LOPEZ: Is Barack Obama one of them?
BERAN: 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.”
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.”
LOPEZ: How much are the Kennedys to blame?
BERAN: President Kennedy was sufficiently open-minded to know that individual initiative can achieve certain ends (such as economic growth) better than coercive statism. Hence his decision to “release,” as he put it, impounded dollars in the form of tax cuts. And yet when Kennedy read, in The New Yorker, Dwight Macdonald’s review of the socialist Michael Harrington’s book The Other America, he began at once to make plans for what became the “War on Poverty,” a classic example of pathological elitism that ended up doing more harm than good. In my book I argue that it would have been vastly better had reformers attempted to revive, at the local level, the old civic-pastoral traditions of the West, traditions which created a first-rate charitable culture that was voluntary in nature and rooted in the knowledge of particular people and conditions. This civic-pastoral culture, although it was overwhelmed by the great expansion of commerce that began in the 18th century, was the source of a pastoral care superior to the remedial bureaucracies of the social state. But the elites have no interest in the voluntarist approach, for such an approach would deprive them of control.
LOPEZ: Does elite hypocrisy matter — on an issue like school choice, for instance?
BERAN: In hypocrisy there is hope. When President Obama sends his daughters to a fancy private school, not the local government-run institution, he implicitly confesses that the policies he would impose on the rest of us don’t work.
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.