In recent years, especially during political seasons,

elitist

has become the ultimate epithet, far worse than

racist, sexist

or

wrong.

People are elite or they aren't. It's an absolute, an indelible tattoo.

Barack Obama, the son of a single mother, a man who paid off his law school loans only in his 40s, has somehow become elite.

Yet John McCain, the son and grandson of four-star admirals, the son and husband of heiresses, is not.

What is the opposite of elite? There's no word for it.

Michael Nutter, who attended school on a scholarship, is elite. City Council, despite the presence of three mayors' sons, is not.

Also not elite: Vince Fumo, Mensa member and man of many perks, including a 27-room mansion.

Apparently, it's not elite to have a 27-room mansion as long as there's a shooting range in the basement.

George Bush, son of a president, grandson of a senator, formed by prep school, Yale, Harvard, and summers in Maine, is not elite. How he pulled this off remains a mystery, though brush clearing is somehow involved.

The geography of elitism

In the courtesy-free sewer that passes for the blogosphere, branding someone a suburbanite is the ultimate elitist charge.

Any suburb is elite, even the working-class ones where families move for affordable housing and better schools, which, correct me if I'm wrong, is the American dream.

Philadelphia, even Center City, is not elite. For good or ill, the place is forever working-class, even though this misguided myth is as rusted as our shuttered factories.

Connecticut is elite. New Jersey, with the highest median income in the country, is not.

All these designations change when viewed from a national perspective. Then the entire East Coast is elite, although not the South, including Hilton Head.

Everything west of Chester County is not elite - except Minnesota and every Chicago ward Obama ever visited - until you get to the mighty arugula-and-latte states of California, Oregon and Washington.

Then you might as well be in France.

Republicans, defying their long history, are not elite, voters and politicians alike. Blue-collar, working-class, union-member Democrats are not elite either. Except, improbably, Michael Moore.

However, every Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton is elite, except for his wife - but only when Hillary is compared to Obama and only when it became clear she couldn't win.

Today, there are only two parties: Republican and elitecrat.

Smarty pants

Throughout time, elitism has been associated with birthright, breeding and wealth. Now it refers to education.

Scratch that. Bush the Sequel turns the notion on its head. He went to elite schools. He just chose to ignore what they offered.

Now, it's being smart or, heaven forbid, appearing smart that's elite.

Reading challenging books, even ones borrowed from the library, is elite, as is watching PBS's NewsHour, though both cost nothing. Improving the mind, instead of the biceps or the property (by clearing brush), is elite.

Any challenge to bad policy, poor governance or faulty reasoning is now dismissed with charges of elitism. People don't want to debate intelligently, consider divergent opinions and experiences, or listen and learn. Instead, they respond with closed ears and name-calling. Being labeled elite is akin to being told to shut up. How can you respond to that?

A mind is a terrible thing to waste, the United Negro College Fund cautions. So is a country, or an opportunity.

Why so many people are proud of knowing so little and learning less remains perplexing, as does slamming anyone who doesn't agree as elite. Isn't this whole anti-elitism business empty, hollow, tired and, when it comes down to it, stupid?