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'In Defense Of Elitism' Examines Who Is Part Of The Elite


The journalist and author Joel Stein recalls attending a 2016 election party with a bottle of Trump-brand wine in hand. He was expecting to toast Donald Trump's defeat. Didn't work out that way.

JOEL STEIN: I was very, very, like, legitimately scared. Like, I didn't know if a nuclear war was going to happen. I didn't know if globalization was going to end, and we'd have an economic collapse.

INSKEEP: This election got Joel Stein thinking. He concludes that President Trump won office by attacking elites. And, in a humorous way at least, Stein set out to defend them. His new book is called "In Defense of Elitism: Why I'm Better Than You And You're Better Than Someone Who Didn't Buy This Book." He argues that we really don't face a battle against the elite but a battle between differing elites. Donald Trump the candidate once said so, noting that his supporters are wealthy in many cases and have bigger boats. So Stein calls it a divide between the boat elite and the intellectual elite.

STEIN: (Reading) The boat elite are steeped in honor culture. Dignity is their most valuable nonboat possession. If their girlfriend gets insulted, they fight. If their friend gets in a fight, they fight. If their fighting ability is questioned, they fight. When they get cut off, they honk. Then they yell at the other driver to get out of their car and fight. The intellectual elite don't do this because we know that honking and yelling makes it hard to hear NPR stories.

INSKEEP: Stein was reading there from his new book. We spoke with the former Time columnist last week.

STEIN: This book is a call to arms for the intellectual elite that - not real arms because those are - we don't believe in those.


STEIN: Those are dangerous. The other people have those arms. So my arms aren't as good as their arms.

INSKEEP: It's a metaphorical call to arms.

STEIN: A metaphorical call to...

INSKEEP: Call to words...

STEIN: ...Metaphor - metaphorical arms. Yeah.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) OK.

STEIN: It's a war we will lose. But it's the best we can do.

INSKEEP: OK, so you're defining yourself as a member of the elite - and we should be more specific, a member of that intellectual elite that President Trump rails against. And did you go to try to meet people on the other side?

STEIN: I did. I went to the county in America with the highest percentage of Trump voters, which is a county called Roberts County in Texas in the panhandle near Oklahoma.

INSKEEP: And what was that like?

STEIN: I think I learned a lot about what their grievance is right now. And it seems preposterous to me to think that white Christians are upset that they don't have power. But what I came to realize is that people feel acceleration. They don't feel speed. And they're noticing that they have less power than they used to. It used to be that you could give someone a job just 'cause, like, he was a good guy. And now the competition includes women. It includes immigrants. It includes people of color. And I think they feel very, very scared that the world is changing.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about some very real ways in which it does appear to be changing. We could have a long discussion about income inequality and about the way that a lot of people in Miami (ph), Texas, or wherever you might go - they might be making the same amount of money as 20 years ago, but it doesn't go as far. And, of course, people on the top of society are making 20 times more.

STEIN: Yeah. This is the argument. I interviewed Tucker Carlson for my book, and he surprised me by being very upset about income inequality. And that is a problem. But if you look at the globe and what globalization has done to raise so many people out of abject poverty, I think we should focus on tinkering with our system, like fixing the tax structure - for sure. It's become incredibly unfair. But that's different than the populist revolution that even Bernie Sanders talks about, where he wants to put a farmer on the Board of Governors of the Fed. If we had a farmer on the Board of Governors, we wouldn't eat for two reasons, right? Like, first of all, we have crazy inflation. And secondly, no one would be making our food.

INSKEEP: You don't think the farmer would do very well in the Fed - is what you're saying.

STEIN: No. And - nor would the economist do well farming. Like, we are in a world of extreme expertise, and instead there's this movement that people should just operate from their gut, as if education and expertise made you immoral and untrustworthy. And instead, you just want someone who claims he knows more than the generals and just has good instincts. Like, that's a dangerous place to be in.

INSKEEP: I'm also thinking of another writer who has been on this program recently, Anand Giridharadas, who has written a lengthy...


INSKEEP: ...Attack on elites as completely self-serving. They've set up a system that works for them. And then perhaps they set up charities and so forth and foundations and try to have good corporate governance, which just puts a happy face on an unfair system.

STEIN: I find that argument that giving to charity is a problem - I always found that weird in his argument. I also think blaming the elites for keeping the system intact when they are such a small group of people and there's a huge group of people who, if they wanted higher taxes, could just vote for it - and most of the intellectual elite I know advocate for higher taxes for themselves. So I think there is some systemic change that needs to be made, but it doesn't mean destroying the current system and putting people who operate from their gut in charge.

INSKEEP: You also spoke up for expertise a moment ago...

STEIN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Which I understand. You would like people who know what they're doing. But isn't it true that you can look from the outside and realize that the experts have screwed up a lot of things in this country?

STEIN: In the book, I call this the meteorologist fallacy. The idea is that every time it rains and, you know, the weather people told you that it wasn't going to rain, people say, oh, you can never trust meteorologists. They always get it wrong. And they purposely give you percentage numbers every time that they make a forecast for a reason. And I wish people thought about the counterfactual. Like, yes, the elites got Iraq wrong. And yes, the elites got the mortgage system wrong that led to the 2008 collapse. But elites also pulled us out of what could've been a really horrible depression. And elites have prevented a nuclear war for a lot longer than anyone who grew up in the '50s would've thought. So people aren't going to be perfect. But I'd rather have an expert doing it than Donald Trump trying to come up with foreign policy on his own.

INSKEEP: But let's go back to Miami, Texas, where you visit early in the book, where - more than 90% of the people who voted for President Trump. Having explored the elites in the way that you have, having acknowledged some of their shortcomings and foibles, how would you defend the elites to people in that town today?

STEIN: I would say that the elites have not done a great job of thinking about you when they pass laws. These people knew more about me and my life, both from visiting cities and watching television, than I knew about theirs. And they're right. But I would also say that if they want a world in which they can use their smartphone and they can shop at Walmart and they can have peace, then you have to embrace globalism. And you have to embrace immigration. And you have to live in a modern world. Like, their world is basically still in 1985. Like, when I walked into the cafe in town, they were showing "The Andy Griffith Show" on the television. And that's fine for them. But to try and create the rest of the world as if it was still 1985 is going to have disastrous consequences for America and the world.

INSKEEP: Joel Stein is the author of "In Defense Of Elitism." Thanks for coming by.

STEIN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EIGHTH BLACKBIRD'S "DARK HOLLER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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