And now that we’ve given the charitable reading room to breathe, let’s take it back again. Let’s say the hell with the charitable reading – it can hold its breath. Because the problem with the possible feelings of superiority thing (besides the ones I’ve already mentioned) is that it just isn’t necessarily true, and it’s destructive (and often hostile and unkind) to assume that it is. Sure, it’s always possible that The Subject likes [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever] for invidious reasons, just as it’s always possible that The Subject does anything for invidious reasons, but that’s not quite good grounds for assuming that she does. What the feelings of superiority explanation overlooks is the possibility that The Subject just really does like [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever] and finds a lot of joy, interest, meaning and the like in doing so – that The Subject is genuinely, passionately, self-forgetfully absorbed in [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever] and is not thinking about her superiority or inferiority at all, that her liking for [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever] has nothing to do with presentation of self or jockeying for position or display or competition or looking down on people. That could be true even if The Subject is delusional and wrong to like [Shakespeare/Bach/Whatever], even if she is merely slavishly conforming to conventional tastes, even if she is merely obediently liking what the culture has told her to like.
So that’s the problem with the possible feelings of superiority thing, and the problem with the anti-elitism campaign that it feeds into is that anti-elitists have a tendency to like to shame and humiliate people for being putative elitists. It’s easy to do. It always is easy to shame and humiliate people who are excited and enthusiastic about something – just wait until they’re maximally involved in talking about whatever it is they’re enthusiastic about, and then interrupt to tell them they’re elitists for being enthusiastic about that. It’s a familiar old schoolyard trick, of course – just let old four-eyes get going on atoms or poetry or algebra or whatever sucky nerdy geeky thing it is he likes to get going on, and then pounce and tell him how nerdy and geeky and sucky he is, and maybe beat him up for good measure. I’ve mentioned before here a very interesting, indignant, poignant passage Stephen Jay Gould wrote on this subject in Bully for Brontosaurus – the quantity of intellectual curiosity and excitement that gets teased and beaten out of children in school playgrounds in the anti-intellectual culture of the US. (The apotheosis of George W Bush is unlikely to make that kind of thing more scarce.) John McWhorter writes about a very similar phenomenon in black culture – an incident in his childhood when a boy held his younger sister up so that she could repeatedly hit McWhorter because he had spelled a word correctly on request. It’s depressing, in fact heart-rending, that kind of thing – kind of like ‘The Office’, where people spent so much of their energy ripping each other to shreds.
I used to work with someone who was a classic case, in one of the many menial jobs I’ve had (elitist that I am). He was quite a bright guy, I thought, and I also thought that was probably why he was so hostile – frustrated intelligence. He had it in for me. I had the audacity to read sometimes at lunchtime, so he never missed an opportunity to taunt me. I didn’t much care, because I was indifferent to his opinion, but it was irritating. But the thing is, he had two young children, and he was proud of how smart they were – but he was also threatened by it. He said truculent things from time to time about not letting them get too smart, about teaching them to be real boys, blah blah. God how that depressed me – he wanted to make sure they would end up as frustrated as he was. No doubt he’s succeeded by now. Well at least they won’t be any damn elitists using high-falutin’ big words and thinking they know everything. That’s a relief.