Politics & Policy

In Defense of Elitism

We need it.

About a decade ago, one of the Smithsonian museums here in Washington had an exhibit on the history of human civilization, or something along those lines. I didn’t see it, but a friend of mine went and his description always stuck with me. One of the displays was a comparative timeline of different cultures. At, say, 1250 you’d see what the British, the Japanese, the Chinese, or the Arabs had come up with. The sight that really struck home for my friend was a beautiful Renaissance Italian clock, with movable gears and a stunning hand-painted face with a sun and moon alternating for AM and PM. The clock came from the 15th or 16th century, I think. But that’s not really important. On the same timeline for African culture there was a wood mask with eye- and mouth-holes cut out in some “novel” way. The little explanatory card on the wall tried to make it sound, somehow, as though the handcrafted clock and the mask were similarly impressive accomplishments. To which my friend responded, roughly, “Are you high?”

I may have gotten the details a bit off here, but the substance is obviously true. Some things are better than other things. Some cultures are better than other cultures. Some things are more worth studying, celebrating, and emulating than other things. Or as the late William Henry III put it in his wonderful book, In Defense of Elitism, “It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.”

No doubt, if I were to say this in an Ivy League faculty room today (or yesterday, or last year, or ten years ago) it would be considered scandalous — not because it isn’t true, but because it is.

The war on what I like to call “factual correctness” is a top-to-bottom cultural project. If the truth hurts, change the definition of truth. Facts that might inconveniently intrude upon the self-esteem of others must be demolished. So, as grade schools eliminate keeping score at games, postmodernists try to eliminate the notion of keeping score at anything, ever. Scores, you see, imply winners and losers, and if anybody feels like a loser then they feel bad — and anything that makes you feel bad is necessarily illegitimate.

Meanwhile, the University of California wants to get rid of standardized tests rather than be embarrassed by the “disparate” results of those tests. Gangster rap gets compared to Mozart and the mentally handicapped are allowed to vote — because “who’s to say” that gangster rap isn’t the classical music of today, and who’s to say that a man with the IQ of a seven-year-old doesn’t have an “equally valuable perspective”? Animals have “rights” because they have “feelings” — which are so much more important than judgment, intelligence, or knowledge. Graffiti should be considered to be high art, since so much of what was traditionally held to be high art is just an amalgam of prejudice and tyranny.

It’s thus throughout the West. Italian Prime Minister Sylvio Berlusconi was vilified for noting that Western civilization is superior to Islamic civilization because the West is more free, tolerant, and prosperous than the Islamic world. But even his critics couldn’t dispute what he’d said; they just thought it was wrong or mean for him to make such factually correct statements so soon after September 11. More recently, the assassinated Dutch maverick Pim Fortuyn was vilified for telling similarly obvious truths. And, let us not forget the pea-soup-thick bile of moral equivalence and inverted logic that Israel elicits from elites around the world who are content to call democratic Israel a Nazi state — while describing various crapulent and dictatorial regimes who countenance demands for the actual eradication of Jews, as peace-loving and tolerant.


Of course, readers of National Review Online in general, and this column in particular, are hardly strangers to the perspective offered above.

But while conservatives of all stripes can agree to one extent or another that today’s cultural elite is suffused with moral and intellectual asininity, they can differ wildly on whether elitism in general is worthwhile. You see, just because this elite sucks doesn’t mean elitism does.

It’s understandable that, in our open and egalitarian culture, we would look with great skepticism on the notion that some people are better than other people. But that’s not really what elitism, properly understood, is about.

In America, “elitist,” “snobbish,” and “aristocratic” have become largely synonymous. That’s a shame. “Elite” derives from the Latin for “elect,” though not necessarily in the democratic “electoral” sense. It means those who — through efforts and talent — self-select themselves as qualified to lead, and teach, by example.

Meanwhile, the word “snob” originally meant “shoemaker,” and in the 18th century students at Cambridge University turned it into a word to describe the middle-class townies who tried to affect a station they didn’t deserve (in effect, the original creators of the word “snob” were in fact terrible snobs in the modern sense). It was William Thackeray who, in his 1848 Book of Snobs, defined the term to mean “someone vulgarly aping his social superiors.” In other words, snobs are people who put on airs about who they are and who look down on those they are no different from. Meanwhile, “aristocracy” (which derives from the Greek for “rule by the best”) sounds quite a bit like elitism, but the chief difference is that aristocrats are born, not made — which is all the difference in the world.

It’s an old fable that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist. Today, the prevailing elite has pulled off a similar trick. It has convinced the world that only the ignorant, the unlearned, and the unsophisticated believe there are capital-T Truths; worthwhile standards for merit, beauty, or art; and bright-line distinctions between right and wrong. They’ve done all of this, mind you, while preserving their own privileged status for making such pronouncements — like a politician who champions campaign-finance “reform” just so long as it ensures his own incumbency. In this sense, they are more snobs than elites, because they spend so much time trying to assure the world that conservatives are fakers — “pseudo-intellectuals” and “pretend-journalists” — in order to keep them out of their clubhouses.

The worst thing about all of this isn’t that there aren’t enough conservatives at Ivy League schools or at the New York Times. No, as William Henry, an espoused liberal, observed, the worst byproduct of this elite’s diabolical trickery is “the erosion of the intellectual confidence needed to sort out, and rank, competing values.”

Right though they are to be fed up with this elite, too many conservatives believe that any elite is illegitimate. Reading through the e-mail on my censorship column, I was astounded by how thoroughly many conservatives have come to believe that nobody is qualified to decide what is good or what is bad. This was not just an understandable opposition to the state making decisions best left to its citizens, but a full-throated distaste for the idea that such expertise could be possible for anybody.

This is absurdity on stilts. Elitism, again in the words of William Henry, means “some ideas are better than others, some values more enduring, some works of art more universal. Some cultures, though we dare not say it, are more accomplished than others and therefore more worthy of study.”

We talk of elite athletes, elite scientists, elite craftsmen, or elite soldiers, and everyone understands that these people are simply better, more expert at what they do than the rest of us. It is only when we get closer to those realms where experts have decided to bend every fact and twist every standard — in an effort to mend the bruised egos of backward nations and boutique domestic victim groups — that “elite” becomes pejorative. This is a tragedy, because conservatism will become meaningless if, in an effort to displace the current elite from its perch, we embrace the notion that nobody has a right to that perch.

Right now, the word-elite of journalists and academics are the ones asking, “Who are we to judge?” This elite is the one incapable of discerning the difference between a bone through the nose and the moon launch. It is this elite which says that the canon isn’t worth reading; that the Constitution is a fig leaf for white racism; that the Enlightenment wasn’t worth the trouble; that freedom and democracy are just “abstractions”; that beauty is just so much lookism.

Well, if an elite soldier believed arms were for hugging, if an elite athlete argued that video games were the best for exercise, if an elite scientist argued that two plus two equals a duck, we would fire these people — we wouldn’t redefine what it means to be the best soldier, the best scientist, the best athlete. And we certainly wouldn’t conclude that we don’t need elite soldiers or elite scientists. The task, for conservatives especially, is to fire the teachers and journalists who believe that a bone through the nose is equivalent to a moon launch — not to eliminate altogether the positions they should rightly hold.


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