Saturday, November 6, 2021

Tippy-Top Student Flamboyance

Update: Hit "Publish" a little prematurely on this one, late at night, and it's now somewhat revised and extended.

Flamboyants, via disney.fandom.

Say, what's woke David Brooks up to these days? A little less woke, to put it bluntly, castigating the élites, of course, as you'd expect from a part-time New York Times columnist and Aspen-backed social entrepreneur! Well, some élites ("Democrats Need to Confront Their Privilege"):

One of the Democratic Party’s core problems is that it still regards itself mainly as the party of the underdog. But as the information-age economy has matured, the Democratic Party has also become the party of the elite, especially on the cultural front.

Democrats dominate society’s culture generators: the elite universities, the elite media, the entertainment industry, the big tech companies, the thriving elite places like Manhattan, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In 2020, Joe Biden won roughly one-sixth of the nation’s counties, but together those counties generate roughly 71 percent of the nation’s G.D.P.

Look, I know we're all tired of this, but in the first place unless you're a very old-fashioned Marxist you don't envisage a two-party system where one party is the ruling class and the other one is the advance guard of the proletariat. Most people are not "the élite", by definition, so a true "party of the élite" wouldn't be able to win an election. For a majority, you need some non-élite voters.

Or maybe he means the party controlled by the élite, which is certainly more in keeping with the sociological use of the word as developed by C. Wright Mills in the mid–20th century, to describe the power éliteʼ, in particular the 7,000 or so people in the United States who actually run things:

According to Mills, the governing elite in the United States primarily draws its members from political leaders, including the president, and a handful of key cabinet members, as well as close advisers, major corporate owners and directors, and high-ranking military officers.[8] These groups overlap and elites tend to circulate from one sector to another, consolidating power in the process.

As opposed to the ruling class, the much broader group of people who contribute to the repertory of ideas, comprising the élite proper and their families plus journalists, academics, and other members of the intelligentsiya, including those tech workers and entertainers alongside lawyers and doctors and the like,

the social class of a given society that decides upon and sets that society's political agenda.

Either way, obviously, both parties in a two-party system are controlled by the élite by definition, and both are animated by the thinking of the ruling class. They just don't all agree with each other, and have coalesced into conflicting factions. There's not a party that is not the party of the élite.

I think the question David Brooks wants to answer is, who do the party élites represent? Who are they speaking for? Has the 90-year Democratic tradition of speaking for the little guy come to an end? Are they now speaking for the intelligentsiya instead? And of course he's slyly suggesting that it's not who they think they're speaking for, but rather for the rulers-in-training, with their beastly wokery:

As the Democrats have become more culturally and economically dominant, many people at tippy-top private schools and super-expensive colleges have flamboyantly associated themselves with the oppressed. Thankfully, that has moved society to more aggressively pursue social and racial justice. Unfortunately, a tacit ideology — sometimes called wokeness — has been grafted on to this pursuit.

(I'm sorry he doesn't give us any detail in this astonishing little paragraph on the unfortunate tacit ideology that has been grafted onto the aggressive pursuit of social and racial justice—perhaps it was so tacit that Brooks couldn't find out what it was, or who was the dastardly creature who grafted it. Very smart of society to just be inspired by the good side of the tippy-top student flamboyance and start aggressively to pursue social and racial justice, while ignoring the grafted-on side sometimes called wokeness, anyhow. Good old society!)

Whereas, meanwhile, your hearty old Republicans get to be defined by who they're speaking against:

The Republican Party, like many right-populist parties across the Western world, has become a giant vessel of resistance against cultural, urban and information-age elites. Glenn Youngkin, the Republican who was just elected governor of Virginia, expressed that resistance when he said, “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.”

Needless to say, the Harvard MBA and former Carlyle Group partner who was able to contribute $20 million of his own money to his gubernatorial campaign is not resisting the élite in the Mills sense, but rather members of the putative ruling class whose political power is extremely limited, except to the extent they are represented by a good union—schoolteachers—in the effort to divide voters. Youngkin was a member in good standing of the power élite before he ever thought about running for office (so, to be fair, was New Jersey's Phil Murphy, who was a top executive at Goldman Sachs and cashed out for hundreds of millions when the company went public in 1999), so that his move to Richmond is, sociologically speaking, more lateral than upward.

What never occurs to David Brooks, and it's one of the chief reasons his writing is so stupid, is the possibility of people speaking for themselves, and their communities, banging their way into the habitat of the ruling class and making their opinions heard. Unlike most conservatives, he's not even smart enough to be afraid of such a thing; he doesn't imagine it at all. 

Nevertheless, though the natural tendency over the past 5000 years of human civilization has always been for ruling classes to constitute themselves as much as they can as a hereditary group or caste, some kind of churn in the membership is inevitable, and sometimes in some places it can get pretty fluid, whether through violent revolution or, especially in recent centuries, small-d democratic politics. The really interesting question in trying to differentiate the parties in a two-party system is the question of mobility: how open are they to non-natives of the ruling class? Whose voice is heard, and how is it received? Must you bang your way in, or do they recruit, and who are they looking for? 

Traditionally, of course, since the abandonment of Reconstruction in 1876, the Republican party has consciously tended to present itself as the party controlled by the corporate élite, the captains of industry and so on, seeing themselves as the builders of American prosperity, the generous creators of jobs, and especially after World War II in alliance with the military élite in an engine of permanent growth in which they didn't really need to listen to any alternate voices. They recruited their forces from the élite private schools, law schools and later business schools in particular, country clubs and chambers of commerce. They weren't even so bad, in a way, at least as compared to now: following the good old bourgeois principle of enlightened self-interest, genuinely providing jobs, real careers from high school graduation to retirement, in cooperation with unions, willing to see big federal investment and moves toward equity, as Mark Mizruchi was telling the Niskanen Center in August:

This was even part, I think, of what provided so much support for Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. I think it contributed also to the… I won’t even say grudging… There was a certain degree of support for the civil rights movement among big business at the time. Because, again, the Soviet Union was competing throughout Africa and in Asia and other parts of the world for political prominence, and they were telling people (particularly in Africa): “Look at the way the United States treats Black people. Do you really want to align yourselves with them?” And I think the elites in the United States were very worried about that: “We have to do something about this. How are we going to justify this treatment of a significant segment of our population when we’re supposed to be a democracy?” For all these reasons, the Cold War was a very important element of this.

And then something began to unravel, just about exactly 50 years ago, as epitomized in the famous Confidential Memorandum sent by future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell to the national Chamber of Commerce in August 1971, warning America's comfortable business owners that the whole "enterprise system" was under fearsome attack:

The sources are varied and diffused. They include, not unexpectedly, the Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic. These extremists of the left are far more numerous, better financed, and increasingly are more welcomed and encouraged by other elements of society, than ever before in our history. But they remain a small minority, and are not yet the principal cause for concern.

The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.

There you have it, an early accusation of that exact "cultural élite" Brooks is worrying about today, the academy (students and faculty), the mainline churches and synagogues, the journalists, the entertainment industry, plus, of course, the Democrats, engaged in a "chorus of criticism". Stewart Alsop is quoted:

“Yale, like every other major college, is graduating scores of bright young men who are practitioners of ‘the politics of despair.’ These young men despise the American political and economic system . . . (their) minds seem to be wholly closed. They live, not by rational discussion, but by mindless slogans.” A recent poll of students on 12 representative campuses reported that: “Almost half the students favored socialization of basic U.S. industries.”

And it wasn't even taxes at this point (tax cuts were associated with the Kennedy Democrats) so much as the forces that had already led to the formation in December 1970, under Nixon's executive orders, of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency. Most frightening of all was the demonic figure of Ralph Nader:

Perhaps the single most effective antagonist of American business is Ralph Nader, who — thanks largely to the media — has become a legend in his own time and an idol of millions of Americans. A recent article in Fortune speaks of Nader as follows:

“The passion that rules in him — and he is a passionate man — is aimed at smashing utterly the target of his hatred, which is corporate power. He thinks, and says quite bluntly, that a great many corporate executives belong in prison — for defrauding the consumer with shoddy merchandise, poisoning the food supply with chemical additives, and willfully manufacturing unsafe products that will maim or kill the buyer. He emphasizes that he is not talking just about ‘fly-by-night hucksters’ but the top management of blue chip business.”

When American capitalism first realized that its God-given right to defraud consumers, poison the food supply, and manufacture murderous products was under serious threat, and turned to playing the victim in the biggest possible way. And attached itself, not coincidentally, to the intellectuals of the radical right.

And—this is the point I wanted to get to—detaching themselves from the rest of the elite. In the first place, from lawyers, who didn't care for the conservative attacks on the right to sue for personal injury damages and broader class actions, and then from the producers of popular music, movies, and television, who didn't like the threat of censorship of what was fashionable (I think it's also the case that the LGBTQ+ community in Hollywood, where there had always been plenty of conservatives, was freaked out of indifference by the horrible conservative response to the AIDS crisis and played a serious role). And rage in the social science and humanities departments over blatant threats to academic freedom accompanied by horror in the hard sciences at the conservative refusal to accept that industry practice posed serious threats to everybody's lives.

And then there was the news, in what was to become the age of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, of which Powell had written,

The national television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance. This applies not merely to so-called educational programs (such as “Selling of the Pentagon”), but to the daily “news analysis” which so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the enterprise system. Whether this criticism results from hostility or economic ignorance, the result is the gradual erosion of confidence in “business” and free enterprise.

And in the end, after the stupid launch of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, even the conservatives' beloved military establishment, appalled by the carelessness with which the second Bush administration had treated the lives of the troops in quest of political advantage as Cheney and Wolfowitz saw it. One of the biggest poorly covered stories of the last few years is all the Afghanistan and Iraq veterans running for office, as Democrats, mostly on the "moderate" side. but having a reason to present as Democrats. (When it was revealed that Trump saw servicemembers as "suckers" and "losers", you didn't see anybody demanding a return to the good old days of Donald Rumsfeld, because everybody understood that Rumsfeld felt exactly the same about them, though he had enough sense not to say so).

And in the same way the cultural élite (other than the news media, which were the quickest to conform themselves to the new dispensation), were more or less forced to accommodate themselves to Democrats, whether they wanted to or not, as Republicans increasingly became the party of againstness, the enemy of everybody in groups, of everything but the naked individual howling to be left alone to do what he (it had to be "he") wanted and the abstraction of "business" or "the economy".

And Democrats were forced per contra to become the party of for-ness, the representers of everybody, the hearers of all the voices of groups, including, and this is of the profoundest importance, those of the African American community. Nowhere in the Powell memo will you find the word "black", or "Negro", or "race" or "racism", but there is a reference to the conservative need to control Black voices, alongside (!) those of workers, on the topic of history and social studies textbooks, which is still so extremely lively 50 years later:

We have seen the civil rights movement insist on re-writing many of the textbooks in our universities and schools. The labor unions likewise insist that textbooks be fair to the viewpoints of organized labor. Other interested citizens groups have not hesitated to review, analyze and criticize textbooks and teaching materials. In a democratic society, this can be a constructive process and should be regarded as an aid to genuine academic freedom and not as an intrusion upon it.

If the authors, publishers and users of textbooks know that they will be subjected — honestly, fairly and thoroughly — to review and critique by eminent scholars who believe in the American system, a return to a more rational balance can be expected.

"Eminent scholars" will of course be white and male and monolingual English speakers, and rational by definition.

People of color had been flocking to the Democrats since 1932, for very good reasons, but it was only following the Republican abdication of being for anybody that Black voices began to be seriously heard as part of the Democratic party, as voices coming from inside, and the process has taken a very long time. Indeed, I think it was really just last year that the African American community really took its place at the Democratic table, in the year of pandemic, from the South Carolina primary through the George Floyd protests to the Georgia Senate runoff election, Black people successfully demanding to be heard as full members of the power élite in the proper sense, and that's what's causing the "wokism" panic: it's the subtext of everything Republicans are complaining about, even kindly old uncle David Brooks, so anxious to help you out if you're frightened by a salami sandwich, but so unable to imagine you might have something important to teach him.

No comments:

Post a Comment