Am I an Elitist? Only When I Need to Fight Left and Right-Wing Populism

When people accuse others of elitism it is usually not because they actually ran into an actual elitist. They usually just ran into a person smarter than them who they want to attack based on imaginary character flaws since they can’t compete on intellectual grounds. Most people swinging the accusation can’t even define elitism. Like “neoliberal” or many other scare words, it’s just an ad hominem that means “whatever I don’t like.” It seeks to arbitrarily label a person as an out-group or inferior group who you don’t have to respect or consider.

Regarding myself, if by elitist you mean (1) I believe there is a group of people that are biologically a cut above the rest, that are naturally smarter, more ethical and deserving of power, then I am unambiguously not an elitist. I think virtually everyone can achieve those things when not impeded by environmental factors. If by elitist you mean (2) I don’t support creating equal opportunity for everyone to become the best that they can be, to be given the resources they need to actualize and have as many barriers to success removed from their path, then I am not an elitist. I fully support empowerment and barrier removal.

But if by elitist you mean (3) I think some people have more expertise, practiced reasoning skills, and experience than others, then I am guilty as charged. Moreover, if by elitist you mean I think these smart people should have disproportionate sway in public policy, then again, guilty as charged. The president should appoint exclusively seasoned experts with formal qualifications to the department they are tasked to lead. Not laypersons. In this sense, the government is not nearly elitist enough. Far too many people make it into government based more on popularity and connections rather than genuine qualifications. Who puts them there? The people, the same people who whine about the government not working right.

This worship for the will of the majority is as wrong-headed as belief in the divine right of kings. Sometimes the majority is right, sometimes they are wrong. Sometimes kings are right, sometimes they are wrong. I don’t support anyone’s will based on some romanticized philosophy, I support the will of whoever or whatever is most likely to be correct and most likely to bring about the best results in the near and long terms. Democracy is almost always better than dictatorship or monarchy, but direct absolute democracy leads to consequences that are almost as bad.

But I digress. Most accusations of elitism do not make any distinction between the three versions I mentioned. This is done partially out of ignorance, partially in order to fallaciously reject (3) based on the obvious immorality of (1) and (2). Instead, accusers of elitism stumble stupidly forward with their accusations, happily tearing down respect for expertise, intelligence, and genuine accomplishment in their crusade against the truly bad forms of elitism. This manifests in some pretty silly statements.

On social media I made a post about how Rush Limbaugh was a terrible person and hurt many people with his rhetoric, but that wishing death on anyone or celebrating death is bad. The response:

“obviously the author of this page has had a very easy life and doesn’t know what it’s like to be beaten by bigots, looked down on by elitists, and forced to labor until they break by economists.”

He couldn’t be more wrong. My family growing up was barely qualifiable as upper lower-class. I slaved away at garbage jobs, and graduated from university with large amounts of debt. My wife had the added effect of living in small-town Texas no more financially privileged than I, but with the struggle of frequent bigoted discrimination against her same-sex couple moms. But none of this backstory is relevant to whether or not I am right. The commenter only said it to call my character into question as a substitute for making a logical argument. Their subsequent descent into hyperbole and statements meant to incite logic-overriding negative emotion highlighted their real problem with me. I value a good rational argument above emotion.

They think that if I don’t sufficiently hate the oppressors or unflinchingly support the bad in addition to the good behavior of the oppressed that I am attacking the oppressed. He thought that because I didn’t support the celebration of death that I was invalidating the feelings of the people hurt by Limbaugh. I was doing no such thing. This type of person is the same type that believed you couldn’t support BLM protests in 2020 and also vigorously denounce violence and arson. To not accept both was to invalidate the feelings of the rioters and protestors alike. This of course is dumb. I can and do believe rioters had valid emotions and reasons to be angry. I just have the ability to set feelings aside to some degree and evaluate whether some action, regardless of motivation, is productive or moral. This ability, to the commenter, meant I was an elitist who had a cushy life. The funny part is, even if I had a cushy life, that would hardly invalidate any logical argument I had.

The person in question is something of an anarchist leftist, and he had also commented that my rejection of the belief that “tax equals theft” was also proof of my elitism because taxes occasionally fund oppression. He doesn’t seem to be capable of a cost-benefit analysis rather than broad rejection of anything that falls short of perfection.

In any case, emotional appeals are garbage for creating proper effective policy. A good analogy is my position on the death penalty. I am against the death penalty because the justice system is inherently imperfect and the execution of even one innocent person is not worth the execution of 1,000 serial murder-rapists. Additionally, nothing is truly gained from executing people. Some may feel a cathartic satiation of revenge-motivated bloodlust, but their loved one will not come back, and there is no evidence of an increased deterrent effect of potential execution over a life-sentence. A person may tell me “you only say all that because nobody you loved was murdered.” They may be right that having a loved one murdered may change my mind emotionally, but it wouldn’t change the logic of the argument. The argument would be true whether emotions clouded my judgement enough to cause me to reject it or not.

Similarly, personally experiencing oppression may or may not have changed my willingness to respond to it with violence, but the counter-productivity and non-necessity of such violence would exist regardless. Emotions don’t change fact. There are mountains of cognitive science evidence attesting to the fact that emotion consistently ruins everything from accurate memory recall to logically and accurately determining the proper courses of action. Emotionally-laden “flashbulb memories” are notorious for increasing confidence without increasing accuracy over normal memories.

Populists and anti-elitists of the left-wing and right-wing variety make a point to demonize those of us who try to evaluate situations with as little emotional interference as possible. They think trying to determine policy and courses of action while not driven by emotion means we’re ignoring the emotions, plights, and problems of the common person. This is patently false. But Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and the swath of supporters for both of them believe it. They believe in the primacy of gut-feelings over know-it-all experts. In the same way left-wingers believe it is justifiable to have a burn-it-all-down approach to ending racism and discrimination, right-wingers showed us on January 6th, 2021 that they take the same approach to ending the problems of blue-collar workers by thoughtless liberal elites.

Populism is bad. The troubles of the downtrodden people of color, the laid-off industrial workers, the miners, the residents of rural dying towns, and the rest are real. But appealing to their more irrational tribal instincts and selling them lies of easy solutions to complex problems; haranguing them into furious outrage to motivate them; these tools of populism are damaging and revolting. In any first-world country such as the US or those of western Europe, populism will almost always cause much more damage than good. Being a “revolutionary” isn’t a sign of virtue, it’s a sign of colossal naïveté and a bloated sense of self-righteousness.

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