Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Merit Badge

The summer 2017 intrern class. Photo by Pedro Martínez Monsivais/AP, via Glamour.
Shorter David Brooks. "The Strange Failure of the Educated Elite", New York Times, 28 May 2018:
Now that we're ruled by a new aristocracy of merit, the smartest people with the highest IQs and of all colors and genders and committed to equality and recycling, things are really going badly, with inequality rising and social trust decreasing and government not working at all. What on earth happened? As I've been saying for 20 years, like the books I enjoy, which are the books that agree with me, this is the fault of the ideology of meritocracy, which overvalues intelligence, autonomy, and diversity, and has a misplaced notion of the self and inability to think institutionally. Why can't we go back to the way these awkwardnesses were dealt with when our society was controlled by stupid but well-bred white men? I mean I'm grateful that the meritocracy is here to stay, but we need a different set of reasons for having it.
Oh jeez, who's going to tell him? David, we haven't gotten rid of stupid but well-bred white men yet.
Once upon a time, white male Protestants ruled the roost. You got into a fancy school if your father had gone to the fancy school. You got a job at a white-shoe law firm or climbed the corporate ladder if you golfed at the right club.
Then we smashed all that. We replaced a system based on birth with a fairer system based on talent. We opened up the universities and the workplace to Jews, women and minorities.
I love that. "We opened up the universities... to Jews". He's so deeply identified with the patricians that he's forgotten he's Jewish himself. That's precisely what was actually done, almost entirely unconsciously, by those seriously well-meaning university administrators after World War II: Jews followed the Irish and Italians into the category of whiteness, tokens of all groups were admitted to Yale and Chicago, and the patriciate replicated itself, in a slightly more colorful form, in the law firms and financial institutions, the economics and international relations departments, the news media, and the government.
University attendance surged, creating the most educated generation in history. We created a new boomer ethos, which was egalitarian (bluejeans everywhere!), socially conscious (recycling!) and deeply committed to ending bigotry.
The hippies didn't take over! We had a great run of being close to power, and passed some great legislation, and put some great people in the career civil service and the judiciary and the humanities and science departments (all those experts in ecology and climate science) and even the newspaper business, and inequality did continue its drastic decrease, and diversity in power positions its increase, but the stupid white men retained the levers of power, banking and tax policy, and by 1980 they'd had enough and began to clamp down. With all the natural advantages conferred by their stupidity (not low IQs, I mean, many of the people I'm thinking of have high IQs, but narrowness of spirit, focus on themselves and their community and its benefit, sheer refusal to see complexity), they've kept that "boomer ethos" under control and frustrated ever since.
The essential point is this: Those dimwitted, stuck up blue bloods in the old establishment had something we meritocrats lack — a civic consciousness, a sense that we live life embedded in community and nation, that we owe a debt to community and nation and that the essence of the admirable life is community before self.
They had Tory propaganda suggesting that their comfort was "community" while the agitation of the poor and disadvantaged, complaining about the quality of the charity given to them, was "selfishness" and "ingratitude", and they thought they were being the most thoughtful, generous communitarians anybody could ever be, and they did it by cultivating the ability to not pay attention.

And Brooks clarifies that, in case you didn't notice, by adding that it doesn't even matter!
The meritocracy is here to stay, thank goodness, but we probably need a new ethos to reconfigure it — to redefine how people are seen, how applicants are selected, how social roles are understood and how we narrate a common national purpose.
"Probably"! He likes his "meritocracy" the way it is, thanks very much, he just wants better propaganda!

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