Dear Partners in thought,
As I was reading “In defense of elitism” by William A. Henry III, a Pulitzer-winning author and once cultural editor of Time Magazine, I felt his book was very relevant 26 years later given the times we know and the slow and unfair descent of the word “elitism” into the hell of the bad words in our societies. As Henry had written then and Bill Clinton was in full swing in his first term, the word “elitist” was beginning to be a catchall pejorative of all times and on its way to outstrip “racist”. The book was published in 1994 and sadly Henry died of a heart attack as it was coming out (hopefully not from the wave of harsh critics from the dissenters of his times). Henry, while a Yalie (but of course), was not your conservative or reactionary type of his times or someone like a current Trump official à la AG William Barr or red MAGA cap supporter. Henry was a registered Democrat and an ACLU (for those too young to know its heydays, the American Civil Liberties Union, a champion of the civil rights movement in the 1960s) which makes his opus all the more fascinating and relevant in our times even if flavored by the America of the early nineties. In other words, being a liberal democrat and an elitist was possible then as it should be now, this if I may say also translated globally.
While his views reflect Henry’s times, even if we remember them as being only yesterday, and would be odd in terms of how we see some key topics, like gender equality, then affirmative action, education in society, nature vs. nurture, I recommend you the book as it makes you think (there a few copies on Amazon, costing literally nothing). As a side matter It is also interesting to see how society changes in such a short time without us really noticing while some of the ways we may look at things may stay broadly unchanged.
As we watch and sadly get used to the “new normal” of Donald Trump’s White House briefing reality show in these pandemic times, we cannot help thinking about what went wrong in our world. Trump if anything has been the culmination point, through his ascent to what we grew up as seeing as the top job in the world, of the war against elitism and what goes with it such as the “experts”, the “Deep State”, not to mention intellectualism, the mainstream media and fact-based news and knowledge. Elitism, which is nothing more than the expression of common sense, has been under attack by the rise of the effortless and fact-less “know it all” populists with their primacy of vote-grabbing pseudo-egalitarianism usually combined with their dose of hatred for what used to constitute power as well as curiously the “foreigner” and globalization, all wrapped up in a narrow defense of nationalist-flavored cultural identity, to seize or increase their power and audience in the democratic West in recent years. Those with easy answers to complex issues have now taken over world leadership positions and try to stay in charge while they do not possess the simplest attributes of leadership. I grew tired long ago by the easy attacks on “those who knew” or had risen to “senior positions” as if by sheer mistake or a form of lottery, this all the more as their critics were experienced an always hard to suppress feeling of resentment and unfairness at times tainted of jealousy – something that the new populist “normal” if not era has helped them assuage.
Henry felt rightly that the populist scorn had more to do with values and intellectual distinction-making than with money even if those part of the elite had also secured the latter to some degree, this all the more as the anti-elitist crowd had never been really against money for themselves as demonstrated by the “stable genius”. The redeeming feature of elitism is that it is an approach which if aristocratic in the Greek sense (“the best”), it could never be only a reflection of inherited nobility (even if admittedly the latter were part of if not the elite in ancient times. Elitism in modern times has been thriving for excellence as the old McKinsey duo of old used to proclaim in my youth in their famed book on the very topic. Elitism in our times is not the product or a reflection of a closed shop and is always open to those who work and think hard or harder, this even today.
As you may daily meet populist idiocy and they scorn “elitism” in your face you should borrow from William Henry and remind those enlightened people what elitism really is:
- Respect and even deference toward leadership (assuming it is real and of the old-fashioned kind unlike what we have seen lately in some key countries, something Henry might not have fathomed as possible) and position
- Esteem for accomplishment especially if achieved through long labor and rigorous education
- Reverence for heritage, particularly in history, philosophy, and culture
- Commitment to rationalism and scientific investigation
- Upholding of objective standards
- (more importantly for Henry though I see it as a by-product) the willingness to assert unyieldingly that one idea, contribution or attainment is better than another (this being seen a quarter of a century ago as the overly “insensitive” drive for some that helped political correctness, one of Henry’s nemesis, to thrive but which should never prevent us from discussing any matters freely and openly)
Lloyd Glenn, one of the lead opposition research campaign counsels to Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988 (the race against Mike Dukakis), so in other words today a “Never Trumper” Republican, wrote an interesting piece in the FT last Thursday. He felt that Trump, clearly a successful American-flavored populist, strong in his hatred of the despised elite, and experts of all types for highly practical reasons, had been the director of the new Republican Party orchestra remaking the U.S. the country of White America and the South (he could have added some of the rural Midwest and be more precise in stressing “older white male America”). It is telling that the title of his op-ed was “The American Confederacy Rises Again” as shown with the many and at times unsurprisingly counter-productive Dixie flags out in the open across America during the anti-lockdown demonstrations. What else do we need to see to confirm that traditional elitism together with its fact-based drive and its search for excellence is again and always on the right side of history? Writing those words I admit that the statement is more of an Hercule Poirot exercise of connecting the dots which could be construed as an easy sophistic exercise while I admit shamelessly that I grew up liking “Gone with the Wind”. However, there is something there…
A new book by Joel Stein again entitled “In defense of Elitism” (perhaps the old heading was so good and to the point there was no need for reinventing the wheel, copyright aside) was just published, this time based on our current times including visits to some of the Trump “left out” strongholds of Middle America. I have not been able to read or even secure the book in these pandemic times (Amazon not having it yet when I checked as part of its wide offering) though a conversation between him and the great Walter Isaacson on CNN (I plead guilty for being a viewer of the globalist news channel) was very interesting, the book being more based on the author’s inter-actions with people he interviewed than his views on the principles of elitism as with William Henry. Different times, different approaches though same focus.