What is Elitism?

Fashionable Nonsense is a fabric of many threads, a sea fed by many rivers, a library with many volumes, a dog with many fleas. But there are also a few themes or core assumptions that play a role – that are ‘foundational’ – in most if not all of these many mansions: anti-essentialism, anti-realism, relativism, pretensions to transgression and rebellion and épater-ing; projects of unmasking, exposing, demystifying – every FNer a Toto pulling back the curtain that hides the Wizard; concern with hidden agendas and concealed power drives; and various kinds of make-believe anti-elitism.

The elitism question is a complicated matter, not least because of the widely-observed paradox that claims of anti-elitism emanate from academics who write a language of deliberately clotted opaque jargon and make a parade of not particularly relevant erudition, such as Lacan’s forced marriage of psychoanalysis and mathematics. It’s also complicated because the word elitism is thrown around with wild abandon with no particular definition being stipulated, as if its meaning were entirely transparent and self-evident and generally agreed on. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Elitism means a great many things, some of them perfectly incompatible with one another, with the result that the word does more to obfuscate discussion than to clarify it.

Another reason it’s complicated is that anti-elitism, like many of the projects of the FN or ‘politically correct’ crowd, is a stance and a project with a great deal of merit. Egalitarianism is an idea which has much to be said in its favour. This is especially the case when it is applied with care and attention and fine discrimination; when there is careful, open, truthful thought and discussion about which areas egalitarianism is appropriate for and which it isn’t, and about the ways it needs to be balanced by and take into account other important goods like accomplishment, ambition, inspiration, respect for achievement, talent, originality, learning, creativity. If it is kept firmly and honestly in mind both that it is good for all people to receive decent treatment, and that effort and discipline and talent and intellect are qualities to admire and encourage and respect.

And of course that’s exactly where things get difficult, which is why politicians spend so much time talking anxiously about equality of opportunity not equality of outcome. It’s all very well to say that, it’s a nice formula, but when outcomes keep getting more and more unequal all the time, it’s hard not to suspect that somebody has a thumb on the scale.

So, given economies and cultures that seem determined to maximise inequality and brand all attempts to reduce it as envy and class warfare, it is perhaps understandable that some people like to shout ‘elitism’ at anyone who says Shakespeare is better than John Grisham. That’s certainly easier than actually doing something about the more tangible forms of inequality. And there can be an element of truth in the charge. Veblen and Bourdieu were not wrong to point out the uses of Kulcha for giving people opportunities to feel clever and discriminating and superior to the vulgar crowd. ‘Odi profanum vulgus et arceo,’ said Horace smugly, and it’s not entirely mistaken to notice the potential for self-flattering motives underneath such avoidance. We need Totos to pull those curtains, people do have hidden agendas, it is good and useful to point them out.

But ‘elitists’ don’t have a monopoly on hidden agendas and invidious motives. One-upmanship, jockeying for position, ressentiment, self-righteousness, the thrills of disapproval and condescension and getting it right while others get it wrong – those are all equal-opportunity pleasures. Anti-elitists get their own little frissons from saying You’re a snob and I’m not. In fact, of course, it’s impossible to think anything is right as opposed to wrong, that any attitude, stance, commitment, political view, idea is better than any other, without opening the door to approval of self and disapproval of others. Quite, quite impossible. If we’re too afraid of being smug and superior and self-righteous to have any opinions at all, we just become vacuous spineless shapeless nothings, and we can never improve or correct or change anything. What could be a more conservative position than that? No, abdication of judgment is neither possible nor desirable, we have to be clear about that, and just settle down to doing it well instead of badly. Terry Eagleton puts it this way:

We should, I think, give no comfort to those who in the name of a fashionable anti-élitism would ignore real evidence of cultural deprivation, though we should remember of course that there is no single index of cultural flourishing or decline.

The elitism epithet works to inhibit judgment because it is so a priori. It assumes, without argument, that to say that any popular book or movie or piece of music or tv show is bad is a thought-crime, because doing so second-guesses majority opinion; it says majority opinion is wrong. Democracy is expanded from the political realm to that of ideas and art, and taken to mean that the popular is automatically good and the good is automatically popular. Put like that it looks insane, but what else does the elitist epithet mean?

Sad to say, if we’re going to think at all, we have to be able to think for ourselves. De Tocqueville pointed out how difficult this can be in a democracy, and he scared the hell out of John Stuart Mill, who pointed out the difficulty and the necessity even more sharply. Both the difficulty and the necessity are still with us.


Apposite Quotations

We should, I think, give no comfort to those who in the name of a fashionable anti-élitism would ignore real evidence of cultural deprivation, though we should remember of course that there is no single index of cultural flourishing or decline.
Terry Eagleton: The Crisis of Contemporary Culture

Some will call me an elitist for disdaining popular self-help literature and the popular recovery movement; but a concern for literacy and critical thinking is only democratic.
Wendy Kaminer: I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional

I’ve increasingly become convinced that in order to be any kind of a public-intellectual commentator or combatant, one has to be unafraid of the charges of elitism. One has to have, actually, more and more contempt for public opinion and for the way in which it’s constructed and aggregated, and polled and played back and manufactured and manipulated. If only because all these processes are actually undertaken by the elite and leave us all, finally, voting in the passive voice and believing that we’re using our own opinions or concepts when in fact they have been imposed upon us.
Christopher Hitchens: The Nation, 12 February 2001

Internal Resources

Poetry is More Than Self-Expression
Barney McClelland on Poetry Made E-Z.

External Resources

  • Aiming High is Elitism?
    ‘Oddly, criticisms of elitism rarely extend to school sport…’ They don’t, do they. Why is that?
  • Christopher Hitchens
    One has to be unafraid of being called an elitist, says Hitchens in a Nation forum on the role of the public intellectual.
  • GOP versus PhD
    The Bush administration doesn’t want to know what scientists think, and Karl Rove defines liberals as people with doctorates.
  • Pop Culture Goes Macho
    When girls think it’s cool to call themselves hos and bitches, misogyny doesn’t have to break a sweat.
  • Review of In Defense of Elitism
    A literature professor is not impressed by a Time journalist’s book, but he is also not a fan of ‘reforming’ the ‘canon’ by getting rid of all the dead white men.
  • Youth Culture versus ‘Elitism’
    A gold mine of insulting populist nonsense.

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