I am not an elitist in that I believe that every human being should be treated as of equal intrinsic importance. My father considered himself a Jeffersonian, taking an important core of his political vision from the man who wrote "the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."
But it is what my mother taught me about elitism that now arises in my mind most vividly.
My mother taught me to see the beauty in all kinds of people.
You should see the paintings in my house. If you did, you'd know that if I’m like my Mom in this –and I am– I am in this fundamental way the opposite of an elitist. My mother, who died five years ago, left us a treasury of paintings that she’d been doing during the last twenty-five years of her life. And what she always chose to paint were pictures of ordinary people, from nations and races all over the world, revealing their inner beauty.
There’s a picture of a woman in a beautiful rice paddy in the Phillippines, apparently tending to the rice. There’s a picture of some backwoods old man with a bowler hat and a twinkle in his eye. There’s a picture of a big, nurturant-looking black Jamaican woman, with a big bowl of colorful fruit nested in her skirts, calmly looking at us out of the picture with an expression that says she's seen it all and come to terms with it. There is a picture of an orthodox Jew, clad in black, with his young son standing right next to him, praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. There’s a picture of a dignified, and also clearly poor, Asian man sitting against a plain wall–perhaps in China– calmly reading a newspaper.
When I was a little kid, my mother –who was a great storyteller– used to tell us episodes from her life growing up. Among the heroes of these stories –just little vignettes human characters and their dramas– two from the world at large stand out.
There was Pungie (I'm ot sure about the spelling; I never saw it written), the Italian rag man who came around every week, and extended kindness to a young girl (my mother) whose father had perished in the Flu Pandemic of 1919 and who had no loving men in her life. He was a rag man, but that was irrelevant to his stature as a human being. In her telling, Pungie was a kind of saint, a man in whom the light of love shone and sustained her with its warmth.
And there was the black woman sent by the welfare service people in Philadelphia, to help out a poor family in which the mother was disabled with a heart attack, while also having to take care of three young girls, with no father around. One day my mother’s mother was out of bed, looking out of the window with the helper woman right beside her.
She saw a man of great height walking across the street. “My, isn’t that man HIGH,” my grandmother said. She had come to America from Russia, and while she spoke Russian fluently, as well as her mother tongue, Yiddish, but her English was far from perfect. “Yes,” the black woman next to her agreed, “he is TALL, isn’t he?”
I must have heard this story a half dozen times. I took from it two meanings.
First, that it was very wise and compassionate of that woman to teach my grandmother a bit of the language without injuring her sense of dignity by drawing attention to her having made an error. She was deft enough to teach without correcting.
Second, it was another instance in the deep lesson my mother taught my brother and me all the years of our growing up: The human treasures are to be found among all categories of people. What matters is not class or status or wealth or membership in particular favored groups, but a person's qualities of heart and mind and soul. It is these qualities, she taught, that we’re supposed to honor.
If there's a human hierarchy, my mother indicated in countless implicit ways, it should be seen in terms of greatness and beauty of soul.
So I suppose there’s a way in which I’m an elitist. I believe that the wise and the good should have a greater voice in the affairs of humanity than the foolish and the evil.