Our Revolting Elites
by J. R. Nyquist, Global Analyst. January 15, 2010
In 1995 Christopher Lasch came out with The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. The introduction was titled "The Democratic Malaise" and included chapters like "Does Democracy Deserve to Survive?" and "The Lost Art of Argument." The threat to our civilization, said Lasch, does not come from the masses. The threat comes from the elite. The masses have proved to be conservative. Against the most successful institutions and folkways in history, against the greatest civilization ever to arise, the elite revolted; and in the course of this revolt, wrote Lasch, "they betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence."
Those of us who are not part of the elite's fashionable revolution are "racist, sexist and homophobic." We are fit objects for extermination or re-education because, in the end, we just don't get it. "Simultaneously arrogant and insecure," wrote Lasch, "the new elites, the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension. In the United States , 'Middle America' -- a term that has both geographical and social implications -- has come to symbolize everything that stands in the way of progress: 'family values,' mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism...."
According to Lasch, there are far worse problems facing America than racism: "the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy and a suffocating cynicism; the moral paralysis of those who value 'openness' above all." Lasch saw an intellectual softening underway. He warned that culture "is a way of life backed up by the will to condemn and punish those who defy its commandments." As for the claim that we are now enlightened, he scoffed. The information revolution, he said, has not raised the level of public intelligence. It is no secret, he continued, "that the public knows less about public affairs than it used to know. Millions of Americans cannot begin to tell you what is in the Bill of Rights, what Congress does, what the Constitution says about the powers of the presidency, how the party system emerged or how it operates. A sizeable majority, according to a recent survey, believe that Israel is an Arab nation."
The crisis of competence is, perhaps, the most troubling problem of all. It comes in three forms: (1) as a general incompetence for living; (2) as an incompetence that wants to manage society, and determine economic outcomes through a redistribution of wealth; (3) as an incompetence through the lowering of professional standards. The first is less dangerous to society than the second, and the third compounds the second. In terms of a general incompetence for living (1): It may be said that people are no longer literate; that their attention span has been attenuated by television and is unsuited to the study of difficult subjects; that their health is ruined through fast food, soft drinks, and excessive indulgence in sweets; that the sexes are disoriented and no longer know how to live together or behave; that children suffer from poor discipline. What is shocking to discover, however, is that all of these things have been encouraged by the purveyors of (2): the would-be managers of society who rail against the market, against fatherhood, against punishment and discipline, and against the necessities of war.
"A lust for immediate gratification pervades American society from top to bottom," noted Lasch. "There is a universal concern with the self -- with 'self-fulfillment' and more recently with 'self-esteem,' slogans of a society incapable of generating a sense of civic obligation." Lash warned that there was a growing disinclination "to subordinate self-interest" to the general will. What makes a nation defensible is the willingness of people to subordinate their personal desires in time of war. An old veteran who fought in Vietnam once insisted to me that the anti-war movement was a selfishness movement. In C.S. Lewis's The Weight of Glory we find a chapter titled "Why I Am Not a Pacifist." In this chapter Lewis wrote that pacifism consists "in assuming that the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure." Here in America we have an elite that is pathologically imbued with finding the right cure. Here the mediocrity of their thinking shines brightest.
Today's elite does not possess intellectual excellence. Arguably, they do not know what excellence is, because their whole education has come out of third-rate minds -- or worse. Our brightest people are taught remarkably stupid ideas in universities. What they have lost is a sense of history, which is the most important sense for those tasked with guiding society. As Lasch correctly noted, "History has given way to an infantilized version of sociology, in obedience to the misconceived principle that the quickest way to engage children's attention is to dwell on what is closest to home: their families, their neighborhoods; the local industries; the technologies on which they depend. A more sensible assumption would be that children need to learn about faraway places and olden times before they can make sense of their immediate surroundings."
It is not that President Bush was incompetent in managing the war in Iraq. The entire elite was incompetent, and Bush made this discovery, and was forced into a position of sorting out a mess caused by his underlings (and by himself). In the financial crisis we see the same forces at work. Every attempt to find a cure is worse than the disease. We move, therefore, from crisis to crisis, from catastrophe to catastrophe. If we had only educated our elite differently. If we had only given them history instead of what Lasch called "infantile sociology."
© 2010 J. R. Nyquist