THREE CHEERS FOR ARISTOCRACY“It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.”
Now, before you think Pat Buchanan has stumbled on a new applause line, this point was actually made a few years ago by the late William Henry III. A Time magazine theater critic and essayist, Henry wrote a wonderful book called In Defense of Elitism. Sadly, he died — at the age of 44 — just before it was published, so it got less attention than it justly deserved.
I am invoking Henry because last Friday I wrote that “I am an elitist — but in the good way, just like Keyes himself.” Quite a number of people protested — either that Keyes is no elitist or that there is no “good way” to be one. One reader summed up his objection nicely, saying that calling oneself an elitist was like saying “I am an a**h*le — but in the good way.” This is disheartening. Elitism — properly understood — is at the heart of the conservative enterprise and wholly consistent, if not essential, to the American experiment. But we are so infected with radical egalitarianism today that we are not merely frightened to judge people, we are opposed to elevating them as well. An elite is simply a member of a group which is considered superior in some way. In America, the standard of superiority is supposed to be intellect, ability, or achievements. Sometimes an elite may not deserve his status — as in the case of some aristocracies or all Communist regimes — but that is a far different thing from saying elites are bad.
Thomas Jefferson, remember, was a befuddled and brilliant radical democrat who devoutly believed in elitism. “I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men,” he wrote to John Adams. “The grounds of this are virtue and talents.” Pull the string out of the back of any UVA grad and he will tell you that “Mr. Jefferson” founded that school to train this natural aristocracy to run the country (or something like that; I tend to tune out UVAers when they get on their school-pride kicks).
Henry wrote that America’s phobia about elitism long ago cut through the fat of aristocracy and is now simply slicing into the muscle of merit. Education has become a gold-star system for self-esteem, rather than anything approaching rigorous intellectual training. Diplomas have become “a credential without being a qualification.” Worse, multiculturalism — which is simply egalitarianism wrapped in rainbow-colored paper — has elevated the notion that all ideas are equal, all systems equivalent, all cultures of comparable worth. Hence his comments about the bone through the nose. One can say, by the way, that a bone through the nose is as impressive as putting a man on the moon. But in order to do so in an intellectually honest way, you will have to discard most of the standards and criteria that we use in everyday life. The fact is that an essential part of progress is rewarding accomplishment with the praise it deserves. Even if that means the losers feel, well, like losers. Why is it that the only place we are permitted to use the term “elite” is in military or athletic affairs? We can talk about an elite force of soldiers, or how the All Star team is an elite group of athletes, but if we talk about elites in education or business there is something racist, or at least unfair, about it. The pointy-headed objectors will hit you with questions like: “What does ‘deserve’ mean anyway?” Or, “what do you mean by better?” If you say “better” means “more true,” “more accurate,” “more accomplished,” “superior,” or simply “not worse,” you will be called something bad — racist, sexist, elitist, — in other words, a conservative, because today, standing up for rigorous standards is the primary work of conservatism.
Which is what happened to Henry, even though he was a lifelong Democrat and ACLU card-carrier. But he was also a champion of that old-fashioned thing called “Western civilization” — civilization for short. He believed that civilization was under assault by forces opposed to: “respect and even deference for leadership and position; esteem for accomplishment, especially when achieved through long labor and rigorous education; reverence for heritage, particularly history, philosophy and culture; commitment to rationalism and scientific investigation; upholding of objective standards; most important, the willingness to assert unyieldingly that one idea, contribution or attainment is better than another.”
Obviously, this put him in the cross-hairs of all sorts of groups who believe ideas are not valid if they hurt peoples’ feelings. Here’s a good example of what I mean:
The unvarnished truth is this: You could eliminate every woman writer, painter, and composer from the caveman era to the present moment, and not significantly deform the course of Western culture….This does not mean women are inferior. It simply means they didn’t have the opportunity. There should be no shame in this for modern women….
Tell that to a feminist, and you’ll be lucky if you walk funny for the rest of your life.
Anyway, Alan Keyes is an elitist in the good way, and that is precisely why so many people like him. He believes that certain ideas are superior to other ideas. He doesn’t believe that an idea or a fact is more or less true depending on whether it will make a feminist cry. He is a staunch supporter of merit and an opponent of group politics. He is a believer in the natural aristocracy of talent and virtue.
That makes him a great force for good. It doesn’t necessarily make him the best presidential candidate.