I have been thinking lately about the word “elite.”
That word, which comes from the Latin word “eligere,” has come a long way from its original meaning, which for thousands of years indicated people “elected,” “chosen” or appointed to high offices.
Since about 1951, however, according to my dictionary, the word has come to indicate people who hold themselves to be superior beings in relation to the rest, giving rise to “elitism.”
Today I hear the word most often preceded by the adjective “liberal,” as a caustic summing up of the attitude of all progressives.
And there is truth to that. Speaking for myself, I’ve had some extremely unpleasant run-ins with some people on the far left. But not all. I am talking about the intolerant, self-righteous ones with heads of brick, with whom it is impossible to hold a decent conversation these days or even to hear over their screaming and shouting.
Yet, from some people on the far opposite end of the political spectrum, I hear this: “We, and only we, are the real Americans.”
The noxious, self-satisfied notion behind both of the mindsets is that if you don’t share their opinions, you are the enemy within.
When I hear that, some of the stories our parents read to us when we were small spring to mind.
In the Whale household, those tales included “The Wind in the Willows,” “Uncle Wiggly,” and the Dr. Seuss books, among many others. They were part of our growing up.
As a pint-sized introvert, those stories opened the world to me.
Indeed, when I get together with my sisters, Carole and Diane, we still talk about our favorites, usually Dr. Seuss stories like “Fox in Socks,” the pair of pale green pants with no one inside them in “What Was I Scared Of?” as well as “On Beyond Zebra” and “The Sneetches.”
But it was “The Sneetches,” those yellow, bird-like, archetypical Seussian creatures, some with a green star on their bellies and the rest without, that sank most deeply into our bones.
In that tale, the star-bellied Sneetches had the higher status. They enjoyed privileges their starless bretheren and sistren did not — and they let ‘em know it.
One day, a pitchman named Sylvester McMonkey McBean — “the Fix-It-Up Chappie” — shows up and offers the Sneetches “without stars upon thars,” the chance to acquire them with his Star-On machine, and for only three bucks, of course, they bite at the offer.
While this goes over with the un-starred Sneetches, it upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches, who see their special status slipping away.
Then McBean tells them of his Star-Off machine, costing $10, and the Sneetches who originally had stars happily fork over to have them removed, so they remain special. McBean, however, does not share the prejudices of the Sneetches and allows the recently-starred Sneetches through this machine as well.
Ultimately, this escalates, with the Sneetches running from one machine to the next “until neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellies knew whether this one was that one… or that one was this one… or which one was what one… or what one was who.”
The madness continues until all of the Sneetches are busted flat, and McBean departs as a wealthy fellow, amused by their stupidity.
Despite McBean’s assertion that “you can’t teach a Sneetch,” however, the Sneetches learn from this experience that neither the plain-bellied nor star-bellied Sneetches are superior. They are all Sneetches, and they are able to get along and become friends.
If it’s not plain by now, “The Sneetches” is a satire of discrimination and elitism between races and cultures, prompted by Dr. Seuss’ (Theodore Geisel’s) opposition to antisemitism.
The story reminds me of all the people who fancy themselves in the place of the original star-bellied Sneetches, blessed with a special status that elevates them above the rest of the plebeians, with rights and privileges thereunto appertaining.
It reminds how the shrill voices from the far left and far right, despite the different ways they express their superiority as “the only real Americans,” are brother and sister elitists.
Thing is, we are all Americans. My hope is that, unlike those Sneetches, we won’t need someone to fleece us of everything we hold precious before we recognize that fact.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.