Civility of the elite

The Elite Diner in Urbana, Illinois just before it closed down (via Flickr)

Some readers might have noticed that I occasionally add sidenotes to Missing Link querying why elitism seems to be such a dirty word for Australians (and probably Americans as well).  I haven’t to date received a satisfactory answer, or any answer at all for that matter.  Maybe it’s a silly question.

However I suspect that most people don’t in reality have too much difficulty with a bit of tastefully restrained elitism, as long as it doesn’t expand into hubristic conviction of the elite’s own omniscience. 

For present purposes I’m fairly happy with the dictionary definition of elitism as the belief that “people with outstanding personal abilities, intellect, … specialized training or experience … are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight; whose views and/or actions are most likely to be constructive to society as a whole; or whose extraordinary skills, abilities or wisdom render them especially fit to govern .”

I’m usually though not always or necessarily happy to defer to experts in their area of expertise, and I certainly think it’s a better idea to elect politicians with skills, abilities and wisdom than ones who lack those qualities.

So why is “elitism” a dirty word?  Eric Posner advanced an answer in a post I linked in this morning’s ML:

In America, you can’t claim to be a member of the eliteeven the “good,” public-spirited elitewithout instantly losing all credibility, even though it is as plain as day that there is a tiny elite class that calls the shots within the very broad constraints imposed by the system of popular elections. (A zillion years ago this problem was debated by John Dewey and Walter Lippman.) Everyone wants to belong to that class, but no one wants to admit it, for it is a class that one can join only by denying that one belongs to it. It is this strange little fiction that keeps our democracy from falling apart. Rule by the people really means a kind of civility on the part of the elites.

I think that’s certainly part of the answer anyway.  Most people have neither the time nor inclination to participate in or inform themselves about political issues, as American sociologist Michael Schudson recognised.  Australians in particular are perfectly happy to cede the tedious tasks of government to their elected representatives, while reserving the right to grumble and automatically assume that most of them are power-hungry crooks. The perfect politician is a little like a political version of the old George Burns quote about actors:  “The most important thing in acting is honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”  Only with politicians you substitute “humility” or “the common touch” for “honesty”, because no-one wants to believe that politicians are honest. 

Politicians who can best fake humility (not being “up themselves”) and readiness to listen to the people are usually the most successful.  John Howard and Bob Hawke had that ability whereas Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Andrew Peacock and Paul Keating mostly lacked it.  Kevin Rudd managed it with his nerdy little bloke demeanour and faux self-deprecating appearances with Kochie and Mel on Sunrise in the election runup. Whether he can (continue to) successfully fake the common touch/humility in office remains to be seen, although I fancy he’ll manage it pretty well.  Howard certainly faked it effectively for a decade until he palpably stopped listening on WorkChoices.  

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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26 Responses to Civility of the elite

  1. Liam says:

    Good piece. FYI, the George Burns quote is faking “sincerity”.

  2. Ken Parish says:

    I Googled the George Burns quote and found both versions (“honesty” and “sincerity”) in roughly equal numbers. Do you have something that definitvely says which version is what he actually said?

  3. Liam says:

    No. I just insist on my version as the correct one, expecting everyone to take my version of the matter most seriously.

  4. Laura says:

    ‘Sincerity’ makes it a better aphorism. txt SNCRTY to 13 qotd NOW

  5. Kymbos says:

    We make a big exception to our fear of elitism in the sporting arena. The views of someone who hasn’t ‘played the game’ are almost immediately dismissed in favour of someone who’s played for however many years, won x premierships, yadda yadda yadda.

  6. TimT says:

    Sounds like Liam is talking honestly, but not sincerely! ;)

  7. JC says:

    Americans and Australians not liking elitism?

    Isn’t that part of our national fabric derived from our roots. Even relatively newly arrived South Euro immigrants have a healthy disrespect for “elites”. Nearly all of us either escaped or are the product of people who left Europe that was steeped in elitism.

    It’s the healthiest thing about both societies.

  8. Marks says:

    One of the things I disliked about JWH is that he misused the word ‘elite’.

    In my opinion, people who are elite are the likes of olympians, Don Bradman, John Monash, Nobel Prize winners, JJ Bradfield etc.

    However, he used it as a label for upper middle class left leaning persons.

    Therefore, when we discuss elitism now, it is not a real discussion of ‘elites’ more a code discussion of the place of what previously would have been termed the upper middle classes.

    Mind you, those in that class who hated JWH probably thought it a good thing in the Aussie tradition that had the Rats of Tobruk not minding the Germans calling them ‘rats’ in WW2. I suspect that those previously labelled as upper middle class thought ‘elite’ a better epithet.

    I must admit I sometimes use the term “elite” in the same sense as I do those constructs such as “teh” and “just saying”. (For those who don’t “do” irony – my apologies ;).

  9. Leon says:

    They may just be humble — elitism is more than just a philosophical position, it’s also an attitude held by some. The word can mean either meritocracy as a worldview or snobbishness as an attitude.

  10. Anthony says:

    The George Burns sentiment was one I always associated with Groucho Marx, who said “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

  11. Ken Parish says:

    Yes I thought it was Groucho Marx too, until I googled and found it in a couple of different versions ascribed to George Burns. Maybe neither of them said it, just as Voltaire never said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

  12. Nabakov says:

    Inverting it you must, to come up with a original quote from someone else.

  13. Nabakov says:

    EG: “I will defend to the death my right to disapprove of what you say.”

    Easy, is it not?

  14. TimT says:

    I’m an egalitarian, and that makes me better than all of youse elitist bastards!

  15. patrick_b says:

    Surely I can’t be the only one to remember David Flint’s contribution to the “elites” debate. His work in “The Twilight of the Elites” surely stands as a monument to the befuddled and severely bent world of the right wing commentariat. Ah the memories, who was it who wrote lovingly to Alan Jones, Dana someone and, blow me, old Flinty himself. Someone needs to write a book about the era and get all this down before it fades into the twilight of its own dementia

  16. Stephen Bounds says:

    Really interesting post, Ken. I’ve often wondered where the gut reaction of “ordinary people” against “elites” came from, and you got me thinking.

    If we use your definition of “elitism” above, you could be forgiven for thinking that “elites” were the top 1% or 2% of a population if you just ordered it from least competent to most competent in a given field.

    However (and I never knew this until just now), the word “elite” is derived from Latin meaning “to elect”. In other words, the elite are a selected group. The goal may be to pick the best of the best, but the method for choosing elites is (as it must be) subjective rather than objective.

    But who picks the elites? Generally, the elites themselves, or former elites.

    Sometimes, this isn’t a problem. For most elite athletes, ways to accurately rank their performance are fairly obvious. There are still subjective evaluations to be made (resilience under pressure, likelihood of injury, etc.), but since the self-selecting process creates results that are open to external scrutiny, people can object to elite choices using facts.

    It used to be similarly “obvious” that elected rulers were best placed to choose their own replacements (divine right, aristocracy, plutocracy etc). But now the political process actively tries to minimise the ability of those elected (literally, the “elites”) to act in self-preservation and/or to elect their successors.

    Anti-elitism occurs when people feel that elites have a disproportionate say in who gets to be an elite. It’s the “who died and made you king?” factor.

    This same idea applies for non-political elites, by the way. When talking about “arts elites” or “chattering classes”, what people object to viscerally is the self-selection: the idea that you can only be an “elite” if the “elites” let you in.

  17. John Greenfield says:

    Good god, do The Luvvies STILL not get it? Luvvies, Luvvies, Luvvies, the term “elite” is used ironically as it is The Luvvies themselves who crowned themselves the “elite.” FFS. Australian Luvvies “elite?” ROFLMFAO.

  18. John Greenfield says:


    Rudd’s turn with Mel and Kochie was no conjob. That is exactly who the priggish philistine is.

  19. Phil says:

    I like Leon’s comment in #9. An elite group with membership based on merit is more acceptable to most than is one based on a sense of entitlement. (Shades of Pericles). But many of merit have a similar attitude of entitlement.
    Consider 2 academics, specialists in their field, but with pet theories of opposing flavour. Each may feel their views should carry weight that the layman’s shouldn’t. They can’t both be right, but probably are ‘elite’. Should they table and decide issues, or simply put an articulated theory on the table for the body politic to discuss?
    There, IMO, lies much of the argument as to if government should be from the few, or the many.
    “Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests…..” [Thomas Jefferson].

  20. Perhaps the Voltaire quote was really “I didn’t say that but I will defend to the death your right to say that I did”.

  21. It’s certainly an interesting question, and a tough one why the word ‘elite’ is used with such schizophrenia in our language. The sports commentators are falling over themselves talking about elite athletes and so on. But elites are a dirty word in other areas.

    Yes, the common touch is important in politics. But then that’s something relatively new too. Mr Menzies’ appeal was that he was a ‘better’ sort of person than the average Aussie and so he was respected for that. (Though he was regarded as insufferably up himself earlier on – which suggests that some of this is whether or not you can sell yourself once you’re in the job.)

    But I think there’s a kind of resentment in a lot of people because they know they’re being lied to most of the time. They may tune in, but they still somehow know that it’s all a show. That politicians lie to them and that journos are pandering to the very worst in them.

    They don’t respect themselves for it and they resent those that play the lead in that process.

    Elsewhere, they don’t really care about elites. They like sports elites. They’re OK with good teachers and professors (so long as they’re not too up themselves – better a scientist or law professor than a sociologist) and doctors.

    So there’s my little bit of amateur psychoanalysis. People resent the farce that they’re in as far as the way they’re governed – they know it’s a product sold like soap powder, and this stuff about elites is a kind of psychological epiphenomenon of that state of affairs.

  22. JC says:

    But elites are a dirty word in other areas.

    Well yea, especially when you had people like Foucault praising Khomeni.

    We also had the interesting case of the Alan Sokal hoax with the deliberate written drivel getting published in a scholarly journal

    Arguing that quantum gravity has progressive political implications, the paper claims that the New Age concept of the “morphogenetic field” (not to be confused with the developmental biology use of the same term) could be a cutting-edge theory of quantum gravity. It concludes that, since “physical ‘reality’ … is at bottom a social and linguistic construct”, a “liberatory science” and “emancipatory mathematics” must be developed that spurn “the elite caste canon of ‘high science'” for a “postmodern science [that] provide[s] powerful intellectual support for the progressive political project”.

  23. Phil says:

    Gee JC that reads like an extract from the paper “The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline”.

  24. Kim says:

    Is JG engaging in some sort of competition with himself for the most times the word “luvvie” can be used in a comment! ;)

  25. Nabakov says:

    Kimbo, that’s not a comment, it’s a screensaver.

    Or a Tourette parrot. Or as we call em here, a total galah.

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