Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Pathology of the Elites: An Interview with Michael Knox Beran

Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews Michael Knox Beran in National Review Online about his new book The Pathology of the Elites: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life (Ivan R. Dee, 2010). It is an absolutely stunning interview that made me order the book immediately. I want to give you a few snippets below but I urge you to click over there and read the whole thing for yourself.

On the nature of the pathology of elites:
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s so pathological about elites?

MICHAEL KNOX BERAN: Elites become pathological when they mask their will to power with a philosophy of social pity. Lionel Trilling said of a character in Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima — an American-born woman who marries into the European nobility and becomes a social reformer — that she “is the very embodiment of the modern will which masks itself in virtue, making itself appear harmless, the will that hates itself and finds its manifestations guilty and is able to exist only if it operates in the name of virtue.” What Trilling is saying is that the ostensibly beneficent policies of the elite reformer very often conceal an instinct to coerce. “Some paradox of our nature leads us,” Trilling says, “when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”
What is the reason for this pathology?
LOPEZ: Who is to blame for it?

BERAN: Not who, but what: human infirmity. Our fallen and imperfect nature is certainly the root of the problem. But where human nature is concerned, too many of our elites are in denial. Edmund Wilson once observed that the “sincere reactionaries” from Dr. Johnson to Dostoevsky are beset by a “vision of human sin.” The progressive reformer, by contrast, finds in his vision of a better world what he thinks is an escape from the imperfections of his nature: He has “evolved a psychological mechanism which enables him to turn moral judgments against himself into moral judgments against society.”
The elites Beran is talking about, of course, are the Progressives, the movement birthed in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century that is dedicated to social reform, progress and Utopian schemes to better mankind. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and C. S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man are mid-Twentieth century warnings about the dangers inherent in the uncritical faith in "progress." Beran mentions another warning, this time from Hannah Arendt.
LOPEZ: How far along is this social revolution of theirs?

BERAN: Hannah Arendt warned that intrusive social policies might yet “reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal.” She foresaw a world in which elite social technicians would impose behavioral norms on people through “innumerable and various rules” — bureaucratic harnesses intended to “normalize” men and women, to compel them to “behave,” and to punish their “spontaneous action or outstanding achievement.” We are a long way from the Pavlovian nightmare Arendt envisioned, in which a servile population springs reflexively to the bells of the social state. But the ever-growing number of rules, regulations, pat-downs, filings, and taxes to which we are subject is becoming an obstacle to the full and free development of human individuality."
Where does Obama fit in this movement? He is a secularized Redeemer figure.
LOPEZ: Is Barack Obama one of them?

: Trilling said that liberalism makes “its alliances only when it thinks it catches the scent of Utopia in parties and government, the odor of sanctity in men.” The program of secular redemption many of today’s elites have embraced requires a secular saint. Give President Obama this much: In his campaign for the White House, he played the part of regenerative healer to perfection. Thus the now notorious Fourth Eclogue rhetoric with which candidate Obama hailed his victory over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries — what he called the moment “when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless,” when “the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
Obama not only is a progressive elitist; he plays a role in the religion that is progressivism. Of course, progressivism is a uniquely Western, post-Christian form of religion so it bears unmistakable marks of its Christian, as well as it pagan origins. The followers of this religion are to be resisted, but at the same time pitied.
It is evident that those who seized so eagerly on this patently spurious redemption rhetoric suffer from a kind of unrequited spiritual passion. In their discontent they are driven to seek an unsatisfactory relief in what Abraham Lincoln called “political religion” — a cult of a leader or a legislative program, an idolatry of the flesh or of nature itself. “Thou, Nature, art my goddess,” Edmund says in King Lear: “to thy law / My services are bound.” In promising to heal the planet, Obama adroitly posed as a priest of nature. This ersatz religion is the ark in which the elite sufferer confides his dream of regeneration and with which he tries to fill up the void in his life, an emptiness which even the choicer forms of Epicureanism cannot fill. Our elites were among the first to anoint the president a secular redeemer, yet even as we deplore their blindness, we ought to look charitably upon souls desperate enough to seek consolation in such strange gods. Theirs is an approach that leads inevitably (in Whittaker Chambers’s words) to “intolerable shallowness of thought combined with incalculable mischief in action.”
How does the pathology of the elites affect education?
LOPEZ: How has elitism affected teachers and thus hurt students?

BERAN: The theory of education that has long been propounded by the education establishment is founded, the critic Paul Goodman observed, on John Dewey’s belief that children are “human social animals” who must be “socialized” and “adjusted to the social group.” Once the Deweyesque seed — Goodman described its essence as student “participation and self-rule,” “group therapy as a means of solidarity,” and “permissiveness in all animal behavior and interpersonal expression” — was planted in the American classroom, education ceased to be a process of helping young minds discover the best that is within them through exposure to “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” The emphasis on the socialization of the young, and on the merging of their identities in that of the social pack, has led to the deposition of the moral and cultural element in education. As a result, public schools grow ever more culturally vacuous and ever less capable of engaging what Trilling called the “deep places” of the imagination. One cannot realize the educational aspiration of Pindar — “Become what you are” — if one’s humanity is being constantly submerged in one’s animal nature and in the group-think of the social pack.

At the same time, as I try to show in the book, the education establishment that dictates contemporary teaching dogma has transformed Emerson’s idea of self-reliance into a therapeutic philosophy of self-esteem. The teacher who today shrinks from challenging his students because he is afraid to injure their self-esteem is not a compassionate figure; there is, in his failure to hold his students to his own private standards, a frigid pity, and a secret contempt. Yet it is not easy to see how teachers who have been trained under the modern system — one that too often encourages them to look upon their students not as unique individuals but as social types — can do much better.
Who opposes the elites? Who do we look to for leadership if not the current elites of Western culture?
LOPEZ: Who is the ultimate anti-elite?

BERAN: The founders of the Republic. They were, certainly, an elite; but they were an elite gifted with self-knowledge, and they created a constitutional system designed to frustrate the human will to power. Their system of checks and balances has preserved Americans’ liberties and at the same time allowed men like Lincoln to rise into greatness — men who lacked elite credentials and would not have gotten very far under the elitist regimes of the Old World. The question today is whether we can prevent the wreck of the founders’ labors and restrain the Leviathan of the administrative state.

LOPEZ: Is Sarah Palin’s popularity a response to the “pathology of the elites”?

BERAN: Richard Cohen said in theWashington Post the other day that the Left “has long thought that there ought to be some connection between intelligence or learning and the right to govern.” How nice it must be to belong to that good-thinking mutual-admiration society that so forthrightly opposes its opponents’ faith in government by the stupid! For Cohen, the connection between intelligence and the right to govern is sufficiently attested in President Obama’s case by the fact that he and his wife have been “accredited by no less than four Ivy League institutions — Harvard twice and Princeton and Columbia, once each.” Res ipsa loquitur, as we elitists might say.

Sarah Palin infuriates the elites because she has not only questioned their system of accreditation, she has identified their moral “spinelessness” precisely with the elite training they have received, and has in particular questioned the moral value of an “elite Ivy League education.” Palin is saying essentially what Trilling said 60 years ago when he argued that the “educated class” of his day, however accomplished it might have been, was morally unintelligent. Your garden-variety elitist will put up with this sort of criticism from Lionel Trilling, but not from Sarah Palin. They despise the folksy candor that has made her a popular figure in much of the rest of the country.
I could simply quote the interview. Read it here. Buy the book here. Brilliant and illuminating!

No comments: