Part two in a series.
“Elite” hasn’t always been an epithet. In fact, if we consider what the dictionary has to say about it, it still signifies something potentially worthy. Potentially. For instance:
e·lit·ism or é·lit·ism (-ltzm, -l-) n.
1. The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.le
That definition, while technically accurate enough, could use a bit of untangling, because it embodies the very nature of our problem with elitism in America. In popular use, the term “elite” and its derivatives has been twisted into a pure, distilled lackwit essence of “liberal” – another once-proud word that fell victim to our moneyed false consciousness machine.
However, if we sift the definition a bit, we find that it’s actually three definitions masquerading as one: intellect, social status, or financial resources. Those are not three ways of saying the same thing. On the contrary – they’re two or three distinctly different things. And in understanding these distinctions, we will hopefully come to a better grasp of what ails America. To wit: while elitism literally refers to a set of different and only barely related conditions, we are routinely encouraged to conflate them all. When we do, it causes us to ignore dynamics that threaten our individual and collective well-being and to denigrate the dynamics of opportunity that offer us hope for a more prosperous and productive democracy.
Elitism: Three Definitions
Let’s look at what the term “elite” means in three contexts.
1: Social elite. Up until the dawn of modern democracy in the 18th Century most societies were ruled by kings or emperors or chieftains or sheiks or some similar variety of hereditary elite. These societies tended to be rigidly class-based, and much of your life’s potential was strictly determined by the station into which you were born. If your parents were artisans, you were probably going to be an artisan. If you were born into the peasantry, a peasant you would live and die. In some places the “divine right” doctrine made clear that this was all God’s will – the hereditary lineage was as God intended. The class structure, with the king at the top, was the natural order as decreed in Heaven.
We don’t have the divine right of kings in the US today, of course, but humans being human, we still see vestiges of dynastic social elitism. In part one of this series we noted the Bush dynasty, of which former president George W Bush was at least fourth generation. We’re all well acquainted with the Kennedy clan, as well, and even if we don’t know the specific histories, we certainly know the names of other American royal families: Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Duke, Hearst, Pulitzer, Reynolds, Carnegie, Kellogg, Morgan, Stanford, Ford, Du Pont – and virtually every city of any size has its own local aristocracies. In my hometown of Winston-Salem, NC, names like Reynolds and Hanes carried a lot of weight, for instance, and in Denver, where I live now, one finds any number of things named after the Iliff and Bonfils clans.
2: Financial elite. In the old country social and financial status tended to go hand-in-hand. In America, social status has tended to trail financial success at a safe distance (since the first generation or two of an emerging financial dynasty invariably has to overcome the taint associated with being nouveau riche – that is, one may have a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean one has breeding, culture or sufficient social skills to be accepted into polite society). However, over time even a pack of socially distasteful Arkies like the Waltons can be expected to gain a measure of acceptance.
For purposes of discussing elitists in America, it makes sense to consider the social and financial elites as more or less one group. These groups, which we’ll collectively term privilege elitists, are distinct from what our dictionary calls…
3: Intellectual elite. In brief, intellectual elites are people who, regardless of socio-economic background, comprise a society’s “knowledge class.” They are usually educated (although they may be largely self-educated); they earn their livings with their brains; as a general rule they value learning and education; and they dominate the teaching professions. If the social and economic cohorts are privilege elitists, then let’s call this group the performance elites.
First, though, we need to address a sticking point. The word “intellectual” troubles many Americans for reasons they’ve probably never stopped to think about. This distaste results from the fact that Americans historically placed a great value on applied learning. Those who founded and developed our culture were people who crossed a large ocean to escape poverty or seek religious and social “freedom” (a popular, if problematic way of putting it) or get away from the European establishment, remember. They tended to have less patience with learning for its own sake (pure knowledge), which in families like mine often got dismissed as useless “book learnin’.” Book learnin’ was seen as infinitely inferior to “common sense.”
“Intellectual” has always signified the pursuit of knowledge that wasn’t “good for anything.” As such, it has never been respected in America, and any number of disparaging iconographies* have grown up around the concept. “Eggheads” and “brainiacs” are rarely thought to know anything of value, and even the main body of 20th Century “science fiction,” a genre ostensibly devoted to praising science, is perhaps better understood as engineering fiction.
Intelligence vs Intellect
So we have a perceptual hang-up about intellectuals. Are these perceptions fair, though? Or accurate? Or productive? In a word, no.
Once upon a time I insisted that I was intelligent, but that I was not an intellectual. I could go back and attempt to explain what the distinction was in my mind, but the reality is that I had fallen for the faux-populist ideology I’m describing here. I identified closely with my working class roots and allowed myself to associate intellectualism with smug, self-superiority. That I knew a few smug, self-superior intellectuals only served to reinforce my delusion.
Whatever attitude a particular individual case may adopt, our intellectual/performance elites are generally defined by a few extremely desirable qualities. They are smart; they have worked hard to acquire knowledge; and they believe that the wisdom arising from knowledge holds the key to a better world for all of us. They may not be “of the people” in the sense that their lives are fully integrated into working class culture, but the ones I know uniformly care a great deal about “the people” and wish for them greater opportunity, prosperity and happiness.
Let’s also be clear about the place of those with “useful” knowledge. There may be a popular tendency to herd them into different chutes than the eggheads, but engineer types are performance elites, too. Literally understood, they are people who put their minds into the service of building our present and our future.
Some intellectual elites were born rich, but most probably weren’t. Most had to work very hard for what they’ve gotten. Countless thousands mortgaged their futures with student loans. And if they take a minute to think about it, a lot of them would probably react strongly to being lumped into the same group as trust fund elitists who were born rich and never accomplished anything of lasting value in their lives.
As a way of visualizing the differences between these two groups (which we’re necessarily abstracting to make a point), consider this chart, which opposes the tendencies and qualities of performance and privilege elites.
|Performance Elitism||Privilege Elitism|
|aka Intellectual Elite||aka Social, Financial Elite|
|Intellectually curious||Intellectually indifferent|
|Public responsibility||Private rights|
|For the many||For the few|
|Level playing field||Rigged game|
|Information is Power||Disinformation is Power|
Despite cynical attempts to convince the public that elitists are actively working to destroy the American way of life, the truth is that the targets of this scorn are guilty of precisely the opposite. Privilege elites are, by definition, born into legacies of wealth and power. When former President George W Bush talked about promoting an “ownership society,” these are the owners he had in mind. They’re the “haves and have-mores” who constituted his “base.” They’re the hyper-rich top one percent who, according to various analyses, own over 50% of the nation’s wealth. They also own, in addition to everything else, the media outlets responsible for propagating the toxic “liberal/intellectual elite” meme.
The elitism under attack, performance elitism, is built on striving, achievement and knowledge. These elites earned whatever status they have through hard work, while the privilege elites inherited their birthright through a modern equivalent of the divine right of kings. Intellectual elites seek equal opportunity while economic elites use their heft and influence to promote ever-greater inequality of both opportunity and outcome.
Yes, we do have elitists in America. But elitism isn’t necessarily bad – on the contrary, depending on what sort of elitism we’re talking about, it may be a very good thing. It may be the very quality that allowed the US to become the greatest nation in the world, or it may be the quality that is eroding our greatness more and more each day.
The next time you hear “elitist” used to describe someone who’s trying to destroy America, pause and ask yourself a few questions:
- Who’s doing the talking?
- What does their portfolio look like?
- Who owns the wires they’re using to address you, and what is the bested interest of those who own the channel?
- Is the image being presented plausible? Do the elites being pilloried have either the motive or the means to do whatever they’re being accused of doing?
- As you listen to the story, do you clearly understand what is meant by the word “elite” as it is being employed?
- Is it clear to you that the speaker/writer understands what the word “elite” means?
- Is the term being used to clarify or obfuscate?
- Finally, based on what you’re being told and how the argument is being presented, how much credit for intelligence do the story’s producer’s give you? Is it clear what they want you to think and how they want you to react? If so, what motivation on their part explains the direction they’re trying to move you?
Most importantly, if you have personally worked hard to improve your mind so that you can improve your life as well as the lives of those in your family and community, don’t let a cynical propaganda frame deprive you of that which you have earned. Be proud of your status as a performance elite and don’t back down from privilege elites who would denigrate your accomplishments.
* What I mean by iconographies is a series of narratives and popular images used to depict members of a group. For a quick example, think about the stereotype of the mad scientist. Or the trope of the wandering kung fu master. Or the crooked used car salesman. Or the ambulance-chasing lawyer. Or the narcissistic model. We have clichés of all sorts of types or groups of people, and more often than not these quick, cheap categorizations prevent us from understanding the humans depicted in meaningful ways. See Neal Stephenson’s use of the term in Anathem.
Next: Who Are These Out-of-Touch “Liberal Elites,” Anyway?