Confessions of an Elitist; or How I Grew Up to be a Dog
Diogenes the Cynic
Part One, In Which the Writer Discovers He is One of the Elite
It slowly dawned on me that I am an elitist; there was no St. Paul on the Damascus Road moment, no deus ex machina epiphany. There was only the inexorable process of elimination: I don’t belong here, here, here, or here, therefore all that’s left is . . . .
What makes me so damned elite, gentle reader? That is the oddity of it: Certain people in our fair land wish to hurl the epithet “elite” as if it were a symbol of anathema – we hear of the cultural elites, liberal elites, intellectual elites, political elites, and, to be certain, no one means anything flattering by these angry javelins of disgust.
No. Ours is the Age of Joe Six-pack, the Common Man, the eon of having grown up in hard scrabble conditions where men and women, Our Leaders, claw their way to the top by sheer brawn and determination, not by brains and book labor by candle light. They were born in rustic cabins or in Hell’s Kitchen and earned the right to speak for the “average guy” with bloodied knuckles and lips wet with the evidence of street smarts. Or so their PR firms would have us believe.
But the rest of the oddity is: Should anyone actually claim to be of the Hated Tribe (I mean, the elitists) with honesty, much less pride in it, the result will be, shall we say, a poor reception. No one is supposed to be proud of being an elitist or standing out in any way in contrast to the heroic Common Man .
No one is supposed to actually openly desire that our representatives should be better qualified to perform their tasks than “just anyone” or be more than the spokespeople for “just anyone’s” uneducated opinions.
No one is supposed to hope that the professor is driven by some standard higher than gaining tenure or keeping a steady income or pleasing a roomful of people who do not know why they believe what they believe.
No one is supposed to read a book looking for a writer and witness to reality who has chased truth and truthfulness in her own way; instead, we are supposed to be satisfied with the personifications of sheer emotionalism and greed, cheaply fawning over the crowd on every page like a greasy Uriah Heep.
No one is supposed to want more or better…
…Except Our Leaders who speak for the Common Man and who impose their authority in all places and at all times. For ours is an age of Authoritarianism more than respect for genuine authority.
A Digression on Authoritarianism
Real authority is earned through long experience, reflection, and those endless, pointless nights speaking and arguing with the dead through the musty pages of books, begging them to give up their secrets. It means surrendering one’s physical birthright, assuming one was ever so fortunate as to have one, in favor of making one’s own name mean something on one’s own.
One’s own wits and judgment establish one’s citizenship in the Republic of Letters, as Pierre Bayle called it, not a title of nobility, not a title of office, not a research fellowship at a think tank, not campaign contributions, not a subsidized book deal, not all the “research” published in all the academic journals of the world.
Authority is something one grows to deserve over time, and, like any other honor, it is better to have earned it and have it ignored by the masses than to have it granted by the masses without having done anything of substance to earn it.
And the latter is the situation of Authoritarianism. It happens when people give power to one for an extraneous reason – a reason extraneous to merit.
I don’t need a dictionary to tell me what Authoritarianism is – my memory and soul know it the way I know the odor of rotten meat or vomit. I grew up being drowned in it.
A memory: Once as a teenager, I had an adult in a position of “authority” lean over his desk in his self-satisfied way, dark eyes boring angrily into mine. He said, “I believe in authoritarianism, not democracy. Societies and schools only run the way they’re supposed to when the authorities are in control… authoritarianism is the only answer, not asking questions.”
I said, incredulously, “I don’t think that’s what the Declaration of Independence or The Constitution or Bill of Rights had in mind.”
He smiled at me inasmuch as a man with no lips can smile. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Authoritarianism is what makes things work.”
“For whom,” I wondered. “For whom?”
I’ve wondered that for thirty years.
From childhood on, blind acceptance of “authority” has been the attitude of nigh every American I’ve encountered. Simply by virtue of being older, bigger, stronger, wealthier, more threatening, able to call on more support – a mob or even “the law” – the fortunate “representatives” of the masses are held to be Authorities due obedience, grudging or otherwise. From playground to state house, from home to church, this is the rule.
In the religion I was raised, I was told I must obey the preacher, the church’s teachings, my parents, the state – no matter how insane-sounding their commands or laws might be, and no matter how loudly my mind and soul and conscience cried out for an equal hearing; otherwise, God, the ultimate Authoritarian, would burn me in Hell forever with all the other doubters and criminals and assorted scum of the earth.
In the end, I found myself unable to agree with this picture of “authority” – that might makes right, that authority originates in being able to manipulate or threaten or force others to do one’s will.
I searched for a better God, one Who Is Simply Good and Who forces no one to do anything and Who admires goodness done for its own sake, not to avoid Hell or bribe Heaven.
I searched for better notions of government, more meaningful approaches to morality and philosophy, art, literature, life.
Looking back from here, it’s fairly plain how I wound up so far from the center of… anywhere.
Part Two, In Which the Writer Further Contemplates Elitism
When asked what city-state, what polis , he belonged to, the Cynic philosopher Diogenes casually responded in words that roughly, literally translate as, “I am a cosmopolitan.” But this isn’t quite right. One has to grasp the entire context of the conversation to understand what Diogenes, the old dog, in his sly way was truly saying.
For the ancient Greek, one’s entire identity was tied up in being “from somewhere,” from this or that city-state (polis ). One was not merely from Hellas , one was an Athenian or a Spartan, or wherever else, and each place represented everything from a devotion to certain gods to a certain, distinct idea of excellence, to a very particular culture. The places were not interchangeable, though they were related, just as Canada is not the United States for all the things we share. To be a man was to be of a certain tribe from a certain place.
Diogenes, however, coined a new term when asked, “Where are you from?”, i.e. “Who (or whose) are you – to whom do you belong?” He said that he was “kosmopolitês ” – or, as his response is usually translated, “I am a citizen of the world.” Diogenes was an exile and a “sovereign wayfarer” (as Walker Percy might have had it) upon the Earth; he admitted of belonging to no city and to no one and to nothing – in fact, he lived like a stray dog in the streets (which is why he was called a Cynic – from kunos , canine, dog).
The paradox was, belonging to no one or no place and to no faction, he transcended the particularities of culture and prejudice and found he saw all people as equally people, but recognized no distinctions of excellence (arête , virtue) except moral goodness put into action consistently by anyone who took it up as his or her mission.
At one and the same time he became separated from the mass of humanity by admitting of nothing except his own individuality, he included all of humanity within his world, rejecting none of it. By being “from nowhere” he became a citizen of everywhere, a man at home in the world with all the people of the world.
Over time, as I pursued what I learned was called philosophy, I found myself welcome in no particularized, specialized, professional circle of humanity; and at the same time I began to see these divisions as not merely artificial (what human product isn’t? that is not the problem), but I saw the purpose of the divisions, by intention or accident, was to establish and perpetuate some Authoritarian scheme and to act as an impediment to anyone who might have an inclination towards the imagination of cosmopolitanism – towards allegiance to goodness and humanity, not time and place, not patriotism, not communitarianism, not nationalism, not the mediocre prejudice of egoism and the anti-individualism – and general spirit of enmity – it engenders.
To be one of the elite, in the Cynic’s sense, then, is to let go of false distinctions between people, false roles, to abandon patriotism – which is nothing more than an allegiance to a random time and place born out of mindless habit – in favor of human beings, each as they may come, seen as equals, all equally in need of a morality that recognizes their capacity for reason and their physical, spiritual, and mental needs.
It is to take the first step towards liberty, fraternity, and equality – to freely choose the path of justice and mercy.
To be cosmopolitan, as Ortega y Gasset taught in The Modern Theme, is to understand that the world has no center – or, that each place in the world is equally central and provides a unique, valid, though partial, perspective on reality; to be parochial, on the contrary, is to make the mistake of believing you and your people alone stand at the middle and pinnacle of reality. A pinnacle from which you and yours are due recognition and obedience by all others… a pinnacle of authority and Authoritarianism otherwise called many euphemisms by those who cannot face exactly what they are involved in: patriotism, orthodoxy, righteousness, decency, conservatism, libertarianism – even religiosity, spirituality, and at times, rationality.
The names of the masks are nigh limitless, but the face remains the same: Authoritarianism, anti-elitism, anti-cosmopolitanism; it is the face of humanity when people decide that they will do as they please and what they please to do is suppress any standard outside of their egos that challenges some imagined “right” to be no better than they are or ever have been.
Part Three, In Which the Writer Reveals Many Faults That Make Him an Elitist
I place no value on Joe Six-pack or his representatives, except insofar as they are willing to step outside their stereotypical behavior and aspire to something superior.
I have little use for the mass, the mass man, the deified Common Man or his champions in homes, the schools, on the playgrounds, in the streets, city councils, statehouses, governor’s mansions, congresses, judiciaries, executive offices, aristocracies, or monarchies of the world.
What makes common people common is not their number, but their willingness to decide all issues by means of fits, fists and firepower, and what makes their bullying representatives less than worthless is their willingness to whip the common people into enthusiasms and frenzies to achieve any greedy or insane end – all to gain and keep power.
“Odi Profanum Vulgus”—
“I hate the uninitiated masses” – the motto of the German Expressionist group, Die Brücke: I painted these words on the back of a jacket I wore in 1986 and never looked back. All my adult life I have desired the company of people who aimed to be themselves, not “just anyone,” people always desirous of something more than what was given, what is here, what has “always been.” Mostly, I have located these people in books, as they are dead or elsewhere.
Diogenes often wandered the streets with a lit oil lamp in the middle of the day. “What are you doing?” people would ask him, bewildered. “I am looking for an honest man,” he would respond – he was looking for a genuine human being and never finding one.
There are good people. They are never in the majority. Should there be an occasion in which good people became a majority, I am certain they would all begin to wonder at their goodness and seek further improvement. They would see they are not yet who they should be.
But it is my belief that the mass of humanity is stupefied by various mythologies and conspiracy tales made to simultaneously keep it titillated and terrorized while making it docile.
These tales are at times pseudo-religious, pseudo-philosophical, pseudo-political, pseudo-scientific; they are tales from a parallel world constructed to simultaneously keep people satisfied with “the way things are” and keep them horrified that things might change... that the people and their beliefs might have to change.
In America, the Common Man is pandered to, lied to, coaxed, and goaded into action – never once is a prejudice countered or a slothful habit challenged that the source of the challenge is not threatened and shouted down. The People are told by many of their self-appointed leaders that they are just fine the way they are and anyone who desires change is wicked, a threat to their way of life.
Thus, we cannot recognize that people have a right to health care in the United States nor have a civil discussion about it (civility is not what the masses and their masters ever desire; only a constant threat of some level of violence). Many ideas and beliefs established by The Enlightenment are now being eroded: that all people have a right to an education paid for by the public; that constant self-improvement and civil society are necessary for self-government and life; that public libraries are not extensions of the whims of mobs wishing to ban this or that book or documentary or turn every library event into a talk radio-like event; the idea that taxation is not a burden nor is it robbery, but it is contribution to society and the perpetuation of lawfulness, and that these are good and necessary things.
I recently read a set of satirical and polemical essays by Voltaire in which he vigorously argued against what was called “putting a man to the question” – what we call torture by the state or church and their agents.
His and his fellow philosophes’ attitudes towards this form of barbarism and injustice are striking and they fought hard to eradicate it: After 9/11/2001, I wonder what their ghosts would have to say to our government, our military, our churches, our people who nonchalantly impose torture on other human beings in the name of national security or who support those who do in the name of morality and God? Was that what Donald Rumsfeld subconsciously had in mind when he derisively used to refer to the voices of “Old Europe”?
Jonathan Swift once said something that, at a later date, I intend to explore more deeply. He took issue with the definition of man as “the rational animal,” or as homo sapiens . That great misanthrope – and benefactor of all mankind because of it – said, instead, he thought that man was “the animal capable of reason .” We had it in us, as a potential or power, to reason, but we rarely did it, he said. And not well. That is the problem of the masses, the problem that keeps them “massified” and which false authorities exploit: Humans do not automatically do anything, especially not reason or know or, what is the same, seek truth. We do nothing automatically except, perhaps, one thing – humans do arrive in the world with their default switches set to “lazy.”
We normally do what is easiest, not what is beautiful, right, good or true. Doing the right thing or being a good person requires labor; pursuing truth and not being satisfied with whatever stray beliefs one’s culture slipped into one’s mind along with one’s mother’s milk and language requires a tremendous, extended, life-long effort.
And effort is exactly what the mass man avoids at all costs – internal effort, the effort of “going within,” as Ortega y Gasset called it – to review one’s beliefs and to think about ideas, to search for truth.
Because this is a lonely business. Upon going within, one is immediately alone with whatever one finds within; others only come along in the form of mental habits and received notions – some of the subject matter that must be reviewed, must be questioned, must be doubted. One immediately becomes alone with one’s self, who one should be as well as with who one is; one becomes, automatically, elite, in some way, and one potentially opens oneself up to citizenship in the world of history and the society of all humanity: cosmopolitanism.
In our age, in America, people are encouraged to never go within, never question, never doubt anything except what is different than what one has always believed; anything that does not square with accepted and sanctioned opinion, especially opinions sold by advertizing, PR firms, politicians and their pundits, paid and otherwise – including not a few clergy – is labeled suspicious, dangerous, communistic, sinful – whatever term will resonate with the mass to make it shudder with revulsion.
Going within, contemplation, thought, the theoretical life: all of these are the same thing, and all are devalued as wastes of time, “useless,” worthless, pointless, meaningless.
Contemplative life is not a life of violence and immediate action; it is not a life of literalism or obviousness; it does not pay in money or in power over one’s fellow man. Self-control or the search for self-mastery and self-knowledge – the goals of contemplation – are likewise worthless: there is no money or political office or fame to be had in learning to be who one ought to be.
Be clear: What is being discussed is not the life of a scholar or academic. Scholars are a highly valuable, indispensable tribe, but, like other scientists, they are specialists. Their pursuits are of necessity parochial, in a sense, gazes narrowly focused solely on their chosen subject matter; and their knowledge is not self-knowledge or general knowledge, but knowledge of a secondary sort, knowledge not of direct experience, but of indirect experience – knowledge “about,” not the knowledge itself; the “what” and not the “why.”
Nothing prevents the scholar or academic or scientist from also pursuing first degree experience, something other than knowledge about knowledge or symbolic, scientific knowledge; but the techniques and aims involved in the one are not those of the other.
Morality is difficult, requires constant effort, and is accompanied by daily, often severe, failures. So it is with all genuine knowledge. The Common Man and his champions have no use for these and similar efforts – power by the most efficient means (laziness) is their primary moral value. More technology, more speed, more entertainment, more effective tools of destruction, more obedience; less questioning, less doubting, less wondering, less genuine dissent: these are some of the battle flags flown by the mob as they proceed to ruinously march lockstep into the future.
The mass is satisfied with the shadow of philosophy and a sort of virtual, substitute truth. For them and their leaders, this is enough and grants them enough authority to shout down and drown out anyone pointing the way to something more difficult… something worth living for.
Part Four, In Which the Writer Ends His Musings
To be locked away
And still to think
Black Sabbath, Die Young
In America, the Common Man believes he is free: superior technology makes him free; his church or lack of one makes him free; his almighty right to his opinion and anger makes him free; his right to his money and property and a gun makes him free….
“Break the circle and stop the movement
The wheel is thrown to the ground.
Just remember, it might stop rolling
And take you up and around…”
Black Sabbath, The Mob Rules
I live in a country where Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle, and Michele Bachmann are considered by sizable numbers of people competent to make law and hold public office; and for each of these recognizable names there are scores of others, also crackpots or worse, who maintain their power and make their living in government at the national, state, and local level, all the way down to school boards and the office of school superintendent. There are preachers and priests with the ears of small and large congregations throughout the land who are even more irresponsible and violent, prejudiced… propagandists.
I live in a country where people now openly talk about “Second Amendment remedies”: if they do not achieve their aims with the ballot box, they threaten to consider using their guns in the streets.
I live in a country in which, historically, people have had no difficulty choosing to use their weapons to assassinate political leaders and thinkers any time there has been danger of change.
I live in a country in which most people either seem to enthusiastically support or at least tolerate the suspension of habeas corpus , the use of body and mind crippling – or killing – torture, the assumption that people are guilty without the state proving guilt, inhumane housing and treatment of civilian and military prisoners. We have run and may still be using concentration camps… and few are concerned, few see the hypocrisy and anti-Enlightenment nature of this, or that this is a bad thing .
We wear cheap clothing made by slave labor, including child labor. We employ “illegal aliens” to cheaply do our worst jobs, deny them and their children citizenship, and ship them all back “home” at the least provocation.
We do business with tyrants and dictators, keeping them in office because it is economically and strategically useful for maintaining our way of life, making certain that corporations and the wealthy remain stable.
I live in a country where over 95% of the wealth is in the hands of 2% of the population; half of those people inherited all their property and money. Almost none of them are creative – if they “make” anything, it is because they own or invest in businesses that employ creative people, taking the products and labor of their minds and bodies for whatever minimal amount the market will bear, selling these products, and pocketing the difference.
We pretend we love freedoms, such as freedom of speech and democracy, diversity, meaningfulness, spirituality – until someone actually uses their freedoms and rights to challenge received wisdom or prevailing propaganda. Then we get the Tea Party screaming in the streets, attending political meetings armed to the teeth, spitting on and shouting down those they are convinced are their “enemies.” We get Glenn Beck shrieking some bizarre hyper-conservative fundamentalist religio-political conspiracy theory based on libertarianism, The Book of Revelation and his Mormonism. We get ultra-right wing neo-fascist, racist neo-Nazi, and militia groups threatening to secede from the union and launch civil war… again. We are sold false histories designed to lure more people into Tea Party-like activity, or at least into fear of change and the unknown.
I live in a country where people hate others because of race and skin color, because of differences in faith, differences in gender or sexuality, differences in culture. When able, the majority discriminates; and a fragment of the majority attacks and kills those they define as “different.” When law is established to keep the peace and uphold the rights of minorities, the majority shrieks “reverse discrimination” and resorts to attacking the legitimate power of government.
Dare to question one’s fellow citizens as to whether we are living up to the spirit of the Declaration and The Constitution and you will be invited to leave… the country. The ethical values, what I am calling the spirit, underlying The Enlightenment, our Revolution and its documents were largely cosmopolitan in nature. The Founders had high expectations of humans as citizens – they did not think we were perfect upon arrival or departure, and they believed “The New Order of the Ages” they ushered in required constant work for the improvement of both individuals and societies. They supported education and promoted rational systems of virtue that could be accepted and practiced by all to promote civil society and a good life – “the pursuit of happiness” for all.
What America stands for is an idea and an ideal, not a place. It is something to strive for, not own and posses as a commodity or brand name belonging to the United States alone. Its spirit belongs to all people of the world to claim, not just those of us privileged to be accidentally born on a certain piece of dirt at a certain date. Our task is to help others improve the world and their conditions and lives – or at the very least not act as an impediment to this.
I am a citizen of the world. I see all humans as inherently valuable and capable of ongoing improvement. We are brothers and sisters, equals, all needing certain basic things to which, thus, we have an equal right and an equal obligation to assist one another to obtain, when necessary. I believe in civil society and its institutions, where we can all meet to share our ideas and beliefs, question one another, respond in kind as intelligent and rational people, equally. I believe in using government not only to protect us, but to assist us in exercising what rights we cannot attain to individually or by private social means.
I am outside the majority of humans as assuredly as Diogenes the Dog lived alone and naked in a wine tub.
Therefore, I, most humbly, am an elitist.
31 January - 3 February 2011
More by this Author
For the sake of argument, let's say that abortion is immoral. I don't care what ethical system or religious belief one uses here, I'll simply grant at the outset: Abortion is immoral. Wrong. Not to be done. Ever. ...
As a true and complete conservative, as far to the right as one could possibly imagine, I hold that each and every true American should be armed to the teeth at all times – bristling in armament like angry...
Richard Van Ingram, 1991, linocut What we are seeing in the streets and hearing on the airwaves of our country at this moment has roots that run far deeper than categories such as “liberal” and...