Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Best Is The New Worst

I’ve stolen my title from New York Times Op-Ed contributor, Susan Jacoby. The full essay appeared in the May 30th, 2008 issue. Ms. Jacoby writes:

PITY the poor word “elite,” which simply means “the best” as an adjective and “the best of a group” as a noun. What was once an accolade has turned poisonous in American public life over the past 40 years, as both the left and the right have twisted it into a code word meaning “not one of us.” But the newest and most ominous wrinkle in the denigration of all things elite is that the slur is being applied to knowledge itself.

A reader of the piece commented:

"'Elite' has become the new 'liberal'. ... It is 1984 in a nutshell, where war is peace, freedom slavery, and ignorance the greatest wisdom."
Gary, Oregon

Until reading Ms. Jacoby’s damning words, I thought “elite” was a good thing. The top. The crème de la crème. The Best. Elite was something to seek. She goes on:

The assault on “elite” did not begin with politicians, although it does have political antecedents in sneers directed at “eggheads” during the anti-Communist crusades of the 1950s. The broader cultural perversion of its meaning dates from the late 1960s, when the academic left pinned the label on faculty members who resisted the establishment of separate departments for what were then called “minority studies.” In this case, two distinct faculty groups were tarred with elitism — those who wanted to incorporate black and women’s studies into the core curriculum, and those who thought that blacks and women had produced nothing worthy of study. Instead of elitist, the former group should have been described as “inclusionary” and the latter as “bigoted.”

The second stage of elite-bashing was conceived by the cultural and political right. Conservative intellectuals who rose to prominence during the Reagan administration managed the neat trick of reversing the ’60s usage of “elite” by applying it as a slur to the left alone. “Elite,” often rendered in the plural, became synonymous with “limousine liberals” who opposed supposedly normative American values. That the right-wing intellectual establishment also constituted a powerful elite was somehow obscured.

“Elite” and “elitist” do not, in a dictionary sense, mean the same thing. An elitist is someone who does believe in government by an elite few — an anti-democratic philosophy that has nothing to do with elite achievement. But the terms have become so conflated that Americans have come to consider both elite and elitist synonyms for snobbish.

Susan Jacoby is the author of “The Age of American Unreason.”

My readers will be amused to find that Ms. Jacoby’s words sent me scurrying to an elite website for fans of musical comedy. I just knew there was a lyric which used the word “elite,” but what one? And from what show?

42nd Street, dear one.
Where the underworld can meet the elite, Forty-Second Street.

I don’t know about you, but I am rapidly tiring of the press pundits in all media who tell us that our civilization is going to hell in a handbasket. It isn’t. It’s simply changing, growing, shifting and healing as civilizations have been doing for millennia.

If, because I know that, I am an elitist, let me know where I can get a lapel pin which proclaims it, will you please?

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