Rafael Fajardo

Jan 8

Antielitism Left and Right


One of the most intriguing and valuable books I’ve read in 2011 was Catherine Liu’s American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique (University of Iowa Press). We have billionaire antielitists, tenured antielitists, rightwing nutjob antielitists, leftwing wacko antielitists, famous artist antielitists, multi-platinum antielitists, and Congressional antielitists, and Liu wants to know: Why is everybody on this bus? The book articulates some ideas that have been knocking around, inchoate, in my own head for a while. I asked the author to tell us why she wrote it.
– Tom Lutz


I wrote this book because all through college and graduate school, I found academia hypnotized by largely pointless but bitter struggles about “elitism.” At the beginning of the Culture Wars, Allan Bloom and William Buckley were clearly the elitists and they were clearly the bad guys; but then again, anyone who read and liked literature more than listening to Madonna was a cast as an elitist too. In graduate school, and then as I started my first job at the University of Minnesota, everyone was drawing lines and taking sides, for or against canons, for or against Deleuze, for or against Habermas, for or against Derrida, all using the word “elitist” to cudgel their opponents. I found it all infuriating and enervating.

“Elitist” is used as an all-purpose insult by both the culturally reactionary and the culturally progressive: people who speak foreign languages are elitist (if they learned them in school); recently on NPR, a Wisconsin Republican called union members “elitist.” How did this term come to be so useful and meaningless at the same time? My generation of academics also throw the word “deconstruction” around all the time, and so I thought we should take up the “deconstruction” of knee-jerk antielitism.

(I also wrote this book because I wanted to understand the Midwest and the U.S. in general. I wanted to understand why my bicoastal existence and my parents’ immigrant self-obsessions had led to me to reach largely mistaken conclusions about the U.S.)

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I find the younger generation of graduate students more willing to look seriously at intellectual history, Old Left critiques of capitalism, and even old-school political-economic class analysis. They are less entranced by performative or gestural kinds of subversion or “complication.” Pseudo-populism and antielitism function as fake consensus-builders. For-profit universities claim to be “antielitist” even as they extract profits from Federally funded student loans, taken out by the poorest and most marginal students to pay for a credential. Maybe we can finally abandon the pseudo-politics of academic antielitism in the face of contemporary economic upheavals. Maybe we are seeing a turn away from these rhetorical dead ends and back to bread and butter issues about exploitation and expropriation.