A Cut Above From Below

What is the meaning of elite?

It's all in the context of personal perception and interpretation

I've been having an ongoing discussion recently with a friend of 45 years over the word elite and what it means. We have similar education backgrounds (we went to the same high school and colleges, different degrees) but come from different socio-economic backgrounds. Over the decades we have had a lot of discussions on topics of "great political and social import," to borrow a phrase from Janis Joplin.

In this case it started with my using the word "elite" which I intended in the first dictionary definition of "the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as a group or class of persons and partly in the second definition sense of "persons of the highest class." Let me state that I personally never have associated class with money, prominent position, aristocracy, name-your-upper-crust. In my mind class has always been associated with any social, economic or political individual or group that carries themselves with a certain dignity and respect for others, which in turn gives them dignity and respect.

I have never understood the visceral reaction so many Americans have to the word elite. They automatically assume it means the third dictionary definition "a group of persons exercising the major authority or influence within a larger group," as in Power Elite and Big Boss Man and in a reactionary way, vehemently call it inherently evil. The idea that elite might merely mean someone or something that exceeds or is more educated, intelligent, accomplished is just considered wrong. Because in America no one better be better than me or anyone else.

Is this what the notion of equality has become? It no longer is about equal rights and opportunity but about equal entitlement? 

Inevitably I get accused of classism or something of the sort if I suggest that human nature and selection of the species indicates that some people, are in fact just better in some ways than others. That somehow this is snobbishness and it's wrong to think that someone can rise above others, are natural leaders and should fill that role. Inevitably I discover that these same people also resent anyone in leadership position of any kind, although they would loath to themselves be a leader instead of the "chosen one."

I suggest that it is peculiarly American trait, born out of a misguided idea that this is a pure democracy coupled with an ignorance of what a democratic republic really means. It almost always springs from someone who is from or perceives themselves to be "working class" and I have concluded it is also classism, only in reverse and the worst kind. "I can't envision myself (or am too lazy) being able to improve or rise above my station, therefore anyone who does is an elitist snob who looks down on me."

It is the worst kind because the concept of achievement, ability, knowledge, skills are to be derided rather than lauded. It assumes that everyone who has "gotten somewhere" gained it without some effort, education and work and is in it purely for themselves with total disregard for others. Perhaps this is why so many people with elite qualities stick to themselves and others like them.