The Open Mind V: Riposte

ShrinkWrapped has offered his response to my The Open Mind V: the Language of Black and White. Comments are closed here at the sad red earth and should be made at ShrinkWrapped. Earlier installments of this series can be found on the horizontal menu above.

The Open Mind V: Riposte

Let me see if I can touch on the key elements of Jay’s post.  First he points out that it is not the elites that I object to but their ideas, ie, not the idea of elitism, per se:

What Shrink and other conservatives object to is not the elite nature of these elites – were it not them, it would be others – but a set of modern and liberal beliefs that over recent decades they consider to have taken hold as the prevailing cultural zeitgeist. Fair enough. But characterizing the prevailing beliefs to which they object as “elitist” does not merely mischaracterize the nature of their adversary, it stokes a malformed amalgamation of class, cultural, and social conflict that can have dangerous consequences.

That’s certainly fair enough, though incomplete.  I do object to the “statist” ideas of the liberal elites.  I also do wonder how “characterizing the prevailing beliefs to which (I) object as “elitist” … mischaracterize{s) the nature of (my) adversary” but I’ll read on.  Jay warns about the anti-intellectualism that can be a component of populism and points out that liberals do not have a monopoly on condescension:

What conservatives fail to observe in themselves – and I have had opportunity to experience this in large doses in recent months – is their own condescension toward their political adversaries, upon whom they heap an array of demeaning and otherizing labels and perceptions, including the deluded belief that they’ve got liberals’ number, while liberals don’t have a clue about them. Accordingly, they tell themselves that liberal objections to Sarah Palin arise profoundly on the level of cultural snobbery, and there is, indeed, an element of that.

As a member in good standing of the intellectual class* and a Jew, I am sensitive to the ease with which populism in the hands of unscrupulous politicians/leaders can become suffused with envy and arouse hatred toward designated scapegoats.  Jay is correct to warn of such proclivities, though to my perceptions attempts to scapegoat have been more prevalent thus far on the left than the right in recent years.

[*My definition: The intellectual class is composed of that class of people who make their living, often a very good one, by manipulating language.  This is in opposition to the masses, which include such “lesser beings”, like, oh, I don’t know, Engineers, who actually build things or Entrepreneurs, who actually create new products and wealth that enrich all of us.  For those who are immune to sarcasm, please note that I value the productions of Engineers, Entrepreneurs, et al, much more highly than most of what passes for intellectual ideas these days.  The average Engineer or Entrepreneur contributes far more to society, and far more that is lasting, than the average intellectual.  (My singling out of Engineers and Entrepreneurs has almost nothing to do with the fact that my beautiful and very smart daughter-in-law is an Engineer and my less beautiful but equally smart son-in-law is an Entrepreneur; occasionally these kinds of coincidences just show up; go figure.)]

I haven’t written much about Sarah Palin.  My initial reaction when she was nominated by John McCain was positive.  Here was a seemingly genuine person who had, through grit and determination, made her way to a Statehouse and apparently done a pretty good job.  During the campaign, she showed herself to be not-ready-for-prime-time, which was a concern for someone “a heartbeat away” but she didn’t seem any less prepared than Obama (who I was told repeatedly was brilliant, his comment that he visited 57 states notwithstanding), with his lack of actual accomplishments in the real world, and Sarah Palin was clearly less of a buffoon than Joe Biden. (One need only consider Biden’s comments about FDR going on TV after the 1929 stock market crash to reassure the country or his host of inane comments before or since.)

In any event Jay goes on to assure us that the liberal elite’s objection to Sarah Palin was not because she was a political threat or represented something that was anathema to prevailing liberal elite ideology but because of “her deep and disturbing ignorance.”  Now, I am not all that interested in Sarah Palin at the moment.  I think she was treated terribly by the Media, a treatment that stood out for its contrast with the kid gloves with which they approached Barack Obama (and had the MSM done their jobs a bit more assiduously, Barack Obama might have actually been tested more on the campaign trail, which would have stood him in good stead for his current travails.)  Sarah Palin is apparently a decent speaker, seems to have decent political instincts and may, if she does her homework, be a viable candidate in the future.  I don’t think she is a viable candidate yet because, whether warranted or not, the image of her as an ignoramus has stuck; only she can change that and it will take time.  (I can’t help noticing how similar her experience has been to Dan Qualye’s experience; he never escaped his image.  We shall see if Sarah Palin can.)

The one place I might take issue with Jay’s post is his representation of “elites”; in three places Jay delineates what he means by elite:

An “elite,” by definition, is the “choice part,” of something, the “best of a class.”

Elitism is “leadership or rule” by an elite, “consciousness of being or belonging to an elite.” These are more or less problematic notions depending on how we unpack, and again, validate them. The core problem is that of “snobbery,” entailing unearned access to elite status and expected privilege as a consequence. The offensive culmination is in a sense of social or moral superiority.

It is the pride of American history, culture, and society that more than any nation ever, we live in a meritocracy.

I actually agree in part with all three statements but I do not think the “core problem is that of “snobbery,” entailing unearned access to elite status and expected privilege as a consequence.”  The core problem is that what defines our elites is only quite peripheral to what is actually importnat in our scoiety.  This is an important point that I alluded to in my humorous (well, at least the intent was to be humorous) aside about the intellectual class.  The “elites” and this includes Republican elites and Democratic elites, are defined by their belief that they know what is best for all of us (just look at the ongoing insistence by the Obama administration to jam a top down, healthcare “reform” down the throats of a resisting populace) at the very same time that they have become far removed from the lives of the people they deign to represent.  Historian Walter Russell Mead suggests the Tea Party movement is the heir of a long and honored American tradition of anti-elitism. [All emphases mine-SW]

Do Soldiers Drink Tea?

The Tea Party movement is the latest upsurge of an American populism that has sometimes sided with the left and sometimes with the right, but which over and over again has upended American elites, restructured our society and forced through the deep political, cultural and institutional changes that from time to time the country needs and which the ruling elites cannot or will not deliver.

… you don’t have to buy every line item (or even any line item) in the emerging Tea Party program to see the movement’s potential.  Its ruling passion is a belief in the ability of the ordinary citizen to make decisions for himself or herself without the guidance or ‘help’ of experts and professionals. No idea has deeper roots in American history and culture and by global standards Americans have historically distrusted doctors, lawyers, bankers, preachers and professors: everybody who presumes that their special insider knowledge gives them a special right to decide what’s best for the rest of us and historically no political force has been stronger than the determination of ordinary Americans to flatten the social and political hierarchy.

The United States has rarely been in greater need of rapid transformation than we are now. The information revolution, the rapid development of the global economy, the shift of cultural and economic power from Europe toward Asia, the enormous wave of immigration that since the 1960’s has been remaking the body politic once again, the breakdown of the progressive or blue social model as industries and financial markets rise and fall with a velocity not seen in the last 100 years: these changes are taking place all around us, but our institutions and policies are very far from keeping up.

Elites are becoming much less necessary as people become more and more empowered.  For just one example, at one time patients came to a Doctor unsure what was wrong with them and ignorant of their treatment options.  They hoped to be referred to someone competent who could offer them an appropriate treatment so that they could regain their prior functioning and good health.  Today we expect patients to come into the office armed with knowledge of their condition (or what they believe they are suffering from) and with great knowledge of their treatment options.  When patients suffer from rarer disorders, they often know more than their Doctors about their ailments.  The wise Physician sees his job as assisting his patient in finding the proper treatment and managing that treatment rather than as dictating from “on high” how the patient must behave.

Our patients are not passive recipients of treatment but active participants who must be made allies against their disorder.  No one can ever know more about your life than you can and with the increasing complexity of the modern world, this aphorism can be extended.  We are flooded with information.  Markets, even when they work poorly, remain our best tool for summing information.  Nothing so much defines our present day elites (on the left and the right) as the belief that they understand current conditions well enough to legislate solutions to social problems.  This was a fantasy even in the good old days of Progressive rule; it is nonsensical now.  Accelerating change means that top down approaches cannot possibly incorporate enough information to predict chaotic systems.  Not only can initial conditions never be adequately established, but by the time our cumbersome bureaucracy has measured conditions they are already far different than predicted (which is why so many government statistics include gigantic fudge factors, ie corrections and assumptions.)

If the Tea Party movement succeeds it will because it has been able to articulate a program designed to minimize government intrusions into markets and facilitate the return of power to the people.  Now that I think about it, “Power to the People” could be a terrific, catchy slogan for the Tea Party movement!  I wonder what Jay would think of it?

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