By Jim Kempton
What has caused the contempt some Americans have for this country’s institutions? Even though a new survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that two-thirds of our citizens cannot name the three branches of government, some view our political system with suspicion, along with our courts, colleges and news reporters. Most noticeable is the disrespect and outright hostility to whom have been termed “elites.” Media elites, intellectual elites and political elites are now fodder to be spat upon. But at the very least, some Americans feel their own opinion is equal to or better than those “elites” in the media, universities or legislatures. The position seems to be: Why should I believe those people? Their facts and my opinion don’t match, therefore my position is equal to theirs.
It’s an interesting perspective. How is elite defined, I wondered? I looked it up. The definition reads: “a select part of a group that is superior to the rest in terms of ability, knowledge or qualities. Example: ‘the elite of America’s armed forces.’” I immediately thought of an elitist I hold in high regard, Army Sgt. Kirk Foster. Foster was with the 75th Ranger Regiment in Iraq in October 2005. During that tour, he earned two Silver Stars.
While under heavy enemy attack from direct fire and grenades, Foster “led an assault on an insurgent stronghold,” according to the citation for the second medal. “His heroic leadership, courage under fire and aggressive spirit saved lives by eliminating the enemy threat to his fellow Rangers.” Foster is still enlisted at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Speaking of coolness under fire, I was reminded of another elitist, Tom Brady. I don’t need to recite the record of history’s best quarterback.
I guess my question is if you were discussing football with Tom Brady, would you think your opinion was just as good as his? If you were debating military tactics, would you disdain the opinion of Sgt. Foster—or would you accept his knowledge and experience as superior to yours? Do you ignore your tax consultants’ advice? What about your doctor’s recommendations? Why not? Because they know more than you do, and they are really good at what they do. Elites are elite for a reason. Remember American exceptionalism?
So, if you accept that there are those among us who are better in terms of ability, knowledge or qualities, why are Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, groundbreaking scientists or landmark legislators any different?
Think of literary giant Alexander Solzhenitsyn, scientist Dian Fossey, fighter pilot turned Senator John McCain, or journalist Kathy Gannon. They spoke hard truths in a free media. All risked their lives, were imprisoned, tortured or even murdered while spending a lifetime serving the better angels of mankind. Do you really think you know more about gulags, gorillas, warfare or warlords than they did?
I wholeheartedly believe in questioning authority, having a skeptical mind and proving a case with strong evidence. But to pretend that fistfuls of facts don’t count, decades of diligence and clearheaded capabilities have no value; that elite masters at the top of their game should be ignored—that’s a very disquieting place for this great nation whose achievements in every category of our civic life have been earned by exceptional, courageous elite. And perhaps “elitist” is the slur slung at knowledge, experience and talent by those fearful of life’s facts.
Jim Kempton is a writer, surfer and chef who has never been quite good enough to warrant the title elitist. He believes the difference between an elite and a snob is that snobs pretend they can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger.