Thursday, September 30, 2010

Culture: Shocked! Elitism in US?

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Right about a year ago, I cut out an opinion piece in the Christian Science Monitor by Em Powers Hunter. In it, she described how staying in a "ritzy" hotel in Washington, D.C. with her 13-year old son caused her to question whether the American Dream was dead. The key moment? "After taking photos of the hotel, he noted that all of the people had the same expression: disgust." The disgust was directed at their tourist clothes--"my rumped sweater, Wal-Mart jeans, and $11 tennis shoes."

My first thought was "Duh?" Did it really take her forty years and taking a teen-aged child to an expensive hotel for her to realize that there was elitism in the United States? While I will be the first to propose that the issue is more obvious and pronounced in the northeast region than the rest of the country, even in places like Seattle, Washington, or Austin, Texas, it is not hard to pockets of elitism. Ever tried wearing "tourist" attire to an opera, or an expensive restaurant? Ever tried getting an audience with one's Congressperson at their local office? How about attending a Rotary Club meeting?

I'm mystified at the level of idealism that must be involved in thinking that class doesn't play a part in the United States. I say "class" rather than "money" because while it takes a certain amount of wealth to be able to afford to go to certain restaurants or to be able to throw around $20 bills like pennies at a Rotary Club meeting (I suppose it's $50 bills by now; I haven't attended one in almost twenty years), I've known plenty of financially well-off people that did not behave in an overtly elitist manner--sending their children to public schools, funding public events when corporate sponsors disappeared, volunteering, etc. One might call these people the ethical rich--and for the record, the Rotary Club was full of them. And, on the flip side, I've known people that likely had lower net worths than I did complaining about how they were not given special treatment by government bureaucrats or the police, trying to play an elitist card.

Does that mean, as Hunter questions in the piece, that "the spirit-stirring Lincoln Memorial with the powerful words etched on the walls and Lincoln himself looking down into our eyes [is] a hoax? Were all these monuments just propaganda tools?" Of course not. There has been a certain hypocrisy in supposed United States ideals right from the start, made most obvious by things that have been modified over the years like the end of slavery and granting women the right to vote. That hasn't meant that people and even the country itself wasn't striving toward these ideals.

People in the United States seem to have a major tendency to assume that either something is in its ideal state, or it is irretrievably broken. It's white or black, never gray. If there's a crack in our idealism in the form of elitism, then the idealism must be a farce. Life is rarely that simple. There's plenty of gray. Elitism does exist in the United States. That doesn't mean it isn't striving for ideals of equality, or that it's hopeless for someone wearing "Wal-Mart" attire to became a "great man." Perhaps that person will become great by helping to chip away at the unjustified elitism, and will eventually join the ranks of the ethical rich.

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