Democracy & Elitism 2: performance elitism vs privilege elitism, and why the difference matters

Democracy+ElitismPart two in a series.

“Elite” hasn’t always been an epithet. In fact, if we consider what the dictionary has to say about it, it still signifies something potentially worthy. Potentially. For instance:

e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism (-ltzm, -l-) n.
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.le

That definition, while technically accurate enough, could use a bit of untangling, because it embodies the very nature of our problem with elitism in America. In popular use, the term “elite” and its derivatives has been twisted into a pure, distilled lackwit essence of “liberal” – another once-proud word that fell victim to our moneyed false consciousness machine.

However, if we sift the definition a bit, we find that it’s actually three definitions masquerading as one: intellect, social status, or financial resources. Those are not three ways of saying the same thing. On the contrary – they’re two or three distinctly different things. And in understanding these distinctions, we will hopefully come to a better grasp of what ails America. To wit: while elitism literally refers to a set of different and only barely related conditions, we are routinely encouraged to conflate them all. When we do, it causes us to ignore dynamics that threaten our individual and collective well-being and to denigrate the dynamics of opportunity that offer us hope for a more prosperous and productive democracy.

Elitism: Three Definitions

Let’s look at what the term “elite” means in three contexts.

1: Social elite. Up until the dawn of modern democracy in the 18th Century most societies were ruled by kings or emperors or chieftains or sheiks or some similar variety of hereditary elite. These societies tended to be rigidly class-based, and much of your life’s potential was strictly determined by the station into which you were born. If your parents were artisans, you were probably going to be an artisan. If you were born into the peasantry, a peasant you would live and die. In some places the “divine right” doctrine made clear that this was all God’s will – the hereditary lineage was as God intended. The class structure, with the king at the top, was the natural order as decreed in Heaven.

We don’t have the divine right of kings in the US today, of course, but humans being human, we still see vestiges of dynastic social elitism. In part one of this series we noted the Bush dynasty, of which former president George W Bush was at least fourth generation. We’re all well acquainted with the Kennedy clan, as well, and even if we don’t know the specific histories, we certainly know the names of other American royal families: Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Duke, Hearst, Pulitzer, Reynolds, Carnegie, Kellogg, Morgan, Stanford, Ford, Du Pont – and virtually every city of any size has its own local aristocracies. In my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, names like Reynolds and Hanes carried a lot of weight, for instance, and in Denver, where I live now, one finds any number of things named after the Iliff and Bonfils clans.

2: Financial elite. In the old country social and financial status tended to go hand-in-hand. In America, social status has tended to trail financial success at a safe distance (since the first generation or two of an emerging financial dynasty invariably has to overcome the taint associated with being nouveau riche – that is, one may have a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean one has breeding, culture or sufficient social skills to be accepted into polite society). However, over time even a pack of socially distasteful Arkies like the Waltons can be expected to gain a measure of acceptance.

For purposes of discussing elitists in America, it makes sense to consider the social and financial elites as more or less one group. These groups, which we’ll collectively term privilege elitists, are distinct from what our dictionary calls…

3: Intellectual elite. In brief, intellectual elites are people who, regardless of socio-economic background, comprise a society’s “knowledge class.” They are usually educated (although they may be largely self-educated); they earn their livings with their brains; as a general rule they value learning and education; and they dominate the teaching professions. If the social and economic cohorts are privilege elitists, then let’s call this group the performance elites.

First, though, we need to address a sticking point. The word “intellectual” troubles many Americans for reasons they’ve probably never stopped to think about. This distaste results from the fact that Americans historically placed a great value on applied learning. Those who founded and developed our culture were people who crossed a large ocean to escape poverty or seek religious and social “freedom” (a popular, if problematic way of putting it) or get away from the European establishment, remember. They tended to have less patience with learning for its own sake (pure knowledge), which in families like mine often got dismissed as useless “book learnin’.” Book learnin’ was seen as infinitely inferior to “common sense.”

“Intellectual” has always signified the pursuit of knowledge that wasn’t “good for anything.” As such, it has never been respected in America, and any number of disparaging iconographies* have grown up around the concept. “Eggheads” and “brainiacs” are rarely thought to know anything of value, and even the main body of 20th Century “science fiction,” a genre ostensibly devoted to praising science, is perhaps better understood as engineering fiction.

Intelligence vs Intellect

So we have a perceptual hang-up about intellectuals. Are these perceptions fair, though? Or accurate? Or productive? In a word, no.

Once upon a time I insisted that I was intelligent, but that I was not an intellectual. I could go back and attempt to explain what the distinction was in my mind, but the reality is that I had fallen for the faux-populist ideology I’m describing here. I identified closely with my working class roots and allowed myself to associate intellectualism with smug, self-superiority. That I knew a few smug, self-superior intellectuals only served to reinforce my delusion.

Whatever attitude a particular individual case may adopt, our intellectual/performance elites are generally defined by a few extremely desirable qualities. They are smart; they have worked hard to acquire knowledge; and they believe that the wisdom arising from knowledge holds the key to a better world for all of us. They may not be “of the people” in the sense that their lives are fully integrated into working class culture, but the ones I know uniformly care a great deal about “the people” and wish for them greater opportunity, prosperity and happiness.

Let’s also be clear about the place of those with “useful” knowledge. There may be a popular tendency to herd them into different chutes than the eggheads, but engineer types are performance elites, too. Literally understood, they are people who put their minds into the service of building our present and our future.

Some intellectual elites were born rich, but most probably weren’t. Most had to work very hard for what they’ve gotten. Countless thousands mortgaged their futures with student loans. And if they take a minute to think about it, a lot of them would probably react strongly to being lumped into the same group as trust fund elitists who were born rich and never accomplished anything of lasting value in their lives.

As a way of visualizing the differences between these two groups (which we’re necessarily abstracting to make a point), consider this chart, which opposes the tendencies and qualities of performance and privilege elites.

Performance Elitism Privilege Elitism
aka Intellectual Elite aka Social, Financial Elite
Achievement Entitlement
Self-reliant Parent-reliant
Earn Inherit
Know-how Know-who
Smart Connected
Effort Leisure
Produce Hoard
Worker Patrician
Improve Stagnate
Mortarboard Silver spoon
Intellectually curious Intellectually indifferent
A+ Gentleman’s C
Create Possess
Promise Power
Future Past
Public responsibility Private rights
For the many For the few
Level playing field Rigged game
Opportunity Birthright
Information is Power Disinformation is Power

Despite cynical attempts to convince the public that elitists are actively working to destroy the American way of life, the truth is that the targets of this scorn are guilty of precisely the opposite. Privilege elites are, by definition, born into legacies of wealth and power. When former President George W Bush talked about promoting an “ownership society,” these are the owners he had in mind. They’re the “haves and have-mores” who constituted his “base.” They’re the hyper-rich top one percent who, according to various analyses, own over 50% of the nation’s wealth. They also own, in addition to everything else, the media outlets responsible for propagating the toxic “liberal/intellectual elite” meme.

The elitism under attack, performance elitism, is built on striving, achievement and knowledge. These elites earned whatever status they have through hard work, while the privilege elites inherited their birthright through a modern equivalent of the divine right of kings. Intellectual elites seek equal opportunity while economic elites use their heft and influence to promote ever-greater inequality of both opportunity and outcome.

Yes, we do have elitists in America. But elitism isn’t necessarily bad – on the contrary, depending on what sort of elitism we’re talking about, it may be a very good thing. It may be the very quality that allowed the US to become the greatest nation in the world, or it may be the quality that is eroding our greatness more and more each day.

The next time you hear “elitist” used to describe someone who’s trying to destroy America, pause and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Who’s doing the talking?
  • What does their portfolio look like?
  • Who owns the wires they’re using to address you, and what is the bested interest of those who own the channel?
  • Is the image being presented plausible? Do the elites being pilloried have either the motive or the means to do whatever they’re being accused of doing?
  • As you listen to the story, do you clearly understand what is meant by the word “elite” as it is being employed?
  • Is it clear to you that the speaker/writer understands what the word “elite” means?
  • Is the term being used to clarify or obfuscate?
  • Finally, based on what you’re being told and how the argument is being presented, how much credit for intelligence do the story’s producer’s give you? Is it clear what they want you to think and how they want you to react? If so, what motivation on their part explains the direction they’re trying to move you?

Most importantly, if you have personally worked hard to improve your mind so that you can improve your life as well as the lives of those in your family and community, don’t let a cynical propaganda frame deprive you of that which you have earned. Be proud of your status as a performance elite and don’t back down from privilege elites who would denigrate your accomplishments.

* What I mean by iconographies is a series of narratives and popular images used to depict members of a group. For a quick example, think about the stereotype of the mad scientist. Or the trope of the wandering kung fu master. Or the crooked used car salesman. Or the ambulance-chasing lawyer. Or the narcissistic model. We have clichés of all sorts of types or groups of people, and more often than not these quick, cheap categorizations prevent us from understanding the humans depicted in meaningful ways. See Neal Stephenson’s use of the term in Anathem.


Next: Who Are These Out-of-Touch “Liberal Elites,” Anyway?


  • You broke it down very well, Doc, and i think you’re striking the heart of the matter by zeroing in on the conflation of the three forms of elite.

    I’ve got a big problem with “common sense” and how it’s used by the majority of people. Common sense isn’t common until you know it. For example, i spent all day yesterday fighting back the forest with a chainsaw. I spend a lot of time doing that so i know how to make a series of cuts that will make the tree fall in the direction i want it to without the tree trying to kill me. It’s “common sense” (and it is if you understand the idea and think it through), but would it be common sensical if you’ve never done it?

    Further, i wonder sometimes if we demean certain knowledge sets by labeling them “common sense”. Sure, that knowledge is not often found in books, but it’s still hard won.

    I straddle both worlds. I’m proud of all the common sense i’ve gathered on factory floors and with the crackling sound of a tree falling; i don’t hide it from my intellectual family and friends. I’m also proud of everything i’ve learned from books and university professors, and i don’t bother dumbing down my vocabulary or thoughts for fellow factory rats or rednecks. The two are not really in opposition.

    I’m with you on the thesis that performance elitism gets an unjustly bad rap in this country, but i would suggest a little rule for the performance elite among us. This little rule has served me (over-educated, college boy, smarty pants) well on factory floors, etc.:

    If someone knows something that you don’t, they’re smarter than you in at least one way. If you’re truly intellectual, then you’ll relish the opportunity to learn whatever it is they know that you don’t.

  • One of the things I often come back to when the whole “elite” argument comes up is that no one seems to have an issue with the term “elite athlete.” In fact, if the definition you found were to say, “deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in athletic ability,” we’d have a description of how athletes in popular sports are treated. Consider, a scholarship, college football player is given a free ride to that college, often including a special meal table, special dormitories, individual tutors, grades they may not deserve in order to keep them eligible, forgiveness for actions that would get other students jailed or kicked out of school, and the like. Yet, I have heard people who rail against “elites” absolutely INSIST that college football players be admitted to their alma maters regardless of their abilities to succeed in the classroom, that they be offered incentives that are against NCAA rules, and even that their alma maters should establish football majors that allow kids who can barely read and write to stay eligible for football.

    I’ve often wondered about this, and I don’t think I’ve really hit on the reason why it’s OK to be athletically elite and be eligible for stunning “favored treatment,” but not to be intellectually elite and gain earned favored treatment (such as that promotion others didn’t get). Perhaps it’s because football players entertain us. Maybe it’s because even the most athletically challenged football fan usually played sandlot ball and can identify. Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that it’s fairly easy to imagine what it might be like to be stronger, faster, and bigger, but difficult to imagine being smarter.

    I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

  • would it be common sensical if you’ve never done it?

    In this case, Lex, I think it would be common sensical to realize that a falling tree can crush you, realize that you don’t know how to prevent that from happening and learn how to do it before you whip out the chainsaw. That’s what common sense really is: a fairly advanced understanding of consequences, an accurate idea of your own relative knowledge and ignorance of any given subject and a willingness to take the time to think and adjust BEFORE you act. Since it’s looking like a majority of the population never quite develops either (based both on developmental studies and real-life observation of dumbassery), common sense is not common at all. Something in us must whisper that it’s our own fault, or we wouldn’t even use the word “common” in this context, don’t you think?

  • JS, I don’t think it’s that mysterious.

    Physical perfection, in theory, is achievable to a wide cross-section of the population. Even the most dedicated couch potato could theoretically get up off his ass and look better, feel better and perform physical tasks better. He may not ever have the reflexes or the genetic advantages of his favorite athlete, but he could be more like that ideal. It won’t happen, but it could.

    Dumb people stay dumb. Average people stay average. Period. Ignorance can be ameliorated, but inherent intelligence is what it is. We know that, whether or not we like to admit it.

  • Writing as I think about it… Sam, maybe that’s one of the deeper reasons for the unpopularity of the particular type of elite we label “intellectual.” I think you’ve made a valid comparison between performance and privilege elitism. But in addition to hard work, motivation, etc., isn’t one of the underlying prerequisites for intellectual performance the basic ability to excel in that area? Certainly, lots of people could be much better educated if they tried and are probably much more capable than they imagine, and that would be a lovely phenomenon… I don’t know.

  • I think the issue of what “common sense” is, or what people think it is, is very important to this discussion since it has been presented as the popular antithesis to “book larnin.'” I can only say that the context in which I’ve heard “common sense” used hasn’t usually had much to do with acquired, practical learning in the way Lex describes it. For instance, I can look at a tree and know I want it to fall in a particular place. I can use what I think of as common sense to guess that removing material from a tree trunk in a particular place would tend to make the tree fall in that direction, but I would know absolutely nothing about which types of cuts would be best, or which tools to use, or how to gauge the wind’s effect, and a host of other things. I would almost certainly either get someone else to do it or have someone who knows what she’s doing teach me to do it. I can’t use any sort of sense to learn skills I don’t possess without help (or, I guess, bitter experience that I would try to avoid).

    Same with the factory floor or any other workplace. One learns to do some things, acquiring skills as one does them, but that’s not common, I don’t think. I know how to put a tin roof on a trailer and how to run weatherproofing so that roof doesn’t leak, but most other people don’t, so my knowledge can’t be common. I also know how to pick tobacco leaves one by one but very quickly so that they don’t break, but only a small percentage of people know how to do that. To me, this is not common sense.

    The context in which I’ve heard the term used (not all inclusive) tends to be something like these statements:

    1. He doesn’t have enough common sense to come in out of the rain.
    2. Common sense tells you that the Apollo moon shots are messin’ up the weather.
    3. All n_____’s is lazy. Common sense will tell you that.

    In this context, someone has seen a phenomenon and then postulated a cause based on intuition of some sort. If someone is out in the rain, it can’t be because he just doesn’t care about getting wet, or even enjoys rain, but because he has no common sense. If the weather has been screwy in your area lately and there happen to be Apollo launches going on at roughly the same time, then the launches must be causing the screwy weather. If you observe that African Americans in your area tend to be poor and are often out and about when others are at work, then it must be because all African Americans are lazy. It can’t be because they can’t find work.

    In the context in which I’ve most seen it used, then, “common sense” consists of intuiting a cause for an observed effect. In this sense, it is the opposite of the scientific method, which requires testing to discover a causal relationship. Common sense could never produce a counter-intuitive (though factual) result. If the earth looks flat, then common sense tells you it’s flat. If you own a firearm and you meet a society where even metal hasn’t been invented, then common sense tells you that members of that society are inferior to you. If crime is high in your society, then common sense tells you it’s because punishments for crime are not bad enough.

    If science refutes any of these things, then science becomes the enemy.

  • A quick exception to the idea that engineering knowledge is always admired:

    I worked a couple of summers running pipe through some schools to revamp the heating system. The guy who designed and supervised the work had about a gazillion years of experience, I guess, and he was contemptuous of engineers. Just a single exception, I know, but I think it’s instructive because the real issue seems to have been one of respect: the guy didn’t feel he got the respect he deserved and the engineers got respect they didn’t deserve.

    I wonder where respect, or lack thereof, plays into all this?

  • I think my common sense definition is pretty much what you just said. Just shorter.

  • Dr. Sammy, I believe you mean “hoard,” not “horde.” Unless I’m mistaken, you want the word meaning to gather resources to oneself, guard them and keep them, rather than, a large chaotic group of animals or people.

    I’d like ideas on the best way to counter these populist propagandists who crap on those of us who value hard work AND knowledge AND common sense, and to insist that we do -not- sit in ivory towers (or ivory cubicles) thinking that we know better than everyone else what’s good for them. We let too many of these people mischaracterize us, and present false choices between values like hard work and smarts, when there is no need to choose.

    The truth is that most “intellectuals” tend toward the liberal side of politics. Those in academia, all around the world are often the main ones pushing for reform, which is one definition of “liberal.” What is one of the first things despots tend to do when they take over or are trying to? They close universities and/or fire professors. Because of this you get brain-drain. (Iran is a really good example.) The “performance elites” as you call them, are among the first to be oppressed, after political rivals. Revolutionary movements often begin at colleges. “Liberals” are the ones who tend to value freedom, equality and democracy over tradition, prosperity and security, and that is true historically and all around the world. (Please note I’m not trying to say that tradition, prosperity are not important, but I think the philosophical differences lie mainly in priorities.)

    I think this is why conservatives often don’t like “intellectuals,” because their philosophy doesn’t tend to be conservative.

  • I don’t know if I buy lumping the financial elites into the social elites. Granted, over time, financial elites become social elites, but for that first generation or two, I think it’s deserving of its own category. Often these are self-made men and women who work their butts off to make their business successful or who create the perfect product for their time. The Rockefellers and Carnegies didn’t always have money, and the same holds true for some of today’s business leaders.

  • Jeffrey Watson

    Conservatives have no problems with intellectuals, despite what the smug liberals like to portray, and the unscientific evidence they trot out to prove their hypothesis. Some of the most intellectual people in this country happen to be conservative. You just don’t see them, as they’re busy toiling in their labs, jobs, and not making a lot of noise. Here’s a good link on how the literary intellectuals hijacked the term, “Intellectual” from the real intellectuals without a fight.


  • Shannon: Dear Jebus – that’s what I get for trying to write and edit late at night. Thanks for the catch.

    Jeff: “Smug liberals.” That’s what I like about you – you prove my point without even being asked.

  • I think that respect plays centrally in this. Lotta people, they don’t respect that book lernin ’cause it makes you liberal. Other people don’t respect the knowledge required to, say, fix a car because they’re convinced that they could do it if they really wanted to do it. I’m sure that J.S.’s example was about respect; i’ve seen similar examples more times than i can count. My golden rule has probably served me well because it ends up giving respect to just about everybody…in certain situations. But it probably works for me because i really do want to know whatever: how to cut down a tree, how to pick tobacco, what happened in the translation and transmission of the Bible, etc.

    I probably was a little loose with the definition of “common sense” when i mostly meant non-book lernin’ and the type of knowledge set that common people tend to have.

    The longer i think, the more i believe that J.S. has the root of the trouble. But if respect — in both or either direction — is the problem, i sure as shit don’t know the solution.

    • Fine. Let me complicate this conversation a bit, just for the sake of our mutual edification. For the sake of argument – and humor me here – why is it so important that all people be respected so equally? I’m not talking about the basic level of respect one ought to accord all of one’s fellow citizens, and I’m not suggesting that we ought to go out of our way, if we’re educated elites, to be arrogant cocksuckers just for the sport of it.

      What I AM suggesting is that this whole thread is infused by an undercurrent of leveling. Those who have achieved and attained are assumed to owe those who haven’t the same level of professional respect. This is a core, unexamined ASSUMPTION of the discussion as it has evolved, isn’t it?

      All discussions about the otherly intelligenced notwithstanding for the moment, why shouldn’t those who have accomplished more be accorded a higher level of professional respect than those who have accomplished less?

  • Go, Tom.

    An examination of rags-to-riches performance elites who cash in on their hard work and the attitudes they retain or develop or both… now there’s an interesting extension of the premise. And Andrew Carnegie is a fascinating example. Or Red McCombs (local color). Or Muammar Gaddafi.

  • By all means. But as we do so, please make sure to understand the difference between rule and exception. We will not be confusing the 1 in 100,000,000 anomaly with the 99,999,999 norm.

  • Lex,

    Believe me, you do NOT want to know ANYTHING about pulling tobacco. Worst. Job. Ever.

  • Sam, I haven’t been meaning to make an argument for leveling in the sense that a Nobel laureate should be accorded the same level of respect in everyday life as that accorded to a convicted felon (extreme example, I know, but it seemed easiest to make the point this way).

    I am beginning to think, though, that in US culture, respect may be central to the issue with performance elites. Why is an interesting topic. Perhaps it’s because of the fact that many early immigrants here were from oppressed peoples (Scots and Irish especially), impoverished people, and criminals. They probably had an innate hatred of their “betters” who were better educated than they were, and we have carried that through the years. But there is also this myth in the US that however one measures success, success depends entirely on one’s personal attributes. So, maybe there’s some shame involved that causes people who feel it to lash out at those more accomplished than they are.

    But this is speculation. I’m sure someone, somewhere, has done a great study on this issue. Probably many someones.

  • JS: You raise good points, and being descended from some of the stock you’re talking about I think I understand it at the DNA level. 🙂

    However, I’m probably being more normative. That is, instead of WHY is it this way, perhaps I mean why SHOULD it be this way?

    Ultimately I have zero hope for a meaningful solution to any of what I’m talking about in this series, so feel free to treat it all as philosophy….

  • Jesus. Otherly-intelligenced. Just say it, Sam – dumb. Dumb dumb dumb. Stupid. Not the sharpest crayon in the box. If you’re going to take back elitist, grab it by the balls.

    why shouldn’t those who have accomplished more be accorded a higher level of professional respect than those who have accomplished less?

    Define “more.” And do you mean “more” in a similar professional arena or more in… see, I need to know what “more” means to even ask the question. Has a successful structural engineer accomplished more than a successful auto mechanic?

    • Ann: Some days I think “more” means “any at all.” I was talking with a woman at a business conference I’m attending last night and a colleague had told her that I have a PhD. She thought this was impressive, but I had to tell her that in the world of business this is something you keep to yourself. It’s a negative with many, if not most, of the people you deal with. They see the PhD and think egghead, and not only is it something that doesn’t help you, it often hurts you. My PhD is on resume, but it’s the very last thing at the bottom of the second page. If you’re in Europe, on the other hand, the PhD is a huge plus.

      Have PhD’s “accomplished” more than a good mechanic? Again, the very question proves my point. What do YOU mean by “accomplished”? The PhD IS an accomplishment – and not an easy one. But the very interrogation you and Lex are conducting here demonstrates what I say about the American rage for “useful” knowledge.

      Lex: I’d like to challenge the “treat the common folk like garbage” meme. Because I think it’s part and parcel of the whole phenomenon I’m talking about. I know LOTS of performance elites (you don’t get a PhD without meeting more than a few along the way, and those are just the academic types) and if anything they treat “regular joes” BETTER than other regular joes do. They’re more enlightened (not perfect, but generally MORE enlightened) on average than your working class average and they’re usually quite kind. Are there exceptions? Sure.

      But what I think you’re doing is reproducing the toxic meme that the privilege elites would have us all believe. From my experience – a kid who grew up working class, got into an elite private university on scholarships, worked in both the academic and professional worlds, earned a PhD from a big state university – I’d argue that performance elites are the group that, on the whole, accords other people, regardless of class and station, the MOST respect. Privilege elites respect nothing but other privilege elites and working people, well, that can be a real crap shoot.

  • Respect is not the same as leveling. Leveling is thinking that rebuilding an engine is of the same intellectual heft as writing a book about the Church in Byzantium; it isn’t. Respect is just recognizing that one needs the guy who rebuilds engines to have a car to commute to the ivory tower.

    And yeah, some people are just fucking stupid. No, most people are fucking stupid. And a whole lot of people who would fall into the “performance elite” category — at least by outward trappings and our ability to judge their station — are fucking stupid too. I mean it, and that probably makes me an elitist. But i’m still probably an outlier as a redneck, liberal elitist with a funny name.

    I’m for elitism. Eg, i don’t think that everyone should go to university just because they’re willing to take on student loan debt. Smart people should run things. But if the smart people/elite treat the not so smart people like garbage, the only way that smart people will run things is if they keep control by subterfuge, coercion or force. At that point, it won’t be intelligent and thoughtful people in charge…it will look like what we have right now: the people running things will be just smart enough to make their venal behavior look like something it isn’t, at least it will look that way to stupid people.

  • Finally, a concise working definition of respect. I like it.

    And a whole lot of people who would fall into the “performance elite” category — at least by outward trappings and our ability to judge their station — are fucking stupid too.

    There again, like Sam’s “more,” I’m not quite sure what you mean by “fucking stupid.” A lot of people have very circumscribed areas of competence, I suppose, and a much wider range of incompetence or ignorance or obliviousness. Is it by choice, do you think? Even choice by not choosing? In fact, I’m thinking of someone right now, and in his case, it may well be that something is occluding his intellectual potential in all but one specific area in which he feels comfortable. Fucking stupid could be fucking nuts, too.

  • Sam wrote: “…I’d argue that performance elites are the group that, on the whole, accords other people, regardless of class and station, the MOST respect. Privilege elites respect nothing but other privilege elites and working people, well, that can be a real crap shoot.”

    That’s a hard one – among academics , I’d say that’s mostly true – among other types (physicians, attorneys, etc.) less so, I find.

    Lex: I’ve found mechanics and other “common sense” professionals – i.e., plumbers, electricians, etc., as condescending and patronizing a crowd as any until one proves some knowledge of their work. And this explains in part the sexism they practice so ruthlessly….

    Shannon W wrote: ““Liberals” are the ones who tend to value freedom, equality and democracy over tradition, prosperity and security, and that is true historically and all around the world. (Please note I’m not trying to say that tradition, prosperity are not important, but I think the philosophical differences lie mainly in priorities.)”

    By “priorities” I assume you mean these “liberal” academics (of whom I’m a card carrying member) think EVERYONE should enjoy the same freedoms, equality of treatment before the law, and democratic rights and responsibilities as any “elite” group. If those are the “priorities” you mean to suggest, you’re right. My experience of the social and financial elites is that they think of tradition as only THEIR tradition being of value, of prosperity as only THEIR prosperity and hang the unfairness/unscrupulousness/evil to everyone else, of security being THEIR tradition and prosperity being secure no matter how or how much THEIR security impinges/curtails/stomps on the nards of on the freedom, equality, and democratic rights and responsibilities of everyone else.

    Silly me – thinking we should treat other people as if they actually have value….

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  • Sam, useful knowledge? Maybe. It’s personally useful to me to understand (as precisely as possible in a subjective perception kinda world) what someone means before I think more.about what they said… I could tell you what I think of as accomplishment (and it’s pretty predictable), but that’s not what I don’t already know. If you know what I mean.

    I’m not looking for a global definition. I want to know why Lex attaches an angry “fucking” to “stupid” and how you’re gauging other people’s gauging of other people’s lives. Which hinges on what you mean by “accomplishment,” as well – should have included that in the interrogation. Your performance/privilege elite chart is a good starting point for the discussion… but as Tom and Jim both pointed out, the performance elite are a big and disparate group.

  • Well yes, the problem of respect certainly goes both ways. That’s why i said earlier that i don’t know how to solve the problem if the root problem is respect; who starts respecting first? I’ve had lots of experience with both ends of this question, and there’s no doubt that there’s more stupid at one end than the other.

    I think you’re right, Sam, a certain slice of the performance elite is likely to give a lot of respect and understanding to everyone. But that brings us to class in America and complicates the question because we’ve taken to defining class by the outward trappings which are often gained by a willingness to take on debt.

    I’m not trying to elevate the toxic meme which is about giving false respect. I’ve known factory rats with far more wisdom (and wisdom is how i would define elite) than desk workers in the same company. I can think of a specific example of two people i knew right after 9/11. The one who would be considered performance elite rambled on about “clashes of civilization” and other such nonsense (and was supposedly liberal) while the mulleted floor worker foresaw a quagmire in Afghanistan and talked about parallels with Vietnam.

    What makes the meme toxic is how the privileged elite (and some of the performance elite…Obama types count as performance, right?) elevate the “common man” and who they choose to elevate. They choose people like Joe the Plumber. There’s still no actual respect, it’s a propaganda ploy. And what we see doesn’t give respect to the quiet and deserving but pretends to give it to the worst examples. Elevating ignorance to an ideological value is not giving simple respect.

    Artisans (which is what the mechanic, plumber and electrician roughly are in a technological society) have always been low on the social scale. 2000 years ago in the Mediterranean they were lower than peasant farmers.

    My final thought here is also problematic. We have one political class segment that pretends to elevate the “common man” when they’re really elevating ignorance, and we have another that pretends to be in favor of the common man and helping him but tends to actually being snide towards him and screwing him over with a smile on their faces. Maybe this stems from a segment of the performance elite that’s drawn to “public service” and that segment’s desire to become part of the privilege elite.

    One more final thought for Ann. That all may just be me. I can respect someone who knows just one thing incredibly well, but it’s hard. I naturally respect people who know lots about lots of things, but maybe that’s just because i think everyone should be (think) like me.

  • I attach “fucking” to “stupid” because i’m a mean, jackass elitist. And about one year ago i made a vow to myself that i wasn’t going to cut slack to the world around me anymore. That is, no more thinking “i shouldn’t hold other people to the same standards i hold for myself.”

  • I respect people who have a final thought, a FINAL final thought, and then some more final thoughts. But maybe that’s because I think everyone should think (overthink? what the hell) just like me… a mean, jackass elitist. You can borrow “bitch,” too, if you’d like.

  • Not to hijack this thread, Lex, but I was taken by your comment that artisans, 2000 years ago, inhabited less exalted social positions in the Med than peasant farmers. Since I’m a terrible nerd who reads a lot about the ancient world, this interests me, and I don’t recall ever seeing this statement before. I believe it would be true that land-owning farmers in, say, Italy had higher status than garum-makers, but that’s because slaves did almost all the work on farms, so people who worked with their hands were compared to slaves. The citizen farmer had almost disappeared from around Rome by that time as the state repossessed the land and turned it over to wealthy aristicrats for their latifundia, as I recall.

    But if you were to stack up a peasant farmer in, say, Cilicia against, say, an artisan like a blacksmith, I think you’d find that the blacksmith had higher status. But I may well have missed something since I haven’t concentrated specifically on this issue.

  • I wonder if two of the key words in the US are “envy” and “shame.” I think these emotions exist everywhere, of course, but may be linked more thoroughly and aimed more squarely towards certain people in the US because, as they say in “Rent”:

    And when you’re living in America
    At the end of the millenium
    You’re what you own

    In the US, I think envy can and does produce shame, and specifically shame about one’s financial position relative to others, because so many Americans still believe that myth that just anyone can become rich if they possess attributes such as a high work ethic, good moral character, reasonable shrewdness, and the like. If I’m onto something here, it would explain why privileged elites are not subject to the same sorts of scorn as performance elites. After all, one can envy the privileged elite, but one generally cannot feel shame for having been born into the wrong family. Envy of performance elites, though, can cause one to make a comparison to one’s own accomplishment and feel shame about it. Shame breeds resentment and ill-feeling towards oneself, and people naturally find defense mechanisms against it.

    Think of the defense mechanisms you have heard others use:

    “He thinks his shit don’t stink.”
    “My opinion’s just as good as anybody else’s.”
    “He’s real uppity.”

    Those are just a few, and I’ve heard them applied to the mildest, gentlest, and least arrogant of individuals imaginable — just because they are very successful.

  • JS, i’ve been reading Crossan’s historical examination of Jesus (and his times). I may have it somewhat wrong and should check it; at the very least he indicates that they held a lower status than i would have expected.

    I think envy and shame are extremely important here.

  • And Sam, what I like about you is the entertainment value in your smug, condescending, superior attitude. You keep me in stitches.


  • Thanks Lex. The book is now on my Christmas list.

  • What makes it so difficult to accept the notion that the tweedy Left is an elite is that, compared to America’s real elite — the all-powerful, vampiric right-wing oligarchy–the tweed elite is insignificant. Somehow the kleptocrats managed to invert objective American reality, making themselves “regular folks” in the eyes of the Debbies, while liberals and leftists, whose platforms are designed to help the poor and middle-classes at the expense of the wealthy, have been successfully tagged “elitists.” How did it work out that Bush, a pampered prep school brat who came from generations of wealth and never had to struggle in his life, is considered “regular folks” by the regular folks, whereas Clinton, who came from truly horrible white trash in Arkansas, the kind of poor broken home that Debbie was only a step or two away from and may yet end up in herself, is considered an elitist?

    Read the rest. It’s germane to the subject of the thread and Ames wrote it after coming home from a decade abroad so it has that “fresh look at America” perspective that really can only be gained by leaving for a significant amount of time.

  • Wow. Thanks Lex. That was long, but worth it if only for this:

    The other side has mountain bikes and the ability to create 10-foot tall papier-mache puppets. Oh no, don’t use the fucking puppets on us!

    One thing that rang true to me was that lower-class or even middle-class America hates it when one of its own makes good. I’ve noticed that time and again with my classmates. And it sort of fits into what I’m coming to think may be close to the truth: it’s shameful in America when someone from roots very much like yours does better than you do. Clinton may have shamed people and that’s a strong reason why they didn’t like him.

    You know, when you think about it, you can hear the same thing when people in the African-American community accuse a successful person from similar roots of “acting white.” In the part of the South I come from, you might be called “uppity” or a “city slicker” or some such.

    Thanks for the link.

  • Lex: “…and we have another that pretends to be in favor of the common man and helping him but tends to actually being snide towards him and screwing him over with a smile on their faces.”

    I’d say let’s not confuse performance elite with the Democratic Party.

    Jeff: I’ve been called a lot of names, but I don’t get “smug” a lot. I have to say, though, that your shot is the absolute epitome of hypocrisy. If I recall, you’re the guy who likes to carry on with that “breeding” argument. In essence, some folks are better because they’re just born better. Well, maybe, but pot kettle black.

    Karl Rove himself would marvel at that bit of misdirection. For my part, I’ll try to focus on the signal:noise ratio….

  • It’s probably hard not to be smug with a velvety-smooth nutsack.

  • It’s remarkable the things that women remember about me.

  • I think you’ve made a grave category error. Financial elites, whom you lump together with privilege elites, are the only true performance elites in the sense that we have no reliable data to support the claims of other purported elites except income and accumulated wealth. Academic types in particular, those guys who sit at the heart of the process of cultivating the intellect, are all wannabe privilege elites waiting for the call from Harvard or Yale. When that call comes, they’re quite happy to rest on laurels related to their institutional affiliation. Not unlike preening oneself on a pedigree of descent from a signer of the Declaration.

    This isn’t the last word, but the starting place for a consideration of the question is in Aristotle’s discussion of the great-souled man in his Nicomachean Ethics.

    • @Larry – Let me see if I can paraphrase your remarks: “It’s only of value if you can use it to buy Hummers and McMansions.”

      The rest is badly constructed ad hominem. But good luck to you in your pursuit of cash. May it fill your soul with joy.

  • @Slammy, I think you’ve misunderstood; though you’ve been kind enough to exchange good ad hominems for bad. I don’t pretend to know what has value: that’s one of the “big” questions. I do know that performance implies a standard of measurement. In baseball, there’s hits, runs, RBIs, etc., In life, there’s money.

    Value, Slammy, is Homer in Greek. Check your Yeats and the letter to his son.

    • Larry – let me back up a quick second. That last line – Homer and Yeats – couldn’t agree more. I also agree that performance implies a standard of evaluation – I’d avoid “measurement,” though, as it’s inherently tied to quantification, and quant is woefully ineffective at capturing the value of most of what really matters in life. So my previous comment picks up at this point. In a nutshell, your insistence on money is blindingly inconsistent with some of the rest of what you seem to be trying to say.

  • No, Larry, the problem is that you’re captive (and honestly, this is true of the whole of Western society, and America in particular) to the ideology of quantification. We are in thrall to scientism and statistical metrics, and while that’s important when you’re actually doing science, it can be horribly self-defeating when you misapply it to humans and human systems. I’ve seen this disorder lead to all kinds of silliness in everything from business/marketing to social research to, most tragically, education. In fact, it’s this very dynamic that’s at the root of so much of what’s happened to our ed systems in the US. Testing isn’t teaching, and all the measurement in the world doesn’t make our kids smarter when the emphasis is on statistics.

    In short, it’s important to have a strong qualitative faculty. Our greatest minds – even those whom we associate with science and left-brain excellence – have been people with powerful non-quant intellect and creativity.

  • Larry:

    Actually, there are quantitative measures of success in academia that don’t include money. Peer-reviewed papers published, the prestige of the publications in which they appear, the number of cites of one’s work in other work, prizes won, membership in various prestigious academies, tributes from one’s peers, and student evaluations all come to mind. Mozart died a pauper, but I think one could safely postulate that he was an elite composer, wouldn’t you? Shakespeare died reasonably well off, but his long-term impact is profoundly greater than the wealth he accumulated. Thomas Jefferson was a member of both the privileged elite and performance elite, and he died broke.

    Greg Mortenson set out to build schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He has now built at least a hundred, as I recall, as well as funding other humanitarian projects in that region through the Central Asia Institute. He was a strong candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize last year, and will certainly win it one day. He is not wealthy, but I’d say those metrics clearly make him part of the performance elite.

  • And NOW you’re (qualitatively) quantifying “accomplishment!”

    Poking you – but this is exactly what I was trying rather ineffectually to ask: what are you measuring, how are you measuring it and why is it necessary to measure in the first place? To compare one form of accomplishment to another, particularly when those achievements are in totally different spheres? On the other hand, if you posit the defensibility and therefore the very existence of an elite of any kind, aren’t you dependent upon some form of judgmental (in the purest sense) comparison, whether it’s a scale based on intellect, priorities, social usefulness, financial success or anything else? If an elite exist, how do we spot them in the wild?

    In fact, didn’t you just rank qualitative assessment over quantitative?

    I think the performance elite upon whom you’re really focusing (feel free to chastise me severely if I’m wrong) are those whose performance is in the area of education, intellectual development and purposeful navelgazing. And I think those elites are a distinct subset of your “performance elite” as a whole.

  • Damn, simultaneous posting.

  • Slammy, I read your post in praise of performance elites and tried to think about what performance really meant. Then I concluded from your language that the standard was income and accumulated wealth; you’re welcome to make the concept of performance more opaque.

    I think the issue of elites is rather more complex than a simple distinction between two categories of faculty, on the one hand, and snobby debutantes, on the other. It’s always a social phenomenon. One doesn’t become an elite through coming home at night to read Homer or Pindar in Greek. Elites seem to enjoy advantages (or privileges) and they have greater influence over the course of events in their own lives and the lives of other people. The rest of us ALWAYS envy them.

    If I try to discern a common characteristic of people who are elites, it’s their involvement as students or parents of students in expensive and selective private schools. These are schools that existed long before the public schools were abandoned. I also believe that every possible group that you might attempt to define as an elite participates in the ongoing life of these schools as alumni, parents, and students.

    Thought I’d take a stab at a non-quantitative definition. Sorry I don’t know anything about schools in Colorado, but I’m sure you have ’em there.

    • Then I concluded from your language that the standard was income and accumulated wealth; you’re welcome to make the concept of performance more opaque.

      I am well and truly baffled. You read an obvious critique of the wealthy elite and concluded that my measure of a more worthy elitism was … money? I mean, yes, money is a factor – it’s what defines social elites largely and financial elites exclusively. But if you read me as asserting that money is somehow a meaningful or productive standard, then you missed my point totally.

  • Larry, how you got wealth as an indicator of Sam’s idea of performance from any part of the original post, including that very specific chart, is beyond me. The wealth-as-measurement idea came in during the comments, and it didn’t come from that direction. Pretty sure that’s an unintentional imposition of your ideas on what he wrote. It happens.

    That said, you know I already agree with you about the complexity of the idea of “elite” in general. So here’s a question: Why is examining that particular phenomenon in more depth (as you’re doing now) a valid exploration, while examining how societies measure accomplishment is a move toward opacity? The concepts are inextricable from one another.

    And that’s an interesting thought about involvement with expensive education as a marker.

    • Hmmmmm.

      This one is tricky. Some “financial elite” probably qualify as being “performance elite,” but determining who is and isn’t wouldn’t be an easy thing to do.

      As an engineer, I’m pretty solidly in the quantitative world, but unlike many in my position, I understand that not everything can be measured quantitatively, at least not yet. But even so, I’m not sure I’m willing to just throw out most quantitative measurements, even in the determining of who should be “elite” and who shouldn’t.

      Without some form of metric, though, I fear that the only way to determine whether some qualitative approach is actually working is to wait years, decades maybe, for results. And in a world where the creation of knowledge is accelerating, that’s not fast enough.

      Much to think about. I’m looking forward to see where you take this.

  • @larrybruce:

    I found your last comment intriguing on a number of levels. I’m not at all sure that the “rest of us ALWAYS envy [elites].” Some certainly do, and some will probably envy certain elites and not others. It seems to me that 20th century purges of “intelligentsia” were predicated not on envy, but on fear, and fear is linked to the influence you postulate.

    If there is one thing the obscenely difficult course I took on the intellectual history of modern Europe taught me, it’s that ideas have great power. Rousseau changed the way we see the world, as did Descartes, Marx, Malthus, and Francis Galton. Of course, there are many names I’ve omitted, but the point I’m trying to get across is that elites DO have power, but it’s not always associated with inherited or earned wealth.

    So, perhaps its true that elites always have outsized influence, and that this influence sometimes causes envy, sometimes fear, and sometimes both. I don’t agree with you that it’s always a social phenomenon, though influence through social means is surely a primary conduit of influence.

    As for the schools comment, that would seem to apply only to privileged elite. Many, many performance elite men and women have started at other schools.

  • Brian, I think the two most important categories that Sam put forth are “performance elite” and “privilege elite,” and that those are the two categories at the ends of the scale. Clearly, people like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Tyco Brahe, and Julius Caesar are both. And I think it’s really, really clear that those in the performance elite often become wealthy (Bill Gates, Michael Dell, JK Rowling, etc.).

    As for quantification, I think it could be done without the use of wealth as an indicator. Reputation can be measured, for instance. An acquaintance of mine quantifies influence in organizations by measuring the number of contacts over a period of time and the recipients’ rating of the value and credibility of those contacts.

    But, really, for Sam’s purposes, I think we can just go with our guts here on a mass basis. There are some people who have accomplished much as evidenced by their body of work. There are some who have accomplished little of note but are wealthy because of what they inherited. It should always be easy to find notable examples of this, even if we can’t always agree on someone who is borderline one way or the other.

  • As for the schools comment, that would seem to apply only to privileged elite. Many, many performance elite men and women have started at other schools.

    He covered this.

    parents of students in expensive and selective private schools

    Where do those up-from-the-dirt performance elite want their children to go to school?

  • Sidwell Friends?

  • Sam,

    Although you are a pretty sharp guy, you still have a bad case of hubris. I suspect that you feel passed by, with your PhD and all that, you thought you’d have reached a higher station in life. It has to be tough seeing people that are lesser than you passing you by in every measure. Your bitterness is the size of Mt Rushmore(many others on this site exhibit the same attitude). I could probably count the truly happy people on this site with five fingers….and might have one left over.

  • Maybe, although you couldn’t pick me out of a lineup and don’t know the first detail about my life. Same for everybody else here.

    We DO know some things about you, though, don’t we? Like this: you’re omniscient.

    Now, with all that out of the way, do you have anything meaningful to contribute to the actual issues being discussed on this thread, or is it all going to be about whether you imagine that anybody of lesser station than you is happy?

    BTW, as a side note to the rest of our readers, I should amend my remarks in the article just a tad. It should be noted that not EVERYONE has yet abandoned the divine right of kings form of elitism. As it turns out, some folks are just born better than others as a result of superior breeding. Obviously the last thing in hell these folks have an interest in is a level playing field, or any other system that lets the rabble succeed through intelligence and/or hard work….

  • You are aware of very strong correlations between years of education and parents’ income? It’s not as though so-called privilege elites have given up on the pursuit of knowledge. Moreover, I’d argue that the educational system enables parents to pass social and economic advantages down to their children. It preserves the status quo (ante).

  • Moreover, I’d argue that the educational system enables parents to pass social and economic advantages down to their children. It preserves the status quo (ante).

    Yes, I believe that’s my argument, all right.

  • OK, no difference of opinion about that one. You may proceed to demonstrate the social value of a liberal elite.

  • Don’t worry, Doc, i would never…ever…confuse the Democratic Party with the performance elite.

    I went back to the chart and reread. I have a question: could a butcher, baker or candlestick maker be considered part of the performance elite? Obviously not every butcher, but is the performance elite limited to mortarboards?

  • As noted, one need not be highly (formally) educated. I know plenty of non-PhDs who are quite performance elite.

    As for the butcher, et al, I’m hard pressed to argue how they could be so professionally. I might be wrong on that, and I have an open mind. However, these people might be very thoughtful and important opinion leaders in their communities. Imagine a butcher who’s intellectually curious, reads incessantly, and is regarded as one of the most important thought leaders in his community. That sounds performance elitish to me.

  • Exactly. And look what a socially useless bunch of losers Sidwell turns out.

  • Slammy, I quite well understand that all this distinguishing good from bad elites, worthy from unworthy, is to serve as a prelude for your defense of the liberal elite. The latter may raise separate issues, but my concern here is that you’ve trampled important questions underfoot: given the capacity to do great things, what is the life worth living? On the one hand I propsed a cursory reading of Aristotle’s discussion of the great souled man in his Ethics. On the other hand, as long as you’re content to ignore nuance and thoughtful questioning, why not money as the measure? If it’s a PhD vs huge wealth and the influence that flows from it, I’ll take the wealth. I think also you ignore the history of the PhD: it’s kind of a German import, which is the hydrogen bomb in the post WWII credentials arms race.

    • Yeah, Larry, I sadly don’t have time to write the sum total of all the knowledge in Western history. Fortunately, you seem to have read enough that we need not reinvent the wheel each time we compose a blog post.

      If the standard is that anything I don’t write about explicitly is being “ignored,” well, we pretty much just rendered all communication futile.

      Now, would you like to contribute some signal or is your mission here about pure noise generation?

  • Yeah, that was essentially the train of thought i had this morning which led to the question.

    I can not only imagine it, i know a few (one of them is actually a baker). And i wonder if J.S’s thoughts on shame and envy come into play here. In examples like the butcher, does the lack of quantifiable status (e.g. a degree) push people like this out of the category…by society or his self-view? I’m not talking about you, me, Ann, J.S., etc here but in the general and American sociological context.

    I’m certainly not willing to say that such an example is anywhere near the norm, though i am willing to say that i probably should be near it. The smart person who loves to bake will probably be convinced to take a university track through life, even if that ends up being unfulfilling. In my baker example, he became one “later” in life (he’s not old).

    So i wonder if the standard definition of “elite” is constraining because it focuses more on what people do than how they do it. More precisely, how they live…which turns all this in a near spiritual direction (at least for me). One is elite because they have a brain, but more importantly know how to and use it vigorously; it doesn’t matter what they do, because they do it extremely well. It isn’t simply because they have a lot of experience, but rather because something drives them to do whatever they’re doing extremely well.

    With this in mind, many of the entries in the table jump right out at me.

  • I think Larry gave us something useful in his suggestion that elites are always envied and that they have outsized influence. This is your gig, Sam, but I think the issue of influence does help to clarify things a bit. Influence explains why those who aren’t necessarily wealthy are so often considered elite and why privileged elites, or wealthy performance elites, so often fear them. Shakespeare was nearly imprisoned after Essex used a special performance of Richard II to launch a near rebellion, and he skated on VERY thin ice more than once considering he was from a family with Catholic leanings. Journalists are jailed and killed somewhere almost every day. Writers have been treated the same way, as have academics.

    So, if we boil “elite” status down to outsized influence, I think we’re onto something that includes both the super wealthy and the intelligentsia.

  • Well, there’s certainly an element of conflict there, and in most cases you’ll probably find performance elites and privilege elites on opposite sides of the power struggle. I’m hesitant to frame this in terms that are too much about class, but there’s no doubt that class is at issue.

    Obviously privilege elites are at the top of the food chain, money-wise. And obviously that class has a strong interest in either maintaining the status quo or in strengthening their control of the dynamics that feed their privilege.

    Anything that seeks to elevate the underclasses, or that empowers significant individuals within the underclasses, is by definition a threat to the status quo, right?

    If you like, feel free to loop back around to my ongoing argument about America’s war on education. The Bushes and Cheneys of the world have every incentive to kneecap programs that will generate a stronger performance elite. So you can expect them to support vocational ed programs, which produce lots of people who are good at producing value for a (and forgive this term) corporate hegemony. Armies of talented developers who don’t ask a lot of complicated questions about power are good for them.

    True performance elites, though, well those are people who think and challenge in ways that threaten the hegemony.

    So I think this is all a roundabout way of saying yeah, you’re right.

  • Of course, it still doesn’t help us much in describing why ordinary Americans hate performance elites so much. That’s another ball of twine to unwind, and I don’t think it’s entirely because performance elites are under attack from privileged elites. My sense is that it’s deeper than that, and I suspect that’s where you’re going with this.

  • Clearly all Americans believe they’re just a hair away from being rich. How else do we explain their willingness to support tax structures that hurt the poor and help the rich? They want to know that when their ship comes in they’ll be free of the burden of taxes.

    Back to education. We’ve been anti-intellectual since day one, so we don’t foster the critical thinking skills necessary to figure this out, and at the same time the priv elites are very good at constructing disinfo campaigns that feed that broad collective cluelessness.

    So there’s a few words in answer to a question that we could write volumes on…

    BTW, I thought of another pairing for the chart above. Performance elite: Information is power. Privilege elite: Disinformation is power. Should I add it in?

  • Mmm. It’s up to you, but I’m not sure I buy into the idea that privilege elites are always into disinformation, or that performance elites are always into truth. I mean, Rush Limbaugh is what I would call “performance elite” because, love him or hate him, he built his business himself. And having been around some of the world’s most powerful CEOs from time to time, some of whom got to their positions because their families own a majority of the stock, I really would question whether they are consciously trying to keep others down or disseminating disinformation on purpose.

  • Rush may have been a performance elite in some respect once upon a time, but it’s been a long time since he had any accomplishment more noble than spewing noise and disinfo in the service of the privilege elite.

  • I hear you, but the fact is that the man built a business out of pretty much nothing and has enormous influence. I don’t have to like him to think he qualifies.

  • Elasticity. We’ve already acknowledged, I think, that you can be born privileged and still become a performance elite, right? By the same token, you can be born into nothing, do the “self-made man” thing, and then “switch teams.”

    Whatever you may have once been or done, if you’re serving the interests of the priv elite – which includes preservation of the status quo and working to diminish opportunity for non-privs – then you are NOT a performance elite.

  • To me, anyone who gets to performance elite status earned being there, and can never unearn it. But that’s just the way I see it. Limbaugh’s children (does he have any?) would be privilege elite, having done nothing to earn elite status from my perspective. But definitions are slippery, and you’re welcome to define your categories any way you see fit.

  • I tend to see this in terms of the cause you serve. You may once have served X, but now you serve Y. X is what was, Y is what IS.

  • Yeah, I see your point, but to me the issue is how you got where you got. A privilege elitist got where he got by inheriting the money, name, family influence, etc., but their issue is almost always wealth because that get inherited. A performance elitist earned his/her influence, and that may be from money or some other means. To me, political views don’t matter after that point. Certainly, the Kennedys are privilege elitists, primarily, but their attitudes might be more in line with those of the performance elite. As you point out, Limbaugh is a performance elitist who identifies more with the privileged elite. But the tendencies of each group aren’t necessarily changed.

  • I won’t quibble about the classification of Rush Limbaugh’s children as one sort of elite or another. It seems somewhat arbitrary to classify state school PhDs as the true performance elites rather than Ivy law school graduates. It’s the latter who run the world and do much to shape the climate of political opinion on both sides. I’ve never known an academically successful friend to choose a PhD program over Harvard law school or one of the elite med schools. Sometimes, for form’s sake, they express polite regret at the thought of a career devoted to the representation of greedy capitalists, but that’s just alligator tears.

  • I’ve never known an academically successful friend to choose a PhD program over Harvard law school or one of the elite med schools.

    That says a great deal about the type of people to whom you’re drawn and who value you in return, but that’s really all it says.

  • I rely on anecdotal information. The alternative is to quantify by use of numerical measures like income or years in school. I’m as surprised as you are. I thought surely someone would take a degree in English or Philosophy or the History of Science. But when push came to shove, nobody, except possibly the most highly talented mathematics and physics types, bothered with a PhD. They got law degrees and med school degrees. A few sharp-elbowed types went to b-school.

    The influence and social consequence of the lawyers, cannot be underestimated: it’s breathtaking. Everybody who matters (look at the government) is a lawyer. The schools they attended are always the usual suspects, irrespective of the party in power. That is evidence.

  • Pingback: Scholars and Rogues » Democracy & Elitism 3: burning down the straw man, and who are these out-of-touch “liberal elites,” anyway?

  • Pingback: Scholars and Rogues » Democracy & Elitism 4: equality, opportunity and leveling up the playing field

  • Pingback: Scholars and Rogues » Obama caving on net neutrality? We can no longer believe a word he says, can we?

  • Pingback: Scholars and Rogues » What would a progressive society look like? The Tricentennial Manifesto

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