What’s an “Elite”? or, Don’t Tell Me You’ve Never Heard This Song Before

Watch this until the end, if you haven’t already:

Now imagine, if you can, that you have never heard this song before.

Don’t say that you have heard it. Don’t say, “Oh man, that’s the song from Shrek.” Don’t tell me it’s been done to death. I know: It has been done to death. For you.

Just try hearing it like you haven’t heard it before. Here we are, days after the election. Saturday Night Live cold opens with this weird tear-jerker of a song. It’s about King David, and adultery, and castration. It must have been written for the occasion, you figure. But that’s preposterous. And it’s being sung by Hillary Lesbian Clinton. Of course.

Can you understand how completely insane that must have sounded? Anecdotally I can tell you: That’s exactly how it sounded to a lot of people.

There’s been a lot of discussion of how Trump’s win was a rebuke to the “elites” of the country, but as my colleague Julian Sanchez pointed out, the word has been strangely under-defined. What exactly is an elite? Socioeconomic, racial, educational, and other metrics don’t seem to fit the term as it has been used just lately.

I would suggest that the elites being rebuked here are professional media consumers.

I’m one of them. It’s literally my job to spend hours and hours online looking for interesting arguments, curating them, discussing with their authors, and producing additional arguments. That’s what I get paid for.

In a relevant sense, this is also Kate McKinnon’s job. She must know, as I do, that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has been done to death. Hell, the very assertion that Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has been done to death itself has been done to death. We find it in the New York Times, and the Atlantic, and Slate and Pitchfork, and an entire book. I’m sure that this informed her choice of why to play it. Properly understood, it was hilarious. And also sad.

Not everyone, though, is a professional media consumer who lives on the Internet and only interacts with other PMCs for most of their professional lives. And so I do think that the nods and winks that McKinnon brilliantly added to her performance — gestures aimed at PMCs like me — fell flat to a lot of people. This is much like all of our earlier signals of concern about the Trump candidacy, which were based on specialized knowledges that we have been terrible at communicating.

We elites, understood as PMCs, were also pushed away. Hard. Anyone who writes about public policy full-time could see that Trump was grossly uninformed and unprepared. That’s why his newspaper endorsements were so few. Journalists saw right through him, regardless of their ideology, because they cover policy every day. They’re policy PMCs, and therefore know policy details, which Trump has never even slightly demonstrated.

It’s not just that people outside the political class were drawn to his rhetoric, though clearly they were. PMCs could tell that he wasn’t one of us, and in ways that were not at all analogous to using the wrong fork for salad. These matters will have consequences, though we don’t know just what they will be yet: Offhand, Trump would suggest defaulting on U.S. debt obligations, or letting Japan get the bomb, or imposing a religious test for entering the country… without showing any awareness that these were indeed radical departures, and that they would raise enormous legal and/or implementation problems.

Policy-based PMCs flipped out: Those problems would be happening exactly where a lot of us live, regardless of political party. We don’t know how to do what he’s asking, and he would know that, if he had spent any time at all with us.

Division of labor has created some interesting things in its history, but the gap between PMCs and non-PMCs is one of the more troubling ones I can think of, and I say that as a PMC.

One thought on “What’s an “Elite”? or, Don’t Tell Me You’ve Never Heard This Song Before

  1. I think I get this but I also think your categories are not broad enough. My job is to manage student workers, not to consume media. And yet your descriptors of the elite otherwise match me pretty well. Certainly when it comes to this video.

    Am I an amateur media consumer? Is there a set of amateur media consumers who are as dedicated as the professionals just because they enjoy it?

    Or is there something else going on here?

    I know in Canada, I was raised with a different class concept, one that had room for something like “poor gentility” (eyeroll at the term but I’ve yet to come up with a better one) – highly educated people, usually but not always holding multiple degrees, often but not always doing some service to the state, often professionals (lawyers, doctors, magistrates, government officials, and – heh – professors, etc.), who might be land-rich and cash-poor, or might just be cash-poor – but whose class treatment was similar to that of the rich. Almost as though (in theory at least) they had *chosen* to be poor – or at least significantly financially less well off than they could be – given up the ability to be rich in order to aim for other goals. And they (we, really, I was the scion of such people on one side of the family but not on the other) were treated differently than non-elite people at the same income level. Afforded more leeway in some ways and less leeway in others. With disparate impact in the community. Neither fish nor fowl… Somehow above everyone else in a way that was both appreciated and resented – leaned on and pushed back against – I always felt like it was beside, not above, and it was alienating as heck and contributed to my sense of not being able to talk about the really dark messed up stuff that happened in my family to anyone – but the community saw it as above, for better or worse. (I talked with a cousin who had been thrown out of her nuclear family when I was home and the phrase she used – that I’d heard before but never from a family member – was “the high and mighty [lastname]s”. As in “so someone from the high and mighty [lastnames]s actually got called on their f’d up shit and *lost* a court case? I bet they ALL hated that.” And yes, they all did.

    This elite, here in the US, here in a world that is much bigger than the inward-looking small place where I grew up, isn’t exactly THAT elite – national cultural differences and life being more complicated than I just described because there are multiple ways to become “elite” and so on – but there’s some kind of resonance there. Like, the resentment is *personal*, it’s not about “those elite over there,” it’s about that one person or one family, or 5 or 6 kids from the local high school who left, went to the big city, and adopted different values. Flagrantly. Obnoxiously, either because they’re jerks or because just having different values upsets other people’s apple carts and makes them cranky. (A lot of people REALLY want other people to conform to their norms, of course, and get anxious and angry when confronted with deviation.) Or maybe the “elite” left and came back. Or maybe they didn’t leave physically but they created a different space for themselves in the place where they’re from – the vibe is the same. Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and establishing all the financial security possible for oneself and one’s family, people can understand. Being the eccentric uncle with a room full of books that still puts in his hours every day at the family trade, people can mostly understand. Pulling away, either geographically or socially? That’s setting yourself apart (even if you don’t feel like you want to be apart), and is met with a mixture of resentment and envy and respect. The mixture depending on the person, of course. There’s also a whole conflicted quasi-elite class, at least in this country – people who have done pretty much exactly the same thing I’m describing, but who still identify very strongly with the folks from back home – at least about some things – and for whom voting “against the elite” comforts them and reassures them that they’re on the right path and haven’t really lost touch with their roots. Ie they might very well understand the video in as complex a way as you or I do, but their associations are totally different and they resent it rather than connecting to it. Because if they connected to it, they’d have to admit that they’ve changed, and that the people back home who resent *them* are not completely wrong in identifying them as other. And they’re willing to make that change – take that loss – for SOME pieces of being part of the so-called elite, but not for others.

    Anyway, that’s a lot of words that could use a lot of editing ;). Forgive me for using your post as a springboard to articulate stuff I’ve been mulling over since I was a teenager and will probably keep mulling over until I die.

    What continues to baffle me is the larger social current that washes around “the elite” and pushes them either to ascendance or to being attacked and/or winnowed out. Why does it go one way or the other? What are the factors? How does it scale? etc etc Those are historical questions, and you’re the historian.

    I just have a lot of practice at watching people.


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