Allegations of “Elitism” Also Brought Down America’s Founding Fathers

For the first 50 minutes of last night’s presidential debate between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, ABC’s moderators, George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson, gratuitously blowtorched Senator Barack Obama with four trivial, but calumnious, questions that seemed to have nothing other than character assassination as their objective — largely through guilt by association.

Yes, notwithstanding the many serious problems afflicting “Bushed” America, we got four nit-picking calumnious questions: (1) Did Obama’s characterization of working-class voters as “bitter” indicate he’s an out-of-touch elitist? (2) Does Obama believe in the American flag? (After all, he seldom wears an American flag pin.) (3) Can you tell us again, Senator Obama about your ties to the Rev. Wright we know from four controversial out-of-context quotes? And, thanks to question allegedly supplied to former Clinton administration spokesman Stephanopoulos by right-wing hate monger Sean Hannity, (4) What about Obama’s association with former Weather Underground terrorist, William Ayers?

Viewers not already repulsed by ABC’s journalistic travesty also saw Hillary Clinton savaged for being untrustworthy and forced to explain again why she misspoke about the sniper fire she supposedly encountered when entering Bosnia. Nevertheless, blowtorching Senator Obama with calumny designed to prove he is a dangerous out-of-touch left-wing elitist appears to have been ABC’s main objective. And Senator Clinton was quite willing to pour gasoline on his flames, even if the major beneficiary was a distinct minority of Americans — elitist John McCain and his “Bushed” Republicans.

One can expect more smears of “elitism” from the Republicans this fall. Simply recall how they despicably “swift boated” John Kerry and added salt to the wounds with photos of his elitist windsurfing.

In fact, the smears of “elitism” are almost as old as the United States itself. Moreover, one also can argue that such attacks go far to explain why the United States has never achieved the goals set by the Founding Fathers — self-proclaimed elitists and gentlemen who mistakenly believed that ordinary citizens readily recognized their superior qualities and, thus, would naturally look to them to lead the country. For, as readers of Gordon Wood’s wonderful book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution already know, those Founding Fathers came under attack as unsuitably “elitist” soon after they had startled the world with their enlightened principles and successful American Revolution.

What were the marks of such gentlemen? According to John Adams, “By gentlemen are not meant the rich or the poor, the high-born or the low-born, the industrious or the idle: but all those who have received a liberal education, an ordinary degree of erudition in liberal arts and sciences.” [p. 195] Benjamin Franklin could think of no greater rebuke than to say someone “thought like a shopkeeper.” [p. 200] George Washington “realized he was an extraordinary man, and he was not ashamed of it. He took for granted the differences between himself and more ordinary men.” [p. 206] Thomas Jefferson was the epitome of the eighteenth century gentleman. By 1782, he was “at once a musician, a draftsman, an astronomer, a geometer, a physicist, a jurist and a statesman.” [p. 203]

Thanks to such unapologetic elitism, “no generation in American history has ever been so self-conscious about the moral and social values necessary for public leadership.” [p. 197]

Yet, by the 1790s these unapologetic elitists would come under attack by “tradesmen, mechanics, and the industrious classes of society,” who organized themselves into “mechanics’ associations and Democratic-Republican societies” in order to demand that “people do their ‘utmost at election to prevent all men of talents, lawyers, rich men from being elected.'” [Wood, p. 276]

They were led by people like Abraham Bishop, a liberally educated gentleman but notorious demagogue, who acknowledged the superiority of such gentlemen — “in wealth, in birth, in private character, in intellect, in education” [p. 273] — but who also believed (prefiguring Andrew Jackson) that “ordinary people ought not to be ruled by men greater, wiser or richer than they.” [p. 273]

And, thus, “For a half century following the Revolution these common ordinary men striped the northern gentry of their pretensions, charged them at every turn with being fakes and shams, and relentlessly undermined their capacity to rule�Here in this destruction of aristocracy, including Jefferson’s ‘natural aristocracy,’ was the real American Revolution — a radical revolution in the nature of American society whose effects are still being felt today.” [Ibid]

Radical revolution? Yes, America’s eighteenth century gentlemen (whatever their flaws) were shunted aside by ordinary men who extolled the comparatively debased values of commerce and personal gain. Radical revolution? Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1841 description of commerce in America: [T]he general system of our trade�is a system of selfishness; is not dictated by the high sentiments of human nature; is not measured by the exact law of reciprocity; much less by the sentiments of love and heroism, but is a system of distrust, of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving but of taking advantage�.”

Moreover, “confident of their ability to determine all by themselves the truth and validity of any idea or thing presented to them, but mistrustful of anything outside of ‘the narrow limits of their own observation,’ plain, ordinary Americans were thoroughly prepared to be the prey for all the hoaxers, confidence men, and tricksters�who soon popped up everywhere.” [p. 362] Any reader of Mark Twain knows this to be true.

Today, Americans are debating whether Barack Obama’s use of the term “bitter’ constitutes condescending elitism, but they are in a state of blissful ignorance about the bitterness of many of America’s Founding Fathers. “At the end of his life, George Washington had lost all hope for democracy.” [p. 366] John Adams “spent much of his old age bewailing the results of the Revolution, including democracy, religious revivals, and Bible societies.” [pp. 366-67]. And Thomas Jefferson “hated the new democratic world he saw emerging in America — a world of speculation, banks, paper money, and evangelical Christianity that he thought he had laid to rest.” [p. 367]

Having taken the lower road, today we find ourselves buried in a crass culture of consumerism and gripped at the throat by unaccountable corporate elites whose boots are licked repeatedly by the Republican Party and such incompetent political hucksters as Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Moreover, bashing intellectual, cultural and political “elites” (but not the business elite) is a time-honored “divide and conquer” technique employed by Republicans, conservatives and the media they own, in order to deflect the anger caused by corporate capitalism’s “creative destruction” and grand theft of both jobs and long-held cultural traditions.

Thus, the criticism of Senator Obama’s supposed elitism by the McCain campaign is not news, but more gross hypocrisy on behalf of a man known to have contempt for the little people, a man who reportedly owns eight houses and has a net worth of some $100 million and a hypocrite who now seeks to preserve the tax cuts for the rich that he once opposed.

And neither should we be surprised to see two of America’s media elites, Stephanopoulos and Gibson, hypocritically blowtorch Obama for his elitism. Nevertheless, shilling for ABC’s corporate strategy of divide and conquer — especially in light of Senator Obama’s demonstrated ability to inspire new voters and transcend partisan bickering — left a bad taste in the mouths of many American viewers.

Thoughtful Americans, however, might have expected more from Senator Clinton. A political elite herself — a Senator and wife of a former President, whose joint tax return reported $109.2 million in income over seven years — Clinton had no such grand theft or divide and conquer motives for criticizing Obama’s elitism, just shameful political opportunism.

Presumably, she is smart enough to know the damage done to the United States when ordinary men of commerce refused to allow themselves to be led by eighteenth century gentlemen. And, presumably, she realizes that virtually every American, today, aspires to be an elite in something or other.

As one who has been greatly influenced by the writings of conservative historian, Jacques Barzun — especially his warnings against “the menace of the untaught — the menace to themselves and to us” — it seems appropriate here to mention a few of his observations about America’s elites.

“There are in the United States at least 57 elites, and they are not playing their part: they are not ruining the country. They should be undermining our democratic way of life as predicted by the horrified who shout ‘Elitism!’ But apparently the bugbear has no teeth: it is only a menace; it does no more than keep the watchdogs hoarse.

Probably the rest of us do not quite know what elites and elitism are. To find out, let us take a look at those fifty-seven. At the top are the athletes, the pop singers, and the movie stars, who occupy most of the news alongside wars and economic crises. These men and women are so few in number that their names, nicknames, marital affairs, and salaries are known to all, their health and deeds a matter of daily concern.

Next come the notables who broadcast the news, also daily intimates, and so sure of their place in our hearts that they are called anchors. Close in importance are the famed dress designers, whose slightest whim affects half the population, and after them the leading politicians. Their influence is hard to prove, thought their words can cause intense excitement. Then there are a few of the wealthy on the Fortune roster, who for one reason or another are movers and shakers outside the market�

Beyond this point, steady elites are either local or professional, and though conspicuous in their domain, hardly known to the general public; for example, the members of the National Academy of Sciences and the soldiers of a named corps such as the Green Berets. No need to list them here. The foregoing are enough to define the character of an elite. What is it?

It consists of a relatively small group of persons who get singled out and thereby take or are given some sort of privilege.” Noting that only “a licensed electrician may install wiring,” and “Indians in Vermont may fish without a license,” Barzun concludes, “The country is a mass of elites.”

Which prompts him to ask: “Why then the outcry against elitism?” To which he answers: “One thing only — that an elite member will make us feel inferior with respect to a talent which we have.” [Barzun, Begin Here, pp. 203-204]

In American politics, that “talent” is the vote. Which is why William Safire was correct to observe that it’s political suicide for a candidate “to make people think you are smarter than they are.” Safire’s axiom explains why Barack Obama’s so-called elitism is the object of such great attention from people possessing less than noble motives. They are attempting to assist his political suicide — notwithstanding the damage caused to America by such an earlier assault and notwithstanding the near universal aspiration by Americans to become a member of some elite, themselves.

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including Dissident Voice, The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: waltuhler@aol.com. Read other articles by Walter C., or visit Walter C.'s website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. evie said on April 21st, 2008 at 7:52am #

    John Dean (“master manipulator” behind the Watergate cover-up) wrote an article recently on Obama’s More Perfect Union speech, asking Did It Reveal Him To Be Too Intellectual To Be President? which Uhler’s piece reminded me of – Dean blames Republicans for dumbing down the presidency.

    OBAMA: “… they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment…”

    What Obama said with his “bitter” comment, as translated in the ‘hood, is that gun totin’ small town crackers are pissed at their lot in life and don’t like and/or blame blacks, Hispanics, big business, etc. But hey, it’s okay with us if white folks wanna be conned by a homeboy.

    … Correct me if I’m wrong but the implication seems to be that our “menace” is the dumb unwashed industrious masses who would prevent rich men of superior talent from being elected.

    The founding fathers were the original warmongering capitalists, slaveholders, murderers and thieves, near genocidal with native Americans – but these traits were just “flaws” and they were actually superior gentlemen brought down by allegations of elitism. Winners writing history.

    Thomas Jefferson, “the epitome of the eighteenth century gentleman” – sure he was, while diddling his wife’s half-sister Sally. And good old George Washington, despised slavery while owning 300 slaves. But hallelujah – the lower classes of that era were “self-conscious about the moral and social values necessary for public leadership.” Women and blacks and others didn’t have to be conscious as they couldn’t vote anyway.

    It’s not “election media prejudice” – it’s the usual political sideshow. Pick that Nit every 4 years.

  2. Don Hawkins said on April 21st, 2008 at 7:56am #

    In this age, men are victims not only of different political creeds and parties, but also of many different types of sense-gratificatory diversions, such as cinemas, sports, gambling, clubs, mundane libraries, bad association, smoking, drinking, cheating, pilfering, bickerings, and so on. Their minds are always disturbed and full of anxieties due to so many different engagements. In this age, many unscrupulous men manufacture their own religious faiths which are not based on any revealed scriptures, and very often people who are addicted to sense gratification are attracted by such institutions. Consequently, in the name of religion so many sinful acts are being carried on that the people in general have neither peace of mind nor health of body. The student (brahmacārī) communities are no longer being maintained, and householders do not observe the rules and regulations of the gṛhastha-āśrama. Consequently, the so-called vānaprasthas and sannyāsīs who come out of such gṛhastha-āśramas are easily deviated from the rigid path. In the Kali-yuga the whole atmosphere is surcharged with faithlessness. Men are no longer interested in spiritual values. Material sense gratification is now the standard of civilization. For the maintenance of such material civilizations, man has formed complex nations and communities, and there is a constant strain of hot and cold wars between these different groups. It has become very difficult, therefore, to raise the spiritual standard due to the present distorted values of human society. The sages of Naimiṣāraṇya are anxious to disentangle all fallen souls, and here they are seeking the remedy from Śrīla Sūta Gosvāmī. The Bhaktivedanta Book.

    Yes I am now reading this HP and I see why Einstein liked this. When he was reading this the World was changing and I am sure not only did he look at the Universe in amazement but the World he lived in and The Bhaktivedanta Book I am sure gave him some peace along with the knowledge of some humans. If we can get pass this next 100 years I am sure many things in this book will be the norm. The problem is we are running out of time and we need to change and fast. There are people with the knowledge and are trying as best they can to tell us all we need to change the way we do many things and so far that is not happening. Some progress but the bar needs to be raised and raised high. I will keep trying.
    Walter an interesting write.

  3. Don Hawkins said on April 21st, 2008 at 1:22pm #

    Major retailers in New York, in areas of New England, and on the West Coast are limiting purchases of flour, rice, and cooking oil as demand outstrips supply. There are also anecdotal reports that some consumers are hoarding grain stocks.
    At a Costco Warehouse in Mountain View, Calif., yesterday, shoppers grew frustrated and occasionally uttered expletives as they searched in vain for the large sacks of rice they usually buy.
    “Where’s the rice?” an engineer from Palo Alto, Calif., Yajun Liu, said. “You should be able to buy something like rice. This is ridiculous.” The New York Sun

    No Mr. Liu it’s not ridiculous it’s business as usually. I wonder if we will see this on the news?

  4. evie said on April 21st, 2008 at 1:56pm #

    Don,
    Could that be fallout from the truckers strike over the price of diesel?

  5. Don Hawkins said on April 21st, 2008 at 2:55pm #

    No, in the United States crops are being grown for fuel. That was bush and company and why did they do this because they are morons. China and India especially China needs more because people are eating better more people are eating better. The price goes up and the little people get none. Climate change in many parts of this planet has a part in what is happening. Unfortunately in the coming years more and more drought and flooding and things go even more haywire. Business as usually so far is moving forward in the same way and it’s called insanity or doing the same thing over and over as we all go deeper and deeper into the dark side. Right now some countries are stopping exports of there crops to get the price down and feed there people. Let’s just say people in the United States are going to lose weight not from a miracle pill but because they eat less. Crops are also being grown in Asia for fuel not to eat. I was watching Bloomberg last night. I like that man on at 7 pm he has these sharp comments. Last night they had China focus. You had this one reporter in Beijing and you could just make out the buildings because of the smog and that is what you can see. The reporter was talking about 1000 new cars a day in China. Then you had Rick Wagner of GM talking about his plans for the next 10 years in China and the Nissan man same thing. Of course this is where I heard the laughter of the God’s. Again business as usually or moving forward at all costs. Now why does this go on because it sure looks to me like a combination of stupidity and living in dreamland and just nuts for good measure. What is the answer well keep moving forward with BAU and I guess start a war with China and India and I guess Russia over stuff but probably not a good idea that little nuclear winter thing and all that radiation or face these problems slow down and start talks for real with China and India big time talks about hard choices and use the people who have knowledge and want to help. They are out there and have been saying for years now we need to move on this we need to move on this and the other side as been saying don’t worry be happy and please put that check in the mail and don’t forget to fill up. Think of this as a kind of war.

  6. Don Hawkins said on April 22nd, 2008 at 6:25am #

    With nine months left in a presidency that was for too long dismissive of the issue, President George W. Bush has decided to get involved with global warming. While the issue is one that cries out for American leadership, major policy changes are probably best left to the next administration and the new Congress.
    All three of the remaining major candidates for president have taken a far more aggressive posture than Bush has on curbing U.S. contributions to global warming. It will be better to do something right, as a priority item, next year – in tandem with negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Accord, which expires in 2012 and never has been agreed to by the United States.
    The framework for a new agreement is expected to be shaped this summer at a meeting of the world’s major economic powers in Paris. U.S. negotiators will stress, and rightfully so, that industrialized nations not bear a disproportionate burden of reducing pollution that contributes to global warming while developing countries are virtually unrestricted. That has been the deal-breaker for the Bush administration on Kyoto. But that has also been a convenient excuse for doing nothing as the visible impacts of global warming increase.
    While Bush acknowledged in a speech recently the need to curb emissions of heat- trapping greenhouse gases from power plants, he proposed only slowing their growth over the next 10 to 15 years before mandating any decline. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, coal-fired electric plants put out 27 percent of the gases that contribute to global warming. The president said he would oppose any plans that raise taxes, create overlapping regulation, or would hurt the economy by hampering trade.
    U.S. Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, and chairman of the House Commerce Committee, which handles energy legislation, was among those in Congress asking, in effect, if all that’s off the table, what’s on it?
    Dingell said he had “for now” abandoned plans to instigate a national debate on such ideas as a carbon fee, higher gas taxes and a limited mortgage interest deduction for large homes because “our economy has taken a hard downward turn and now is not the time for us to put any additional financial burden on the working families of Michigan and the nation.”
    But Dingell also said response to his idea has convinced him that “people desperately want action on global warming” and “economists and other experts continue to inform us that a carbon tax is the most effective and efficient way at getting at the problem of global warming.” For the moment, though, he said, “we need to focus our attention on ways of making groceries, utilities, and health care more affordable. … We must take bold action to stimulate our economy.”
    So the short of it: For years, the Bush administration has had other priorities. Now, the nation does.
    And the long of it: Global warming will still be there to be reckoned with next year, and the year after that and the year after that.
    –Detroit Free Press
    Again think of this as kind of a war.