Since the election on November 8 my fellow Hillary supporters have been in a tail spin while supporters from the other side are gloating with victory (had it gone the other way, I’m sure Hillary people would be equally ungracious. That’s not what this is about.) An old acquaintance, who is married to a man who easily makes ten times what I do, sneered in a Facebook post that I was “nothing more than a clueless Coastal Elite.”
I am a Coastal Elite. This may sound like a high end SUV or a type of condom, but it’s recently become the label slapped on people who respect facts and like to read. A Coastal Elite has books shelves with books in them, and probably a subscription to The New Yorker. We do okay financially, but just like many rust belters, a lot of us struggle to make ends meet.
The old definition of an Elite, coastal or otherwise, was someone who had an exclusive country club membership passed down from generation to generation or an Ivy League education. Nowadays, to be elite you just have to respect fact more than feeling. Or, to clarify (this compulsion to be concise is a tic of the Coastal Elite), to simply respect the immutability of fact. The earth is round, and someone’s feeling about that fact, while real, is irrelevant, and does nothing to change the shape of the earth.
I just labored over that sentence a little, which totally makes me a Coastal Elite.
As a Coastal Elite, I love books and respect learning. This makes me particularly suspect, even though a book is one of the last free things available to the public. There will be libraries for the foreseeable future. The poorest person in America can walk into a public library, pull out a book and read, even without benefit of a card. One of the first things dropped into the Free box at the end of a neighborhood garage sale are paperback books. Anyone who wanted to could be sitting on a park bench reading a paperback right now.
I was a Coastal Elite long before there was such a label. My high school educated mother revered books and always looked forward to the day when the new Reader’s Digest Condensed Book arrived in the mail. My father was the child of Polish immigrants who viewed reading as a civic obligation, and the mark of the civilized man. We respected books in our tract house in Whittier, California. I was never allowed to write in them or break the spine. Books cost good money. That’s how Coastal-ly Elite we were.
At my twenty year high reunion my true Coastal Elite colors were revealed. It occurred just after I’d published a book that had received a glowing review in the New York Times. I went to a big public high school where most of us were middle class and half of us were Mexican. The richest girl in school was the daughter of a man who owned not one but two stationery shops. In our class, a handful went on to become doctors and lawyers. My first boyfriend became a painter and moved to Berlin. Everyone else pretty much stayed put and went on to become teachers, nurses, real estate agents, and office workers of various stripes.
At the reunion, when it was revealed that I’d become a published author, people said things like, “Oh! I need to read more.” and “I don’t read as much as I used to!” and “Can you get your book at the library? I don’t use the library as much as I used to but when I go next time, I will check out your book.”
I’d embarrassed them by reminding them they’d given up on something our teachers had taught us to value. I should clarify (again with the clarification!) this was not the case with my closest friends, or even with most of the people I knew well, but I was surprised by the response. I felt like a nun at a kegger. By the simple fact of making a life as a writer, I’d unwittingly shone a light on intellectual laziness.
As us Coastal Elites tend to do.
Coastal Elites generally have a larger world view than people who call us out for being Coastal Elites. We understand that there is the internet, the Real Housewives of Wherever, video games and FOX News. We understand being tired at the end of the day, and still having to make dinner and put the kids to bed, and why on earth would anyone want to complicate their lives even further by the exertion of reading a book or a real newspaper? Even those of us CEs without a degree in psychology understand that a lot of the invective hurled our way is mere projection: people seem to know that choosing to be aliterate represents personal failure. “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t,*” said Mark Twain.
Look, I just quoted a revered thinker from another time. The Coastal Elite can’t help it.
*Clearly he would have revised his opinion were he living and writing in 2016.