In Defense of Elitism

This piece was published in a college newspaper and can be viewed here. Osama Eshera and I took our disagreements to the opinion page of The Diamondback. I support Elitism, he does not.

Someone born in the disease-stricken poverty of sub-Saharan Africa obviously does not have anywhere near the same opportunities as someone born to college-educated parents in the suburbs of America.

This world is unfair. But even to a lesser extreme, the apparent inequality stems from the fact that two people with the same qualifications may not necessarily have access to the same opportunities; it’s a result of natural design, not man-made conspiracy. Common sense mathematics provides evidence: Out of every 100, there is only so much space for the top five.

This idea ties in to the concept of elitism. Our world has limited resources, and this makes all living beings compete for survival and control. At this point in Earth’s history, man is superior to other animals. In other words, man has more control over the resources of the planet. But it doesn’t end there. Within the society of man, some have more control than others.

Why is this so? Try this thought experiment: Imagine a perfect world, where you can simply conjure up anything you desire — a big house, cars, private planes, energy, food, whatever.

Everything in such a world would be unlimited and accessible and, thus, this world would perhaps even transcend the social and political problems that plague our own.

Our world is limited. Therefore, one is more likely to monetarily defend wealth, a good indicator of how much access and control one has over resources. As one goes higher up on the ladder of society, the stakes multiply. Wealth and power increase and, naturally, higher barriers are erected to protect high-stakes possessions.

Clubs become exclusive, wealthy suburbs become homogeneous with rich people, only a few partner-status employees in firms become managing directors, universities become selective and so on.

Given the limitations of this construct, the entire notion of a fair society ought to filter out from an idealistic one to a practical one. Therefore, a practically fair society would be one in which the barriers to elite circles are not insurmountable for qualified aspirants.

What determines qualification for elite status? Traits such as hard work, highest standard of work ethic, ambition, hunger, the spirit of constant learning and improvement, networking with like-minded people, among other things, may help. Qualification is not a one-time event; one has to continuously remain qualified. Even elites themselves are not spared. Those who fail to uphold these values, over time, lose their privilege to those competing for the top spots.

Sure, simply following these values does not guarantee top status. One may still not be the best, or even elite, for that matter. But what can be guaranteed is this: In America, if you truly subscribe to these values, there is no way you will not be rewarded with a good life. My fellow columnist Osama Eshera’s own father’s experience is a case in point.

As a clarification, it should be apparent I am not championing authoritarian or oppressive elitism. I agree with all those who opine that discrimination on the basis of color, gender, who you love or religious beliefs is disgusting and, indeed, a man-made conspiracy to stifle competition for power. But democracy, even though suggested to be a farce, certainly makes the system more equitable and just.

Life is sometimes incomprehensible. But until there is a better nonspeculative answer to the larger cosmic puzzle of life, this is how the world works. Instead of mulling it over with frustration, our best bet is to deal with what we have, which, even though imperfect, works out pretty damn well.

Against the motion [Osama Eshera]: My father has probably had the single greatest impact on my work ethic and ambition. His story as a naturalized citizen — coming to this country with only $100 in hand, obtaining a doctorate in engineering, working in high-level research and development at one of the world’s largest companies and eventually starting his own engineering contracting firm during the ’90s — is humbling.

His story has been a constant source of direction and motivation for me, particularly in my college years as I began to appreciate the hard work and sacrifices my father made to reach his goals.

His basic philosophy: Work hard, dedicate yourself to being really good at what you do, and the system will appreciate that and reward you. He would always say to me, “Do your best and you’ll be the best.” As much as I appreciate my father and sincerely value his advice, I do not think his elitist experience is representative of most Americans’. He was one of the lucky ones.

This idea that two people, starting off with the same initial conditions — a college degree, some relevant experience and so on — who work equally as hard will be equally valued by the “system,” simply does not hold true. A study by the American Association of University Women indicates, on average, when a man and a woman are one year out of college, the woman will earn 82 cents to every dollar earned by the man.

While the details differ across examples, this pattern holds for other communities as well, such as racially or ethnically defined groups. If we take monetary wealth to be a good indicator of one’s resources, it is clear that certain groups — regardless of how hard they work or how good they are at what they do — will not obtain their due resources.

But an even more fundamental issue than unequal resources is unequal access to opportunity. It’s worth noting the difference between equal outcome and equal opportunity: Neither are realistically attainable, but the latter is a far more reasonable target than the former. So the question now becomes one about initial conditions — can two people, who invest equally in themselves and in their skills, achieve the same level of resources if one enjoyed more or better opportunities than the other?

I believe the answer is resoundingly no, for many reasons, not the least of which is our imperfect social structure. But perhaps more relevant to this discussion are the differences at individual, familial and community levels. People growing up in underprivileged circumstances have essentially different value systems and priority matrices than their more comfortable counterparts.

Many do not have the luxury to invest in academic or vocational studies and instead have to address more immediate needs such as food, safety and health — concerns many elitists are barely familiar with. And this isn’t some small slice of our population: Cornel West and Tavis Smiley estimate nearly one-third of Americans are at or within one paycheck of poverty.

This isn’t about the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. This is about acknowledging the real, human flaws in an elitist world view. Our society is not entirely elitist or egalitarian, but is far more dynamic.

“Changing the system” is a lofty goal that transcends any one person’s actions or ideas. What we can do, however, is be a bit more merciful, compassionate and appreciative of the challenges people face. Times are tough.

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