QUALIFICATION-scaled

The Plague-Ground – Are you an elite, or a professional, or neither, or both?

Right now Roland King is in the woods behind our cottage, clearing brush in the bitter cold, sawing it, stacking it and selling it back to us as firewood. Roland just turns up, often working in the dark, always working for cash. Few people know more about forests and trees than he does. Roland’s been clearing and planting them all his adult life. I doubt he earned a degree in silviculture, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t belong to the Ontario Professional Foresters Association.

But Roland is a true professional.

My wife the doctor, who buys hardwood from Roland that he finds for her in different forests so she can craft them into wooden bowls on her lathe in our garage, is also a professional. Her behaviour is regulated by many different bodies in all kinds of ways.

But only one of them is an elite.

Yet both those ideas, of professionals and elites, have been beaten up and flattened down recently, until they’ve come to mean the same thing.  They aren’t, and it’s time we restored their difference in an age when the label ‘elite’ has come to mean “someone I don’t especially like.”

“Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.”

That distinction comes from Jonathan Rauch writing about “The War on Professionalism” in National Affairs.

The war Rauch describes was one that Donald Trump almost won. He called FBI officials treasonous and his generals “dopes and babies.” He sidelined science around the coronavirus and even contradicted his own professional weather forecasters.  In fact, he claimed they were out to get him. Yes, weather forecasters.

Trump follows a long line of despots in ridding their regimes of professionals, including Joseph Stalin who had hundreds of Moscow doctors killed in 1953. Lawyers and judges, I can understand. Even generals. Especially generals. But doctors?

Not even two weeks from Donald Trump’s final flight from the White House lawn, it’s clear that what saved America from an even worse second act was professionals doing their jobs. Such as…..

  • The 86 judges who refused to be bullied into even hearing Trump’s absurd cases to overturn election results – including the judges on the Supreme Court.
  • US Capitol policeman Eugene Goodman who lured the insurrectionist mob away from the Senate Chamber on January 6th.

They did their work, without fear or favour, or rather likely with a great deal of fear they overcame so as not to give in to favour. It’s almost as frightening to think that this thin blue and red line is all that kept the greatest democracy on earth from sinking into chaos.

So yes, I’m all in favour of pilots flying planes they don’t crash; surgeons who try not to kill their patients; judges who can’t be bought; and weather forecasters who are truth-tellers and not soothsayers.

And the more credentialed and regulated they are, the better. Not always, but generally.

Which brings me to elites and elitism. It’s easy to see why they’re a cousin of professionals and professionalism.

What I don’t understand is why an idea that takes hold with such angry righteousness in countries like Britain, which has been riven with class distinctions for centuries, or America, where the distance between the most elite and the least elite causes staggering economic and social damage, why this idea is treated the same in Canada.

First, our 1% are far less elite than America’s. To be a member of the 1% in Canada, your personal income last year had to be around $250,000. That’s a lot, but nowhere near the $539,000 Americans need to earn to join the 1%, whose average income is about $1.7 million. (Oddly, Britain’s 1% only needs to make £160,000 a year.)

Second, if higher education is a mark of elitism, then Canadians are the most elitist people on earth, since we are also the most educated people on earth.

Yes, I know the issue of elitism goes beyond money and education, and I’ll be writing about those differences in the days to come.

But I want to set the stakes now in the woods soon to be cleared by Roland King, a professional who would blanche at being called an elite.

*****
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1 thought on “The Plague-Ground – Are you an elite, or a professional, or neither, or both?”

  1. Well stated, Bob! Looking forward to the next pieces in the series. Hope at some point you’ll talk about how irritating it is to hear these Yale-and-Harvard-educated Republican lawyers rail against the “elites”, as if they’re not part of them. What could be more elite than being a US Senator?

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