‘In Defense of Elitism’

‘In Defense of Elitism’

JCCs in Tenafly and Rockland join to offer pre-election look at the death of expertise

Joel Stein (Jackson Augustus Adair)
Joel Stein (Jackson Augustus Adair)

You can be earnest. You can be satirical. You can be sarcastic (sarcasm being satire’s very annoying little sister). You can be faux-profound. You bcan be faux-naif. You can be obnoxious. You can be guided by deeply held values. You can be arch.

You even can be for-real funny.

You can do the kitchen alchemy that combines these elements into a satisfying brew of compassionate reporting cloaked in humor, by a writer whose pretend defense of elitism is a genuine plea for expertise and understanding.

That writer, Joel Stein, a longtime humor columnist and sitcom writer, will talk about his latest book, “In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You are Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book,” for the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly and JCC Rockland. (See box.) It’s won’t be a lecture, though; he’ll have a conversation with stand-up comic and former lawyer Karen Bergreen. (“She worked for a white-shoe firm for years,” Mr. Stein said. “Although probably she wore red-bottomed shoes.”) And through the magic of Zoom, and thanks to the novel coronavirus, he’ll be able to do it all from his home in Los Angeles.

Those are two good things — being able to talk from home and engaging in dialogue rather than monologue, Mr. Stein said. “I really hate public speaking. It scares me. That’s probably why I’m interested in comedy. The speech has to be funny. And I’m lazy. It’s a lot of work to write a speech. Conversation is easier.

“And I don’t love hearing people make speeches about their books. I would rather read the book.”

So, given all those considerations, a Zoom conversation, with an audience watching from their own living rooms, is exactly right for Mr. Stein.

The subject of his book, hidden under layers of humor and affect, is the need for expertise, and the dangers of devaluing it.

Mr. Stein has chosen to call expertise elitism. It’s funnier that way. But he’s making a serious argument; he began making it in 2012.

“I used to write a column for Time magazine,” he said. “I did it for about 20 years — since I was about 27.” (He’s 49 now; he wrote the column until just a few years ago. And it seems necessary to say here that Mr. Stein grew up in Edison, and celebrated becoming bar mitzvah at Temple Emanu-El there.) “Starting when John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, I wrote a couple of columns defending elitism.”

The attack on elitism and expertise has been going on basically forever, he said; it became pronounced in American political life with the rise of Spiro Agnew, whose attacks on political commentators as, among other things, “nattering nabobs of negativism” were striking, and for a time very effective. “But I only really started freaking out about it before the 2016 election,” he said.

And then, the night of the election, “I went up four houses from mine in the Hollywood Hills, with a bottle of sparkling Trump wine,” to celebrate Mr. Trump’s defeat. “But I got really freaked out that night,” he said. “I’m not crazy liberal like everyone around me, and I haven’t been freaked out by any of the Republicans elected in my lifetime until then.

“But I felt like this was the first time that the elites had lost since Andrew Jackson, and I felt that this is different, and scary.

“This was the election of someone who overtly believed that his gut was better than expertise or thought or education. He believed that the gut was better than the head.

“As a Jew, I had been living for my whole life with the belief that your gut is wrong. You have to learn how to be in the world, how to operate in the world, not just to feel your way through the world. And I was scared about the gamble our country took.”

So he had to decide how to handle his fears, Mr. Stein realized. “When I’m scared, what I do is find people who can reassure me. Basically, that is my world view. I realize that this will be okay, and that what I should do is go out and learn. It makes it less scary for me to meet people who believe in these things, and to see firsthand that they can’t be the monsters that I have built them up as being in my head.”

He went to Miami, Texas, a tiny town in the state’s Panhandle, near the Oklahoma border, a town that had gone overwhelmingly for Trump; in fact, it had the highest percentage of Trump voters in the state. “I was really scared,” Mr. Stein said. “I had never been anyplace that rural and remote before.

“My wife, my mom, my friends, even my friends who aren’t Jewish, told me two things. One, to be careful. That is a scary thing to tell someone. And two, don’t tell them that you’re Jewish.

“It’s not all about politics,” he said. “I think that expertise and elitism are on the wane everywhere.”

For example, he said. “People now think they know as much as their doctors.” They learn a great deal from Dr. Google; some of it is inaccurate, some out of context, some dependent on a base of knowledge the reader does not have. “Kaiser Permanente now has a program where they hire improv actors to teach doctors who have patients who have read too much on the web.” Those actors improvise patients who have to be convinced that many years of medical school, internships, and residencies actually provide information that they do not have.

In another chapter of his book, Mr. Stein spent a day with the cartoonist Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, who is a big Trump supporter. “It gave me real insight into a kind of postmodern belief system that a lot of Trump supporters have,” Mr. Stein said. “He encapsulates it, he expresses it cogently, and he is a really nice guy.”

That was the scariest part, Mr. Stein said. He really liked Scott Adams.

His book also includes conversations with Tucker Carlson; as he talks about the conversation, Mr. Stein also talks about the way that people, even performers like Mr. Carlson, at first knowingly exaggerate their beliefs and then come to believe them. “As the people around you shift, so do you,” he added.

He talked to the conservative Never Trumper Bill Kristol, and to the Lincoln Project creators. He talked to Dr. Simone Gold, the emergency room physician who championed hydroxychloroquine, the purported cure for covid-19 that turned out not to work. He is sympathetic to her beliefs, because “I think that there is a mistake that everyone, even doctors, make,” he said. “Sometimes people have experiences” — say with hydroxychloroquine, in uncontrolled settings — “that are so much more vivid to you than the data,” which is far more abstract, bloodless, and therefore unconvincing.

His book now is out in hardcover, and of course electronically, but a paperback version is coming out soon. That book will have three new chapters; they’re about the coronavirus and the country’s response to it. “I basically landed a conclusion there,” Mr. Stein said. “My conclusion is that we need to be less smug. We have to do a far better job of listening. That’s what people don’t like about the elite.

“I find that really troubling,” he added.

One other thing — “I feel that anti-elitism and anti-Semitism overlap a lot, and not coincidentally,” Mr. Stein said. “There are the same accusations — that they” — they being Jews, elites, or worst of all, elitist Jews — “are sneaky, self-dealing, physically weak, and use the rules to their own benefit.”

Mr. Stein only recently learned the true meaning of the far-right battle cry — “the Jews will not replace us” — that we all heard in Charlottesville in 2017. The former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss explained that “it means that the Jews who control the world will not replace us with immigrants,” Mr. Stein said. “It means that Jews are the owners of all the means of production.” Those evil oligarchs plan to replace all their native-born white Christian employees with dark-skinned people from elsewhere.

Who knew? “They should have explained themselves better,” Mr. Stein said.

Who: Author Joel Stein and comedian Karen Bergreen

What: Will talk about Mr. Stein’s book, “In Defense of Elitism”

Where: Who knows where they’ll actually be; their talk will be on Zoom

When: On Monday, October 26, at 7 p.m.

For whom: A partnership between the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades and JCC Rockland

How much: $10 for members of either JCC/$12 for everyone else.

To register: Go to either www.jccotp.org or jccrockland.org; follow the links from both homepages. The Kaplen JCC’s is under Adults/Adult programs/Author events; JCC Rockland’s link is on the calendar column on the homepage.

For questions: Send them to the Kaplen JCC’s Kathy Graff at kgraff@jccotp.org and to the JCC Rockland’s Barbara Lerche at barbaral@jccrockland.org

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