Culture

A Host of Squalid Oligarchs

Graduating students take part in commencement exercises at Harvard University in 2017. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
A little defense of gatekeepers, the media, and Harvard, too

Cast your mind back, if you can, to high school, or possibly to junior high or even elementary school, childhood being one of the times of our lives when we are the most honest and most open about our natural anxieties regarding status. I grew up in the Eighties, a time when high-school students still spoke unironically about something called “being popular,” which was and is for many people an intense concern.

This is only natural. I do not put quite as much stock in evolutionary pop psychology as some do, but it is plausible that our sensitivity to questions of status and hierarchy is natural, man being a social animal whose well-being is highly correlated with his standing within his social group. (Similarly, it is likely that our hatred for and terror of those who ignore or defy local social conventions is natural as well.) Homo sapiens lives and thrives in social groups — there is a reason solitary confinement is considered one of the cruelest forms of torture, and why men and women in solitary confinement go mad. Even the great joy of voluntary solitude can have destructive effects if indulged in too wantonly.

Our anxiety about status conflicts with some of the public pieties associated with liberal democracy, at least when those pieties are clumsily observed or described. Thomas Jefferson may have insisted as a matter of public policy that “all men are created equal,” but no one with eyes and ears believes that to be true in a practical sense; what we instead believe in is that all men share equally in the human condition and the dignity that goes with it, which leads us to equality under the law and equality vis-à-vis our relations with the state, which in American practice has divested itself of the superstition of hereditary aristocracy. (Harvard has not divested itself of that superstition, and I am not entirely convinced that it should; more on that below.) The principle of political equality as a matter of democratic practice might give us a norm of “one man, one vote,” but no sensible person believes that all voters exercise the franchise with equal wisdom, equal intelligence, or equal patriotism. Marcus Aurelius was right to observe that addiction to popularity is a disease, the cure for which is familiarity with people and meditation on their qualities. But Marcus was a natural stoic, and the Roman commander-in-chief had the additional benefit of not being obliged to stand for reelection.

Because of the increasingly sacramental character of the American presidency, it is not only American politicians who must endure the ordeal of the quadrennial cycle and the anguish of periodic sojourns in the wilderness. The United States has split into two tribes, and one of them must always feel itself to be subjugated and humiliated while the other’s chief occupies the highest office in the land. The American people are, in this age of politics as personal identity, always running for election, too. And it is not enough for them to win — they want to be popular, too, and to have their positions be popular. Hence the twin fictions on either side of the aisle that the other side really represents only a tiny minority whose voice and power is amplified through illegitimate means.

This is caught up in complicated ways with our national political superstitions. One of the deficiencies of American political culture is our national tendency to decoct moral absolutes out of what are really something closer to “best practices” for self-governing republics. “One man, one vote” is a practical measure, not a guarantee of decent or prudent decision-making, which is why so many important concerns (such as freedom of speech, the right to due process, the prohibition of slavery) have been put beyond the reach of mere plebiscite and the whimsies of transitory majorities. That situation is at the heart of the basic contradiction of American progressivism, which in practice consists of various political, business, and academic elites deputizing themselves to speak on behalf of the masses whose constituents generally do not exhibit especially progressive views on most things. For example, neither the Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas (overturning sodomy laws) nor that in Engle v. Vitale (prohibiting mandatory school prayer) enjoyed the support of a majority of Americans at the time of those decisions. (Surprisingly, Brown did.) Progressives put a great deal of stock in Boumediene v. Bush, but two-thirds of the people were against them. Conservative populists are hobbled by a similar situation: They exhibit a shocking degree of arrogance in purporting to speak on behalf of “We the People,” as they like to put it, but only occasionally consult the people about what they actually believe. For example, right-wing populists are very fond of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United — and they are right to be; if the First Amendment means anything at all, it was the right decision — but We the People don’t think much of it. Only 17 percent of the public supported the decision at the time. A majority still opposes it.

Amusingly, conservative populists and progressives both tell themselves basically the same bedtime story about why that is. For conservatives, the comforting fiction is that the masses would be on our side if not for the brainwashing of the schools and the news media; for progressives, it’s the brainwashing of corporate money and various social poisons (racism, Christianity) that keep the people, holy though they might be, from seeing the light and entering into it.

Children in the junior-high cafeteria think that they would be happy if they were popular, and that they would be popular if they were better-looking or better at sports, or if they came from a better sort of family, with better clothes or a better car. (That’s what we worried about in the gloriously crass and honest Eighties, anyway.) The childish people who dominate our politics and our political discourse similarly believe that they and their positions would be popular if not for the illegitimate occult forces arrayed against them: Russians, the media, George Soros, Charles Koch, “elites,” whatever.

The last thing the populist can ever admit, or even think about admitting, is that the people are the problem, and that 99 percent of what has been done in the name of “empowering” them has made things worse.

(Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Both Left and Right offer their own versions of anti-elitist rhetoric, although progressives seem to be making their peace with being the party of money and power from the Ivy League to Silicon Valley to Wall Street to the most expensive ZIP codes and the boardrooms of the Fortune 500. Their days of lampooning the Republicans as the party of the rich have come to an end, and now they lampoon Republicans as the party of the poor, the uneducated, and the dysfunctional. This is partly the product of a genuine desire for popularity, and partly the product of popularity or the appearance of popularity being a useful political tool.

The endless citations of 86 percent of the people supporting this or that is only the politics of middle school refined: Everybody else is doing it, what’s the matter with you? We used to lionize the lone brave soul standing up to the madness of crowds, now we want to see whether the polls support driving the tank over that guy in Tiananmen Square. It is useful to have a villain to blame for everything, and it is helpful if that villain is weak and vulnerable, his numbers piteous. Again, democratic politics in its raw form is a great deal like ordinary schoolyard bullying, and bullies always prefer a weak victim to a strong one, and the vulnerability of the lonely and despised minority is itself provocative.

Another phenomenon you may remember from junior high (or from recent corporate life) is that there are many possible sources of status, and that each clique or organization tends to prefer the kind of status that it has the power to confer and that its members are likely to enjoy, while it often holds in contempt the sources of status conferred by membership in other groups. To put it more simply, the jocks think that sports prowess is what really matters most, the kids in the chess club think that intelligence is what matters most, the pretty girls tend to elevate the importance of beauty, the rich kids prefer to locate status in the things that their money can buy, etc. That’s probably how coming from an old family came to be a source of status: Families distinguished simply by having been around for longer than their neighbors came up with a reason for believing that that was important. (This is Jonah Goldberg’s Animal House school of Burkean conservativism: Some families have a long tradition of . . . existence.) Canada is really big. You can take that line of thinking all the way down to zero and then right past that into negative territory: “I may not be much, but at least I’m not like . . . that guy,” as the pharisee said of the publican.

Of course, we all get a little embarrassed when our status-jockeying is pointed out. That’s part of the anti-elitism rhetoric, too. Case in point: Former Facebook executive Dave Willner last week criticized the social-media company’s decision to treat so-called hate speech and disinformation more liberally when the speech in question is coming from an elected official, in effect creating a special carveout for politicians in the firm’s increasingly heavy-handed regime of speech controls. Willner blasted this decision as “a significant betrayal of the original democratizing ideals of Facebook.” But Facebook’s origin was neither idealistic nor democratic; Facebook began as a way for members of elites (the student bodies of Harvard and other Ivy League schools) to conduct conversations among themselves and to facilitate relationships of various kinds with one another. That was, in a sense, Facebook’s golden age, a time when the platform was genuinely useful and productive for a reason that consistently escapes everybody from Mark Zuckerberg on down: In its earliest incarnations, Facebook’s social-media relationships were built on top of actual social relationships. It was the butter, not the bread, and Facebook’s ongoing problems come in no small part from the fact that it is still trying to produce loaves of tasty whole wheat and sourdough with a churn rather than with an oven.

The complaint that Facebook’s giving special treatment to men of status is, of course, ridiculous. Facebook is in the status business, and, like the kids in the junior-high cafeteria, it privileges the kind of status that it has the power to confer, which is raw, show-me-the-numbers popularity. Facebook cares so much about that kind of status that it quantifies and publishes that metric, and its programmers write that metric into the platform’s algorithms. Facebook is not going to start giving Barack Obama special treatment because he once held elected office; it already gives him special treatment because his page has 55 million “likes” and 53 million followers. The kind of “democratizing” impulse Willner writes about is taken seriously by almost no one, because no one seriously believes that everybody’s voice is of equal value in the great democratic conversation, even if everybody has an equal right to speak under the law. The New York Times has editors for a reason, and most people cannot even manage to get a letter published there; neither Rachel Maddow nor Sean Hannity to my knowledges goes out into the street to invite random “real Americans” to speak on their cable-news panels; Harvard is pretty selective about whom it invites to teach there or to study there. Of course Facebook is going to treat Ueli Maurer or Joe Rogan differently than it treats a run-of-the-mill user. Not only is this entirely appropriate, it would be a disservice to not give exceptional treatment to exceptional figures.

Twitter is worse, because worse is lucrative: Facebook became more valuable as a business as it became less valuable as a community, because the algorithm-minded men who created it and manage it are able to monetize gross popularity, while it is much more difficult to monetize wit, intelligence, good taste, etc. That is why McDonald’s probably does more business in an hour than Le Bernardin does in a year and why Kim Kardashian is a billionaire while Thom Jones was working as a janitor into his middle age. Following that model works well for Facebook, for now, but it won’t do forever. Comments sections have always been a pit of filth and degradation, the leading edge in the vast electronic apparatus of self-moronization. Twitter’s big idea was to drop the content and keep the comments section. Genius!

The pursuit of undifferentiated commodity eyeballs will undermine the big social-media incumbents for the same reason it almost put American newspaper journalism out of business at the turn of the century, as publishers just threw up their arms and said, “Hey, Internet, bring me some revenue!” Editors went along with it, too, partly out of cowardice and partly out of delusions about that “democratizing” impulse. Have you noticed that the tone, low-boil hysteria, and low-mindedness of the vapid “Sponsored Content” headlines all over too many websites have quickly made their way into the broader discourse, especially political debate? That is not your imagination, and it is not coincidence. That’s the “democratized” voice. The damage done by the gatekeepers’ abandoning their duties and turning over the Internet to Homo bolus can still be seen and felt in everything from our news media to our political advertisements, which increasingly resemble one another for reasons that should be obvious.

Commencement ceremonies at Harvard University, May 24, 2018. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

The problem is our guilty and complicated relationship with the issue of status and its twin brother, hierarchy. Certain kinds of hierarchies seem to many of us unfair, irrational, or outmoded. For example, the continued existence of royal families strikes my republican sensibilities as faintly ridiculous, but not nearly so ridiculous as the un-republican fascination with them in the United States. American populists often complain about the dynastic character of great wealth (the Waltons probably are going to be rich for many generations) even as they readily make exceptions for various Trumps and Kennedys and exhibit a conflicted attitude about the dynastic quality of political power.

Hierarchy is necessary to the functioning of a healthy society. Conservatives used to accept that frankly, before they appointed themselves the tribunes of the plebs, the champions of the lumpenproletariat against the hated “elites.” Russell Kirk appreciated that when he wrote:

For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.

The basic structure of social media is designed to erode some of those “natural and institutional differences,” but not to replace them with a “democratizing” regime of the sort referred to by Willner. Rather, the project of Facebook and Twitter (if Twitter seems like more of a sewer than Facebook, it is because Twitter is designed to be a sewer, while Facebook devolved into one) and the cultures related to them is simply to replace some of those “many sorts of inequality” with other sorts of inequality more amenable to them. For example, people who complain that wealthy people deploy their fortunes to political ends characterize this mode of political advocacy as “undemocratic,” since it is not the case that all people have equal access to money. And it is undemocratic. But not everybody has equal access to the editorial pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post, either. (Bad as the Times’s opinion pages are, think how much worse they would be without the mediation of editors.) Not everybody has Taylor Swift’s celebrity, which is a political force more formidable than a mere billion dollars. Money is not evenly distributed throughout society. Go outdoors and you’ll see that intelligence isn’t, either. Neither is celebrity. Neither is popularity. It is only the advantages enjoyed by other people and parties that are judged “unfair.”

Willner’s complaint about Facebook’s betrayal of its “democratizing” ideals begs the question. It is not at all clear that “democratizing” speech was ever a good idea, that it has created any real value, that it has improved our political discourse, or that it has fortified and improved our democratic institutions. In fact, such evidence as we have points in the opposite direction. The political culture cultivated on social media has made our discourse and our politics more hysterical, less responsible, more emotional, less intelligent, more performative, less considered, more oriented toward the demands of tribalism, less orientated toward the duties of citizenship. This is not because social media lack hierarchy but because they are under the command of the kind of hierarchy familiar to the junior-high cafeteria.

American mass democracy has failed — and look around you if you doubt that it is a failure — for the reason alluded to above: because we want to make moral absolutes out of procedural conveniences. In the American practice, democracy is intended to be procedural. It is a very important procedural consideration, in fact an indispensable one. But it is not a good in and of itself. It is only a means, not an end. Our language is sloppy, and, inevitably, our thinking has grown sloppy, too. Being hostages to sentimentality, we use “democracy” as a synonym for liberal and accountable government; in reality, mass democracy is at least as often the enemy of or impediment to liberal and accountable government: What Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common is that their most populist instincts are also their least liberal and least decent instincts. Politics as practiced on Facebook and Twitter is illiterate, driven by hatred, illiberal, authoritarian, and utterly democratic. It is not the case that everybody gets an equal voice, but it is the case that a variety of mediating institutions have been supplanted by the single mediator of popularity. As it goes on Facebook, so it goes in real-world politics.

The institutions of inequality celebrated by Kirk seem unfair, which they are, but that unfairness seems intolerable to many people because they do not understand what those institutions are in fact there to do. Neither do many of the institutions, which over time have abandoned or forgotten their fundamental purposes. Take the case of Harvard, the nursery of Facebook. On Tuesday, a federal judge upheld Harvard’s affirmative-action policies, which have the effect of discriminating strongly against Asian-American applicants. The judge wrote that without such discrimination, “Harvard would be unable to offer students the diverse environment that it reasonably finds necessary to its mission.” That is true, in a certain sense. But one must understand what Harvard’s mission is. It is not to offer a first-rate liberal-arts education to promising 18-year-olds; it does that, but so do lots of institutions. You can, if you are so inclined, get a very good education at, say, the University of Texas, my alma mater, which recently conferred a full professorship on Matthew McConaughey, who previously had been a visiting instructor. (The appointment is entirely appropriate; McConaughey may not have a doctorate, but his résumé is an excellent credential for the film school, where he teaches. In much the same way, Bard College is lucky to have Neil Gaiman as a professor, even though he himself never attended any university. Bachelor/master/doctor is only one possible hierarchy, and not often the most relevant one.) You can get a good education at a library.

Education is an instrument for the institutions of the Ivy League, but their purpose is curating the American elite. Its product is not individuals, but a class of people linked by personal relationships, mentors, shared experiences, institutional ties, etc., guided by certain shared values and perspectives, with intergenerational continuity. Harvard and other schools once were much more explicit about this, but they lost their way a bit in the Sixties — there is no one as susceptible to anti-elitist rhetoric as the members of the elites themselves. But schools such as Harvard still allude to that indirectly with their insistence that their admissions policies are about evaluating the “whole person” rather than racial micromanagement. My colleague Robert VerBruggen, writing under the headline “Harvard’s ‘Legacy’ Preferences Are a National Disgrace,” notes that about 30 percent of Harvard’s students are “ALDC” — meaning that they are athletes, legacies, children of donors, or children of Harvard faculty — and that about 70 percent of these ALDC students would not have been admitted on their academic credentials alone. “Roughly a fifth of Harvard undergrads are there because of who their relatives are, or because they’re good at sports,” VerBruggen writes. There are a lot of unspoken assumptions here leading VerBruggen to his conclusion: “Those of us who detest racial preferences should despise legacy preferences twice as much.” There are lots of things other than sports that might get a borderline academic case a second look at Harvard: gifted musicians, for example, or those with other talents that might be developed there. John Legend was a high-school salutatorian, but would Penn have been obviously wrong to admit him on other grounds? Natalie Portman and Jodie Foster already were accomplished actresses when they were admitted to Harvard and Yale, respectively. Were the admissions committees supposed to ignore that?

Looked at from the point of view of cultivating a national leadership class, both Harvard’s ALDC admissions and its affirmative-action programs seem much more defensible. There is a case to be made for generational continuity, for building relationships with people who already have relationships with the institution, for bringing certain athletes and artists into the fold, etc. Harvard’s defense of its affirmative-action policies is, essentially, that it’s good for Caitlyn the Caucasian to be exposed to people of different races and cultural backgrounds. (That this instrumentalizes Harvard’s black and Latino students, classifying them as tools of white edification, ought to be of some concern.) A more straightforward and plausible defense of taking race into consideration at Harvard and similar institutions is that it’s good for the country if the black elite is well incorporated into the more general elite, that the top intellectual, business, cultural, and political leaders of different races and backgrounds know one another, share personal ties, etc. Harvard, if it were being honest, might say: “We’re training up a ruling class here, and black elites need to be a part of that if it is going to function the way it needs to.” That would not make the de facto discrimination against Asian Americans any less objectionable (one way to read VerBruggen’s analysis above is that what Harvard has is too many white students admitted under questionable circumstances), but it would make more sense than arguing that black students are a kind of chef’s special to break up the predictable tedium of the Ivy League menu.

To admit to that kind of curatorial (and partly homogenizing) role is more than the contemporary Ivy League can bring itself to do. The spirit of the Sixties limps on, and the students at Harvard continue to play at revolution with the encouragement of their professors. Of course they are building and entrenching the next generation of what many of them would be sure to denounce as elitism, privilege, and all the rest of it, even as they pretend to be preparing themselves to overturn that order.

“It is not a sign of arrogance for the king to rule,” William F. Buckley wrote. “That is what he is there for.” WFB was a famous scourge of the Ivy League, having entered public life with his withering account in God and Man at Yale. But he was no populist, either: His longstanding criticism of American elites was not that they were elites, that they were insular or excessively self-regarding, that they were patronizing or condescending, or that they were insufficiently deferential to “We the People,” but that they weren’t very good at what it is they are supposed to be doing. (Buckley once argued to James Baldwin that the problem with American democracy wasn’t that there were too few black voters but too many white ones — put that in your Boston phonebook and smoke it.) The problem with our elites is not arrogance but incompetence. And that incompetence stems from the same sources as the pursuit of clicks and “likes” and retweets — the pathological elevation of erratic and transitory popular passions above all other things, including virtue and citizenship. Beyond incompetence, there also comes from many of the commanding heights a flat refusal to seriously engage in the public duties of citizenship; consider, for example, the way the most intelligent Christian ministers and educators, fearing controversy, have all but ceded the field to the hucksters and empire-builders, even allowing such a man as Jerry Falwell Jr. to ooze into leadership.

Our elites, both as individuals and as institutions, have substituted the pursuit of popularity for the pursuit of genuine public interest and many kinds of private cultivation; they are less able to pursue common projects because they are less educated toward common values and principles, the antinomianism of the Sixties and the anti-intellectualism of the present having left even such bedrocks as freedom of speech stripped of adequate intellectual defense. They have permitted themselves to be infantilized (you cannot be infantilized without your cooperation) and distracted by trivia, above all by the trivia of their own ever more carefully refined and delineated “identities.” When the anti-elitists ask “What are they good for?” they are not entirely without a point.

But what might they be good for? The culture that produced the Encyclopædia Britannica produced Facebook, but it is not clear that the culture of Facebook could produce the Encyclopædia Britannica or would know what to do with it if it tripped over a set on the way to Pinkberry. If you think that matters, then you must understand that the apotheosis of the mob — mob politics, mob culture, mob taste — is the enemy not only of good government but of civilization. If you don’t think that matters — surely you wouldn’t have read this far.

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