Elites and Elitists
One can be an elite and not be elitist and vice versa.
My declaration in Thursday’s “NPR Shouldn’t Exist But I’m Glad It Does” that one of my objections to public broadcasting was that it is an example “where money is taken from the masses to subsidize the elites” sparked quite a discussion in the comment thread over what constitutes an elite.
As almost always seems to happen, “elite” and “elitist” got conflated.
NPR is aimed at an elite audience, although obviously there are people who wouldn’t consider themselves “elites” who enjoy the programming. And the notion that highbrow news presentation that couldn’t survive in the marketplace because the great unwashed masses are too stupid to select the “right” kind of show must therefore be subsidized is elitist. But the two don’t have to go hand in hand.
I was using “elite” in the dictionary sense of “A group or class of persons or a member of such a group or class, enjoying superior intellectual, social, or economic status.” NPR’s news programming is aimed at a small strata of the overall population that’s relatively affluent and well educated. I’d consider myself as part of that strata, based on education and income.
Now, of course, there are gradations of elite status. A PhD from the University of Alabama isn’t a PhD from Harvard and membership in the lower strata of the upper middle class isn’t the same as being truly wealthy. I am by no means a mover and shaker in society at large. But I recognize that, while I by no means started out as privileged, I’m there now.
“Elitism,” on the other hand, is different: “The belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority, as in intellect, social status, or financial resources.”
I’m situationally elitist. I don’t believe in aristocracy or inherited status, nor do I believe that those lucky enough to be born smarter or even those who have become more wealthy through dint of their own achievement are better than those less fortunate. But I do think that people with superior intellect and achievement ought to, say, sit on the Supreme Court or occupy the vice presidency.
Elites do, however, tend to develop preferences different from non-elites, owing to wider exposure and greater resources. During the 2008 campaign and occasionally since, there was much discussion of Barack Obama’s “elitist” tendency to eat arugula and put Dijon mustard on his burgers. Alex Knapp lampooned this discussion in “What Makes Someone An Elitist?”
In the ensuing comments, Dave Schuler argued that we must “distinguish between being elite and being an elitist” and that it was a matter of “not what you choose but the attitude with which you choose them.” I agreed, adding, “If you prefer to drink microbrews because you think they taste better than Budweiser and can afford to pay the higher cost, as we both do, that perhaps makes you an elite. If you think it therefore makes you better than the poor losers who drink Bud, you’re an elitist.”