In a memorable ancient history college course we examined the rise and fall of various ancient civilizations. It became clear that there were commonalities among them – patterns of growth and symptoms of decline. One notable symptom of decline was that words lost their meaning; meanings get corrupted and reversed in the waning of civilizations.
In that context, I raise the issue of the use and abuse of the word elitism. It is meant as a pejorative by the tea partiers and other right-wing extremists in referring to well educated and progressive public figures. I would include in that category Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama.
These leaders, each in his own way, aimed to make liberty and justice accessible to more people. Isn’t that the opposite of elitism? When conservatives disregard the value of giving health care to more people, of regulating industry and of taxing the rich, isn’t that an elitist stance? Why, then, do they equate a strong commitment to the public good with elitism? Even worse, they say it’s un-American. Oh, yes, they say it’s socialism too.
The word elitism has lost its meaning. Those who care about inclusion – diminishing the gap between haves and have-nots in this country are considered elitists. And those who are passionate about their freedoms that include reducing taxes for the rich and denying health care for the poor, are the populists. Does that make sense?
I believe that our great nation is capable of overcoming this short-sighted, wrong-minded view; we have charted a course that up until now has moved in the direction of inclusion. As school students we pledged our allegiance to the flag – every day – and to this republic-and to “liberty and justice for all.” Is that pledge now un-American and socialist?