August 12, 2005

Not the Queen of Gulbarga

Years ago, I met a young woman who had attended the same school I had -- one of Bombay's best-known. When we realized the connection, she immediately declared, "But I was a misfit there. You see, I am from a lower middle-class family."

Odd: when she came to this school, the lady's father worked as a senior engineer in one of the country's oldest industrial houses. He had spent several years, family in tow, as an expat on a project in Iran. Later, she herself got a degree from one of the finest all-women liberal arts colleges in the USA. If she thought her family was "lower middle-class", she either had not the faintest idea what that term meant, or I'm the Queen of Gulbarga.

(I'm not).

Why would this woman want to pass herself off as lower middle-class? Because being elite, going to an elite school, was somehow undesirable. A black mark.

What's wrong with being elite? I haven't a clue. But I'm always surprised by how many people fling that phrase as if it were an insult, and how many try to prove that they themselves are anything but elite. I shouldn't be surprised, because perhaps we grow up in this country suspicious of wealth, convinced that the rich are, by definition, immoral. "They must have got their money illegally," we think sneeringly, if enviously, to ourselves -- and who would willingly admit they belonged to that odorous club?

But consider: in India the very state of being educated, and able to study in the US, means you are likely in the upper reaches of society. Perhaps not in the stratospheric reaches, but some definite distance from the bottom, from even the lower middle-class. This certainly held when my schoolmate was getting herself educated. Things have changed since, but it is still broadly true. Why would someone like my schoolmate want not just to deny this truth, but even to deny that it applied to her?

And yet, this is not really about her impressions. In any society, some people rise to the top. Whether it's intelligence, or inherited wealth, or something else, is irrelevant. They rise. Sure, they must not abuse that position, nor harrass those below. But there's no shame, nor guilt, that comes simply from being at the top.

There's no reason for those who are up there to deny being up there.

Societies need elites. They drive change, or lead revolution, or dream new dreams, or carry out research. Those things don't come from the hoi-polloi, and I say that without meaning an iota of superciliousness. Societies need leaders, and they find them. And there's one more angle to this. The elite are also signposts of excellence, beacons for fellow citizens. Whether in entrepreneurship or teaching or something else, it is the elite who set the bar that everyone else yearns to leap over.

Yet that bar itself is a stick to thrash the elite. William Henry writes in his excellent In Defence of Elitism:

    [President Bush Senior's] import was twofold: that Clinton was too smart to be President, a notion that gets weirder and more disturbing the longer one looks at it; and that the electorate ought to vote based on envy and resentment towards their betters, an appalling onslaught made surreal by Bush's own status as a senator's son, prep-school smoothie, Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, and "self-made" oil millionaire -- via a company he launched with money borrowed from his rich uncle.

So OK, these were politicians intent on winning an election. I was in an exchange recently, where someone had it that studying English Literature or pure sciences "only satisfies the intellectual idle curiosity" of a few, and "should not be supported with money extorted from the masses."

What a strange idea. Because an institution, a state, that scorns research and intellectual curiosity, that thinks elites deserve contempt and resentment merely for being elite, is one that's heading for destruction. One Pol Pot knows.


Sourin Rao said...

"Societies need leaders, and they find them. And there's one more angle to this. The elite are also signposts of excellence, beacons for fellow citizens. Whether in entrepreneurship or teaching or something else, it is the elite who set the bar that everyone else yearns to leap over."

Dilip, I will take issue at this. Look at a cross section of our notable MP/MLA/corporator elite. Do they set the bar or act as a beacon for the rest of the hoi-polloi ? A good percent of them have come up the unsavoury way. Many of them may not have a single decent bone in their body. Its should be only natural that progeny of such elites shy away from their upbringing, though many are infact proud than wary.

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree more. Though in medicine today,in India, the "elite" actually does accept the label and most seriously work towards establishing standards of care, which hopefully trickle down to the "hoi-polloi" docs.

In the lay-world, the issues are I guess a little more complex.

km said...

Funny you should write about this. A Chekhov novella that I am reading at the moment has an upper-class character defending the elites (but for very different reasons - he says he finds both the peasants and the elites tiresome, but his tastes fall on the side of the latter. So.)

The feeling of anti-elitism does not stop only science, research and intellectual curiosity. It destroys art, literature, music and theatre.


Anand said...

Dilip -- I think it's a bit subtler than that. Being elite due to intelligence or entrepreneurship is different from being elite because of one's caste or inherited wealth. I too have seen a few who deny that they belong to the elite. But I have seen many proudly accepting and even projecting their elite status too. And I haven't seen a single "elite due to intelligence and creativity" person shying away from exhibiting that status. Of course I mean it in a positive sense. Those who have achieved the elite status the hard, noninherited, way, they know their worth.

Vikrum said...

Muito legal receber noticias do Sriram! Sempre gosto de ler o que ele fala. Mas, uma pergunta: Sriram fica irado quando a gente fala que ele é conservador... então porque ele está fazendo o mismo sobre o Dilip?

Gypsynan said...

That is a very interesting post. I too consider myself a middle class family and I did do well is life. But I was always suspicious of the rich. Being a Kolkatan often meant being mean about the rich "meros". Rich was also synonymous for "brat". And these days when people may bracket one with the elitist for lifestyle or philosophical choices one is often forced to say but I am one of you. I was there. I know what lower middle class India can be like.

This suspicion of elitism is a very Indian thing. Unlike Mr. Bush, Indians by and large don't hate the intellectual elite, as long as they stick to the stereotype. They just don't like a beautiful style conscious woman with opinions(Arundhati Roy anybody). Wear the khadi, act humble, you'll pass. By itself this is not a bad thing, its a remnant of Gandhism(?)Gandhian philosophy(?)I have noticed around the world people are quick to impress on you that they are upper class- whether in Europe or in third world countries. I always was very superior about my middleclass ness and enjoyed the shocked expressions when I described myself as such. There is something positive about the culture of India, a poor country where the elite do not want to appear elitist, compared to South America where everyone is desperately trying to pretend they are Europeans.
But growing consumerism will probably wipe out this distinction in a decade or so.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sourin: I would argue that your politician example actually makes my point. People also learn corruption from guys up there who are corrupt. It's going to happen: the signposts of excellence don't have to be only in terms of doing good for society. Naturally it's up to those of us who abhor corruption to set another example, and to damn these guys.

Yes Anand, there is a difference. I've never understood the guys who are "proud" of their caste or inherited wealth etc. And I think it's also true that those who have earned their status (wealth, knowledge, whatever) know their worth and don't need to either flaunt it or inflate it.

Sriram, I'm baffled again. But if you think the label fits, then you answer the questions regardless of what I say. How about that? Perhaps there's a connection I'm missing here to the invasion of Iraq and the ownership of cars?

Amrit, I didn't follow.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Sriram, me offended by "leftist dimwits"? Why should I be? I believe guys who use that language only shoot their own arguments full of holes. Makes my job easier if the guy on the other side wants to underestimate me.

In any case, was it "someone"? Wasn't it you?

What I meant was, if you choose to see everything through the labels you ascribe to people, instead of simply looking at arguments as they are presented, you'll run into surprises. Therefore, you might as well answer your own questions then.

What do I think about income tax? Nothing much. I pay mine. I don't see it as a punishment. I see it as the payment for the services I expect. I think "punishment for being successful" is somewhat overheated.