Elite Guilt Begat Obamacare
It’s all part of The Pathology of the Elites, says Michael Knox Beran.


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.

Teachers today practice their craft in a highly centralized system that inhibits the development of sympathetic insight. Anyone who has tried to fit his personality into the mould of such a system knows how difficult it is to keep intact even his consciousness of his own humanity. Only by an effort of will can he bring himself to see that the human raw material he is charged with processing has also its unique potential.

LOPEZ: Was the health-care legislation signed into law in March purely about the false compassion of elitism?

BERAN: If white guilt helped elect President Obama, elite guilt helped enact the health-care law. The tragedy of Obamacare is that there are better ways to accomplish an end that just about everybody favors — better medical care for all — than coercive, statist ones. Price controls have never yet led to an abundance of the product subject to them.

LOPEZ: Are elites always bad?

BERAN: No, and indeed José Ortega y Gasset argued in The Revolt of the Masses that many of the troubles of the modern period can be traced to the decline of what he called “directing minorities” — that is, intelligent elites. The difficulty which any elite (whether aristocratic or meritocratic) confronts is the corrupting effect of power. The difficulty for our contemporary liberal elites is all the greater because, as Trilling shows, they have used a philosophy of social pity to conceal their desire for power even from themselves. In contrast to the older and enduring moral and spiritual traditions of the West, the social imagination has developed no protocols for the examination of conscience. Now, of course, no discipline of humility, however elaborate, can wholly prevent offenses, which “must needs come.” Still, the old protocols, so intimately connected with the development of the moral imagination of the West, are superior to such safeguards as the social imagination has evolved.

LOPEZ: Can the elites develop new moral protocols to foster self-knowledge and prevent hubris and overreaching?

BERAN: Trilling thought that one could find a substitute for the older, God-grounded morality in what he called the “moral realism” of art and more especially of the novel. “For our time,” he wrote in The Liberal Imagination, “the most effective agent of the moral imagination has been the novel of the last two hundred years. . . . [Its] greatness and its practical usefulness lay in its unremitting work of involving the reader himself in the moral life, inviting him to put his own motives under examination, suggesting that reality is not as his conventional education has led him to see it.” Yet in the seminaries where so many of our elites are trained, it is no longer respectable to derive moral illumination from art. Trilling himself showed how liberal critics were converting art into an adjunct of the social imagination. He pointed to thinkers who, like the critic V. L. Parrington, classified works of art in the light of their creators’ sense of “social responsibility.” Such thinkers, Trilling said, supposed that Henry James would have been a better novelist if his books had been “pleas for co-operatives, labor unions, better housing, and more equitable taxation.” The tendency to interpret works of art in terms of social categories is if anything more widespread today than it was in Trilling’s time. In the modern university works of art are too often studied, not for the light they throw on the moral imagination, but for the degree to which their creators evince a sense of ethnic or racial or sexual grievance.