Who makes up the elite?

I use the word ‘elite’ often to describe people and groups. What I mean by the word is quite straightforward: It means the people at the very top of any given category. So one can have elite musicians, athletes, actors, and so on. In the political context, it means those who are at the top of the socio-economic spectrum. As someone who follows the evolution of words, I have been interested in how the term is now being transformed into a pejorative description of knowledgeable people who have certain progressive political views. So scientists who raise the alarm about the climate are now dismissed as part of the ‘elite’.

As an example of the transformation of this word, we have the recent case of Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas and herself a militant right wing culture warrior. She has come out in defense of embattled Republican congressman Jim Jordan who has been accused by multiple former wrestlers at Ohio State University of ignoring sexual harassment. In her defense, she says “Jim Jordan is under attack, with false accusations, because he threatens the elite.”

The idea that Jordan, a fervent supporter of all the extreme right wing Republican positions aimed at increasing the wealth of the already wealthy, threatens the ‘elite’ is laughable. What Thomas is doing is distorting the meaning of the word beyond all recognition to simply mean anyone who is knowledgeable and happens to disagree with her’s and Jordan’s political stance.

Meanwhile, there has been an extraordinary development in the OSU abuse case. Jordan and a group of six coaches have hired a Virginia-based public relations firm that has issued a statement where the six strongly defend Jordan’s claim that he knew nothing about the abuse.

“We all worked on the wrestling coaching staff during Jim’s tenure at The Ohio State University. None of us saw or heard of abuse of OSU wrestlers. The well-being of student-athletes was all of our concern. If we had heard of any abuse, we would have spoken up.”

The reason this is extraordinary is that seven former wrestlers have described the most egregious abuse that was done quite blatantly to the extent that it was described as a ‘cesspool of deviancy’ that allowed voyeurs into the showers. For the coaches, the very people who were entrusted with the well-being of the student athletes, to claim that they were utterly oblivious to what was going on means that they had not exercised the minimum of responsibility expected of them. Either that, or they are implying that all the wrestlers are lying, which hardly seems credible. [UPDATE: Yet another former wrestler, the ninth, has come forward with similar accusations.]

The entire administration of OSU has a lot of explaining to do. In April they set in motion an inquiry into the activities of the team’s doctor at that time, who has been charged with the worst abuses. It is not clear if the inquiry will expand to cover the behavior of coaches. OSU is going to be nervous about investigating Jordan’s role. State universities, dependent on public funding, are always wary about antagonizing powerful legislators.


  1. cartomancer says

    One key element of the original meaning of the term seems to have got lost entirely. Originally “elite” meant “chosen” -- as in selected to be part of a special, honoured group by some higher authority. It comes ultimately from the Latin eligere, meaning to choose, pick out or select. One could not be elite on one’s own merits alone, there had to be some selecting agent to admit one into the ranks of the elite. It was used most commonly of veteran soldiers selected for special units within the armed forces.

  2. says

    I believe that under some christian doctrines (Calvinism) the ‘elite’ are the pre-selected few who will get into heaven. God decides this in advance. Calvin, having come up with that goofy theory, never realized that he had refuted huge chunks of his own religion: if god decides in advance, what is life for? No good deed matters. Life’s basically like standing in line at Disneyland.

  3. Marshall says

    @marcus #3:
    If I were a Christian, I would probably argue that god lives outside of time, and so his decision was made based on your choices. There is no “when” to his decisions; the result of asking “when” is undefined.

  4. says

    Yes, “beyond human ken” means “irrelevant” to me.

    God’s going to send you to heaven, or torture you eternally, roll 2D20 saving throw.

  5. jrkrideau says

    I know basically nothing about Calvin and his theology but if predestination is true, well it’s party time! What’s the point of living a virtuous life if you don’t need the browny points.

    It constantly amazes me when people who are, essentially, the elite are seen as a threat to the elite or they complain about the elite. Maybe I am naive but somehow I would have thought that being a US congressman kinda made you a member of the elite, at least compared to the other 350 million or so American citizens.

    Okay, maybe it does not make you one of the elite of the elite and you may not be able to afford solid gold toilet seats but still ….

  6. springa73 says

    Marcus Ranum #2

    I think Calvin and his followers used the term “elect” rather than “elite” to refer to those chosen by God to go to heaven. I’ll bet the two words are related in any case.

    Calvin and others who believed in predestination recognized that this doctrine seemed to render both faith and good conduct irrelevant to salvation, but they got around this by teaching that one’s faith and conduct on earth were clues to whether one had been chosen for heaven or hell. Someone who was devout and well-behaved had a good chance of being among the elect, someone who was not religious and/or immoral was almost certainly chosen for hell. Technically, it got a good deal more complicated than that, but that’s the ultra-simplified version.

    (Mini-lecture brought to you by someone who has spent probably too much time reading about the history of the Reformation.)

  7. cartomancer says

    springa73, #6

    The two words are indeed related -- they both stem from the Latin root word eligere, meaning to choose, pick out or select (ex + lego -- literally, “to choose out”). “Elite” comes from the infinitive eligere, through the French elire, into Middle English as “elite”. “Elect”, however, comes directly from the Latin perfect passive participle of eligere, which is electus, -a, -um.

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