What Overtones?

All right. Clearly one of these days I’m just going to have to drop everything and make a real effort to figure out what in hell people are talking about when they call someone or something ‘elitist.’ I’ve said it before but I’m afraid I’m just going to have to say it again, and no doubt I’ll have to say it many more times in the future, because it just keeps on happening – people use it for anything and everything! Snob, clever clogs, intellectual, nerd, bookish person, someone who thinks some things are better than other things, conceited person, anything and everything within a fifty mile radius of either Cambridge or Oxford, quiche-eater, in the UK. In the US the word makes even less sense. It means everyone to the left of Rush Limbaugh, anyone who thinks the 43d president might possibly be wrong about anything, anyone who favours a progressive tax system, anyone who isn’t passionately fond of Sport Utility Vehicles. Put the two ‘definitions’ together and you have total incoherence.

Consider this comment from a Guardian article about the BBC’s 100 favourite books list, for example.

The same format would not have worked with books, because it would have carried such undertones of elitism. The BBC could have asked people to nominate the 100 ‘best’ books – contemporary and classic works of literature that stand out for their fine writing, profound explorations of the human condition and their impact on the direction of world literature. But it probably would have received less than one-tenth of the votes, excluded most children and produced a very different Top 100 which would have looked more like an English undergraduate’s reading list and would have been of interest only to the very small number of people who regularly tune in to book programmes.

How does the writer know that’s how people would have defined the ‘best’ books? But more to the point, why would it have carried overtones of elitism? What does that even mean? That only the very rich read the best books? That only upper class twits do? Only the royal family does (now there’s a joke)? Why is it ‘elitist’ to read what someone might possibly consider the ‘best’ books? When did elite stop meaning the rich and powerful who run everything and start meaning educated and/or intellectual people? And why does no one seem to realise how idiotic that is? How it simultaneously ignores the real sources of inequality and unfair influence, and denigrates what ought to be accessible to everyone and a source of curiosity, joy, excitement, and adventure for everyone?

But answer came there none. I’ll just have to keep asking.

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