I think there is some misunderstanding about my family background. People who respond to my columns are saying the strangest things about me. So I’m going to say a bit about the Hochstadts to clear things up.
My grandfather, Josef Hochstadt, made a good living as a doctor in Vienna. My grandmother, Amalia Hochstadt, had family connections to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. From families of storekeepers and rabbis, they had reached comfortable upper middle class comfort.
Considering what happened to them, it is hard to say they were in Vienna’s elite. My grandfather was thrown in jail, my grandmother managed to get her son Ernst to the US and her daughter to England, and then they escaped to Shanghai in 1939. The Nazis tried to steal everything they owned, but they were not entirely successful.
My father arrived in New York with a ring on his finger, a few clothes, and a charming accent. At least that’s what my mother says. She was the 16-year-old daughter of clothing store clerks. After they got married, my father became the smallest sort of businessman in New York, and my mother did secretarial work in our suburban house, built by Mr. Levitt. People are critical of suburbs, but I grew up loving suburban life. We were the average Americans — hooray for the middle of the middle class!
Since high school I have entered one kind of elite. I did very well in school. I got a full scholarship to an expensive university that had just started to admit more than a few Jews, paid for by a foundation created by the heirs of General Motors. Thank you, rich capitalists!
At Brown University the scholarship kids found each other, and we met people we never knew before, families of wealth, power, and fame, who owned the banks they used, who endowed scholarships for people like us, who got buildings named after them. That was my first experience with the elite.
My wife and I have been teachers for 30 years, mostly sharing one job, one salary, and two kids. College professors do pretty well, although not as well as doctors, lawyers, MBAs, or accountants. As long as kids keep going to college, our jobs are not threatened. Our family has gradually moved from a small apartment to a small house to a big old house, like those we used to look at longingly on our cross-country family trips.
I think that ought to be enough personal information to judge whether I ever was part of any “elite”. Exiles, immigrants, middle-class Jews in the suburbs and a lifetime of teaching don’t add up to elite. My only elite quality, the intellectual skills that allowed me to become a professor, is apparently held against me by many people who dismiss learned people as living in an “ivory tower”. My opinions about matters of history, politics, and society are not as valuable as a plumber’s.
The funny thing is that the elite is never liberal. In every society I have lived in or studied, the elite ferociously protects its privileges. They fight against things like taxes on the rich, restrictions on their businesses, programs to help the poor. For example, based on exit polls in the 2004 Presidential election, the more money voters made, the more likely that they were Republican; voters who made over $200,000 were 62% Republican and 37% Democrat.
So when I see myself labeled as part of the “liberal elite”, and more often hear people talk about the “liberal elite”, I know they are trying hard not to think about all the people they know who are liberal but not elite, or elite but not liberal. Rather than consider the content of my argument, they retreat into an imaginary world. It’s too bad that so many people throw up walls around their minds, with labels like “liberal elite” or “ivory tower”, so they won’t have to think about what they already know.
Steve Hochstadt is professor of history at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, and author of Sources of the Holocaust (Palgrave, 2004) and Shanghai-Geschichten: Die jüdische Flucht nach China (Berlin: Hentrich und Hentrich, 2007). Republished with permission from Taking Back Our Lives.