Elitism has been a part of politics since antiquity, and it was always a part of our social organization. If one defines the elite in terms of strength, cunning, and lack of scruples, there was always a “Bull of the Woods,” a “Top Dawg,” and many people still admire such animals. The members of such an elite (a list that may include Attila the Hun, and Vlad the Impaler) are sometimes regarded as real “he-men”—“men’s men”—and these words, themselves, tell us a lot about macho sub-cutures that find value in testosterone-inspired clichés. The rest of us would just say that they are, at best, retarded and undisciplined adolescents, at worst, monsters.
A more sophisticated version of elitism can be found in Plato’s Republic—an odious book by an anti-democratic philosopher—which explores a Utopia ruled by “philosopher kings.” (I can’t think of a worse preparation for ruling a State—except, perhaps, reality-show host or professional wrestler.) A more recent version of this idea, but one no less repellent, is Ayn Rand’s puerile “philosophy” of objectivism, a hold-over from the 60’s that has undergone a revival with the Republicans. Here, the elite are the movers and shakers of society . . . well, at any rate the moneyed movers and shakers: developers, industrialists, etc. Everyone else is regarded as a parasite on the marvelous world that they have “created,” and the scientists and engineers who actually made it possible aren’t given much credit. The role of government is, as some politicians would have it, to stay out of the way of business. If this sounds to you like Metropolis, that is because it is.
Ordinary people tend to mistrust the “elite,” but they frequently misidentify it. For them, the signs of elitism are likely to be an interest in arugula and a disdain for iceberg lettuce, a degree from a university, a preference for wine over beer, or something equally irrelevant. They don’t trust anyone who is very much different from themselves. There are, of course, many people who fit their stereotype, but most of them share the same basic concerns their critics have, the desire for a good job, a good school for their children, a better car, a bigger house, health care . . . whatever. In the matters that don’t really make much difference, one group tends to look for the newest thing, for change; the other finds value in consistency, in stasis. One wants to keep up with the Joneses, and the other wants simply to be the Smiths. Both cling to the features that distinguish them from members of the other group, and they take an undeserved pride in them. In them we see a kind of snobbery and a kind of anti-snob snobbery, and on the whole, the just-plain-Smiths may be very slightly more attractive, though there is very little to choose between them.
Of course, there are lots of different ways to define the elite, but I think that any definition should be based on fundamentals; after all, the elite are supposed to be the superior element of a society. In my view, they are people who make a serious effort to discern and tell the (factual) truth, and who also act in ways to help make the world a better place to live in. This is a definition that could apply to shoemakers and surgeons, to chemists and farmers, to longshoremen and engineers, and to professors and kindergarten teachers. To know the truth, you must question everything within your competence and always look for the best evidence, not blindly accept a point of view. You must know that experts exist in some areas and that you must accept the consensus opinion of such experts. You must recognize your limits and try to educate yourself—a process that is never-ending. And to make the world a better place to live in, you must move beyond mere self-interest. To simply run the maze that upbringing and education have created for us is to fail on all counts.
Note "Metropolis" is a classic silent-film from 1927. A mechanized society of the future oppresses the workers. Although the acting style of the time may present a barrier for some, the images are very dramatic, and the story is a warning. As regards fields of study, one cannot meaningfully be an expert on UFO’s, bigfoot, or extraterrestrials. Meaningfulness requires a field of verified and organized facts that are consistent with what we know in related fields.