Sunday, June 1, 2008

So Now, is "Retarded" a Compliment?

I wouldn't call "elite" a poor word, even as it's the latest in an otherwise benign vocabulary to fall victim to political pundits' Orwellian twisting of our language to their scurrilous ends. Misunderstood, maybe. Susan Jacoby traced the word's history in an op-ed article for the Times, calling for an end to our willful idiocracy and putting "elite" back where it belongs, in the pantheon of praises. "Elite," she claims, used to simply mean "the best of a group," until the political bloviators, "the left and the right" apportioned it for the us versus them group identity reassurance behind all of history's conflicts. It's insulting, when you think about it, because when Hillary took a swipe at the "elite opinion" of economists opposed to her ill-advised gas tax holiday, she basically said to her audience of knuckle-dragging Pabst-drinking cousin-marrying coal miners that they're too damn stupid to understand the forces affecting the long-term price of oil, so here's something your tiny brains can wrap themselves around: coupons! Obama rightfully called the gas tax holiday "a phony scheme." He said, "Nobody believes these savings would actually be passed on to consumers. Everybody believes that the oil companies would just jack up their prices to match whatever the reduction was on the gas tax."

But I would've liked him, or anybody besides Jon Stewart, to respond in mock incredulity, "Really, you're gonna fall for this bullshit? Cause I have this pyramid scheme you can get in on..."

The machinations behind this word are so bizarre, not like the previous political curse word, "liberal," originally meaning "generous" and which only needs to be seen in a different hue to mean "ready to take your money and hand it to someone else." "Elite" never meant "the best of a group." It is, and always was, a put-down drawing a clear line between people's fundamental places in society. "Elite" means "better than you, Loser," and I suddenly have a dusty glimmer of admiration for pompous opinionators like Dobbs or O'Reilly, humbling their huge Ivy League egos to the dustbin with the rest of us, then dropping the e-word like it's the next big thing after "fuck."

This is brilliant, though, at least in a cynical, disillusioned way that yearns for the tyranny of Plato's truly elitist philosopher-kings. Washington first creates a national insecurity complex by delineating the restless minority elite from the complacent commoners, then exploits it through the comparison, reminding Americans how powerless, dumb, and let's face it, obese, oily, and ugly we are. Hillary or McCain (or, fine, Obama too) come off their salon for a brief appearance and they're forgiven for their stature. "That troll Dick Cheney is talking with us! Not like those snooty economists. He understands the issues facing us!" And I have no doubt that Cheney does understand the issues facing me, as an average (or non-average) American. The man's not retarded — he's antipathetic and doesn't give a rat's ass about the issues facing me, but that's because he's an elite and sneers down upon the rest of us.

I don't see any reason that the divide is a necessity in our society, other than the personal disillusionment and existential crises that lead us to think, "Why even bother?" In the antiquated European system, being an elite — royalty — is something truly innate, down to your DNA, but there's no reason to continue the Eastern tradition over here. Not that I believe the Upper East Side gentry, or our nation's McCains, Clintons, or Obamas, will be all too chipper letting the Lower East Side into their private kindergartens and rooftop bars (at least pre-gentrification), but the updated G.I. Bill that McCain opposes seems like a good place to start breaking down that divide.