On Elitism

Meryl Streep, bless her, issued a blistering condemnation of Trumpian nastiness at the Golden Globes last night, and of course his fanboys have jumped all over her. Blah blah “shut up and entertain us.” Blah blah “Hollywood elite.”

Predictably, the backlash to the backlash has been in the usual vein, too: Pointing out how hypocritical it is to condemn an actress for being elitist and speaking out about politics when they just elected a billionaire reality-TV star. But while that is rather eyeroll worthy, it misses the point of the “elitist” complaint, and that’s what I want to explain now. This is long–bear with me–but I really hope folks read and think about it, because if we want to work around these people who seem to unquestioningly support such a reprehensible toad, we have to understand them, and right now, I don’t think enough people on our side do.

One of the ongoing problems the left faces is how so many of our prominent voices are blue-bubble sorts. These are people who grew up at least middle class and have lived in metro areas or other liberal-heavy areas (college towns, for instance) their entire lives. They never doubted they’d be going to college, and they eventually found jobs in major industries. Most of the people who have platforms that go beyond low-entry-barrier stuff like social media have done so by either living in or running in the circles necessary to access major publishing or news providers, or the entertainment industry. And sometimes, they’re pretty dang snobbish about it, turning up their noses at “flyover country” or “rednecks.”

Before I go any further, I do want to make it clear that I’m not doing the “won’t someone think about the poor racists?” thing. This is also something that often comes from the bubble: an infantilization of the white working class, and a plea for the rest of us to be compassionate toward them because they’re often suffering in abject poverty. While it’s true that many are actually suffering, poverty alone doesn’t excuse being a violent, bigoted ass. Something that tends to get ignored–egregiously so, when you’re talking about folks like Bernie and his crowd–is that the working class and poor are not exclusively white, much less white and male. Being working class and also having to face racism, sexism, ableism and many other forms of bigotry makes poverty even more grueling. Economic-justice efforts will help all poor folks–we have no need to focus exclusively on the white ones, much less to ignore other critical justice issues in order to do so. I’m not, therefore, excusing the people I’m writing about here. I am, however, going to explain them, because personally I, too, am tired of the elitist cluelessness.

Trailer Sweet Trailer

To begin, let me talk about myself (feel free to skip to the next section if you don’t need the Shawna 101 lesson.) My first home was a small rental house in downtown Reno, in a fairly crime-heavy neighborhood. My second was another rental–a duplex in a run-down suburb. When I was six, my parents bought their first home, also out in the isolated ‘burbs: A 1977 single-wide mobile home (wheels and all) that they plunked down on an acre of clay at the end of a dead-end dirt road across from a dry lake bed. My dad proceeded to fill the yard with various husks of dead cars and we had a handful of Dobermans in a fenced area off the house. My parents and their friends were into guns, cars, and smoking pack after pack. My dad didn’t really drink but my mom and their friends did. Beer for them, cheap wine and rum and Cokes for her. Dad wasn’t into religion at the time but Mom was: She grew up Lutheran, and took me to various conservative churches in the area until I was about 12. I’ll spare some of the other details, but suffice it to say, this culture was pretty messed up in a lot of ways, and I didn’t come out of it without some pretty gnarly scars.

My parents themselves also grew up poor. My dad’s first house was a shack in Arizona with a dirt floor and no electricity or running water. My mom’s first house had no indoor toilets. To them, actually buying a chunk of land and a “house” to put on it was a pretty major achievement. And of course similar stories are true for the rest of my ancestors, going all the way back to poor Irish farmers who settled in Oklahoma and Arkansas, and developed animosity toward the emancipated who got the 40 acres-and-a-mule deal, and also became competition for paid work.

A few of my family managed to rise above this, but not many. I have an uncle who did very well for himself in the military because he had a sharp mind for technology and ended up helping to build fighter jets. His three kids managed college, since he could afford it. Another cousin did a couple of terms at a college in Arizona. That’s pretty much it, though. The rest of my family–four grandparents, 12 aunts/uncles and 18 cousins–never went to college or otherwise did much beyond high school, except for stints in the military. My dad dropped out of high school in 10th grade and got a GED in the Navy and later got licensed to operate radio stations. My mom barely graduated with a C average and went to beauty school.

But me? I went to college. My parents, deep in the thrall of an anti-government cult, pulled me out of public school in 7th grade, and I finished my HS diploma at an alternative school designed for teen moms and kids in juvie. I graduated nine days after I turned 17, got a couple of scholarships to pay for my first college term that fall, and promptly failed two classes since I had over-scheduled myself and didn’t know it was possible to drop classes. I recovered, though, and spent two years at the local university, then moved to Portland and finished most of a degree there. I couldn’t have afforded it on my own, though. My parents contributed basically nothing to my tuition. I started working at 14, and otherwise patched together the funds with a combo of grants, work-study and student loans. I got married when I was 19 because I needed to emancipate myself so my parents’ income wouldn’t be counted on my financial aid applications. They were still in their anti-government thing and hadn’t filed taxes since I was 13, so getting a government financial review for them would’ve been out of the question. This did well enough for me to get through almost all of a music degree, but other factors led me to drop out in my senior year. I finished my last few credits a couple of years later.

College changed my life. It definitely changed my perspective. So did living in Portland (though, having figured out I was queer around 13, I was already starting to change even then.) It also, according to my family, turned me into a snob. As I began expanding my understanding of the world and everyone else in it, I saw bigotry, I saw the danger of unrestricted guns, I saw the awfulness of war and the damage of rigid gender roles. I realized how much of what I had been told as a child was either a flat-out lie or received wisdom based on other flat-out lies. I’d already started drifting from my family in high school, when I learned from the school’s mandatory counseling sessions that the icky stuff I’d been put through as a kid was not OK. Learning more about the world cemented it.

There was plenty of other drama in my life in my 20s, but it’s more or less irrelevant, so I’ll stop here. The short version: College got me away from a toxic culture, but it’s one most of my family is still in, and probably always will be, because college simply isn’t an option for them.

Too Good for Us

I think it’s important to note the crucial factor to my ticket out of that culture: Working my ass off both in school and jobs to get into college and have enough money to pay for it. (The other thing that helped? Planned Parenthood. Yay not getting pregnant at 15 like a bunch of other girls I knew.) You’d think my family would’ve been proud of me for doing this, and to a degree, they were. My parents had actually encouraged me to do well and had taught me a lot when I was young, and they do deserve credit for that. But then I ended up going beyond where they’d ever imagined, and they saw how it had changed me. I no longer shared their prejudices and the desire to violently enforce them. I recognized the awful things they’d allowed to happen to me and called them on that. To them, I became someone unrecognizable because I was no longer part of their culture.

But there’s more to it than just culture. There’s also something else, and it’s a key part of why people from my parents’ culture reject education and everything that comes with it: College would never have been possible for them. They didn’t have the option of doing what I did, and they therefore ended up resenting my success instead of being proud of it.

You see, college is a luxury to a lot of people. You have to have outstanding grades to even get in, and then you have to come up with a lot of money to pay for it, and time to actually focus on learning. When you start working very young to help support your family, and also have to deal with the other stresses of poverty–lack of health care, hunger, fear of losing your home–you can’t focus on school. You don’t have the time to piss away on extracurriculars unless you have an unusual gift for one of the three major sports and therefore a chance at going pro. The things that many progressives instinctively understand as roadblocks for poor people of color are very much the same roadblocks for poor white folks. They just don’t have the added burdens of racism. But there are programs to help mitigate those burdens. The programs poor white folks have access to are just the ones that cover everyone, and frankly there aren’t many of those. Add in a fear of being seen as weak if one accepts help, and no, they’re not going to be going to college.

Most kids growing up in these cultures, therefore, expect to do things the same way their parents and grandparents did: Do well enough to get out of high school, get a job and a spouse and have kids by 25–if not sooner. That the economy has now changed enough that it’s impossible to get a living-wage job without a degree has hit them really hard. Even with the struggles middle-class millennials have had getting good jobs out of college, they’re still better off than the ones who assumed they could raise a family on a mechanic’s or forklift-operator’s pay.

Someone with the luxury of seeing the big picture would understand why this is happening. They would (and do) see how the working class (of any race) has been exploited and abused by business leaders merrily pushing for ever-widening income disparity. They’d see that the mailroom-to-boardroom track has been completely dismantled because management jobs are now reserved for people with degrees, not 15 years of experience. They’d see that real pay has stagnated or even declined because raises aren’t happening and an increasing portion of the cost of benefits has been shifted on to workers. But when you’re in the trenches just trying to survive, you don’t have that perspective. What you have is a willingness to believe people who speak your language, in a way, and can exploit your ancestral prejudices to convince you that it’s not industry that’s making it hard, but the “wrong” people taking your jobs and taxpayer dollars.

So when you see someone who had the luxury of going to college and/or pursuing a career in the arts instead of manual labor, yeah, you’re going to think they’re snobs. You resent them for having something you could never have, and you therefore reject not just the specific people who seem to look down on you, but everything else in that world, including education itself–even down to science and medicine. To them, it’s all part of the same ivory tower that dumps its chamber pots on everyone else.

It would theoretically seem incongruent for struggling working-class folks to idolize a crass billionaire who got his start with daddy’s money, but you have to see it from their perspective: Sure, maybe he had some advantages they didn’t, but he’s promising to make it so they can again have good-paying jobs without having to go to college, and he’s doing that by speaking directly to them in ways they understand. He’s promising to protect them from terrorists. He’s promising to strengthen the military (one of the few career tracks available to them.) He’s promising to kick out the people who are supposedly taking “their” jobs and living off of “their” taxpayer money. And more than anything else, he’s telling them that they matter, and that they have a place in the world without having to be an egghead with enough free time to take philosophy classes or enough money to pursue an arts career without having to work three jobs just to pay the rent.

Now, again, not a damn ounce of this excuses the bigotry. There’s also another factor here that doesn’t get looked at: It’s important for people in this culture to deny privilege, because it means that a lot more of the burden for their crappy life ends up in their own laps. Economic factors matter, sure, but if you screwed off in school, didn’t bother with birth control, and spent a crapload of money on car parts, cigarettes, guns, beer and meth, well, yeah, you do hold some blame. If you have none of the disadvantages of bigotry but your life still sucks, admitting that at least some of it is your fault is hard. Public assistance of various sorts absolutely helped me get out of poverty, but so did my own obsession with doing well in school, holding jobs and avoiding getting pregnant. People who skipped class to go get baked in the parking lot have to accept some blame themselves, and they don’t want to do that. Much easier to blame “elitists” and [insert epithet here.] Much easier to assume there’s a conspiracy to scam you out of your money and let criminals take everything you own, since your entire net worth is what’s under your roof. It’s certainly easier to claim that people of color are inherently bad because of supposedly high rates of crime and drug use because you’re well practiced at denying the exact same problems in your own communities. They have the excuse of racism. You don’t, so more of the problem is yours.

But admitting that is hard–impossible, even. So attacking the messenger, especially when the messenger is someone who did things you’d never have been able to do even if you did work your ass off in school, is the go-to thing.

The scary part, of course, is how Trump and his bigot brigade have managed to take these hints of resentment and lack of self-awareness and turn them into abject violent white supremacy. People who a decade ago would have been content to just tell racist jokes and whine about “welfare queens” now feel emboldened to join more formal groups of bigots. That they have a crapload of control over the country now is terrifying.

But we’re not going to begin to find ways to stop them until we actually make a point of understanding how they got there, instead of just assuming–as they do about the people they hate–that they were somehow born bad. This doesn’t mean we have to be nice to them. That’s not going to help, and will actually backfire, because being condescending will make them feel even more emasculated. But it does mean we have to understand where their heads are and what it is about us that’s really pissing them off. It’s too late to change their minds–we’re beyond that, now–but we can try to keep things from getting worse. Making it clear that we understand their complaints will help.

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About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in economics, Human Nature, Politics, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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