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Feature Story June 26, 2003
 
Elite versus Elitny
By Mark Ames Browse author Email
 
Page 7 of 9
 
The right-wing elite crushed their leftist opponents from the late 70s onward. Oppression and cooptation work, folks.. Police tactics destroyed the more radical 60s revolutionaries from Marxists to the Black Panthers. Some were killed, others framed or driven to despair. The rest have been co-opted or pushed into the Vegan-treated margins. And no wonder. America's capitalist business culture forces Leftists either to drop out of mainstream society, which can be terrifying, or drags them into the Office World, which is crushing. In other words, it's nearly impossible to be a Leftist and a mainstream American, but easy to be a Right-winger and in the mainstream.

So it comes down to the pack mentality. The People are gullible and foolish in political matters and go by what they believe is their gut instinct. I can't tell you how many people I know voted for Bush against Gore because they "couldn't stand Gore as a person" or they "didn't trust Gore" but they "felt comfortable with Bush" somehow knowing that he "isn't sleazy."

It's this that makes the leftwing intellectuals by definition elitist, that is, apart from the Middle. The normals know instinctively that the left is an elite. Denials on the left's party don't help -- this isn't a rational argument, it's about smell. So those of us who identify with the left, the Hard Left, better start facing an uncomfortable fact: not only are we an elite, but we don't like the People and they don't like us.

And this is where we turn to Russia and its idea of elite. Mercifully, Russian elitism is much more simple, straightforward and free of hypocrisy and delusion than its American counterpart.

It's an instructive counter-example -- instructive in that it proves how objectively crazy American political culture has become.

In the first place, the word "elitny" in Russian is an entirely positive term. There's no room for false modesty in Russia. If an oligarch tomorrow decided to dumb himself down like Sam Walton -- say, he puts on a Spartak scarf and takes the Metro to work to show that he's just a regular guy -- no Russian would buy it. At the very least they'd think he's an incredible buffoon. His own deputy would probably ice him on the spot, not only for "showing weakness," to borrow from American Me's William Forsythe, but for "showing idiocy."

One of the best ways of framing Russia's attitude to elitism was described by Matthew Maly in his brilliant book, Understanding Russia, published about seven years ago but just as relevant today. He described Russian society as consisting of two layers: "Gods" and something like "All The Rest." Gods, the privileged, the elite upper ten percent, live in a parallel world above what in Russia passes for law. The law as described by Maly is some kind of toxic crust that the masses stuck beneath do everything to avoid. One example: they learn how to walk past cops without getting noticed. It's not easy, but it works, like fooling the spore aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers: just avoid eye contact and look like you're on your way somewhere.

The Gods, on the other hand -- the Russian elite -- genuinely don't see authority wherever they go because authority tends to defer to them. They take as much as they can, rarely pay for dinners, drinks or anything else in spite of their wealth, and flaunt their status with as much gaucherie and condescension as they are capable of.

Everyone here wants to make it into the elite. And for obvious reasons. Life is better as a God than as a cow. Strangely enough, in a country like America which prides itself on its rugged individualism and striving for excellence, the idea of a class of excellent people is something Americans would abhor and reject, even though this class exists. America doesn't want to see it; therefore, it doesn't exist. Case closed.

The first dividing line between the masses and the elitny, at least in Moscow, runs through transportation. If you take the Metro or busses, you're a schmuck and the cops are likely to treat you as one. The first step out of the narod is getting yourself a car. The reasons are as much practical as anything: the Metro is stuffy and crowded (which makes it unbearably hot and smelly in the summer and a SARS incubator in winter). Women especially can get harassed and hit up on. And the cops: they wait at every crossing like crocodiles in the Serengeti rivers waiting for wildebeests to make their seasonal crossing: no matter what, some Metro passengers are going to become militsia food.


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Ames
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Email Mark Ames at editor@exile.ru.
 
 
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