words : Elitism

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THE Royal Opera House's pounds 50m lottery money has made it vulnerable to renewed charges of elitism, or, as the Independent's arts reporter put it more accurately, "social elitism" - the implication being that there is nothing wrong with shows of wealth, but only on stage, not in the auditorium. But others go further, and say that it is the art itself that is elitist.

Elite comes from eligere (past participle electus), to choose, which seems to identify it with the democratic process; logically, elitism should be an affirmation of that process. But etymology is a poor guide to current meanings. Elizabethans who spoke of the elect meant the chosen of God; no problem. Their descendants who spoke of the elite, a 19th-century borrowing from French, assumed that some people were fitter to govern than others, the question of how they were chosen being up for discussion. Elitism, which didn't arrive till the second half of this century, was used by those who believed that no one was fitter than anyone else. Some of them had half-read bits of Nietzsche and associated elitism with Fascism, another reflex-word of the Sixties, when anything not in accord with correct left-wing thinking could be described as Fascist.

Elitism is different from other isms such as racism and ageism. Anti- racists are not against race - far from it - and anti-ageists make common cause with pensioners, but anti-elitists want elites to be abolished. From there it's only a short step to the proposition that opera and ballet, and for that matter the study of Chaucer and Shakespeare, are as elitist as anything you can think of, because not everyone can enjoy them; and those who do enjoy them, and acquire wisdom and understanding from them, might become better fitted to govern than those who don't... Can't have that.

Nicholas Bagnall