Poor “Elite”

“Pity the poor word ‘elite,’ which simply means ‘the best’ as an adjective and ‘the best of a group’ as a noun,” begins Susan Jacoby’s New York Times op-ed today. The piece goes on, perhaps unsurprisingly given both its lead and its author, to justify and celebrate the “elite”—not elitism, mind you (“an elitist is someone who does believe in government by an elite few”), but high achievement as a general ideal. Jacoby provides a compelling, if necessarily abridged, cultural history of our relationship with elitism, concluding,

All the older forms of elite-bashing have now devolved into a kind of aggressive denial of the threat to American democracy posed by public ignorance.

Much of Jacoby’s arguments are true and in need of being said. But so convinced is she of the superiority of the elite—while failing, in this context, to acknowledge that concept’s more nefarious aspects—that she’s in danger of bolstering the very argument she’s attempting to challenge. It’s a good start, though. A presidential campaign gives us, among other things, the opportunity to discuss our cultural assumptions; our complex relationship with elitism is one that deserves both dissection and discussion.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.