Rhetoric is notoriously fluid, never more so than in this media-saturated age. A case in point is the term “elitist.” The word gets flung about now and then, but you can take it at least two ways.
Obama was accused of being elitist when he talked about people clinging to their guns and religion during the campaign. Politicians are supposed to make obeisance to such symbols of blue-collar life, without of course doing anything to actually help blue-collar people.
A CNN “reporter” recently called people who criticized the wall-to-wall Michael Jackson coverage “elitists.” It reminded me of Ted Koppel defending the O.J. coverage on the basis of “that’s what the people want.” (Both examples concern African American celebrities, but significantly their stories were freakish and atypical.) The media can justify avoiding the actual practice of journalism, and its ever-increasing reliance on entertainment as “news” fodder, by calling critics elitists.
This use of the term is actually more general than the examples might indicate. Elitism in mainstream discourse simply means educated, book-learned, someone who thinks critically. It’s another code word for the fine old American tradition of anti-intellectualism. The Republicans have been milking this one for decades: “Hey, we’re just regular dumb folks like you with simple values. Our opponents are pointy-headed academics who go to the ballet and read the New York Times.” Spiro Agnew called them “effete snobs.”
Everyone hates snobs, right? You just want to be a regular guy, one of the gang, one of the boys, not some uppity college professor who reads books. This is really what “elitist” talk amounts to. And by this definition, I would have to say that I’m proud to be an elitist. I wear the title like a badge of honor. I am educated. I read, and I understand concepts. I can think critically, and discuss issues intelligently. I consider all these to be virtues, in fact necessities, and I refuse to apologize for them.
There is another meaning of elitist, however, which is more than just a verbal weapon to intimidate smart people and win gullible ignoramuses to your side. I am referring to actual elitists, people who are members of the elite groups that make most of the decisions in this country. These elitists are not distinguished by their education or intelligence, but by their money.
The one or two percent of the population that makes a million and a half a year or more, that runs the major corporations, owns the major media outlets, and makes the laws in this country – they are the elite. They give themselves and their kids the top jobs, the positions of influence that determine their continued dominance. They reap the profits of oil, of weapons, of war. They determine what plays on the TV and radio. One percent of the U.S. population owns sixty percent of the stock and forty percent of the total wealth. Government benefits flow overwhelmingly to them, not to you. They are able to avoid paying taxes and avoid getting killed in wars. It is their game. They own it, and run it. They own the Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court. They pay for those people to do what they do.
Those are the elitists. And fittingly enough, it is those people, and the ones who directly serve their interests, who most often point their fingers at others accusing them of being “elitists.” They have no idea what it’s like for you and I to hold a job, to struggle to make the payments, to worry if a health crisis will bankrupt us. And they thrive on the deaths of millions of people, millions of children in other countries, who starve and die of disease and are killed because these elitists must continue to live in their selfish bubble of gratification. Yet they won’t hesitate to throw around the “elitist” label at someone in order to gain advantage.
When a powerful person in this country talks about morality, or religion, or faith, or freedom, they are lying, either consciously or not. The only real value in their world is self-interest. The only chance for justice is for their elite status to be eliminated, and the centralized power of super-capital to be brought down.