Commentary: Elena Kagan and the 'elitist' putdown

U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Solicitor General Elena Kagan has interacted with people as diverse as the rap group 2 Live Crew and the National Enquirer.
U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Solicitor General Elena Kagan has interacted with people as diverse as the rap group 2 Live Crew and the National Enquirer. Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

I picked up my phone last week and a Forsyth woman was on the other end. She said she was sick and tired of some folks on the right bastardizing the meaning of "elite" and using it as a pejorative. This in connection with President Obama's nomination of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It has become sport in Washington, D.C., to shoot at either party's court nominee. The origination of this sport can be traced back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

In 1987, Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork to replace Justice Lewis Powell. Democrats charged Bork with being Satan the Devil (my description). Bork was considered a brilliant jurist — but not according to many on the rabid left. Within the hour of the announcement of Bork's nomination, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy spoke on the Senate floor saying, "Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids."

Bork's nomination was unsuccessful and according to the Oxford English Dictionary, his name became a verb: Bork means "To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office."

I won't remind you of the grossness of the Senate hearing to confirm Clarence Thomas. Who could forget the mention of pubic hair in a rare televised Saturday session?

This sport of cutting down the best legal minds (in most cases) our nation produces limits the pool of high court candidates for any president. Who wants to have every spoken word or written opinion examined for ghostly evidence of evil intent? Who wants to have Senate staffers combing through college papers looking for any little twig to twist around and made to seem vulgar? It turns the confirmation process, something that should be dead serious, into comic political theater.

The word of the day for those opposed to Kagan is "Elitist." Anyone who grew up in New York, went to Princeton and Harvard Law, must be an "elitist." The titular head of the wacko right-wing, Rush Limbaugh, used a two-for when describing Kagan as a "liberal elitist." "We don't know anything about her," he said. "This woman is worse than Harriet Miers. Intellectually, she's a lightweight."

Kagan may be a lot of things, but the first woman to serve as dean of Harvard Law School and the first female solicitor general, the nation's top lawyer, is anything but an intellectual lightweight.

Jim Moss wrote that the GOP's use of elite as a negative is not new and is "taking advantage of the mutual antipathy that has been held throughout history between the working class and the wealthier, more educated 'elites.' It's the 'rednecks' vs. the 'snobs,' and the lines dividing the two are as strong and as bitter as the lines that used to segregate the races."

Think about that as the confirmation hearings begin.

If an Ivy League pedigree is what makes one elite, then those who use that charge must have the same opinion of all the Supreme Court justices. If you're keeping score and Kagan is confirmed, it will be Harvard five, Yale three. Antonin Scalia, Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts also wore crimson. Two justices, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor, went to Princeton as undergrads as did Kagan.

Wouldn't we like our children to aspire to become elite, to attend a top school recognized for turning out many of the world's finest? Rare is an Ivy League grad found standing in an unemployment line. Anti-elite also means anti-rich, wouldn't we all like to have a tax problem some day?

Elite doesn't have to mean snob. What elite could mean is a person who worked hard, took advantage of every opportunity to be successful. Remember that bootstap thing?

So the next time you hear "elite" being used to put someone down, think again, wouldn't you just love to be on the other end of that put down?


Charles E. Richardson is The Macon Telegraph's editorial page editor. He can be reached via e-mail at crichardson@macon.com.

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