When did ‘elite’ become a bad thing?

Jul. 17, 2014 @ 06:04 PM

“We’ve got to open up opportunities for people that aren’t always a part of the standard or even elite groups that have been in place for a long time.”

-- North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory on his criteria for selecting the state’s poet laureate

Gov. Pat McCrory has selected a North Carolina poet laureate who has won no major awards and is unknown to most people, including her fellow Tar Heel poets.

I suppose it’s elitist of me to quote the Oxford Dictionary, but that tome’s definition of “laureate” is “a person who is honored with an award for outstanding creative or intellectual achievement.” I think I know how McCrory and his fellow Republicans feel about elitists. They don’t like them.

Neither do Democrats when they can point out elitism in an opponent. When Barack Obama said during the 2008 presidential race that economically frustrated people in small towns get bitter and "cling to guns or religion," Hillary Clinton was quick to point out Obama’s "elitist and divisive" words, and touted her own humble middle-class origins.

If other arenas of life were to follow McCrory’s stated policy of extending prize opportunities to people who aren’t part of the elite, here are some possible results:

-- MVP trophies wouldn’t go to the elite standout baseball player in a series. Give it to the benchwarmer with the .112 batting average who has been there for every single game during the season, rain or shine.

-- Oscars shouldn’t go just to elite actors and actresses who star in films and do a superb job. Oliver Cooper, who played the pharmacy assistant in “Hangover 3”? Hilarious.

-- The Pulitzer Prize that went to the elite Boston Globe for coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing should have gone to a high school paper for Best Prom coverage in order to encourage the next generation of reporters.

-- And the 2014 Pulitzer for Poetry went to some elitist named Vijay Seshadri, who has won numerous other awards and been featured in The Best American Poetry volumes from 1997, 2003, 2006, and 2013. Where is the fairness in that?

When boa-wearing wrestler Jesse Ventura won the governor’s race in Minnesota in 1998, elite humorist Garrison Keillor said of him: "He's a kind of toy governor..." We don’t have a “toy governor” in North Carolina, or do we? I have to remind myself occasionally that I didn’t imagine McCrory handing a plate of cookies to a protestor outside the Governor’s Mansion – that really happened.

The governor should rethink his assault on elitism. Isn’t striving to be the best The American Way? How many times have you heard conservatives bemoan the awarding of participation trophies at athletic events rather than giving one prize to the winner, or the banning of valedictorian status in high schools in an effort to spare the feelings of classmates?

I indulge in the guilty pleasures of reading a trashy mystery or watching a C-grade movie once in a while, but I also like reading works by elite poets, fiction writers, journalists, essayists and pundits. I enjoy seeing quality movies and plays with elite casts directed by elite directors. I appreciate brilliance.

My brother has a rare form of cancer but is still around, thanks in part to a brilliant, elite surgeon at Duke Medical Center.

By sparking controversy and ill will in even the simplest of decisions, McCrory often resembles a flailing executive of a major corporation. He had a solid reputation across political lines as a positive mayor of Charlotte, nurturing a financially thriving city with vibrant arts and good public transportation. He was an elite mayor, if you will.

What happened to that guy?

Anthony Hatcher is an associate professor of communications at Elon University and lives in Durham. He can be reached at ahatcher@elon.edu.