Friday, July 13, 2012

Brooks on elites

David Brooks penned (is that now an obsolete term?) an opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, "Why Our Elites Stink". Now, I'll admit, I consider myself an elite (though not an elitist) in certain respects: I got a pretty good education and have been reasonably well-compensated for most of my career. Therefore, the provocative title of his piece caught my eye and initially raised my hackles.

Brooks' little piece comes off as half-baked, but not for the reason you might expect if you're familiar with his (or my) general perspective. Brooks generally makes more solid arguments than what you'll find in this piece. In taking on the thesis that elites in any form are fundamentally "dysfunctional" and promote inequality, a thesis proposed by Chris Hayes (MSNBC and The Nation), Brooks makes some good points of his own but nevertheless seems to be flailing about in conjecture-land. I don't generally agree with Brooks, but I give him credit for making good arguments from reasonable assumptions and data as a rule. Not this time, though.

Brooks contends that the problem with today's meritocratic elites is their lack of social conscience — the fact that they don't feel an obligation to anything or anyone but themselves.

The problem is that today’s meritocratic elites cannot admit to themselves that they are elites.

Everybody thinks they are countercultural rebels, insurgents against the true establishment, which is always somewhere else. This attitude prevails in the Ivy League, in the corporate boardrooms and even at television studios where hosts from Harvard, Stanford and Brown rail against the establishment.

As a result, today’s elite lacks the self-conscious leadership ethos that the racist, sexist and anti-Semitic old boys’ network did possess. If you went to Groton a century ago, you knew you were privileged. You were taught how morally precarious privilege was and how much responsibility it entailed. You were housed in a spartan 6-foot-by-9-foot cubicle to prepare you for the rigors of leadership.

The best of the WASP elites had a stewardship mentality, that they were temporary caretakers of institutions that would span generations. They cruelly ostracized people who did not live up to their codes of gentlemanly conduct and scrupulosity. They were insular and struggled with intimacy, but they did believe in restraint, reticence and service.

To contend that previous generations generally lived up to a sense of noblesse oblige is to look back through rose-colored lenses, methinks. To the extent any obligation was felt, it was to one's fellow elites who also depended on the institutions in question, not to the institutions themselves, much less the larger society to which they (the institutions and the elites themselves) belonged. I'd say my contention has at least as much force and evidence behind it as Brooks'.

This is not to say that Brooks isn't on to something when he says that "The language of meritocracy (how to succeed) has eclipsed the language of morality (how to be virtuous)." There is a lack of a sense of social obligation among many people in this society. Whence that attitude? I'd argue it owes a lot to the libertarian "I've got mine and you're responsible for getting yours" attitude promulgated for over thirty years by conservative elites.

You don't have to be socialist to think that we have an obligation to one another. We are citizens (and legal non-citizen residents) of the same country. What does that mean, if it doesn't mean we don't have neighborly responsibilities to one another?

Low (or no) taxes and no governmental interference in our lives are viscerally appealing positions to advocate. They are also extremely simplistic and totally inadequate to maintain the kind of nation-state to which we have become accustomed. They are arguably also totally inadequate even to the kind of nation-state we would design from the ground up if we had the chance. Conservative ideology on this score has devolved to advocacy of an Ayn Randian fantasy world — although I doubt most of us would use the term "fantasy" to describe that world if we actually lived in it. More likely, we'd call such a world "nightmarish". (Some in Republican-governed states are headed rapidly in that direction, so we'll see.)

What Brooks is groping to express — or, more likely, what he is trying hard not to admit — is that economic conservatives have been so successful in promoting every-man-for-himself selfishness, that we now find ourselves living with the predictable consequences. Too many people consider "social obligations" to be not merely contemptible, but evil. They don't think clearly enough about how this country currently runs to realize that we are all enmeshed in social obligations, and that most of us like them. We like Medicare. We like Social Security. We like that when natural disasters strike, our local, state and national governments have legal obligations to help. And we don't like it when our governmental institutions fail, though we often assume the failures are due to intrinsic ineptitude rather than considering that we might have put them in the position to fail by failing to fund them adequately.

So to the extent that today's elites have the literally anti-social attitude that Brooks ascribes to them, it's largely due to the ideals espoused by Brooks and his fellow conservatives. If he had only acknowledged the elephant (also the Republican mascot — ahem) in the room, and perhaps meditated on his piece a while longer, he might have written something more valuable and compelling.

[UPDATE: I later wrote a more focused and less tangential response to Brooks' piece.]

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