Friday, May 09, 2008

"Elitist" and "Out of Touch"

I'm doing it. I've been sucked in, and I'm writing about flag lapel pins. I hate myself for it, but I've got to answer this op-ed by Michael Gerson.

Gerson openly accepts that Obama's position on the lapel pin is reasonable and even correct — to him. But in his view rank-and-file Americans (the non-"elites") aren't bright enough to understand it. As a result, Obama comes off to these Americans as elitist and distant, despite — and in fact, because of — his efforts to explain his position. To sum up: it's "elitist" and "out of touch" to have high expectations of what the American people should understand, but it's not elitist to conclude that they can't possibly understand something. This makes no sense to me at all. Maybe some further parsing, and closer attention to what words actually mean, is required.

Maybe it's "elitist" to act on the assumption (rightly, in Gerson's view) that people aren't capable of reasoning along with you, but it's "out of touch" to act on the assumption (wrongly, in Gerson's view) that they can. This would seem to comport better with conventional understandings of what these terms mean. So notwithstanding that the terms are so frequently paired in the political vernacular, it's in fact inaccurate and contradictory under these circumstances to say that Obama is "elitist and out of touch." He's just "out of touch," whereas the "elitist" label sticks better to the politicos who accept that patriotism is not forced acquiescence in symbology but nonetheless wear their little lapel pins every day, to keep the masses happy.

But let's pause for a minute and challenge Gerson's "elitist" assumption. Are Americans really not capable of understanding Obama's position? Is that the problem here? Or is it that the news continues to recycle the story, or that persons with vested interests in defeating Obama dwell on the matter and appeal to Americans in the hope that inflamed passions will override their understanding? It might just be the case that people understand Obama's position perfectly well and they have a complex idea of their own: hey Barack, if the symbol doesn't mean anything, why not just wear the damn pin and kill the story? To these people, the ongoing story describes a character flaw different from elitism or out-of-touchness: it describes an overweening pride or stubbornness.

Maybe another example would be illustrative. Let's put flag pins to one side for a minute in favor of a subject matter of lesser importance: race relations in 21st century America. Based on the generally positive reception given to Obama's race speech in all quarters, I'd have to say the American people were receptive to and understanding of Obama's complex ideas. He challenged them, but he assumed — in this case rightly that people could understand the complex ideas. In this instance Obama revealed himself to be neither "elitist" nor "out of touch." That neither of Obama's prominent opponents took him on over the substance of that speech suggests they would agree.

Based on these two cases I think it's possible to say something about Obama without coming to any conclusions about what the American people understand. In both cases, race relations and flag pins, Obama assumes people are capable of processing and understanding a complex argument. He has chosen to make the complex argument instead of indulging in superficiality. He has examined the possibilities and concluded as follows: if I'm right in my assumption, I'm neither elitist nor out of touch. If I'm wrong, I'm out of touch, but no elitist.

Obama's no elitist, then. He may be out of touch, to the extent he expects more from the American people than they're capable of delivering. In fact, he's made a strategic decision to expect more from the American people — on the theory that the people will want someone who challenges them. He's therefore embarked on an anti-elitist candidacy precisely because he has anti-elitist assumptions about the voters.

Whether or not that makes him out of touch, I leave to the elitists to decide.

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