Bad Only If You’re Not Part of Them

Who were the “cool kids” in high school? They may have been the football stars, the nerdy smart kids, the easiest socializers with the opposite sex. They always sat together in the cafeteria. They won elections to the student government. But most important, they DID NOT INCLUDE you! They were your high school elite.

As we went through life, we found ourselves engaged with different social milieus. For most of us, the high school milieu ultimately gave way to something more closely related to our families, our professions, our geographic locale. Yet we never lost the sense of being on the outside. There was always somebody ELSE who we considered the elite. Sometimes we could identify our own complicity in creating “influencers,” sometimes not. Some social influencers have little or no impact on us. We are not part of their audience. Sometimes, though, there is much evidence of a specific group’s power to impact our lives, via political and economic leverage, not merely social influencing. If we see that a preponderance of power to affect our lives lies with OTHER groups, not ours, we call them elites – and typically we despise them. Jealousy rules.

Then we segregate ourselves into tribes. We choose our own tribal leaders but have no influence over the leadership of other tribes. Those other tribes easily become the enemy when we see their interests as inimical to ours. We can choose either to fight them, or to become totally independent of them – refusing any interaction at all. Neither of these options fosters the social cohesion we claim we want.

But what if someone tells you that you ARE part of the elite? And you believe them? Then you invent a concept like “meritocracy,” claiming that those who achieve elite status somehow deserve it. When there is a widespread social acceptance that a certain class of people always comprise the elite, we get ideas like Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden” or the older, medieval, noblesse oblige. These philosophies all place a premium on the best people, those with the most privilege, the luckiest, doing for those who lack their attributes. They imply responsibility. While responsibility for others is a positive trait, why can’t it be shared among all of us?

Must we always delegate responsibility upward?

Our usual excuse for delegating upward is the argument of inequality. Those with more privilege, more resources, a louder megaphone, can effect change – they have the power to redistribute resources. What seems to be lacking is the motivation, of course!I submit that it isn’t really the power of elites that defines them, but the rest of us abjuring our responsibility. We who are NOT elites define the elite. Granted, the framework within which we can have any responsibility at all must be some kind of “small-d” democracy. But this a social construct that we’ve had for nearly three hundred years in western civilization. Maybe longer. Even Aristotle acknowledged, in his Politics, that empowering citizens, giving them a stake in governance, was not necessarily a bad thing. He knew the Greek concept of demos, but citizens of the polis were a cut above.

The key to good governance in Aristotle, as in the European Enlightenment, and the U.S. Constitution, has always been somewhat elitist. Not necessarily oligarchic, but decidedly aristocratic – government by the best. Eighteenth, Nineteenth, Twentieth Century Revolutions weren’t about abolishing ALL elites, not anarchy, but about changing elites. Changing the elite was a matter of definitions of the best. Nothing more.

So, who are the best in contemporary American society? My vote is for the artists and philosophers, yours may be the engineers, or the accountants, or the teachers. We all have a role in keeping this social machine well-oiled, in good repair, and prepared for adversity. Somehow, we must enable all to have a voice in selecting their leaders. We choose our own elites, but elites can’t do it by themselves. The performance of the entire team needs to be the measure of success: not just the quarterback or the coach. We need a governing coalition of the Brahmin Left and Merchant Right (to use Thomas Piketty’s labels) which understands all the nuances of a productive, and just, society. We need an elite that can envision a common thread for the flourishing of all its constituent tribes. If it’s a zero-sum game, there is still no gain in pitting one tribe against another. That would advantage the abyss at the expense of the planet, the “existential threat” we all face.

As human beings, we all need to embrace empathy, to surrender ego, as much as possible. Nobody is exempt. This is fundamental ethics. Some will have a calling to a helping profession, others will only live their best lives within their communities or families. But all have a stake in planetary survival. All have a role in forging the new elite – or remodeling the old. Revolutions either fail, are suppressed, or succeed and develop, perhaps going through a Thermidor period where citizens question whether the revolution’s ideals have been upheld — or were worth it in the first place! History is full of revolutions. A revolution of empathy is not impossible, elites can be dethroned and replaced by new elites. But anarchy, with no elites, seems like a stretch. Nobody has the time to run everything by themselves. They delegate … mostly upward.

With greater empathy, we hopefully could see our ongoing tribulations as the grinding of society’s gears, which can be made smoother with some well-placed maintenance and oiling of parts, or even upgraded to new machinery altogether! But if upgrade is required, we can only hope that the appropriate elites have been responsible for its design and testing! They will be the true best among us.

— William Sundwick

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