By Kim Nursall
In light of Conservative MP Tony Clement’s comments detailing who exactly cares about prorogation — “I know it’s a big issue with the Ottawa media elite and some of the elites in our country” — it is painfully obvious that being labelled an “elite” is a political insult. Clement’s words are offensive to Canadians. They show contempt for those who care about prorogation by belittling their numbers and categorizing protesters as part of the “chattering classes.” Although undeniably disrespectful in terms of downplaying the anti-prorogation movement, it is Clement’s characterization of “elites” that concerns me.
“Elite” derives from the latin for “elect,” although its definition differs from the democratic implications we’ve come to associate with that word. It means those who — through effort and talent — “elect” themselves as qualified to lead, and teach, by example.
Elitism is the belief or attitude that individuals who are considered members of the elite — individuals who, for example, display 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 opinions 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. Unfortunately, the term has been spun to denote people as out of touch with the common person — the “average Joe or Jane” — or as behaving aristocratic or snobbish. The implication is that the alleged elitist individual regards themselves as superior, and therefore places their needs and interests before those of others. As a result, a term which should be complimentary has become a sound bite slur, and creates the populist notion that we should be electing the “common man” to represent our needs.
Barack Obama, in his campaign to win the Democratic nomination and, in turn, be elected President, had to downplay his education at upper-crust Colombia and Harvard universities. Although his intelligence and ability to govern were undoubtedly enhanced by his academic career, his attendance at the prestigious schools was said to have put him “out-of-touch” with average Americans. Not only is this pathetic political spin potentially damaging to a politician’s campaign, it undermines the notion that a good, if not great, education is important. If we start insulting our political leaders because of their academic portfolios, we are sending the message that education and intelligence are not essential for governance, as they cause people to lose touch with average individuals — which is demeaning not only to the accused elitist but to average individuals as well.
Here in Canada, Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff has suffered in the polls for a number of reasons, including his labelling as an “academic,” an “elite” and, God forbid, “intelligent.” If we are to believe the received wisdom, this man is clearly unfit to govern.
However, because staying in touch with voters is unquestionably important, especially in a democracy, it seems that so-called “elites” have the greatest capacity for such a role. It requires a higher-than-average level of intelligence to understand and effectively argue on such diverse issues as the isotope shortage, the Economic Action Plan or the intricacies of a cap-and-trade system. Frankly, I want an elite governing my country and representing me in Parliament. When I consider the interests of the “common people,” I do not see being “out-of-touch” with such plebeian activities as watching Jersey Shore or listening to Rush Limbaugh as an impediment to one’s ability to govern. So next time you are labelled an “elite,” say “thanks,” and then, please, get elected.