On Being Elite, And An Ex-Republican

My mother tells me a story about my sister, from when she was in middle school. Her teacher tried to assert that the Korean War was over and my sister raised her hand and corrected him. He became angry at her and she stood her ground. My grandfather was a part of the group that worked on the armistice, she said.

Well, he said, we don’t all have that kind of elite information. The other kids in the class laughed.

She was in the 7th grade, about 12 years old. My mother, when she heard about this, had him called into the office to speak with her, and in a tone of quiet rage, informed him he had no right to make my sister feel badly about being correct. The teacher, protected by tenure, continued to assert that what my sister had was elite information, and my mother said, You are supposed to be teaching these children history.

The text of the armistice is on the State Department’s website:

  • The undersigned, the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command, on the one hand, and the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and the Commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteers, on the other hand, in the interest of stopping the Korean conflict, with its great toil of suffering and bloodshed on both sides, and with the objective of establishing an armistice which will insure a complete cessation of hostilities and of all acts of armed force in Korea until a final peaceful settlement is achieved, do individually, collectively, and mutually agree to accept and to be bound and governed by the conditions and terms of armistice set forth in the following articles and paragraphs, which said conditions and terms are intended to be purely military in character and to pertain solely to the belligerents in Korea

The emphasis is mine.

My sister later got this teacher into trouble when it turned out that half of the class was failing his tests, because he’d changed the textbooks but not the tests, and so children were being tested on items they hadn’t yet covered. My sister was not among the group doing badly, but she brought the tests and the textbook to the principal and the situation was, as we could say, “corrected.”

I think of this story a great deal now as the semester begins. The talk among my colleagues here is only about the election and the attacks from the right on education, science, the constitution and the press. At some point last week, we watched a stadium of mostly white Republicans laugh as a white woman nominated for vice president made a joke about how the black man running for president thought that people should be read their rights when they are arrested.

This was in fact the joke.

I was raised to believe that as an American, part of what made us American was the Constitution and the way it radicalized us as a people among all other nations. We believed in freedom, and part of that meant protecting the individual against unjust imprisonment. The black man they were laughing at believes this also. He was in fact a constitutional scholar, and a lawyer, and was a state senator before becoming a U.S. senator. The room at one point was chanting zero, zero, zero, about his accomplishments, because none of that is anything they respect. But especially the constitutional scholar part.

And what is particularly sad is that I was also raised Republican in Maine, among moderate Republicans who you could respect even if you disagreed with them, and vice versa. My family has long ago changed parties, with my brother being the last to cross over, though he has gone from being an important Republican donor to an important Obama supporter.

Why? Well, during the same week as the RNC, the Republican president of the United States tried to get a permanent state of war declared. Journalists at the convention were arrested despite having press passes, and protesters were arrested pre-emptively. And so the chanting about “zero” might reasonably be believed to be the number of rights any of us will have left when their cabal is done. This sort of behavior is nothing anyone in my family could support. And when the RNC was over, the people who call themselves Republican now had selected as their VP a person who believed the Founding Fathers said the pledge of Allegiance. This pledge was not written until 1892, unlike the Constitution, which she and her party laughed at with so much pleasure. This seems to me a significant distinction.

If you are not white in this country, chances are you are used to having white people reduce your accomplishments to nothing when you are inconvenient to them. It is still disturbing to watch when it is formalized like this. And so for this and many other reasons, my sister is going to train at Camp Obama and will campaign for him in Nevada, a battleground state. I’m unable to join her, but in the meantime, I’m doing what I can.

Among the most destructive of the lies the Republicans trot out at election time concerns taxes. They hit an ancient wall alarm that tries to alarm the middle class that a Democratic administration is going to raise their taxes. This alarm reaches less of the middle class than it used to, in part because the middle class is almost gone. Thanks to consistently panicking over the Republican alarm and voting in Republicans, who may not have raised taxes, but who have shot out the value of the dollar, borrowed precipitously overseas from foriegn countries, and destroyed the financial instruments of the country through deregulation, resulting in the destruction, outright, of many people’s pensions and retirement funds, much less money they were saving for home purchases. And no one can save any money anymore because of rising costs for fuel, heat, food and healthcare.

Let us consider our future and remember what is actually elite.

For those of you who haven’t checked this out, here is a quick look at the numbers, provided by a handy chart from the folks at CNNMoney.com. When McCain says Obama’s going to raise your taxes, he’s speaking only to the top of the American tax bracket, with people who make more than 2 million dollars a year getting the biggest bill. The vast majority of Americans will pay less, and this is because Obama is interested in recreating the middle class in this country, which has been devastated by the economic policies and deregulation, especially in the last 8 years. For most of us, we’ll be paying less money under an Obama administration.

……………… MCCAIN …………. OBAMA
Income ……. Avg tax bill ……. Avg. tax bill
Over $2.9M …. -$269,364 (-4.4%)… +$701,885 (+11.5%)
$603K and up…. -$45,361 (-3.4%)… +$115,974 (+8.7%)
$227K-$603K…… -$7,871 (-3.1%)…….. +$12 (+0.0%)
$161K-$227K…… -$4,380 (-3.0%)….. -$2,789 (-1.9%)
$112K-$161K…… -$2,614 (-2.5%)….. -$2,204 (-2.1%)
$66K-$112K …… -$1,009 (-1.4%)….. -$1,290 (-1.8%)
$38K-$66K …….. -$319 (-0.7%)….. -$1,042 (-2.4%)
$19K-$38K …….. -$113 (-0.5%)……. -$892 (-3.6%)
Under $19K ……… -$19 (-0.2%)……. -$567 (-5.5%)

The chart below is a screenshot from a pdf from a UC Berkeley economist, Emmanuel Saez.

What we see here is that the top 1% of the country’s wealthiest people have seen their wealth grow at a stunning rate since 2002. At the same time, the people who are considered upper middle class approach a divide–with the top 5% of the top 10% being invited up, and lower, the 6-10% part of that 10%, is headed down.

It’s worth noting that this little hat trick, of quickly accumulating the world’s wealth in what is the real elite class in this country, was made possible by convincing people that they should have a president who is “like them.” For their latest, we have the aftermath of the Palin interview, where she revealed she doesn’t know what the Bush Doctrine is, and now is being defended by people who say, Well, I don’t know what it is so I don’t hold it against her.

But these people are holding her to the example of a private citizen and not the standard of an elected official charged with executing diplomatic, economic and civil planning strategies for the nation, internally and abroad. It is, simply put, inexcusable and indefensible. If you brought your car into an automobile repair place, you would be alarmed if the mechanic only knew as much about cars as you did. You would want the mechanic to know more than you did. You can’t have a history teacher who doesn’t know history. You can’t have a president, either.


  1. Thanks for continuing to be awesome. I hope your new novel hasn’t taken a backseat to political outrage, though, since I wanna read it, because I’m a self-absorbed elitist with rarefied, effete tastes who likes ethnic food and soul-nurturing literature and, you know, killin’ babies in a dumpster as this actual, published political cartoon shows Obama doing.

    Anyhoo, continue your wonderful multitaskery, you crazy diamond.

  2. Myfanwy: You’re welcome, and thanks for dropping by.

    BRB: Ha! Oh sad. Thanks, I appreciate that. And I guess as my hero the late great Grace Paley said, about asked why it took her so long to do her work, There was the war to protest.

    I actually can’t read the cartoons over there. I don’t want to have a stroke at 41.

  3. My friend Meakin pointed me in your direction a while ago and though I love your posts, this is the first time I wanted to write in with an addendum. It might just be because of where I’m at mentally but I was a bit frustrated by this line: “If you are not white in this country, chances are you are used to having white people reduce your accomplishments to nothing when you are inconvenient to them.”

    The reason isn’t necessarily because it isn’t true. It’s because I’m white and this applies to me, too. The belittling of accomplishment doesn’t have anything to do with race or skin color (though admittedly it might feel worse); it has to do with a culture that consistently devalues education. Still, I agree: it’s sad to see how much this has been taken up at an institutional level.

  4. Courtney:
    Don’t mistake the war against the humanities for racism in this instance. Both are ongoing situations. You’re in the position of having to imagine racism and what it feels like and from what you’ve written here, it would seem, you’re telling me I’m imagining racism here or somehow mistaking it for the war against the humanities and education. But in the above case I’m describing, neither is true.

    This week, Sarah Palin is on the cover of Newsweek with a rifle over her shoulder—will Obama be on this magazine’s cover with a gun? No–never. A black man in the US cannot appear on the cover of a magazine with a gun and hope to attain the highest office. McCain can go to a bike rally and offer his wife for a topless beauty pageant to the crowd—if Obama were to do the same his campaign would be over. If either of Obama’s daughters were to be teenagers and pregnant, there would be a very different reaction than there is now to Palin’s daughter being pregnant.

    The belittling of accomplishment is now common practice, certainly, on the part of the Republican party. But racism is still very much at work here. Think of it as an overlay—and in the meantime, during this war on accomplishment, all educated people get to experience some of what it’s like to be a person of color or a woman, even if they’re not.

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