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In Defense of Elitism
Why I'm Better Than You and You Are Better Than Someone Who Didn't Buy This Book
By Joel Stein
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"I can think of no one more suited to defend elitism than Stein, a funny man with hands as delicate as a baby full of soft-boiled eggs." —Jimmy Kimmel, host of Jimmy Kimmel Live!
The night Donald Trump won the presidency, our author Joel Stein, Thurber Prize finalist and former staff writer for Time Magazine, instantly knew why. The main reason wasn't economic anxiety or racism. It was that he was anti-elitist. Hillary Clinton represented Wall Street, academics, policy papers, Davos, international treaties and the people who think they're better than you. People like Joel Stein. Trump represented something far more appealing, which was beating up people like Joel Stein.
In a full-throated defense of academia, the mainstream press, medium-rare steak, and civility, Joel Stein fights against populism. He fears a new tribal elite is coming to replace him, one that will fend off expertise of all kinds and send the country hurtling backward to a time of wars, economic stagnation and the well-done steaks doused with ketchup that Trump eats.
To find out how this shift happened and what can be done, Stein spends a week in Roberts County, Texas, which had the highest percentage of Trump voters in the country. He goes to the home of Trump-loving Dilbert cartoonist Scott Adams; meets people who create fake news; and finds the new elitist organizations merging both right and left to fight the populists. All the while using the biggest words he knows.
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Necesse est omnibus libris de commodis generis electi verbis Latinae linguae incipere.
It is imperative that a book about elitism begin with a quote in Latin.
I am carrying a bottle of 2012 Trump Winery Sparkling Blanc de Blancs. I received the bottle ironically, and I am regifting it even more ironically to liberal radio talk show host Stephanie Miller for the election party she's throwing four houses up from mine in the Hollywood Hills. We shall toast Donald Trump's concession speech with glasses of his own sorry attempt to mimic the elite he tried to bring down. It shall taste sweet. Slightly too sweet, due to the low acid levels in the Virginia grapes.
While Stephanie's guests chat and sip better wine than I brought, I nerd out on a couch with my computer, tracking county results. As I calculate the inevitability of Trump's victory, my vision narrows, and my blood pressure drops. It is awful to be the only person at a party who knows something, especially when it's that human existence is about to end.
I am not panicked because a Republican has won. Some of my best friends who own wineries are Republicans. Besides, I know Democrats lose half the time. But it had been 188 years since the elite lost the presidency, when the aristocratic founding fathers went down for good in the election between "John Quincy Adams who can write and Andrew Jackson who can fight." The results were not good for black people, Native Americans, the economy, or the smell of the White House, due to the enormous wheel of cheese Jackson stored in a closet.
The populist revolution succeeded tonight for the same reason it did nearly two centuries ago. The main reason Trump won wasn't economic anxiety. It wasn't sexism. It wasn't racism. It was that he was anti-elitist. Hillary Clinton represented Wall Street, academics, policy papers, Davos, international treaties, and people who think they're better than you. People like me. Trump represented something far more appealing, which is beating up people like me. A poll taken a month before the 2016 election showed that only 24 percent of voters disagreed with the statement "The real struggle for America is not between Democrats and Republicans but between mainstream America and the ruling political elites."
People are foolish to get rid of us. Elites are people who think; populists are people who believe. Elites defer to experts; populists listen to their own guts. Elites value cooperation; populists are tribal. Elites are masters at delayed gratification, long-range planning, and controlling our emotions. The most accurate way to determine if a child will be a member of the elite isn't an IQ test. It's the Stanford marshmallow experiment, in which you put a treat in front of a preschooler and tell her that if she doesn't eat it for fifteen minutes she'll get a second one as a reward. If she holds off for long enough, she might one day go to Stanford and create her own method of torturing children. Trump is a mouth stuffed full of marshmallows, little bits of white fluff flying out as he yells whatever occurs to him in the moment, which is usually a demand for more white things.
I started worrying about populism in 2008, when vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin chastised the elitists, whom she defined as "people who think they're better than anyone else." Meanwhile, she thought she was so much better than anyone else that she could serve as backup leader of the world despite the fact that she believed that the political leader of the United Kingdom is the queen. After she lost she vowed, "I'm never going to pretend like I know more than the next person. I'm not going to pretend to be an elitist. In fact, I'm going to fight the elitist." She was unaware that there is a third option: to study so that you know more than the next person.
I became more worried two years later, when I was watching an episode of the Today show. Like all elites, I will claim that I saw the Today show accidentally, likely in a local NBC greenroom while waiting to prerecord a segment. Matt Lauer was interviewing Vice President Joe Biden about Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination:
MATT LAUER If she is confirmed, here's how the current bench will look. Five of the current justices will be graduates of Harvard Law School. Three will be graduates of Yale Law School, another will have gone to Yale Law School but graduated from Columbia. I have nothing against those fine institutions. I want smart people on the Supreme Court, but doesn't it sound a little elitist to you?
JOE BIDEN Well, I graduated from Syracuse University. Even though my son went to Yale Law School, yeah, it does. Your point is well made.
No, Matt Lauer's point wasn't well made, possibly because he was distracted by looking around the studio for an employee to sexually harass. Also, if I went to Syracuse I'd be furious that the most powerful alumnus in our history was changing our messaging from "Knowledge crowns those who seek her" to "We could not be more different from Harvard and Yale!"
A rigorous legal education is a prerequisite for a Supreme Court justice. Someone armed with only the common sense that Syracuse professors apparently don't ruin with book learnin' is going to have a tough time figuring out how Congress's right to "grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal" applies to cyberterrorism. Which it does. The last time someone made this inane argument that Supreme Court justices are over-educated was when Richard Nixon nominated G. Harrold Carswell—a man so dumb he apparently could not spell either of his own first names. Senator Roman Hruska defended Carswell's worthiness to be a Supreme Court justice by saying, "Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren't they?" Back then everyone mocked Hruska and didn't confirm Carswell. Now it feels like the opposite would happen.
We can't afford that. Populists believe our complex society is so secure that disaster is near impossible no matter who is in charge. Elites know it's not. Most of our work is calculating risk and planning for contingencies. We invented reinsurance, and if you give us a few years, we'll come up with rereinsurance. The myth that the elite are selfishly rigging the system while doing nothing useful conveniently ignores the fact that the system we've built is great. If this were a book about any other group of people besides the elite, this would be the part where I list all the amazing contributions we've made throughout history. I do not need to do that because elites created everything that ever existed except for Jell-O wrestling. The ancient Greeks came up with wrestling and university founder Peter Cooper got the patent for manufacturing gelatin, so the populists' only accomplishment is putting the two together.
When populists get rid of the elite, the results aren't pretty. In Cambodia in the 1970s, Pol Pot killed everyone who could read, wore glasses, spoke a foreign language, or was a doctor. Cambodia today is filled with some of the nicest, friendliest people on earth and has a thriving tourism industry. So that's not a great example. Still, you know how many Nobel Prize winners have come from Cambodia in the last forty years? Zero. Though I could see why you'd rather have nice people and tourism than a Nobel Prize, so again, bad example. Luckily there are plenty of other horrifying examples of the destructive power of populism: the Dark Ages, China's Cultural Revolution, North Korea, network television.
Populists choose incompetent leaders because their main criteria is whether they'd like to get a beer with that person. Elitists detest this idea, and only partly because we rarely drink beer, and when we do, we are less concerned about whom we drink it with than if it's made by a small craft brewer who was able to balance the malt with the International Bitterness Units. It's also irrelevant. Do you think Abraham Lincoln was fun to get a beer with? Our greatest president said drinking made him feel "flabby and undone," which is what your friend says right before you never take her anywhere ever again. The president who was the most fun to drink with was lifelong bachelor James Buchanan, who had a fauxhawk, was nearly expelled from college twice for partying, bought a ten-gallon cask of whiskey every Sunday, complained that the White House's champagne bottles were too small, and led us into the Civil War.
People's disdain for the elite has led us to downplay our importance, claiming, like Biden did, that we're all equal in every way. We learned this method of self-protection the hard way after being picked on in high school and beheaded in late-eighteenth-century France. It's why people who went to Harvard say that they "went to school in Boston" and people who went to Yale say they "didn't get into Harvard."
A New Yorker editor asked Andy Borowitz not to call Trump voters idiots in an article by explaining that "we don't want the New Yorker to appear elitist." Andy pointed out how that ship sailed in the magazine's first issue in 1925, when it chose a mascot with a top hat and monocle. Andy went to school in Boston.
We need to reappropriate the word elite. The only time elite is used positively is when it comes before military, model, or athlete. Even athletes aren't completely spared antielitist anger once they get too successful. Most Americans hate the Yankees, Duke basketball, and any other team that consistently achieves greatness. They think it's virtuous to root for underdogs, which is idiotic because preferring the worse team is valuing luck over talent and preparation. I am surprised people don't spend Sundays watching the National Slot Machine League.
Instead of fighting back, elites smugly quote Martin Luther King Jr., who rephrased these lines from minister Theodore Parker in 1850 about the evils of slavery:
I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.
That's arguably true, but it's undeniable that the arc of a launched nuclear missile is short and bends toward the cities where most elites live.
We need to fix this while we still can, which is why I decided to become a full-time activist. Then I learned that being an activist pays even worse than being a writer. So instead I decided to find out who these people are who threw out the elite, what they want, and why—all of a sudden and all around the world—they have become so angry. I will bravely enter the centers of the populist revoltion, meet their leaders, and eat their fattening fried foods. Then I will analyze my data, reach conclusions, and issue a report suggesting we pretend to give these people what they want and do what's best instead.
This book is a call to arms for the elite. Not actual arms, since we don't think people should have those, but metaphoric arms, which are the type of arms that will be useless against the populists' arms, which are real arms. Which is why I am not standing up to the populists in person but here in print, where none of them will know about it.
I gather my lovely wife, Cassandra, and my seven-year-old son, Laszlo, and snake my way through the drunk, happy, clueless, soon-to-be-former elites at Stephanie's party. As I zombie toward the door, a woman sees my ashen face and asks if I really think Trump will win. I mumble, "I'm just a guy at a party," which she finds hilarious. But as of this moment, I know that's all I am.
At home, I force a smile as Laszlo gets into his pajamas. He's spent a year hearing every adult he knows demonize Trump, so I assure him that the election will not affect his future, which I believe insofar as he is seven and his definition of the future is one week. But I don't know what will happen after that. My stomach hurts. I know I will have to spend the next few days eating only bland, sweet foods, as if I had some kind of populist-induced disease that caused me to revert to their diet.
I fall asleep right after I say good night to Laszlo, exhausted by fear. At 3:00 a.m. Cassandra wakes me. "I don't know what's going on with New Zealand, but they're going to be full. I need other options," she says. It's hard to dismiss warnings from someone named Cassandra, but I tell her that the tricky thing about living through history is that you don't know which way it will go. Maybe populism will burn itself out like it did during McCarthyism. I add something about America's system of checks and balances, but she is not seven, and is disgusted by my forced optimism. "I need a plan, because you'd be one of those Jews who got on a train and said, 'Oh, fun! Camp!'" she yells.
She keeps naming countries we should move to, and I groggily spit out the names of rising far-right populist parties in each of them, some of which I may have gotten wrong, such as the Slovenian Justice League and Gunter Glieben Glauten Globen. As I do this, I think about the story Ronald Reagan told to the 1964 Republican convention:
Two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro. And in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, "We don't know how lucky we are." And the Cuban stopped and said, "How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to."
This is what I didn't know how to tell Cassandra: we Americans have nowhere to go. We have to save the elite.
Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn—they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.
Democratic Vistas, 1871
I am surprised by the sign proclaiming that I have landed at the Amarillo International Airport, considering it does not service flights farther than Las Vegas. People around these parts employ a literal interpretation of the Texas state slogan, "It's like a whole other country."
As I start my seventy-five-mile drive up Route 60, I turn on 101.9 FM, the Bull. Amarillo's New Hit Country is playing "Some Beach," in which Blake Shelton sings about driving down the highway in his truck when a "foreign car driving dude" on his cell phone gives him the middle finger. I nervously look down at the logo on my steering wheel. It's even worse than I feared. Why would the people at the Amarillo Avis curse me with me a Hyundai? Is this the "international" part of the airport experience? There's no more foreign-sounding vehicle than Hyundai except Le Car.
As I approach the town of Miami, Texas, I pass a huge wind farm. This seems out of place for one of the most conservative areas of the country unless they are gasoline-powered windmills designed to blow the smell of cow manure toward Austin. As the sky darkens into night, I turn off the empty two-lane highway into Miami. I pass the sole traffic light in town, which is permanently set to blinking red on two sides, making it an expensive stop sign. I drive over railroad tracks, past a herd of cows, and down a residential street toward a long, brown ranch house. A wrought-iron sign says COWBOYS AND ROSES B&B. There's a lasso over the word "Cowboys" and the word "Roses" is painted lipstick red. I park on the street, not sure if the owner or the other bed-and-breakfasters will need the driveway. I walk to the front porch, my heart beating harder than it should be for an adult male checking into a bed-and-breakfast.
Of the more than 3,100 counties in the United States, Roberts County had the highest percentage of Trump voters in 2016, at 95.3 percent. Located in the Texas panhandle, Roberts County is so rural it has more square miles than residents, and about 600 of the 925 residents live within the borders of Miami. I've come because, in the past, I've been found guilty of maligning people in print before meeting them, which taught me a valuable lesson: meet first; malign second. So I'm here, in person, to listen to real-life populists explain their political philosophy. After they ramble for a few minutes, I will teach them a little history, explain the fallacy of their arguments, and refuse their kind offer to become their leader. In the process, I'm certain to learn things from them, too. Not important things that will improve the world, but homey little sayings you can cross-stitch onto doilies and hang in your kitchen.
As with any diplomatic mission, I began by requesting an invitation from Miami's head of state, Mayor Chad Breeding. When I first called his office, his receptionist answered the phone by informing me that I'd reached "Miamuh," which made me sure I'd chosen the perfectly countrified place for my mission. As we talked, I noticed that she herself was not a person with a thick Southern accent mispronouncing "Miami" but a person correctly pronouncing the name of a town founded long ago by people with thick Southern accents who mispronounced "Miami." She told me that Mayor Breeding was traveling out of town for business, which seemed like an elitist thing to do, until I realized that he needed to leave town unless he wanted to do business with only 600 people. Mayor Breeding runs B&C Cattle Company, which breeds high-end Hereford cattle that are shown in contests and purchased in order to breed other cattle. I wondered if Miami is so backward that they give out last names based on occupation, like they did in the Middle Ages with Smith, Cooper, Mason, Baker, and Torturer.
A few weeks later, Mayor Breeding got back to me, offering to show me around town, saying it would be a "an eye opener," which didn't sound like a great tourism slogan. It's not as if there are posters proclaiming "Paris, the City of Eye Opening!" or "Florence: We'll make you confront reality!" He suggested I stay at a Holiday Inn Express twenty-five miles away in a town called Pampa, which made me think that the whole Texas Panhandle is a distorted version of Florida, possibly with a "Poorlando" and "We Don't Believe in Affirmative Jacksonville." But after searching around online, I booked a room at the Cowboys and Roses B&B right in Miami. I emailed Eva Creacy, the owner, telling her about this book and asking if she'd introduce me to people in town. Eva responded quickly, writing, "Happy to have him!" I explained that I am "him" and again asked if she'd be willing to facilitate some interviews for my work project. "No problem," she responded, followed by another message: "Are you coming to town on business?" I was wondering if six days were going to be enough to get anywhere with these people.
The month before I leave for my trip to Texas, several of my friends, most of my family, and my accountant repeat the same phrase: Be careful. My mom asks me to stay in contact while I'm in Miami and not tell anyone there that I'm Jewish, which seems tough, considering that I have to introduce myself as Joel Stein.
"Are you scared for your life?" asks my sister, Lisa, which is particularly worrisome since she is a divorce lawyer in New Jersey and therefore is familiar with dangerous people. She is particularly concerned that I'll enrage the locals with my elitism, which has long bothered her. "You have this belief that if someone has a certain type of job they're not worthy of your time," she says. I know exactly what kind of job she means: divorce lawyer. "If someone didn't go to one of fifteen colleges you deem acceptable, you think they're not in the same league."
"It's not called the Same League," I say, correcting her. "It's called the Ivy League." Though I also deem a dozen other schools acceptable, including Stanford, where I went to college, a fact that I have worked hard to hold off mentioning this long into the book. Lisa is right. As soon as I meet people, I try to figure out how to work in a question about where they went to college, often resorting to "Where did you go to college?" Assuming it is one of the twenty that it almost always is, I then search my memory for people I know from that school we might know in common. This means I care so deeply about where people went to college that I've memorized where everyone I know has gone. Meanwhile, I input the names of my friends' kids into my contact list because I cannot remember them. Which is particularly pathetic of me since they work so hard to pick memorable names, such as Jagger and Rocket.
My sister thinks the Texans will reject me after one look. "You wear tight pants and skinny jeans," she said. This is true. My two pairs of jeans are so uncomfortable I will only wear them for date nights with Cassandra, like my version of high heels. I did not want these jeans. If the Levi's salesperson in Manhattan's Meatpacking District had asked if I wanted hurty or not-hurty jeans, I would have definitely picked not-hurty. But the Levi's salesperson made it clear that the only way to get baggy jeans was to get a time machine, start a hip-hop career, or gain a lot of weight. I was definitely not packing those Levi's on my trip to Miami.
But my nondenim pants were also suspect. "You wear salmon-colored pants. Nobody here would wear them. All the men here wear cargo shorts," Lisa adds. I would love to wear cargo shorts all the time, though I would worry about not having things to put in all those pockets besides pens. What Lisa is not-so-subtly implying is that I'm not manly enough for Texas. Or the New Jersey suburbs. Being insufficiently masculine has long been an elitist tell. In the 1950s, the elite were called eggheads, a term first slung during the 1952 presidential election to emasculate Richard Nixon's opponent, the intellectual Adlai Stevenson II, who had a bald head shaped like an egg. Both Marvel and DC Comics created genius villains named Egghead, the latter of which was played by Vincent Price, who campily cackled puns such as "egg-zactly" and "egg-cellent." In Louis Bromfield's essay "The Triumph of the Egghead" he gave this definition:
Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions, often a professor or the protégé of a professor. Fundamentally superficial. Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem.
It's not merely my lack of masculinity, my clothes, and my obsession with résumés that worry my sister. My elite traits sprout from every pore, and the people of Miami are going to shun me for them. I have so many elite attributes that the most efficient way to list them is in a word cloud. Ironically, this is the least elite way to present information other than painting one letter on your stomach and standing in a line with other shirtless men with letters painted on their stomachs.
The greatest shame I feel in seeing this word cloud is that I only have silver status on United.
I regret my decision to come here. Mayor Breeding has texted me that he's going to be busier than he thought during my stay and won't be able to show me around. These people don't want me here. Nearly every person in every house as far as I can see voted for Trump. They hate the media. They want to drain the swamp. And I am a swamp monster.
Although every part of my body wants to get back in my car, drive to the airport, and fly to another country even though that would require a layover, I softly knock on the door of the Cowboys and Roses B&B, hoping no one answers. Less than five seconds later, Dee Ann Burkholder opens the door. She's a smiley grandmother with short blonde hair, funky blue eyeglasses, and three earrings, one of which is a large diamond stud on the top of her left earlobe. Dee Ann is white, as are all the people I will interview in Miami unless otherwise noted. There will be no noting.
Dee Ann waves me in, covers the microphone of her phone with her hand, and whispers that she's in the middle of a video conference call with fellow saleswomen from Rodan + Fields, the multilevel marketing cosmetics company everyone in the suburbs works at on the side, including my cousin. She asks if I know how to mute her conference call, immediately establishing our elite/anti-elite roles. I take her phone, swipe a few obvious buttons, and demonstrate that I do not know how to mute a conference call. Even though I signal with both of my hands not to, Dee Ann hangs up on her work call.
- "With this indispensable book, Joel Stein firmly establishes himself as the Ted Nugent of elitism."—--Andy Borowitz, New York Times bestselling author and writer of The Borowitz Report
- "Every paragraph of this book will make you laugh, but it will also (I promise) change the way you think. Joel has written a brilliant exploration of the supposed divide between elites and populists, cleverly disguised as a humorous personal excursion. Like Don Quixote he forays into perilous territory, his lance at his side, and what he finds will surprise you. Deeply reported and poignant, with a light touch of sweet self-awareness, his journey can help us all take our minds to a better place."—--Walter Isaacson, the New York Times bestselling author of Leonardo Da Vinci and Steve Jobs
- "I can think of no one more suited to defend elitism than Stein, a funny man with hands as delicate as a baby full of soft-boiled eggs."—--Jimmy Kimmel, host of Jimmy Kimmel Live!
- "[Stein] investigates the contemporary political landscape with a gimlet eye and plenty of humor in this deep dive into our cultural divide."—Town and Country
- "In this hilarious refereeing of the culture wars, former Time columnist Stein roams America studying wealthy, Ivy league-educated, conference-attending elites and their populist detractors...Stein's excellent reportage keeps the ideology light and is full of one-liners...that generously skew everyone. The result is an insightful, uproarious take on America's political divide."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "With his smart, self-deprecating humor, former Time columnist Stein investigates the correlation between the rise of populism and the delegitimization of expertise... In a world that seems so fragile, Stein makes a witty case for trained and trustworthy people running it."—The National BookReview
- "Joel Stein is a condescending bastard, but he's also very funny, insightful and correct. This book is a crucial argument for the importance of expertise in this world that increasingly rejects it. As Stein points out, it may feel good to go with the gut or follow popular opinion, but it does have its downsides. Like, for instance, causing a planetary apocalypse."—--AJ Jacobs, the New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically and The Know-It-All
- "In these troubled times, we, as a nation, desperately need somebody to bring us together. Instead, we have Joel Stein, and this brilliantly funny book. So let's let somebody else unite us, while we let Joel Stein entertain the hell out of us."—--Dave Barry, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and bestselling author of Dave Barry Turns 40
- "Joel Stein makes a case for elitism over populism, but, contra what you might expect based on the subtitle, he does so without being condescending, without being smug...One of the most nuanced and introspective takes on populism post-2016 election, with Stein's typical humorous, easy to read style making the subject matter all the more accessible."—Washington Free Beacon
"How can someone be so erudite and so funny at the same time? Read this book, be deeply offended by how much you laugh, then get yourself a chili dog to cleanse your intellectual palate. Then read it again. It's hilarious."
—Aisha Tyler, comedian, actress, and New York Times bestselling author
"As a white male Yale grad from New England who now lives in New York City and works in media, I feel like this book was written just for me. However, I will allow Joel Stein to publish other copies and sell you one because it really is that good!"
—John Hodgman, New York Times bestselling author
- On Sale
- Apr 13, 2021
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Grand Central Publishing