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OnWords: Elite


The word “elite” has seen a lot of abuse over the last few decades. 

For liberals, the “elite” are wealthy businessmen who purchase politicians, wreck the schools, and rape (really? Rape?) the planet.

For conservatives, the elite are ivory-tower academics who ruin the minds of children with their radical, sinful, and dangerous ideas.

All of us sense that the status of the elite is undeserved. The ideas is that the rich got there by exploiting others and that intellectuals lack practical knowledge.

The common thread is that the elite feel they’re a good deal better than everyone else, that those not as wealthy or educated don’t match up.

Walter Kirn wrote in Harper’s magazine this summer that to warn against holding the elite to our own standards. Those of mediocre talents have mediocre standards, and our small minds and ignorance simply can’t comprehend the true greatness of elites.  

Kirn gives the example of a brilliant surgeon who quits because he is judged by customer satisfaction ratings. What do mere patients know about surgery?

They know whether or not they feel well. Laborers know when they’re being screwed over.

Working professionals know when a high-minded theory falls flat in the real world.

Perhaps the existence of  an elite isn’t what bothers us. Perhaps we use “elitist” as an insult when there’s a lack of communication and understanding between the prestigious and the common person.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.