Friday, 7 October 2016

Elites

Neil MacDonald has an article about Canadian Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch and her tactic of complaining about the "elites." He gets it mostly right - this is an import of a Republican strategy demonizes education and expertise to the detriment of everyone.

I think that maybe we are missing the point when we are befuddled by people seem to be elite but talk bad about elites. New York Billionaires from wealthy beginnings and university-professor-au-surgeons could be argued to be objectively elite, so it seems rich for them to bash their opponents as elitists. But as MacDonald rightly says, "elitism" is more about some ineffable notion of having lost touch with everyday people.

Just because a notion is ineffable doesn't mean it isn't a thing. Objectively measurable things like heat and gravity were once ineffable, but they are very real. It seems that plenty of people manage to eff elitism just fine.

I recall once reading a recipe for a revolution. It had two steps: first give a underclass basic education so that they are literate; second give a handful of members of that class a top notch education. The rest pretty much sorts itself out.

If that's people who are oppressed based on their race this makes sense because we know those highly educated members of a racial minority will never really be accepted in the society they were allowed to participate in. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister with a bachelor's degree in sociology, but he was still black.

It gets hard to pull the same trick if education and career are the dividing lines themselves. Leitch wasn't exactly born poor, and Trump certainly wasn't, but even if they were, at some point we say that a person's success or wealth has transformed them into one of the "elite." Obviously the wealth and education, however, doesn't take a person out of the underclass that a person like Trump represents.

So I think maybe the word "elite" is getting in the way of understanding the concept that is being reached for. The "elite" that the Tea Party complains about isn't a level of education or an income, it is a culture. What if what defines that culture is the degradation of emotions?

Many of us collectively watch in horror as Newt Gengrich explicitly makes the case that peoples feelings are just as good as facts - that even if Trump is wrong that rate of violent crime is going up, the fact that people feel it is makes him right when he says it. And yes, that's a horrifying notion - feelings can't be substituted for facts. But the idea that people's feelings are just as important as facts isn't a horrifying notion, and in politics is arguably a fact itself.

Our decision-making class has been saying, "We know what's right, regardless of how you feel" for decades and I think people are right to think, especially in the United States, that they have done a pretty lousy job of actually being right.

America basically stopped becoming a better place to live for the majority of citizens around the turn of the millennium, maybe a little before. The economic indicators being used to demonstrate success stopped being correlated with the welfare of the average person, let alone the poorest people. Unemployment stays low but too many people are working not enough hours to get by because companies don't want to shoulder the added costs of "full time" employees. Average income is up but only because it is up enough among the richest that is overshadows the dip for the median. Inflation adjusted median income has finally returned to pre-2008 levels, but the thing no one seems to talk about is that it hasn't yet returned to 2000 levels. That boom before the 2008 bust? It wasn't a boom, it was a bust for the majority. And while the Trump supporters are racist against Syrians who want to come to America, many of them appear to be less racist against Syrians who want to stay alive in Syria. When Trump says the United States has got to stop getting into stupid foreign wars he's right.

People who have said, "We know what's right, regardless of how you feel" have been dead wrong. Rather than engineering a successful society they have been self-serving, engineering social dominance for their own class. They protect that with a veneer of reason, but that's all it is. "Reason" is mostly a code word for rationalizing.

So maybe Trump actually is one of the "little people" despite his wealthy upbringing and sheltered adulthood. People know that reason cannot dissuade him from following his gut and doing "what is right." It is his lack of impulse control and wild emotional swings that make him non-elite, and Clinton's mastery of her emotions that make her the epitome of elite.

When you choose a leader based on their tendency to follow their emotions, you end up getting whatever their emotions give you. That sounds very unstable and unsafe to us elites. But when you choose a leader based on their ability to rise through the ranks of a system designed to choose leaders you don't get some kind of Darwinian-determined best choice, you get a person devoted to keeping power where it is since the current placement of power rewards them.

I'm not defending Trump. He's a disgusting racist, sexist asshole. I'm not defending Leitch - who wants to check immigrants for "Canadian Values" before letting them enter the country - because she looks a little bit like racism lite. Still, I'd like to say that from an objective stance, I can't see any reason to think the emotion-racism connection and the "reasonable"-non-racism connection are anything more than accidental. Compassion is an emotion, and corporatism and the social dominance of money are racism-agnostic. But whether accidental or not, we live in the world we live in, and if you support a racist candidate you can't just wash the racism off in the bath.

I'm also not ruling out the possibility of faking it. Trump may qualify as not elite because of his complete lack of impulse control but so far Leitch is a tougher sell who could easily be playing a cynical game.

It's no wonder that progressives have been moving towards a synthesis of objectivity and emotions - that is the recognition that a person's experiences and emotions are part of objective reality that should be taken into account. That's still a leading edge thing, though, and people who have been told their feelings don't matter for decades aren't going to suddenly start trusting a system where "experts" are put into one group - as if you should do the same thing with the expert opinion of a physicist, a sociologist, and an economist.

But the progressives who are moving this way have very little power anyway. Like I've said before, if you are trying to figure out what is right - and you are open to the possibility that what you want most is wrong - then reasoning is the way to go, but anyone using reason to try to prove that they are right is making a power play that has nothing to do with objectivity. The elite are not about objectivity, we are about putting down others for their human traits in order to justify consolidating power.

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