Susie and I have fallen into a rather pleasant routine. I take my early morning three mile walk, getting back before 8 am. Then she goes to her 8:15 exercise class, and at 8:45, when the class ends, I am waiting for her and we go twenty feet to the café, where we split a muffin and have some coffee. Then I drive us back to our building. This saves Susie the walk home, which she finds too taxing after the exercise class. Some mornings [but not all], Sam Ligon takes the exercise class and then comes to the café as well. Sam is the Chair of the Council of the Residents’ Association, which in the little world of Carolina Meadows is a big deal.
As I saw Sam this morning sitting across the way in the café, I was reminded of a distinction introduced by C. Wright Mills in his splendid 1956 book The Power Elite, between local elites and national elites. Wright observed that in many towns and small cities, there was a double social and economic hierarchy. On the one hand, there were the local bigwigs, the mayor, the president of the local bank, the head of a local manufacturing business, maybe the minister of the local church. On the other hand, there were middle level executives running local branches of large national or international corporations. The first group constituted the local elite, the second were fragments of a national elite. Each group looked down on the other, as one can imagine.
Much the same distinction, I noticed long ago, can be drawn in the faculties on university campuses. Some of the professors view their home institution merely as a paycheck and a job, spending little or no time going to department meetings and never dreaming of putting themselves forward for chairmanships, deanships, or other locally important positions. Their orientation is completely to the national or international elite of their academic fields. Their attention is focused on professional meetings, lecture gigs, journal reviews, and such. Others on the campus take on administrative positions, chair committees, start programs, and in general act like what Mills calls local elites.
I have always been a member of the local elite wherever I have taught, save during my seven years at Columbia. I have started and run programs, sat on committees, taken on administrative tasks when departments or deans were insane enough to assign them to me. At the same time, I have shunned annual meetings of the American Philosophical Association and forty years ago pretty much stopped reviewing books and publishing journal articles.
And here I am, at eighty-five, living in a retirement community and serving as the Precinct Representative of Building 5, sitting on the Council Sam chairs!