Politics & Policy

Elite Guilt Begat Obamacare

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

Michael Knox Beran, a frequent contributor to National Review and National Review Online, is the author of a number of books, including The Last Patrician, on Robert Kennedy, and Jefferson’s Demons. Beran is the author of the new book Pathology of the Elites, which he discusses with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez here.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What’s so pathological about elites?

MICHAEL KNOX BERAN: Elites become pathological when they mask their will to power with a philosophy of social pity. Lionel Trilling said of a character in Henry James’s novel The Princess Casamassima — an American-born woman who marries into the European nobility and becomes a social reformer — that she “is the very embodiment of the modern will which masks itself in virtue, making itself appear harmless, the will that hates itself and finds its manifestations guilty and is able to exist only if it operates in the name of virtue.” What Trilling is saying is that the ostensibly beneficent policies of the elite reformer very often conceal an instinct to coerce. “Some paradox of our nature leads us,” Trilling says, “when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.”

LOPEZ: Who is to blame for it?

BERAN: Not who, but what: human infirmity. Our fallen and imperfect nature is certainly the root of the problem. But where human nature is concerned, too many of our elites are in denial. Edmund Wilson once observed that the “sincere reactionaries” from Dr. Johnson to Dostoevsky are beset by a “vision of human sin.” The progressive reformer, by contrast, finds in his vision of a better world what he thinks is an escape from the imperfections of his nature: He has “evolved a psychological mechanism which enables him to turn moral judgments against himself into moral judgments against society.” The elites who would save the world with social legislation are conscious only of a magnificent generosity of intention: In believing their motives to be pure, they have erected utopias in their hearts, Potemkin villages in their minds — specious constructions that allow them to feel good about themselves and to disavow the harmful consequences of their policies. Trilling’s point is that the social imagination makes the moral masquerade easier to accomplish than it was in the past. By reducing people to a mass of social groups and types, social policy obscures their individual humanity and turns them into statistics.

LOPEZ: How far along is this social revolution of theirs?

BERAN: Hannah Arendt warned that intrusive social policies might yet “reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal.” She foresaw a world in which elite social technicians would impose behavioral norms on people through “innumerable and various rules” — bureaucratic harnesses intended to “normalize” men and women, to compel them to “behave,” and to punish their “spontaneous action or outstanding achievement.” We are a long way from the Pavlovian nightmare Arendt envisioned, in which a servile population springs reflexively to the bells of the social state. But the ever-growing number of rules, regulations, pat-downs, filings, and taxes to which we are subject is becoming an obstacle to the full and free development of human individuality.

“Almost all the projects of the social reformers in these days,” John Stuart Mill wrote in 1855, “are really liberticide — Comte particularly so.” Mill’s words are as true now as they were then. One of the tasks of the conservative today must be to convince people that many of the beneficent ends which elite reformers seek to attain through coercive legislation can be better achieved by policies that leave the initiative to act and the freedom to choose to the individual.

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.

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.

LOPEZ: Are the elites’ ideas always bad? Are their intentions always good?

BERAN: The ideas of our elites are likely to be bad, and their intention dubious, as long as they confuse pity with compassion. Hannah Arendt illuminated the distinction between pity and compassion when she drew attention, in her book On Revolution, to a theme in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Arendt described how the novelist, in the story of the Grand Inquisitor, contrasted the loving compassion of Jesus with the eloquent but disastrous pity of the Inquisitor:

For compassion, to be stricken with the suffering of someone else as though it were contagious, and pity, to be sorry without being touched in the flesh, are not only not the same, they may not even be related. Compassion, by its very nature, cannot be touched off by the sufferings of a whole class or a people, or, least of all, mankind as a whole. It cannot reach out farther than what is suffered by one person and still remain what it is supposed to be, co-suffering. Its strength hinges on the strength of passion itself, which, in contrast to reason, can comprehend only the particular, but has no notion of the general and no capacity for generalization. The sin of the Grand Inquisitor was that he, like Robespierre, was “attracted toward les hommes faibles,” not only because such attraction was indistinguishable from lust for power, but also because he had depersonalized the sufferers, lumped them together into an aggregate — the people toujours malheureux, the suffering masses, et cetera. To Dostoevski, the sign of Jesus’s divinity clearly was his ability to have compassion with all men in their singularity, that is, without lumping them together into some such entity as one suffering mankind. The greatness of the story, apart from its theological implications, lies in that we are made to feel how false the idealistic, high-flown phrases of the most exquisite pity sound the moment they are confronted with compassion.

Pity, Arendt argued, is a concern for the misery of another unprompted by intimacy with, or love for, the sufferer. Compassion, by contrast, is a love directed “towards specific suffering” and concentrates on “particular persons.” It can be exercised only by individuals or small groups, not by agencies or bureaus. Pity, Arendt wrote, “may be the perversion of compassion.” Because the pitier “is not stricken in the flesh,” because he keeps his “sentimental distance,” he has often shown “a greater capacity for cruelty” than the confessedly cruel.

David Hume said that pity was a “counterfeited” love. It is the false compassion that results when men exercise their kindness by committee: It is the look in the eyes of the welfare clerk or the public-housing official. In his 1995 book The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch argued that the philosophy of “social democracy” favored by so much of the modern elite — a philosophy that would expand “the state’s custodial and tutelary functions” — degrades “both the victims, who are reduced to objects of pity, and their would-be benefactors, who find it easier to pity their fellow citizens than to hold them up to impersonal standards, attainment of which would entitle them to respect.”

To be pitied by another man is to stand humiliated before him; however well-intentioned programs grounded in pity may be, they always end by laying low their intended beneficiaries. Pity does not lead to a flourishing in the pitied, though it may provoke their resentment, even their rage; the act of pitying is always a kind of strength condescending to weakness. Love awakens; pity oppresses.

LOPEZ: Who is the ultimate anti-elite?

BERAN: The founders of the Republic. They were, certainly, an elite; but they were an elite gifted with self-knowledge, and they created a constitutional system designed to frustrate the human will to power. Their system of checks and balances has preserved Americans’ liberties and at the same time allowed men like Lincoln to rise into greatness — men who lacked elite credentials and would not have gotten very far under the elitist regimes of the Old World. The question today is whether we can prevent the wreck of the founders’ labors and restrain the Leviathan of the administrative state.

As a result of the mandarin revolution over which our elites have presided, too much discretionary authority has been confided to unelected regulators and unaccountable quasi-public bodies (like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac), and too much purse-string power has been vested in robo-laws that automatically trigger expenditures of public funds and steadily increase the size and scope of the government. It is sobering to reflect that overall government spending in the United States, which accounted for less than 7 percent of the gross domestic product in 1903, was estimated in 2009 to account for as much as 43 percent of GDP.

LOPEZ: Is Sarah Palin’s popularity a response to the “pathology of the elites”?

BERAN: Richard Cohen said in theWashington Post the other day that the Left “has long thought that there ought to be some connection between intelligence or learning and the right to govern.” How nice it must be to belong to that good-thinking mutual-admiration society that so forthrightly opposes its opponents’ faith in government by the stupid! For Cohen, the connection between intelligence and the right to govern is sufficiently attested in President Obama’s case by the fact that he and his wife have been “accredited by no less than four Ivy League institutions — Harvard twice and Princeton and Columbia, once each.” Res ipsa loquitur, as we elitists might say.

Sarah Palin infuriates the elites because she has not only questioned their system of accreditation, she has identified their moral “spinelessness” precisely with the elite training they have received, and has in particular questioned the moral value of an “elite Ivy League education.” Palin is saying essentially what Trilling said 60 years ago when he argued that the “educated class” of his day, however accomplished it might have been, was morally unintelligent. Your garden-variety elitist will put up with this sort of criticism from Lionel Trilling, but not from Sarah Palin. They despise the folksy candor that has made her a popular figure in much of the rest of the country.

LOPEZ: Is there such a thing as being too uncritically anti-elite?

BERAN: The Yahoo in Swift’s book is uncritically anti-elite: He tramples down the oats and grasses of the Houyhnhnm, who is his superior in wisdom and virtue. We must all deplore that. The problem is this: It is not easy to say, at any given moment in time, who the truly elite are, of whom the real aristoi — the wisest, the best, and the most virtuous among us — is composed. Cohen supposes that one can tell who the truly elite are by their academical credentials. Schopenhauer would, I think, have begged to differ. Swift’s formula, though admittedly imperfect, remains better than most. When the truly elect soul appears in the world, “you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are in confederacy against him.”

LOPEZ: Can the Tea Party stop the elites?

BERAN: Only if the Tea Partiers find a way to break through the elites’ Praetorian Guard, the public-sector unions.

LOPEZ: Are some elites more amusing than others?

BERAN: It was fun to see Bono arrive in Australia for a concert with a fleet of 747s.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is an editor-at-large of National Review Online.


The Latest