On Elitism

Being clever is an insult

/ by Sam Jordison

I grew up in a small farming village in the North of England. It was a quiet, safe place and I was very lucky. Especially so, because I passed an exam when I was eleven and got into the local grammar school. I took it for granted that my horizons didn't have to be fringed by hawthorn hedges and agricultural boundaries. And I was able to survive and thrive as a nerd. I didn't like sport. I did like Latin and science fiction, and no one really bothered me. Not very often, anyway. Even at my school, one of the deadliest insults you could hurl at someone was that they were a ‘keeno’, that they actually tried in lessons. Meanwhile, wearing the grammar school uniform in the street could make you a target for resentful violence. It was a state school. We didn't pay fees. We weren't posh. But we were academic. It was quite reasonable to try to punch us into place.

 

I had a few embarrassing dashes through town, avoiding local gangs who wanted to hit me because of my clothes. But the memory that really sticks out was less immediately threatening. I was on the school bus, travelling back to my village, reading about the Manic Street Preachers in the weekly music paper, the NME. In my head, I was the rebel. I liked the Manics in those days because they looked like they were going to tear the whole place down and piss on the ruins. Their best song had the chorus: ‘Repeat after me fuck queen and country’. But to outsiders, they were just a small artsy band in funny clothes. I had my awakening about that when the bully from my primary school got on the bus, saw what I was reading and declared, for the benefit of all other travellers: ‘Look at 'im reading t' paper. Reckons he's special’.

 

And so, there I was, thinking I was sticking it to The Man, but viewed as part of an obnoxious establishment by everyone else. This memory keeps coming back to me now, because I feel like the whole of the UK had a similar experience in the Brexit referendum. Plenty on the Remain side thought that they were fighting the establishment. They tried to point out that the Leave side was run by members of the Tory government, and old Etonians and hedge fund millionaires. The Leavers just pointed right back and said look at them, with their facts, they think they're special.

 

Here's a strange thing about the UK. This is a country where ‘clever’ can be an insult. An insult that becomes still more deadly if you double it up. If someone is ‘clever-clever’- oh damn! - they're the enemy. They're trying to get one over on you. They've joined a snotty club and deliberately slammed the door in your face.

 

Yes, the UK also produced Stephen Hawking, William Shakespeare, Mary Wollstonecroft and Isaac Newton. And yes, we love to bleat about the fact that Trinity College Cambridge has more Nobel Prize Winners than most other countries. But the uncomfortable truth is that a healthy proportion of our society hates and fears intellectual ambition.

 

One of the most effective arguments the winning side in the referendum made was that Europe was supported by the ‘metropolitan elite’. Which was a coded way of saying: Those clever people. The ones who use facts and ideas to confuse and alienate you. The ‘pretentious’ ones. The people you don't like.

 

The argument was hard to counter. This anti-intellectualism runs strong. We all know about it. We've all experienced it. But it isn't something people in Britain care to acknowledge. In May 2016, a politician called Andy Burnham made headlines because he suggested that if young people in the North of England say they want to enter a profession requiring brain work, other Northerners ‘take the mickey’. He was immediately told to ‘pipe down’. To even suggest that there might be such an issue was to patronise and stigmatise the North and its residents. The case was quickly closed - and it will be a brave politician who mentions the problem again.

 

But really, the only mistake Burnham made was to suggest that this antipathy to book-learning was local to the North of England and not endemic in the whole chuffing country. So endemic that the Leave campaign dedicated a lot of their (dodgy) resources towards deriding ‘experts’, ‘Brussels pen pushers’, and that dreaded metropolitan elite. No one could point out what they were doing because to do so was to open a wound - and painful discussions about education and opportunity. But demographics have since shown that most of the Brexit vote came from people who didn't have any post-16 schooling.

 

And maybe, in a funny kind of way, the result justified the suspicions of people who regarded education as a kind of con-trick. There were a lot of people who were supposed to be clever who didn't understand how much they were resented. These people may have gone to university - but they had no idea about how they themselves were regarded.

 

Myself among them. Once again, I thought I was the rebel. But plenty of people just saw the metropolitan elite. I was foolish. I run a small literary publishing press, write for The Guardian newspaper and teach at universities. I'm clearly the enemy. What on earth was I thinking?

 

Well, in my own head, I was as far from any kind of gilded inner circle. I live in a small house in a small city. I've frequently struggled to make ends meet. In my naivety I assumed that I was not the kind of person who would either want or be allowed to join an exclusive club. But I should have remembered that boy on the bus being mocked for reading the NME. And I should have done more to argue his corner. I've been lucky. I had an easy upbringing. But not so long before my time, I had plenty of ancestors who worked in mines under the sea in appalling conditions, precisely so their descendants could spend their time thinking about punk rock and art. Anything that might be better than banging a pick-axe into coal seams. Many of my fellow members of the metropolitan elite have similar stories. Plenty of them, in fact, have brought themselves up, by the bootstraps, by working and thinking hard. They have nothing to be embarrassed about. They should be able to counter this foolish stigma. To say that if reading a newspaper and learning a few basic facts is too much for you, that's a problem for us all.

....
Sam Jordison
is co-director of the award-winning independent publisher Galley Beggar Press, a journalist and the author of several books including Enemies Of The People and the best-selling Crap Towns series.

Related