Saturday, May 31, 2008

"Why should I care if my mechanic knows where Iraq is?"

Extracts from
Best Is the New Worst
By Susan Jacoby for the New York Times, May 30, 2008

Senator Hillary Clinton's use of the phrase "elite opinion" to dismiss the near unanimous opposition of economists to her proposal for a gas tax holiday was a landmark in the use of elite to attack expertise supposedly beyond the comprehension of average Americans.

One might as well say that there is no point in consulting musicians about music or ichthyologists about fish.

The assault on "elite" did not begin with politicians, although it does have political antecedents in sneers directed at "eggheads" during the anti-Communist crusades of the 1950s.

Conservative intellectuals who rose to prominence during the Reagan administration managed the neat trick of reversing the '60s usage of "elite" by applying it as a slur to the left alone. "Elite," often rendered in the plural, became synonymous with "limousine liberals" who opposed supposedly normative American values.

All the older forms of elite-bashing have now devolved into a kind of aggressive denial of the threat to American democracy posed by public ignorance.

During the past few months, I have received hundreds of e-mail messages calling me an elitist for drawing attention to America's knowledge deficit. One of the most memorable came from a man who objected to my citation of a statistic ... that nearly two-thirds of Americans age 18 to 24 cannot find Iraq on a map. "Why should I care whether my mechanic knows where Iraq is, as long as he knows how to fix my car?" the man asked.

But what could be more elitist than the idea that a mechanic cannot be expected to know the location of a country where thousands of Americans of his own generation are fighting and dying?

... a college student told me it was elitist to express alarm that one in four Americans, according to the National Constitution Center, cannot name any First Amendment rights or that 62 percent cannot name the three branches of government. "You don't need to have that in your head," the student said, "because you can just look it up on the Web."

America was never imagined as a democracy of dumbness.



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