Monday, April 28, 2008

The War against Elites

In the recent Pennsylvania Democratic party primary, Senator Hilary Clinton pounded on Senator Barrack Obama and called him an elitist and out of touch with reality, capitalizing on Obama’s 'bitter' comment few days earlier. While one will never know exactly how much damage that comment has done to his campaign in Pennsylvania and else where later, Obama was obviously so concerned that he had to clarify, spin, and ultimately apologize for ‘misuse’ of words. Merriam-Webster defines elites as 'the best part of a class'. So what is wrong of being an elite? Why are both candidates trying hard to portray themselves more like a populist, the opposite of elitist?

My readings so far suggest that in American politics of the last century, the only worse label than a socialist or communist seems to be an elitist or intellect! I have to say such a revelation really came as a surprise to someone like me, a first generation immigrant, who owes much to education and learnings off and on-the-job. Wasn’t a crucial factor for the success of this nation the system and constitution designed by the Founding Fathers who were outstanding intellects and elites? Why is there such contempt for intellects and elites nowadays? Is it because the resentment that some of them are from privileged classes?

Susan Jacoby, a brilliant American intellect, has recently published a book The Age of American Unreason that has fascinating discussions of the phenomenon, the history, and the reasons for anti-intellectualism in America. Her appearance and interchanges with Steven Colbert in his April 22nd Show was brief and entertaining.

But seriously, she is speaking up against the dangerous anti-intellectual attitude that is affecting the mental health of this nation and we should all be concerned about. The Obama’s Pennsylvania primary incident is merely the tip of an iceberg.

I suspect the issue is deep; it goes back to the very basic principle of ‘one man one vote’ and ‘majority rule’ democratic system that gives each of us equal weight and significance, independent of any attribute including intelligence and knowledge. Ideally, we would like the elected leaders be the ‘best’ in every attribute we can come up with - the exact definition of elite, and yet at the same time, as an individual, I surely do not like to be reminded of my own shortcomings even though the reality is there are so many out there who are ‘smarter’ than me (note: half or so of us will always be below the average for a given attribute by the very definition of average stat ;-) So, how can we resolve this dilemma and move beyond denial and political correctness?

Recall that there is no guarantee to begin with that the majority shall get things right that is NOT what democracy is promising. It only promises the representation of everyone’s voice and opinion and avoids the danger of self-perpetuating tyranny of minority and dictatorship. It offers people a peaceful way to remove elected representatives and leaders for whatever the reasons including incompetence and abuse of their delegated power. It cannot by itself prevent manipulation and misrepresentation by politicians. That is where pursuit of knowledge and intellectual comes in to help the odds that we select great leaders. After all, the outcome of the election simply reflects the collective wisdom of the voters; we have no one else to blame but to learn and try to make a better judgment each and every time. And the way to learn and try is to pursue and improve our knowledge and judgment.

For those capable men and women who are aspired to public service and politics, I will say to them: it is pretty straightforward; I don’t need you to pretend you are like me when you are not. If I vote for you that is because you know a lot more and are ‘much smarter’ than me. I don’t need you to say things to make me feel good that is my therapist’s job, not yours. I want you to pay attention to your responsibilities: ask the right questions, do thorough fact-based (not faith-based) analysis, and make good judgments and decisions. I want you to convince me that you are diligent, competent, compassionate, and respectful. How hard could that be?

Talk to you soon!

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