Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Supreme Misnomers; in a Semantic Mess, Wanting the Best Has Become "Elitist", Writes Susan Jacoby

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Supreme Misnomers; in a Semantic Mess, Wanting the Best Has Become "Elitist", Writes Susan Jacoby

Article excerpt

"Elite" and "elitism" as terms have transformed into political slurs in Britain and the United States. Simply defined, elitism is a belief in government by the few, while elite means "the best". But the conflation of their meanings, born of not a little ignorance and slovenly language, has produced somewhat different strains of anti-rational toxin in the past few decades.

The British, especially with regard to education, often confuse elitism with meritocracy. Admission on merit to elite state schools by passing exams--a practice common in the US and much of Europe, but not in the UK since the demise of grammar schools--may in fact afford one of the strongest barriers to class-based social elitism, whether based on inherited status or wealth.

One difference between the uses of elitism as a political epithet on the two sides of the Atlantic is that Americans now pin the label/libel almost exclusively on liberals, while the British tend to apply it to conservatives of various sorts. The American understanding of elitism has little to do with money or class per se--otherwise George W Bush would have to be considered a hopeless elitist, in view of his inherited privilege. Instead, elitism stands for a way of life supposedly out of touch with the "values" of ordinary Americans.

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Republicans are slapping the elitist bullseye on Barack Obama, though his is a story of earned privilege through scholarships, hard work and brains. His supposedly elitist traits include a Harvard Law School degree; a command of the spoken and the written word; and (horrors! …

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