January Diary
The gulag, the Long Island Railroad, Chinese lit, and more


John Derbyshire

Jane Austen blooper     I have only ever read two of Jane Austen’s novels — the obvious two — so I thought I’d get cracking on the other four while I still have my faculties. I therefore borrowed Emma from my daughter.

Whoa! Chapter 1, second paragraph, first sentence:

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father . . . 

“Youngest of the two”? Should be “younger,” surely. Had my daughter got a dud copy somehow? It’s one of the Family Classics Library set given away by the New York Post (America’s Newspaper of Record) a few years ago. I checked with same thing. I went to the downstairs study and pulled down the Modern Library edition: “She was the youngest of the two . . .”

I consulted a friend who was an English-literature major. She: “Fussiness about grammar was a Victorian thing. Before that people didn’t bother so much. Look at what Shakespeare got away with.”

Yeah, all right, but . . . Jane Austen?

Ruthless meritocracy     I will maintain, against anyone willing to be maintained against, that Michael Young’s Rise of the Meritocracy was one of the most significant books of the last century. The question implicit in it is: Can a meritocratic society can be stable?

Young was a socialist. He thought that meritocracy was all right in a limited sphere, but that if it were to be scaled up too far beyond that sphere, an arrogant elite would result.

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.

Meritocracy is what we have ended up with 53 years later, though. Is it really so bad? What’s the alternative, anyway — a leveling socialism? Has that actually worked anywhere? The meritocracy in Michael Young’s book collapses in the year 2033, falling to a revolt by the great unwashed and meritless. Could this happen, on something close to that timescale?

Discuss among yourselves. I said what I have to say about our meritocratic elite some years ago:

Still, it could be worse. I wish these upcoming elites had a little more color and dash. I wish they were not so academic. I wish there were some sign of a Churchill among them, or a Roosevelt (Teddy for preference) or an Andy Jackson. I wish they had stronger opinions. I wish they showed more evidence of having courage. I wish, above all, there were fewer of them. But do I have an alternative to meritocracy? Do I think these kids are unspeakably awful, and will drag western civilization down to perdition? Would I prefer my own kids not have a shot at joining them, if they decide they want to? No, and no, and no.

I’ve drifted somewhat from that position, though not far, mainly from taking in a lot of evolutionary psychology from books and friends. We, Homo sap., have gone through considerable changes these past few millennia; but the bedrock contours of the human personality, laid down in those long paleolithic eons, can still be discerned. They are egalitarian, not meritocratic. One way or another, the leveling impulse will reassert itself, though I believe and hope in some harmless, decorative way — some way, at least, less drastic than Khmer Rouge–style shoot-anyone-who-wears-glasses.

The current meritocratic elite of Britain seems to be trying to do some closing of the gap by mimicking the speech and manners of the proles. So claims Charles Moore of the London Daily Telegraph.

Even members of the royal family say things like “Go, guys, go”, and some of the younger ones marry people who look like bouncers in Geordie [i.e. northeast-England prole] nightclubs.

It sounds cosmetic to me, but it at least shows awareness of the issues Michael Young’s book raised.

Moore’s piece also had me lamenting one of the casualties of meritocracy in Britain: the upper-class twit.

The public schools [that is, exclusive private boarding schools] themselves have become far more meritocratic. When I was at Eton [the premier boys’ boarding school] in the 1970s, a very large proportion of the boys came from landed families. Many were not, to put it mildly, ambitious. Some read only The Sporting Life, and that with difficulty. Today, their numbers at Eton have dwindled dramatically.

A sad loss to Western Civ.