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Dealing with the elites - cultural and political

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, February 28, 2005

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Well, we finally did it.

At least that is what I first thought when a friend pointed me to an article in last week's "The New Yorker." The article referred to "cultural elites" and then mentioned only three specific areas associated with such elites - "Hollywood, Washington, and Raleigh-Durham."

For years, North Carolina has been trying to get the media elite in New York to recognize our state as being at the center of the universe, just where we know it is. It is after-all the real home of NASCAR, Michael Jordan, the Tar Heels, Billy Graham, two of the nation's largest banks, and the leading male candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

"The New York Times" and all the papers that blindly follow its lead won't event print "Charlotte" without putting "NC" after it.

But, up there in New York City they usually can't tell us from South Carolina. They don't know the difference between Charlotte and Charlottesville or Charleston. To keep its readers from being confused, "The New York Times" and all the papers that blindly follow its lead won't event print "Charlotte" without putting "NC" after it.

So, when I saw "The New Yorker" article that put a North Carolina based cultural elite in the same phrase with Hollywood and Washington-and didn't even mention New York City-I thought that our state had finally made the big leagues.

Most North Carolinians would not be as I happy as I was to make the scene as a top ranked "cultural elite." We are, after all, a solidly "red state" with a long-standing aversion to elites of any sort outside of athletics and religion. But, as for me, I am one of those local promoters who just wants my state to get noticed. And after years of having some people think of North Carolina as a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit (Virginia and South Carolina), I like the "cultural elite" tagline.

Elitism is a funny concept. It is positive in the sense that it means "the best." But it can be very negative when implies a snobbish, out-of-touch superiority. In politics, elitism can be the kiss of death, as I found out from a lot of angry Democratic activists who disagreed with my characterization of the recent contest for that party's state chairmanship.

I wrote that the contest was a "struggle between pragmatists and purists. The pragmatists want to win elections, even if they have to compromise their principles to succeed. The purists want their party to hold to their principles even if it means losing elections."

Some of the activists said I missed the point. Actually, they said, many local party workers thought the state party organization had become too "elite" by focusing on raising money from wealthy donors and not paying attention to the kind of grassroots local organization that wins elections for Democratic candidates.

My critics may be wrong, but they raise a classic question both the Republican and Democratic parties face.

What is the real engine of winning political campaigns?

Is it the big money to pay for the increasingly expensive campaigns? If so, the only way to succeed is to pander to those with money, those already in good shape who are giving money only to those who will not threaten-or more importantly will protect and enhance -the advantages that the government gives to those who already have it made.

Or is the key to success a grass roots effort built on the kind of energy, aggressiveness, and the passion that comes from those who are fighting for change? The prospective changes that fire up the grass roots efforts might not make the party's large donors happy.

Winning political efforts somehow blend the big money and the grass roots efforts together. This daunting challenge now falls on the shoulders of the new Democratic Party chair, Jerry Meek, who has moved from "challenger" status to the "elite."

Funny thing about "The New Yorker" article ("Here to Tell You" by Ian Frazier, February 28, 2005) that got my attention: It turned out to be a spoof, written in the imaginary voice of Dr. Jerry Falwell. The article wasn 't recognizing North Carolina's "coming of age." It was making fun of Falwell, the antithesis of "cultural elitism," by suggesting that he would think of Raleigh-Durham as a center of the same kind of wrong-headed thinking that goes on in Hollywood and Washington.

At first, all this made me angry with the all those elitists at "The New Yorker" for making fun of us. Then I calmed down, smiled, and thought to my self, "At least we got our name in print."


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409).

Related info:
Our State Magazine
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Dealing with the elites - cultural and political
New Yorker magazine

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