In Praise of Elitesrnby George WatsonrnBeing a lifelong elitist myself, I have long had a sneakingrnsympathy for a Trollope character, Sir Timothy Beeswax.rnIn The Dune’s Children (1880), Beeswax is a dignified oldrnpolitician who lives not for power but, quite unashamedly, forrnthe trappings of office. Pariiament, he believed, was a club sorneligible that any Englishman would want to belong to it; it wasrn”the cream of the land.” To be in the cabinet was still creamier;rnand as for the prime minister himself, who could createrndulces and appoint bishops, he had achieved “an Elysium ofrncreaminess not to be found in any other position on the earth’srnsurface.”rnThe portrait is satirical, but we all have some Beeswax in us.rnEverybody, or nearly everybody, wants to join an elite and enjoyrnthe cream. Once such simple needs as food and shelter are satisfied,rnstatus is the next thing to want, and it is hard to live withoutrnwanting something. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated,rna friend was asked why Kennedy had wanted to bernPresident at all, and the answer was, “He had money and womenrnalready—what else is there?” John Pierpont Morgan, whenrnhe and his friends were refused admission in the 1890’s to NewrnYork clubs, raised the principle of an open elite to its ultimaternand majestic conclusion by founding one for himself. If yourncan’t join them, lick them. And so on down the scale. In thernarmed services men fight harder, any commander will tell you,rnfor medals; in public life they work and scheme for honors andrntitles. To that extent an honors system is not merely decorative.rnIt works. In fact, for those who already have enough money, orrnmore than enough, it works in the supreme sense that nothingrnelse does. So if public service is to be maintained and advanced,rnthere is a plain case for elite-systems like clubs andrnacademies, along with titles, medals, and prizes. There mayrneven be a case for inventing more of them.rnIt is still commonplace to be told that elitism is wrong, for allrnGeorge Watson, who is a Fellow of St. John’s College,rnCambridge, is the author of British Literature Since 1945.rnthat, and those who think we need it, and need more of it, seldomrnargue the case. It is easy to forget how recent all this is.rnElitism and elitist are new words in English, adopted as late asrnthe 1950’s, so there are plenty of people who can rememberrnwhen they did not exist at all. Elitist is first recorded as used byrnDavid Riesman in an article in Psychiatry in 1950, referring tornthe ideas of Freud, Nietzsche, and Carlyle. His use was perhapsrnonly mildly disparaging; but by the 1960’s, there were few worsernthings you could say, and by now it is only necessary to call arnview or an institution elitist to declare war on it. It is rare to callrnyourself an elitist, rarer still to be proud of it. So though manyrnpeople—perhaps most people—long to join an elite, they arernforbidden to say so, in a new and tyrannical system of hypocrisyrnmore pervasive than the Victorian taboo on sex.rnI call anti-elitism hypocritical on the evidence of daily observation.rnHave you ever known a declared anti-elitist decline tornenter an elite when the chance came? You are supposed to sayrnyou want no cream, but you are not expected to refuse it whenrnit comes. In academic life, I have often noticed that the leftrnseeks promotion and honors as assiduously as anyone else. It isrna rich source of jokes. The late Sir Herbert Read, the art criticrnwho held anarchist views, was known in his last years as the anarchistrnknight.rnAnd so in public life. The status of politicians, we are oftenrntold in an age of lurid press revelations, has never been so low.rnBut bring a member of Congress or Padiament to a social gatheringrnand see for yourself how reluctant people are to meetrnpoliticians. They cluster round. Social snobbery is not muchrndifferent. The last time I heard an American claim that thernUnited States has less snobbery than Europe was shortly afterrnhe had assured me that his neighbor in Washington, D.C., wasrna Supreme Court judge. Anti-elitism, in short, is a mode ofrnmock-modesty and a technique of concealed boasting. Itrnwould be boasting to say you know monarchs, presidents, andrnSupreme Court judges. So the way out is to imply that yournhave met them and don’t much care. A likelv winner in thernSEPTEMBER 1997/17rnrnrn