Thursday, September 23, 2010

What's the matter with "Elite?"

One of the clearest signs of populism and demagoguery that I've noticed is using "elite" as a dismissive term for an amorphous group of people who think they're better than "us" or who otherwise are not sufficiently tuned in to what is happening in the real world. This happens often when people deride politicians in Washington DC, or scholars in their ivory towers at universities. The follow-on is invariably that we need "folks like us" in office, because only "folks like us" understand us. Just listen to Sarah Palin and you'll see outright disdain for "elitism."

I think this is a shame. Obviously, to the degree that people are disconnected from reality or behave as if they're superior to everyone else, that's a problem and should not be tolerated. But very few politicians or academics (or other members of the otherwise-not-well-defined "elite") are actually guilty of either of these sins.

Rather, they're guilty of either (a) being part of a governmental body that is empowered to do something that affects "us" from a distance, or (b) being smart and well educated.

Being part of a governmental body is not a sin of the participant, it merely makes one a bureaucrat. But it makes little sense to blame the bureaucrat; if we want to change policy to bring more things local, our system has ways to affect such changes.

But it's the "being smart" part of "elitism" that I think is really problematic: we create an atmosphere where intellectualism is a sin (see again Sarah Palin - compelling in many ways, but not an intellectual heavyweight). The irony here is that this slur on "elitism" typically comes from people who consider themselves hard working, and who feel that ivory-tower "elitists" don't have to work hard like they do. And yet, we (and they!) value truly "elite" people like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett and so forth - people who are an "elite" group by any reasonable definition of the word.

We should all aspire to be the smart, educated (even if they don't have college degrees) intellectuals that these elite people have. That's the best hope for our country, I think.

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