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.


  1. I can't see how it's classism to suggest what you suggest; a world where we were all "equal", a place where I could, on a whim, be the equal of Thomas Jefferson or Blind Willie McTell (and I could name a million different impossibilities) would be a pretty crappy world. There'd be no need for inspiration or perspiration or care, and there'd be nothing new except maybe a headline or two stating how many new Blind Willie McTells showed up today.

    The world wasn't made to be that easy; as far as I can tell it's all about trying things and struggling and finding our ways, whatever ways they may be. I think if that means you or I or anyone ends up one of the elite, then it's because we are supposed to be there. I also think that if it means you or I or anyone is destined to sit home and, say, write the best sonnets the world has ever seen and toss them in a drawer or a trash can, that eventually they will find the light.

    I think a lot of people would rather complain about their version of the elite than actually take responsibility and strive for something. I don't understand the thinking, but I sometimes almost appreciate the ease. Almost.

    Cool post, JR.

  2. Tsk, tsk - this is pure slander against Americans, who are more than willing to recognize excellence and what Thomas Jefferson called the "natural aristocracy" that will rise to prominence in any field. They generally get RICH here. What Americans disdain are elitISM, and people who smugly declare THEMSELVES elite. What'd Mom used to say? "You don't have to brag - if you're really good others'll do it for you."

    Americans recognize that those who believe themselves "elite" (rather than being acclaimed as such by others)tend to develop nasty habits - like expecting others to TREAT them that way. They don't eschew leaders - they eschew those who think they have a RIGHT to rule because of their "obvious" superiority. Visit any local university for examples of a pathetic, self-declared "elite" who feel they should be in charge of the world.

    Perhaps Americans began to associate "elite" with "snob" because of their original association with Great Britain. After all, the English upper class are recognized world-wide as THE prototypical class snobs.

    It was a cheap shot, rhetorically speaking, to put words in the mouth of your strawman ("I can't envision myself (or am too lazy) being able to improve or rise above my station...")making it sound as if only some dumb, lazy couch potato from the "working class" could possibly misinterpret your noble vision of the self -certified elite. That's NOT snobbism?

    Americans, by the way, don't have "stations." "Nuff said.

  3. I read Anonymous's comment and it has me smiling because I agree with some of it, disagree with a little, and find a lot to think about. That makes it a perfectly American comment, and to my mind that's never a bad thing.

    To say Americans disdain elitism may be a stretch; it also may not be, depending upon how you define "American". I tend to think of the word as meaning ME, a guy who works and tries and avoids things like CNN (and FOX) and "Dancing With The Stars" as best I can...I don't care about that show with the couple with 19 kids or whatever and I sure don't wish another dozen Kennedys would step up and run for office.

    I happen to know a lot of people who care intimately about these and many other possibly elitist things. They seem smart and informed to the extent that I consider my own lack of interest almost a personal failing. Are they Americans? Of course.

    The country's too full of individuals to ever pretend that there's an overriding pattern to things. Hell, I'll bet there are Americans who champion the doings of the British upper class. I don't know them, but I'm sure they're out there (perhaps in more ways than one).

    Anonymous and JR: I thank you for making me think with your words...and to think I could've been watching "Wheel". Time better spent here, without question.

    And Mom must know Yogi Berra, former NY Yankee catcher and man of letters, who once said, "it ain't braggin' if you can do it". To anyone with any "game" in any realm, no truer American phrase has ever been spoken.

  4. So glad you came back Mike. Although I haven't confirmed it yet, I'm pretty sure Anonymous would be who I've been having the ongoing conversation with. So your comment and insight in this, albeit unwittingly, is most appreciated because comments from both of you have made me think. Which was what I was trying to accomplish here I think...put it out there and see what the response was. My blog also feeds into Google Buzz, which has a comment section of it's own and I've gained a lot of food for thought.