Monday, October 11, 2010

Anne Applebaum on Elitism

I always like it when somebody smart says the same things I do. In this case, a couple of weeks ago I reflected on the dingy attitudes of today's American elites:

It seems to me that the prevailing ideology among the upper crust discourages gratitude more specific than generalized "proud to be an American" thinking. We're a nation of rugged individualists, the thinking goes, and people who end up with the successful Harvard applications and good jobs and well-appointed friends have come to believe that they have entirely earned their success. They don't consider how the institutions and foundations created by government -- and in the culture -- have made their success possible. What they're told, instead, is that they've been "free" to pursue that success. That's right, of course, but only partly.

Anne Applebaum takes a different tack, wondering why Americans hate today's elites so. But she ends up in roughly the same place:

The old Establishment types were resented, but only because their wealth and power were perceived as "undeserved." Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier, and they could blame their failures on "the system." Nowadays, successful Americans, however ridiculously lucky they have been, often smugly see themselves as "deserving." Meanwhile, the less successful are more likely to feel it's their own fault—or to feel that others feel it's their fault—even if they have simply been unlucky.

Then again, I'm not sure she's entirelyright on this; I agree there's an element of luck to all of this that falls outside the acknowledgement of today's Randian-flavored capitalist thinking. But maybe Americans also sense that what we today call "meritocracy" actually rewards a very, very narrow kind of merit: one in which 14-year-old freshmen -- and their parents -- decide the object of high school is to get great grades, participate and perform spectacularly in extracurricular activities and (generally) have their sites set on the person they want to be at 50 ... all at an age when most young people are still trying to decide who they are this week. Nail that down, be admitted to Harvard or Yale or Stanford, and your path in life can pretty much be set -- provided you don't go out of your way to fuck it up.

And if you do fuck it up -- if, say, you run the economy into the ground because you ran up billions of dollars in debt buying worthless mortgages, or if you oversaw and planned a disastrous war abroad that cost American lives and compromised American values -- well, you're rewarded ... so long as your fuck-up wasn't criminal in nature. Douglas Feith gets a stint at Georgetown; John Yoo at Berkeley. AIG executives get taxpayer-subsidized bonuses amounting to more in a year than most Americans earn over the course of a decade. There's no down button on the meritocracy elevator, in other words, which makes the whole thing seem less authentically meritocratic.

There are reasons for anti-elitism, in other words, even if the expression of it is sometimes misplaced. (Insert everybody's current favorite example, Ginni Thomas, who rails against the establishment from her sinecure at billionaire-funded rabble-rousing "think tank.") And Applebaum is right about one thing: Americans will probably always have an anti-elitist streak, no matter how the elites obtained their ranks. They're the elites, after all. They have the power and the money. We don't. That's enough reason to hate the bastards.


namefromthepast said...

The more we lean away from capitalism the more elitism will exist. It is hard to break through the stench of old money, or its dumb ideas when it, and its mediocrity, are protected by the state. Unions are an excellent example.

Does gov't exist to justify the Ivy League or the other way around? Lots of backscratching and neither have produced anything anywhere close to the billing.

You touched on this but maybe what irritates me is when I f*** up I have to pay for it. When elites f*** up I have to pay for that too. Might be the definition of an elitist?

Joel said...

"The more we lean away from capitalism, the more elitism will exist."

That's silly. There are elites in every kind of society -- capitalism included -- and they almost always conflate the interest of the society they steer with their own.

I'm also skeptical of the idea that blue-collar workers banding together for better wages and working conditions counts as "elitism," unless the word (like "socialism") has been some catch-all adjective meaning "a thing I don't like."

namefromthepast said...

Let me be more clear. Steering away from capitalism to a more socialist form of gov't ensures that the source of the elitism will be handed down generation to generation. An aristocracy of the elite. If being elitist or influencer were an earned position-since you pointed out they are in all societies-maybe their ideas wouldn't seem so offensive.

No doubt people in positions of influence tend to make things better for themselves. However in a capitalist society no one person or entity really can achieve too much power without offending or alienating a client base so it's power is kept in check.

By the way it has been a long time(Wilson administration?)since the US was a capitalist society.

Government however is not nearly so responsive, it answers for its actions only in snail-like pace, and has no competition, and has captured authority in nearly every corner of our lives.

Big government is the perfect weapon for the weakminded and incompetent to remain in a position of influence.

I was simply using unions as an example of another institution where mediocrity is protected and encouraged.