Elite Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Somehow talent, power and wealth have become negative attributes.

By Fay Vincent Jr.

    Photo: iStock/Getty Images

While the fine old word “elite” has become a pejorative, its official definition has not changed.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines elite as “a group of people considered to be the best in a particular society or category, esp. because of their power, talent, or wealth.” With that definition in mind, who would not want to be called elite? Yet to be accused of being an elite is now akin to being identified as evil, if not criminal.

Many Americans now view “power, talent and wealth” as accretions of systems that confer status in unfair ways. To them, an elite person achieves his status by birth at the expense of others. Critical American institutions—such as the country’s best universities or nongovernment organizations—are now being criticized with these ideas in mind. Calling these places elite paints them as inherently undemocratic aeries where only self-selected eagles are able to roost. Only rarely, critics allege, does the system award elite status to those who do not have the advantages of birth, education or talent.

I hesitate to defend orthodoxy, because I respect the freedom of dissent. Yet I also revere ancient truths, including the wisdom of Western civilization. For inspiration, I look to the Greeks and Romans, the Magna Carta and the Constitution. I value civility and honor and patriotism.

I am so old I believe in the essential freedoms found in the Bill of Rights, and I accept the majesty of the U.S. legal system. Despite much contrary evidence, I still think this country’s governance systems basically work. The malignancy of unkempt political stagnation and corruption is dangerous, but American citizens still accept what the Supreme Court decides.

Violent thugs don’t shape public policy.

Yet I worry about what lies ahead. The “elite” political class is degenerating, with vulgar debates and bitter personal attacks. When top politicians struggle to be honest with opponents and with voters, how can I not worry? Truth becomes the slippery urging of the three-card monte hustler who claims his game is honest. Where is the acknowledgment of duties by those who seek and hold public office?

The fundamental duty of politicians is to deserve and fairly earn election and then to render honorable service. What happened to those old-time elites who wanted to find ways to get sound things done? I honor FDR and Ike and Truman and Reagan and Bush 41. They were hardly perfect but proud to serve. They were all elite by virtue of their beliefs in the nobility of their high office. They were not little people too small for that big chair. Elites know they are elite.

Mr. Vincent was formerly CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries, executive vice president of Coca-Cola, and the commissioner of Major League Baseball (1989-92).

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