Not long ago I became aware of the fact that Someone Big in the California ACDA organization referred to USC's choral department as elitist, saying that we were all a bunch of snobs. This was while I was still there, and she said it within the hearing of one of our current grad students. She used the word 'elitist' before she used the word 'snob,' just as I have here. One seems to follow the other, right? And since we all know that 'snob' is not a nice word (at least to most of us), then it would follow that 'elitist' is not a nice word, either.
Well, it isn't. Not in Amurrca. It's right up there with socialist, artist, pacifist, atheist.
The U.S. government has had a thing about elitism for a long time--many elected representatives who may be obscenely rich rail against it. And the American people as a whole like to be just-plain-folks, no pretenses, no big words, etc., hence the American fetish with first names that exists nowhere else that I have ever traveled or lived. Bush II was "elected" in part because our just-plain-folks thought he would be more fun to have a beer with than Gore would have. Imagine that? Despite the fact that Bush didn't drink. This was also primarily because Al Gore is an obviously intelligent man without the painful disconnect from the English language that afflicts Bush, and despite the fact that Gore obviously learned something in college and can prove it.
(Bush hasn't learned anything since high school and has proved it. Time and again. It's easy to be the Decider when you can't discern the alternatives).
Intelligence appears to be really suspect here, as is: travel outside of the country for anything other than military or political purposes; interest in music, art, museums, and learning another language just for the hell of it or to use it in travel; reading anything not required by the job. Intelligence, studiousness, interest in culture--especially the arts--are really out of favor. H. L. Mencken said that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. I think he was right, but I don't think this necessarily speaks ill of my country or it's people. You could say much the same thing about almost any people fooled by demagogues anywhere, and history has plenty of examples.
Definition of elite (n): a group of people considered the best in a particular society or category because of their power, talent or wealth, i.e., an elite combat force.
I would hope that by now we would have substituted 'excellence' and 'diligence' for 'power' and 'wealth' but we haven't. Isn't it OK to be considered among the best in a category (choral music, for instance) because of talent, excellence and diligence? Or leave the last two out. What the hell is wrong with 'acknowledged talent?' Ask the Navy Seals or the Army Rangers. Those lads and lassies are excellent, diligent and talented or they don't live long on the job. My Dad was amazed at the way the Rangers took the impregnable Pointe du Hoc on Omaha Beach on D-Day--he figured he got off that beach alive in no small part because of their excellence and talent. (Pointe du Hoc is not a housing development in Orange County, by the way). He believed in elitism from that day forward, urging his first-born son to become an elite-something, too.
And so I did. (If you haven't already, read my Mom and Dad posts, bring yourself up to date as to my socio-economic background). From the time I arrived in California to this day, I have worked very hard to develop excellence as--in order-- a baseball player, a trumpet/horn player, a dependable laborer, a student, a basketball player, an engineer, a well-rounded intelligent man, a fine musician, a good husband, a fine conductor, a good father, a citizen of the world, a dedicated teacher, a decent administrator. I failed at some of the foregoing but not because I didn't try my damnedest to reach the elite in the category. I may have had the talent but lacked the diligence. Or vice versa. One thing is for damned sure: I didn't achieve anything by dint of my family's wealth. I paid personally for every penny of all three of my degrees, one of my wife's, two of my daughters'. The sum total of my inheritance from my parents' estates was $7000.
I don't believe in aristocracy, theocracy or plutocracy. Not even democracy. I believe in meritocracy--you got there cuz you studeed it, wuz good at it and werked for it.
(That last line is for the faux Texas Bushies out there. He was born, raised and educated on the Right Coast, you know. His false, ever deepening Texas accent is an attempt to make you forget that he was born and will die filthy stinking rich, having never earned one penny of it).
I can get around decently in four languages other than my own because I wanted to and worked at it. No other reason. I achieved success in my profession because I sought out the best schools, teachers, colleagues, and mentors I could find, despite feeling invariably inferior to all of them. I don't recall ever thinking that I was as good as them, or that I could ever be--I worked my once-firm buns off and hustled like crazy to try to become as good as them. I don't think I made it, but it wasn't because I didn't want to associate or immerse myself in the best available to me. I traveled when I couldn't afford to because I wanted to know more about the world I was born into and will presently leave. I did my utmost to develop discerning taste in everything from cheese to beer to cars to clothes to music to people to books to booze.
I wanted to experience and become at least conversant with the Best, whatever I considered that to be.
So, yes, yes, yes. I am an elitest, sweetheart.* I think I may have made it. Many of my students at USC were, too. I'm extremely proud of that and hope the students are. We earned it in a couple of the few meritocracies left: education and art. We worked diligently to learn, expected excellence of each other, tried to develop whatever talent we may have had. We explored as much superb music in the time we had as we could and wasted little time on the ephemeral, the trivial, the trendy. We got up to our elbows in the gore of the Good.
A snob judges other people, as you did. An elitist judges only himself--which is harder--as I am doing. Got that, darlin'?*
I hope so. Try it. And good luck to you.
*'Sweetheart' and 'darlin' are courtesy of the waitress who served my breakfast at the Pacific Diner last Wednesday. I ordered chicken fried steak and eggs so I guess she figured I had it coming. I didn't mind at all. At least she didn't ask me my first name nor did I use hers.