On my last trip to Pennsylvania, my brother-in-law gave my husband and me a copy of In Defense of Elitism as a sort of minor dig. (Joke’s on him, for one thing, true elitists don’t feel any shame in being called elite). This is a book that feels as at home in the humor section as it does on the political science shelf. It pulls off the trick of making you laugh initially at the innate silliness of it all–an author who sports a monocle in his dust-jacket photo and who kicks off the tome with a Latin quote that literally translates to “It is imperative that a book about elitism begin with a quote in Latin”–and then baits and switches you into reading a book about society and American politics that just leaves you feeling utterly fucked.
It’s an amusing read, but it’s also thoughtful and sure to cause a food fight at your next dinner party, provided your party largely comprises a mix of Republicans and far-left Democrats without any sense of self-deprecation.
It’s hard to start a food fight with just Democrats due to the reluctance to waste the ethically sourced salmon and organic chablis.
Author Joel Stein begins the unenviable task of researching what went wrong for elites in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election by traveling to Miami, Texas, a city of 600 people that has the distinction of having the highest percentage of Trump voters (more than 95%) in America. Stein’s family cautions him to be careful because he’s, you know, a Jewish guy from New Jersey who lives in Los Angeles and writes for mainstream media. Is there any better way to get an ass-kicking in Texas than being a Stanford-educated, liberal, Hollywood, Jew reporter?
For God’s sake, Joel, put down the pipe!
His adventures in Miami (pronounced mi-AM-muh) go as you might expect. Elitist comes to town expecting to find a backwater, meets many educated people who open their homes to him and don’t want to murder him for being Jewish, and learns a new perspective. Well, sort of. He finds that people in Miami are hospitable but definitely have their own view of the world. Stein writes, “The people of Miami are attached to each other, but they are distanced from their country. They’re living in a remote tribal island, untouched by the last thirty years. The rest of the country is Tindering and Ubering and vegan-ing and MeTooing and draft-queen competing.” One resident that Stein meets (a local judge) comments that he was uncomfortable going to nearby Amarillo because of all the Somali gangs. One of the few non-Trump voters in town tells Stein that during President Obama’s administration, she heard people saying “Get that n—– out of the White House.” During one friendly dinner, a Miami resident begins a sentence with, “I don’t have a problem with the blacks, . . . .” which you know is going to be followed up with a “but.”
Stein is fair in pointing out the many good qualities about the people he meets, and he writes about them warmly, even after he returns home. My point is simply that maybe we need to reconsider the word “nice,” and whether simply being nice is a worthwhile trait. Being nice and being hospitable don’t equate to being kind. And tribalism, the kind that divides us into factions, is the very opposite of hospitality.
You might be surprised to learn that a guy wearing a monocle could be open minded, but Stein makes some worthwhile observation about the Miami residents’ perspectives. Although disturbed by his new friends’ inability to comprehend that senseless violence against black people occurs, he realizes where the disconnect is happening. “After meeting a local cop at the Rafter B Cafe, who knows everyone in town, I understand why people in Miami would find it unlikely that cops would pull people over for no reason. . . .Cops are the personification of Miami. Being a police officer requires bravery, sacrifice, physicality, respect for order, clear definitions of right and wrong. . . .” Without any other context, Miami residents believe all cops are good people and can’t fathom another perspective.
Which brings me to Tucker Carlson, whom Stein interviewed for this book, which had to be more painful than hanging out in Texas. It had to be more painful than having scorpions sting his eyeballs while fire ants swarmed up his nose, but that’s beside the point.
Things I’d rather do than interview Tucker Carlson
But here’s where Carlson and I agree: Dismissing every Trump voter as racist is lazy. Are many of them racist? Hell yes, I believe that. Do they have other issues that we’re ignoring? Indeed. Says Carlson (as quoted by Stein), “A healthy country would not even consider electing Donald Trump. . . .The check-engine light has gone on. You ought to pull over immediately.” But we didn’t do that. Stein continues, “It’s understandable for the uneducated Trump voter to rage, but the Intellectual Elite should use our algorithms instead of our middle fingers.”
As you can see, I’m all about understanding another’s perspective which, by the way, is not the same as condoning it. Understanding simply leads to shared ground, where you can begin to make progress. I’ll tell you whose ground I don’t want to share: Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame. Adams was also interviewed for this book, and here are a few things he believes:
- He would make a good secretary education or housing and urban development in spite of having no experience in either.
- He would not make a good secretary of state because he’d have trouble remembering all those world leaders’ names and doesn’t like to travel.
- Fidel Castro is Justin Trudeau’s father. (“I can’t believe you don’t know this!”)
- “Facts don’t matter. What matters is how you feel.”
Oh yes, and women are emasculating shrews.
He’s got a lot of opinions for a guy who’s been writing the same joke about meetings being stupid since 1989, but why did Stein interview him for this book? Adams is a huge populist, but he wasn’t always. If you look at Adams’ political history, it’s all over the map. At various points in his career, he’s supported Michael Bloomberg, Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Mitt Romney. These days he’s pro-Trump. Why? As far as I can tell, Adams has an “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality. He saw the other side winning and decided it looked like more fun. Stein writes, “Sure, he and I are watching the same events. But due to cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, he’s shoveling popcorn into his mouth while laughing over a delightful comedy about a genius troll negotiating peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, I am gnawing on my nails while watching a horror film about an angry, incompetent racist with antisocial personality disorder destroying democratic norms.”
Scott Adams: “My, that fire looks so nice and cosy!”
In conclusion, what started out as a funny book of jokes about elites and populists ends in the death of democracy and everything we hold dear.
I might want to reconsider placing this one on the humor shelf.