When Did 'Elite' Become a Dirty Word?
I recently stumbled upon an article about Rupert Murdoch's obsession with taking control of The New York Times corporation if he can't put it out of business.
It seems Mr. Murdoch, a conservative Australian billionaire media mogul who already controls The Wall Street Journal, Fox News, MySpace.com and 45 television channels throughout the country, despises The Times because it is, in his words, "elite."
I have trouble understanding why something or someone perceived as being "elite" should be the source of such distaste and anger. When I was growing up, we were regularly encouraged by parents and teachers to become a member of the elite, even if not in so many words.
Merriam-Webster's defines elite as "the choice part" and "the best of class," while the online source yourdiction-ary.com calls it: "the group or part of a group selected as the finest, best, most distinguished, or most powerful."
Coincidentally, while I was pondering Murdoch's desire to decimate The Times, two news stories emerged about men who unarguably have ranked among the elite of their respective peers.
The first concerned a memorial dedicated this past Sept. 11 in West Chester, Pa., to Michael Horrocks, the co-pilot of United Flight 175, the second plane to hit the twin towers.
My nephew was also a pilot for United on that fateful day, having arrived back on the East Coast earlier that morning after serving as first officer aboard a flight from San Francisco. He and Mike were very close friends. They met as enlisted officers in the Marines where Mike flew C-130s and my nephew piloted helicopters. They were so close they joined United together and stood up as best man at each other's weddings.
Whenever people discuss Mike, they do so in superlatives. He "was the best of the best," or "he always handled pressure with ease," and "his word was as good as gold."
Mike was a star quarterback in college who joined the Marines to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot. His skill as a pilot was recognized when he was selected to be a flight instructor, a position that was well suited to his ability to inspire those around him to achieve excellence. It is widely acknowledged that only the best pilots, an elite group, are chosen as flight instructors.
Another man known for being the best and inspiring others is Dr. Craig Thompson, the recently appointed president and CEO of Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. I met Craig when he was in his 20s and completing his studies at Dartmouth Medical School, which he had entered at the age of 19.
Craig finished his medical degree at the University of Pennsylvania and then served eight years as a naval medical officer while conducting research at some of the most renowned cancer centers in the country. Recently, I listened intently as Craig spoke on the televised StandUp2Cancer fundraiser.
His passion for that organization's work was evident as he described the headway his nationwide collaborative team is making in its race to find effective treatments for pancreatic cancer. The task is daunting, since currently 98 per cent of all patients with pancreatic cancer die within one year of diagnosis.
Still, it doesn't surprise me that Craig is upbeat. "Can't" is not a word in his vocabulary, and his cancer research, though sometimes controversial, has also resulted in wide acclaim for his dedication and innovation. He is one of only a handful of cancer scientists elected to the National Academy of Sciences, holds a number of patents in immunology, and has founded two biotechnology companies. As he moves to Sloan-Kettering, Dr. Craig Thompson is embarking upon another challenging chapter in a life that already reads like a comic book superhero.
So as I reflect on Mike and Craig's lives and Mr. Murdoch's desire to bring down The New York Times for being elite, I wonder how and where the concept got skewered.
Elite-bashing isn't only Rupert Murdoch's obsession these days, but he has one of the biggest stages. I can only hope that when he, or anyone else, spouts off about how awful "the elite" are, people will think about who they want piloting their airplanes, working on finding cures for cancer, or serving in the Special Forces - and thank their lucky stars that there are men and women out there rising above mediocrity and meeting extraordinary challenges every single day.
Beth Daniels, of Southern Pines, is director of development for the MIRA Foundation, based in Aberdeen. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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