Anti-elitism ain’t what it used to be

Photo by Jean-Marc Carisse

My parents were adults during the Great Depression. While solidly middle-class, they had a deep appreciation and sympathy for the plight of the less fortunate and the dispossessed. I was born in Toronto during the Second World War, and I have strong memories from the 1950’s of my intellectual and quite progressive father holding forth about the undue influence and machinations of the “elites”. But the elites of which he spoke were defined by money and bloodlines. Indeed, in those days Ontario was still largely dominated by a WASP elite who were very much the inheritors of the Family Compact of pre-1837 Upper Canada. And he was probably right that wealth and “class” garnered extraordinary influence in public affairs in the Ontario of 65 years ago. After all, the Canada of the 1950’s was only a generation removed from the British honours system that had perpetuated a titled aristocracy, and some Canadians of the 1950’s still carried titles awarded before the Nickle Resolution of 1919.

Somehow, the long and winding road of the 65 years from then till now has managed to bend our language a bit out of shape. Were my father still alive today, he would be shocked at the new meanings of the word “elites”.

Today in the liberal democracies we are witnessing the emergence of a new reactionary populism that is very vocal in its anti-elitism. This movement is much stronger in the US and in some European nations than in Canada, but nonetheless it was strong enough in Canada to enable the Truckers Convoy protests, though it is unlikely to have much of an impact at the polls on election day. It was, however, fascinating to listen to the members of the Goofy Pilgrimage and Winter Camping Extravaganza in their attacks upon the “elites”, because the things they objected to made it clear that the definition of “elites” has changed.

Yes, there were still the references to an elite of wealth (though the references were tinged in their discourse with a bit of racism here and there). And I can readily accept the notion that very wealthy individuals may have easier access to the corridors of power than others, and we do know that sometimes influence is bought and sold (though not as often as is usually feared). But it is clear that, in Canada at least, the old upper class defined by bloodlines is no more. The family names of our cabinet ministers no longer belong to one small geographic or ethnic group, but sound like a selection from around the world. And in that, the social experiment that is Canada is a great triumph, proving that inherited class is a pretty much a dead issue here, except perhaps for the rare cases of dynastic politics, where name recognition has value.

But the “elites” who draw the most fire these days from the populists are a new group. They are people who came from all walks of life, but studied hard. They dedicated themselves to both acquiring knowledge and generating new knowledge, and over many years of hard work became the top experts in their respective disciplines. They are the people who we all turn to when we desperately need advice on things with which we are unfamiliar. They are the scientists who generate and teach new knowledge, or the skilled practitioners who apply it, or the logistics experts who make it available to all, or the top analysts who predict effects by observation, data collection and extrapolation. They are the people who know stuff.

Complaining about people with high expertise by describing them as a new self-interested, exploitive elite is evidence of a double disaster. It tells us that the complainers think that they can function and run things without knowledge, or that they can simply substitute their biases for actual knowledge. And it also underscores the catastrophic failure of our education system, which not only doesn’t provide a good underpinning in terms of real knowledge, but has also failed in its currently fashionable modern objective of “teaching people how to learn”.

The delusion that the “elite” of experts is engaged in a widespread, perfectly coordinated plot to massively inconvenience the citizenry with Covid restrictions, for the sole purpose of elevating their own sense of self-importance also has an important psychiatric dimension, and, in a way, is a substantial health crisis all by itself. It is a bit of a shock to realize that, instead of just feeling anger towards those who block arteries of commerce and disrupt residential neighborhoods in order to try to compel governments to cancel various public health measures, we should probably also feel pity for them.

There is, of course, a larger issue about this sort of anti-elitism. At this point, I’d like to quote two paragraphs from an article that I wrote in this very magazine about movements of the extreme right and extreme left, and their surprising convergence. It was published on April 8, 2019, well before the Covid pandemic.

“Yes, the elites have had it their own way for a damned long time, even if those who comprise the elite changed with each era. But within those bastions of privilege, be they economic, social or academic, are stored the accumulated knowledge that humans have amassed over a few thousand years. To believe that all this knowledge is really conspiracy, and that there are “alternate truths” just a click away, scripted by a fantasist in a basement, perhaps, but just as good as knowledge tested in the fires of debate or experiment, of peer review and reconfirmation, is to throw away civilisation and any chance of improvement in the human condition or uplifting of the spirit.

But today’s extremists, in occupying the pretend moral high ground, are inclined to insist that the discourse of virtually every public official, every scientist or scholar or other expert, and every person of means is suffused with blatant self-interest, and indeed conflict of interest, and that there are no facts, only opinions. Thus, facts can, in the new parlance, be countered by “alternate facts”. Hence the anti-vaccine movement and the like. Such folk cannot dare to believe that those with special expertise, even if privileged, might speak actual truth out of genuine public interest, out of concern for others, and out of a sense of public duty, because it clashes with their world view.”

It is interesting that in writing about extremism in April 2019,  (pre-Covid), I had used the anti-vaccine movement as an example of the rise of anti-knowledge feelings. I could not have known then how soon that particular manifestation of “anti-elitism” would become enormously consequential.

Furthermore, those protesters seem to me to be remarkably innocent of the usual political verities, because they also blame the politicians for over-reacting to the advice of the experts, and consequently imposing unneeded public health restrictions which the protesters believe to be excessive, crippling and motivated by nefarious objectives. In a democracy with frequent elections, political axiom #1 is, “Don’t do things that inconvenience or annoy large numbers of voters, if you can possibly avoid it. And if you can’t avoid it, delay as long as possible, do as little of it as possible, and stop doing it at the first hint that you might be able to ease off.”

The application of this idiom to government decisions on restrictive public health measures during a pandemic is a virtual guarantee that the restrictions imposed for public health reasons will always be inadequate. Inevitably they are a little too mild, a little too late, and end a little too soon. This will be true for democratically elected governments of all political stripes, with slight variation. That is to say that all will err in the same direction, but those with libertarian inclinations will err a bit more than the others.

This verity about governments of all stripes normally being (as my father would have said) “a day late and a dollar short” on all such inconvenient but important protective measures, means that any protest to get the measures lifted or abated sooner than the government’s own plan is almost certainly on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of logic.

But the same folks who have transformed “anti-elitism” into an anti-knowledge ideology have, inadvertently, done violence to other bits of language. The word “research” has also taken a bit of a drubbing, and migrated considerably down-market.

My occupation from the mid 1960’s until the late 1980’s was research and teaching in a faculty of medicine. I studied and prepared for years to be able to carry out my research, competed for resources to carry it out, collected and analyzed the data myself, wrote up my findings and their justification, subjected those reports to the judgement and criticism of top experts, and reported my findings in highly rated journals.

But these days it has become something of a joke when someone says, “Oh, I’ve done my research!”, just before they are about to announce some insane notion that is easily disproven. What they mean by announcing that they’ve done their research is that they’ve asked Dr. Google to search out a couple of sites that, given how they posed the question, will obligingly cater to their confirmation bias. If you ask such people what primary sources they used, they look at you slightly puzzled, because they think you’ve asked them whether they’ve consulted someone in primary school. But I suppose I must be slipping into curmudgeonhood if their etymological and epistemological sins bother me. After all, language does change.

In the end, it’s not the corruption of the words that really saddens me. It is the lost potential in all those people who have so much energy and so much desire to influence events, but have so little inclination to learn enough to have a middling grasp of the subject they are addressing. I guess they fear that if they listen too long to anyone in the knowledge elite they will be sucked into some unseen and sinister vortex, and will become what they have decided to oppose.