Thursday, September 04, 2008

Is Elite a Bad Word?

Words matter. So what is the difference between "elite" and "elitist"?

Elite seems to be a bad word now, at least according to some Republicans. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland today called Sen. Obama and his wife "uppity" and "elitist." We talked about uppity in the last post. Now let's hit elite v. elitist.

The first definition of elite is "the choice or best of anything considered collectively." Don't Americans want the best leaders? Is there something wrong with that? How can that be a bad thing?

In contrast, elitist means 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.

Does Westmoreland have any evidence that the Obamas believe they deserve special treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority? He is entitled to his opinion, of course. But opinion without evidence is untrustworthy. And we need more than unsubstantiated opinions from our elected leaders.

Sen. Obama's work as a community organizer belies Westmoreland's opinion of him as "elitist." Obama worked on behalf of a public housing project where 5,300 African-Americans tried to survive closures of steel mills, a nearby landfill, and a putrid sewage treatment plant. That is not evidence of an elitist, my friends. Just for a second, imagine the Chicago heat and humidity, the smells of the landfill and sewage plant choking out the air, and long-long hours working to improve conditions for Americans forgotten by their government.

Granted, Sen. Obama has an elite education, having studied both at Columbia University in New York and at Harvard University. He also has a law degree. This means he studied our government and the law intensely for 3 years after earning his 4-year undergraduate degree in political science with a specialization in international relations. For almost ten years he worked as a Visiting Law and Government Fellow, then Senior Lecturer, in Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago Law School. He taught courses on the due process and equal protection areas of constitutional law, on voting rights, and on racism and law. He also helped develop a casebook on voting rights.

OK, I'll concede the point. Sen. Obama has an elite education.

Since when is an elite education a bad thing? Don't we want leaders who have studied, learned, and taught about our system of government, the laws, and international relations?

As an aside, the U.S. Naval Academy, where Sen. McCain obtained his undergraduate degree, is pretty elite too, I hear.

Maybe it's a sore spot with Rep. Westmoreland, who has no degrees beyond his high school diploma from 1968. He dropped out of Georgia State University to became a construction worker, later taking over as an executive for his family's construction company. Then he went into real estate and ran for office.

Maybe that explains how he can now say with a straight face that he didn't know that "uppity" is a racially-derogatory term when he grew up in the Deep South in the 50s and 60s. Maybe that explains the disconnect between Westmoreland's use of the word "elitist," when he really should have said that Obama is "elite," as in the best of the best.

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Source: The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition,