Posted: March 9, 2009
ohn McCain's selection of Sarah Palin to be his running mate set off a fiercely contemptuous reaction. The chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party said Palin's sole qualification for high office was that she had never had an abortion. The comedian Bill Maher scoffed at the idea that "this stewardess" would be first in the line of succession. The scorn moved the Atlantic Monthly's Clive Crook to write that "the metropolitan liberal, in my experience, regards overt religious identity as vulgar, and evangelical Christianity as an infallible marker of mental retardation. Flag-waving patriotism is seen as a joke and an embarrassment."
The denunciation of Palin took place 45 years after William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote: "I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University." From Richard Nixon's invoking the "silent majority" to Palin's campaigning as a devout, plain-spoken hockey mom, conservatives have claimed that they share the common sense of the common man. Liberals—from Adlai Stevenson to Barack Obama to innumerable writers, artists, and academics—have often been willing foils in this drama, unable to stop themselves from disparaging the very people whose votes are indispensable to the liberal cause. The elephant-in-the-room irony is that the liberal cause is supposed to be about improving the prospects and economic security of ordinary Americans, whose beliefs and intelligence liberals so often enjoy deriding.
Buckley's identification of the political fault-line running beneath the campus quadrangle was confirmed by "UD," a blogger for "Inside Higher Ed." Belittling Palin's degree in communications from the University of Idaho, UD concluded, "A lot of Americans don't seem to like highly educated people, and they don't want them running the country." He continued:
We need to encourage everyone to be in college for as many years as they possibly can, in the hope that somewhere along the line they might get some exposure to the world outside their town, and to moral ideas not exclusively derived from their parents' religion. If they don't get this in college, they're not going to get it anywhere else.
Thus, higher education is remedial education, and the affliction it remedies is an American upbringing.
Buckley, it must be noted, was an improbable champion of conservative populism. By 1963, still in his thirties, he had already created a public persona "that may be unique in our cultural history," according to a recent Boston Review article by the journalist William Hogeland. "Buckley's perfectly phrased insults and languorous polysyllabery made him the pop-culture model of intellectual, cultural, and verbal advancement, an unflappable connoisseur, guardian of the best ever thought and said by man." Even when siding with the masses against the professoriate, Buckley formulated his preference with the sort of fusty grammatical precision ("I should sooner live") appreciated in faculty lounges but alien to VFW halls.
We can make sense of this incongruity by moving beyond his famous line about the telephone directory to the rarely quoted explanation for why he would oppose being governed by eminent scholars:
Not, heaven knows, because I hold lightly the brainpower or knowledge or generosity or even the affability of the Harvard faculty: but because I greatly fear intellectual arrogance, and that is a distinguishing characteristic of the university which refuses to accept any common premise. In the deliberations of two thousand citizens of Boston I think one would discern a respect for the laws of God and for the wisdom of our ancestors which does not characterize the thought of Harvard professors—who, to the extent that they believe in God at all, tend to believe He made some terrible mistakes which they would undertake to rectify; and, when they are paying homage to the wisdom of our ancestors, tend to do so with a kind of condescension toward those whose accomplishments we long since surpassed.
Later in the essay, "The Aimlessness of American Education," Buckley elaborated on the "common premise" the university rejected: "The Ten Commandments do not sit about shaking, awaiting their inevitable deposition by some swashbuckling professor of ethics. Certain great truths have been apprehended. In the field of morality, all the basic truths have been apprehended."
Buckley's position, then, is not really populist. The –ism of populism is the idea that the people are inherently more sound and virtuous than the elites. Buckley is saying, less categorically, that we live in an age when the people happen to possess better judgment than the professors. If the reverse were true, if the professors had more respect than the people for God's laws and tradition's wisdom, Buckley's argument would have favored entrusting government pari passu (as he would have said) to scholars instead of citizens.
What sets the people in the phonebook apart from the professors, according to this argument, is that they believe in and defer to profound truths existing outside of history. They are willing, furthermore, to accept that the "democracy of the dead," incorporating the cumulative judgment of people long gone and forgotten, might well have grasped those truths better than people, even very smart people, who happen to be alive at this moment.
The professors, by contrast, expect to be deferred to, not to be the ones deferring. Their "intellectual arrogance" is a consequence of the assumptions of progressivism, an –ism that treats progress as the fundamental reality. The belief in progress is the belief that the present is better and wiser than the past, and the future will be better and wiser than the present. Truths outside of history, such as the laws of nature and nature's God, either don't exist, can't be known, or don't matter. Unlike the Marxist, the progressive does not believe history is following a defined path to a specific, inevitable conclusion. Rather, the evolution of human society is constant and eternal. Its entirety is unknowable, the idea that it has an ultimate destination a complete misconception, but history's next phase can be discerned by some better than others.
By virtue of being highly educated, eminent scholars can see farther over the horizon than their countrymen, and mediate the transition from where we are to where we are going. The most important progressive, Woodrow Wilson, president of Princeton University and of the American Political Science Association before he became president of the United States, said that if a statesman is to be a leader he must assess "the preparation of the nation for the next move in the progress of politics." It's counterproductive for the statesman to lecture or hector, but the superiority of his insight into the direction of historical development is not in doubt: "The forces of the public thought may be blind: he must lend them sight; they may blunder: he must set them right."
Progressives and their liberal progeny have found it increasingly difficult to maintain a respectful attitude toward the citizens who need to be led to a better future, despite Wilson's own insistence on such respect for fellow citizens. "[N]o reform may succeed for which the major thought of the nation is not prepared," he wrote. "[T]he instructed few may not be safe leaders, except in so far as they have communicated their instruction to the many, except in so far as they have transmuted their thought into a common, a popular thought."
At one level, the problem is simply pedagogical. The professor cannot impart to the students lessons they are not equipped to absorb. The calculus lecture will fail, no matter how well it has been prepared, if it is delivered to students who can't multiply. The political leader, like the actor or teacher, must know his audience—know its needs and its limitations.
Desire for Distinction
The harder part about following Wilson's advice is political. The professor who tries to teach students lessons they are not prepared to learn runs the risk of being tuned out. In a democracy, the leader who tries to direct the many where they are not prepared to go runs the risk of being voted out. The leader needs to "test and calculate" the nation's readiness to move to its next stage of development, but he must do so "very circumspectly." The perfectly circumspect statesman will lead the people without their even realizing they have been led—persuading them not only to go to history's next destination, but also that it is exactly where they had been intending to travel all along.
The statesmanship Wilson called for is rare for two reasons. First, the circumspection he sought is hard to render. It requires penetrating discernment of the people's undefined aspirations, and then enormous subtlety in addressing the people so that they embrace, as their own idea, the leader's perception of "the direction of the nation's permanent forces."
Second, it is hard to want to render. Ronald Reagan used to say, "There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go, if he doesn't mind who gets the credit." Not many people indifferent to getting the credit wind up in politics, however. The statesmanship Wilson described becomes more effective as the statesman becomes more self-effacing. The sort of leader happy to accept being forgotten by history and taken for granted by his contemporaries if it means making a big difference is rare, at best. Wilson himself found it hard to follow his own advice when it mattered. Georges Clemenceau's famous complaint that Wilson's Fourteen Points were four more than God handed down does not suggest that Wilson's peers found him diffident or circumspect.
The desire for distinction is not simply a problem for democracy, however, but a problem of democracy. People who have social ambitions, but not necessarily political ones, will find it gratifying to regard themselves and be regarded by others as among Wilson's "instructed few," and appalling to be lumped together with the uninstructed many. "Let me smile with the wise, and feed with the rich," said Samuel Johnson. In our age of widespread affluence, when people can be dangerously well fed without being rich, the desire to be numbered among the wise when smiles are shared becomes especially urgent. As Leon Wieseltier wrote about the controversial New Yorker cover depicting Michelle and Barack Obama as violent radicals, "The image was the creation of people for whom there is almost nothing more mortifying than not being in on the joke. That is the bridge and tunnel of the soul."
Eminence Among Equals
Aristocracy hasn't shown signs of staging a comeback since Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America 175 years ago. We should feel safer than he did, then, in taking note of its virtues. Rigid hierarchies often got things horribly wrong, conferring power and prestige on fools, thugs, and slobs, while consigning people who had much to offer to marginalized, precarious lives. There must have been something restful, however, about life in a society where people weren't constantly trying to prove themselves.
The only sort of aristocracy tolerable to a democratic age is a natural aristocracy, where earning eminence, an opportunity closed to none, is the sole path to it. The social aristocrat could take his position for granted; he lived in a society where everybody knew his place. The natural aristocrat, living in a society where everyone must secure and defend a place, can't take anything for granted. His need to evince the talent, taste, and intelligence to justify a place with the instructed few is as exacting, and exhausting, as the Calvinist's need to evince in this life the signs of grace that reveal a soul predestined to dwell with God in the next.
Joseph Epstein has written two books about the problem of eminence in a nation of equals. Ambition (1980) examines the tricky business of establishing a claim to be one of nature's aristocrats. Snobbery (2002) concerns the equally tricky business of asserting such a claim.
Ambition is hard because it's inherently difficult to make an impression on the world. Beyond that, ambition is tricky because we expect the natural aristocrat to resemble the social aristocrat, to show a winning effortlessness and an unruffled indifference to the opinions of the many. With the striver, however, we always see the wheels turning and sense the hunger.
In 1935 Franklin Roosevelt said, "Those words ‘freedom' and ‘opportunity' do not mean a license to climb upwards by pushing other people down." It turned out, contrary to the belief of many New Dealers, that America was not a "mature economy," where the nation's wealth, having already increased as far as it ever would, had to be administratively allocated lest it be fought over, viciously and destructively. Prosperity need not be a zero-sum game, but status can never be anything else. Part of our disapproval of ambition is defensive; the striver's success in climbing upwards may not push us down, exactly, but leaves us further from the top nonetheless.
As a consequence, writes Epstein, "ambition is increasingly associated in the public mind chiefly with human characteristics held to be despicable." In addition to being aggressive, the ambitious person is "generally thought to be single-minded, narrowly concentrated in purpose, bereft of such distracting qualities as charm, sympathy, imagination, or introspection of the kind that leads to self-doubt." Consequently,
Perhaps the one novel that no serious writer in America would care to write today is one about a man who sets out to succeed in life and does so through work, decisive action, and discretion, without stepping on anyone's neck, without causing his family suffering, without himself becoming stupid or inhumane.... [I]t is a novel unlikely to get written so long as that other, more familiar novel—which has the ambitious man or woman confront society and either go under or win out only at the cost of his or her decency—provides, as it evidently does, so much comfort.
Harvey Mansfield observes that, in America, "the general rule for business and culture has been the one stated by Madison for politics: let ambition counteract ambition." The reliance on ambition to check ambition, however, cannot easily accommodate the disdain for ambition and the ambitious that Epstein describes. The basis of that disdain is Rousseau's anathematization of the bourgeois, an idea that seems not to have crossed the Atlantic and cleared customs by the time the Constitution was written. According to Allan Bloom:
The word [bourgeois] has a strong negative charge, and practically no one wants to be merely a bourgeois. The artists and the intellectuals have almost universally despised him and in large measure defined themselves against him. The bourgeois is unpoetic, unerotic, unheroic.... [All] sorts of reforms are perennially proposed to correct his motives or counterbalance them.
For people who want to be rich, famous, or powerful, ambition will be required. For people who disdain these ambitions as bourgeois-vulgar, hollow, invidious-the reliance on ambition to curb ambition provides no reassurance whatsoever. Doing so only intensifies a competition that the Rousseauian critic of the bourgeois believes is fundamentally destructive, both to social harmony and individuals' psychological health. To counteract others' ambitions with one's own, for such a critic, is self-negating: even if you win, you lose, just by having been dragged into that contest.
Defined by Disdain
Thus, if patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, snobbery is the last refuge of the liberal arts major. The striver may wind up with the bigger house, better car, and nicer vacations, but the very meretriciousness of these aspirations confirms the liberal arts major's belief in the striver's inferior taste and barren inner life. Conspicuous consumption advertises not the wealth but the cluelessness of the consumer who acquires to flaunt. It has been supplanted by conspicuous disdain for conspicuous consumption. The Toyota Prius is a testament to its driver's virtue, not a mark of his prosperity. Its distinctive homeliness has made it a hit, at a time when Honda has cancelled production of the hybrid version of the Accord: it turned out nobody wanted to buy a hybrid that was indistinguishable from an iceberg-melting V-6.
In some ways, the liberal arts major's path has grown less steep. As David Brooks showed in Bobos in Paradise (2000), the new bourgeois bohemians have figured out a way to have their pesto and eat it, too. They can have nice homes, cars, clothes, and vacations—as long as all those consumption items are ones that the Babbitts wouldn't buy, wouldn't like, and whose appeal they'd find mystifying. The Bobo can pay for his socially correct lifestyle by working in a socially correct career—in Silicon Valley, a public-interest law firm, a start-up involved with the internet or renewable energy; anything where work "becomes a vocation, a calling, a métier," according to Brooks.
In other ways, however, the rise of the Bobo has only made life harder for the liberal arts major. Everything signifies. The wrong address, career, alma mater, car, accent, or attitude could undermine his claim to be among the instructed few. It's harrowing, and it's exhausting.
In Nation of Rebels (2004), Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue that taste is a "positional good." By "reproducing status hierarchies," good taste "confers a sense of almost unassailable superiority upon its possessor." Furthermore, they argue, good taste is mostly a matter of good distaste: the positional value of denigrating the wrong things is more important, and more reliable, than appreciating the right things. The only status advantage to be gained by liking Disney World and NASCAR comes from liking them ironically, conveying that you're in on the joke. As the author Tad Friend has argued, this desperate business of showing the world you have the aesthetically correct vantage point on popular culture "is rare among those who genuinely respect high art," since they find the alternatives to what they care about uninteresting, but also unthreatening.
Our age has seen political disdain become seamlessly integrated into cultural disdain. The prominent novelist E.L. Doctorow showed the way in 1980 when he wrote that Ronald Reagan had grown up in "just the sorts of places [small towns in Illinois] responsible for one of the raging themes of American literature, the soul-murdering complacency of our provinces.... The best and brightest fled all our Galesburgs and Dixons, if they could, but the candidate was not among them." Reagan did attend college, but not the kind that would have given him some exposure to the world outside the soul-murdering towns where he grew up, and to moral ideas calling into question his parents' religion. Instead, wrote Doctorow, a "third-rate student at a fifth-rate college could learn from the stage, the debating platform, the gridiron and the fraternity party the styles of manliness and verbal sincerity that would stand him in good stead when the time came to make his mark in the world." Achieving success in his first job out of college, as a radio announcer in Des Moines, Reagan made a number of local speaking engagements, "giving talks to fraternal lodges, boys' clubs and the like, telling sports stories and deriving from them Y.M.C.A. sorts of morals."
We see here all the basic elements, employed for the past 28 years, of liberal condescension. Every issue of the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, or Rolling Stone makes clear that the policy positions of George W. Bush, Republicans, and conservatives in general are wicked and stupid. The real problem, however, is that everything about these people—where they reside, what they believe, how they live, work, recreate, talk, and think—is in irredeemably bad taste. To embark on a conversation with one of them, based on straight-faced openness to the possibility of learning something interesting or important, would be like choosing to vacation in Wichita instead of Tuscany.
Political parties have traditionally been coalitions held together by beliefs and interests. The modern Democratic Party may be the first where the mortar is a shared sensibility. The cool kids disdain the dorks, and find it infuriating and baffling that they ever lose a class election to them.
This disdain is not only inefficacious, however, but unsatisfying. The problem with the superior attitude—either you get the joke, or you are the joke—is that the people being condescended to probably aren't smart enough to realize that they are being mocked. The novelist Jane Smiley calls this "the unteachable ignorance of the red states." When the instructed few can't lead the uninstructed many by means of Wilsonian circumspection, or cow them into submission using condescension, the fallback tactic is épater la bourgeoisie.
Intellectuals are the point of the spear. Richard Hofstadter devoted a book in 1963 to examining Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. He was a war correspondent who confined his reporting to the shots fired in just one direction, however, saying nothing about anti-Americanism in intellectual life. Part of that anti-Americanism is to equate intellectual seriousness with the European disdain for America as a society more barbaric than civilized. A film producer, interviewed on the Upper West Side by the New York Times the day after the 2004 election subscribed to this view. "New York is an island off the coast of Europe," she said, explaining how John Kerry could lose a national election while winning 83% of the votes in Manhattan. Her remark echoed the famous comment by Pauline Kael, the New Yorker film critic, to the Modern Language Association a few weeks after the 1972 election: "I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they [Nixon's supporters] are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."
Another part of the program is to confound the complacent assumptions of American patriotism. Not only has America's past been bloody and shameful in ways the uninstructed few must be made to realize, but the supposed depredations of America's "enemies" are, upon examination, understandable and even admirable. Mark Lilla's book, The Reckless Mind(2001), examines such "philotyrannical intellectuals."
The late Susan Sontag was forbiddingly erudite—an essayist, novelist, playwright, and critic. There's not a community college dropout in America, however, gullible enough to have traveled to Hanoi and reported back, as she did in 1968, "The North Vietnamese genuinely care about the welfare of the hundreds of captured American pilots and give them bigger rations than the Vietnamese population gets, ‘because they're bigger than we are,' as a Vietnamese army officer told me, ‘and they're used to more meat than we are.'"
Three additional decades of reading, writing, and reflecting did not enhance Sontag's judgment. Her famous reaction to 9/11 was,
Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a ‘cowardly' attack on ‘civilization' or ‘liberty' or ‘humanity' or ‘the free world' but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions?... In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.
Stipulated, then: slitting the throats of airline crew members to carry out a suicide bombing is an act of bravery.
By the same token, whatever the correct assessment of Sarah Palin's abilities and limitations, it's impossible to imagine that it would have taken her 20 years of close contact with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright to notice that he sincerely believes a number of toxic, lunatic ideas. The thread connecting all of these—that 9/11 was a minor incident compared to the terrorism undertaken by the U.S., that AIDS was inflicted on Americans through deliberate government policies, that Louis Farrakhan is one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century—is that America is a wicked, contemptible place, and there is no such thing as an excessive criticism of it. Barack Obama's degrees from Columbia and Harvard law school may be proof of intellectual agility, but do not guarantee good sense. For this, as William Buckley suggested 45 years ago, we are better advised to rely on graduates of the University of Idaho, or even the opinions of stewardesses.
This essay is part of the Taube American Values Series, made possible by the Taube Family Foundation.