Even the formerly class-ridden British – who now as a culture tend strongly to the other extreme, championing the grounded and struggling over the “entitled” and successful – do not hold his overtly “elite” roots against him per se. The British, it seems, have this bizarre notion that politics is about the integrity and caliber of the men (or women) who are seeking office, and what good they will to do and are able to do – and that you can tell none of this from an IQ or a school history, alone.

The British, it seems, know that no education, upbringing or single-word label uniquely determine a person’s political views, nor, crucially, his motivations. Both sides (left and right, government and opposition) of the British parliament are filled with people who went to Cambridge and Oxford, arguably the two most “elite” universities in Europe. There is good reason: smart young people get a damned good education there, making them even smarter – smart enough even to be good at things like running treasuries and running countries.

The La Stampa article rightly suggests that the citizenry should be at least as concerned about the lack of quality of their own education, critical to the functioning of a healthy democracy, than the quality of their politicians’ educations.

In the U.K., you don’t need to come from any kind of elite to go to an “elite university”. You need to work hard at school, shine in exams, and shine in admission interviews. Then, the government will pay for whichever standard of higher and further education you’ve won for yourself through your efforts and talent. You don’t pay more for an Ivy League education than any other.

In the British system, no student from any social class need settle on a poorer education than they deserve for fear of the long-term financial consequences. Indeed, in the colleges of Cambridge, students with white-collar parents rub shoulders with those with blue collars, freeing them all from their class, and even from being “the clever kids”.

It’s a system that decouples social class and financial background from educational opportunity. It’s not perfect by any means, but it does mean that the British populus gets the kind of education that helps it form opinions about politicians based on their ideas – what they say about them and how they implement them – rather than on their middle names, or the meaningless and divisive labels thrown about like mud in the hope that they’ll stick.

The (almost) last word goes not to an Italian or a Brit, but to an American – specifically, an American Supreme Court Justice in the early C 20, Louis D. Brandeis, who commented, “The most important political office is that of the private citizen.” That’s the office whose importance Americans need to appreciate now, and which they must empower, starting in November.