When Did "Elite" Become A Dirty Word?
Tuesday, September 16, 2008 | Author: Mad Typist
I was going to title this post "You May Be Smarter Than Me, But That Don't Make You Better Than Me!" but it was a bit too long to fit.

David Brooks, of all people, at the NY Times penned an outstanding article titled "Why Experience Matters". Go read it now

Brooks discusses one of my favorite topics - the idea that perhaps (just perhaps) electing people because they have no experience in the system might not be a good idea. He skirts around a point I've been making for some time now: the growing anti-intellectual movement, the growing sentiment in conservative circles that to be "elite" is somehow a bad thing.

The problem is due to the way that elite can be defined. According to merriam-webster online "elite" can be defined as:
a singular or plural in construction : the choice part

singular or plural in construction : the best of a class

c singular or plural in construction : the socially superior part of society

d: a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence

Now, the problem is that the sentiment directed at definitions C and D above, is also directed at people who fit the definition of A and B. Here's what I mean: a person fitting C and D is that one "thinks he's better than me." It is linked to our cultural distrust of a ruling class (D) that holds power over us, not because of any individual merit on their part, but through some artificial system of birth or inheritance.

Compare this to a person who fits the definition of A or B - one who through their ability and skill qualifies as "best in class." Now, obviously, you are aware of my personal bias towards Barack Obama, so consider this public disclosure. However, looking at his background, it is not only fair, but accurate to suggest that he is indeed an "elite", in the A or B sense of the word. I freely admit that he is "better" than me when it comes to matters of national politics. One does not go to Punahou (which has a crazy admissions test), Harvard Law School (and then become an editor of the law review there), and then teach Constitutional Law without being an exceptional person. Normally, such a person should be celebrated. After all, we would only want the best engineer to work building a plane we fly on, or the smartest, most gifted teacher to teach our children. So why wouldn't we want the best legal/government scholars to head up the government that controls so much of our life?

This is where a person like Sarah Palin enters the debate. As part of our collective misinterpretation of the word "elite", we falsely define the opposite of that idea as a person who is "common." Again, let's turn to merriam-webster for a definition of the word "common" (note, I snipped out the definitions that don't apply):
1 a: of or relating to a community at large b: known to the community <common nuisances>

2 a
: belonging to or shared by two or more individuals or things or by all members of a group

4 a
: widespread , general b: characterized by a lack of privilege or special status <common people> c: just satisfying accustomed criteria : elementary

5 a
: falling below ordinary standards : second-rate b: lacking refinement : coarse

7: of, relating to, or being common stock
Many make the fatal mistake of associating definition 5a and 5b with 4b and 7. In other words, lacking privilege or special status does not mean that person is merely adequate or mediocre when it comes to their personal skills and qualities. In fact, you can be a common man from humble beginnings who possess an elite intellect. Conversely, just because you have a mediocre intelligence doesn't mean you qualify as a "common" person either (see: our current President).

Let's go back to the money section of Brooks' op-ed piece:

And there’s a serious argument here. In the current Weekly Standard, Steven Hayward argues that the nation’s founders wanted uncertified citizens to hold the highest offices in the land. They did not believe in a separate class of professional executives. They wanted rough and rooted people like Palin.

I would have more sympathy for this view if I hadn’t just lived through the last eight years. For if the Bush administration was anything, it was the anti-establishment attitude put into executive practice.

And the problem with this attitude is that, especially in his first term, it made Bush inept at governance. It turns out that governance, the creation and execution of policy, is hard. It requires acquired skills. Most of all, it requires prudence.

What is prudence? It is the ability to grasp the unique pattern of a specific situation. It is the ability to absorb the vast flow of information and still discern the essential current of events — the things that go together and the things that will never go together. It is the ability to engage in complex deliberations and feel which arguments have the most weight.

How is prudence acquired? Through experience. The prudent leader possesses a repertoire of events, through personal involvement or the study of history, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what hasn’t.

Experienced leaders can certainly blunder if their minds have rigidified (see: Rumsfeld, Donald), but the records of leaders without long experience and prudence is not good. As George Will pointed out, the founders used the word “experience” 91 times in the Federalist Papers. Democracy is not average people selecting average leaders. It is average people with the wisdom to select the best prepared.

It's time that America wakes up and realizes that the "elite" smear is only hurting this country by belittling people who dare to excel through the traditional educational method. What is interesting is that the party that slings the "elite" slur more than anyone is the one attempting to suppress traditionally Democratic voters in poor, urban areas. Talk about a class of privilege exerting power over a socially disadvantaged group....
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On 3:22 PM , Beers said...

You know, I had never given much thought to the double standard applied to the word "elite". Very interesting article!