Recently on opinion pages there appeared op-eds which used the term “elites” in a pejorative sense. In the May 15 Community Voices “The lack of confidence in our institutions,” the author wrote, “Many of the elites pronounced Trump’s economic plan was bound to destroy the U.S. economy. … so much for the elite expertise.”
In the May 16 column “The pandemic will fuel the populism that sent Trump to the White House,” this columnist wrote, “The brunt of the damage is not being borne by the elites who work in the information economy…” And again: “Now, these Americans see the same elites dismissing their suffering once again…” and further, “They see the contempt of the media elites who mock the anti-lockdown protests taking place across the country...”
These authors are using the term “elites” as an ill-defined group which differs from their own political philosophy in order to justify their own rationale. Its use is meant to provide a foil with which they can define the opposition without actually having to acknowledge the philosophy of these so-called elites. This appears to be a code word used to separate their own followers by stimulating a paranoia driven by prejudice. They do not explain who the “elites” are or what they stand for.
Elites, in reality, are individuals who have become recognized for achieving a position of prominence in a particular field usually by superior knowledge or demonstration of new truths. This does not mean that they are immediately accepted for their understanding, but that history does recognize the truth of their position.
Take the example of Copernicus, who through observation, measurement and an early calculus proved that the earth orbited the sun. This was against the common understanding of the time in which the sun was thought to orbit earth. Truth eventually prevailed, though it did take some institutions 400 years to admit it. In politics, Washington, Lincoln and FDR would meet the definition of elites — not because of everyone’s belief in their politics, but because the challenges they overcame to prove the truth of their positions.
To denigrate elites because they expose weaknesses in your political position is an act of prejudice, profound ignorance or uncompromising arrogance. Prejudice because this makes you blind to a reality outside of yourself. Profound ignorance because in the absence of critical thinking, you limit your ability to analyze data in a manner which would lead to truth. Uncompromising arrogance because of the absence of humility, a person cannot undertake a critical questioning of their own understanding. The absence of these defects in a true elite leads to a hunger for more data, more analysis and ultimately to a realization of more truths.
I defend the concept of elite and elitism because it represents a lighthouse shining in the darkness of the present conservative rubric, spinning the data in a way to obfuscate the truth.
Truth seems to be a victim of our current politics. Rejecting the elite position is justified if you have sufficient data and critical analysis to expose their error. To use elite as a nebulous group to divide, in such a manner as to believe your group to be superior, is not justified. Elites have the counter obligation of admitting their errors when presented with data and critical analysis which demonstrate their fallacies.
In these difficult times, it would be much more helpful if writers stopped making scare words out of long cherished classifications and started listing data and analysis demonstrating why they think their position is correct. Is there still faith that the truth will ultimately prevail? I sure hope so.
William D. Bezdek is a retired physician.