Politics & Policy

Media Gives Itself Award for Disastrous Gun-Control ‘Town Hall’

CNN anchor Jake Tapper appears on stage at the Pasadena Convention Center in Pasadena, Calif., July 29, 2017. (Andrew Cullen/REUTERS)

This is extraordinary:

CNN’s “Parkland Town Hall” was, without a doubt, the single worst thing I have seen aired on a major news station since I moved to the United States eight years ago. For it to have received an award is . . . well, actually quite fitting, I suppose.

But let’s be clear: This wasn’t “journalism.” It wasn’t a “town hall,” either. The name of the event was “Stand Up: The Students of Stoneman Douglas Demand Action,” which should give those of you who didn’t watch it an indication of what “advance the national conversation on gun control and violence” means in practice. This was the event at which the now-removed Sheriff Scott Israel had the temerity to play the put-upon hero. It was an event at which traumatized children were encouraged to scream at adults that they were literally trying to kill them. It was an event devoid of reflection, reason, thought, or facts. All that was missing was the pitchforks.

This wasn’t a “conversation.” It was a cultural bloodletting, that, far from serving any public interest, just made everyone more angry with each other than they already were. And that was exactly how CNN wanted it — as the centerpiece to a festival of gun-control activism that lasted the better part of a month. If this is the legacy of Walter Cronkite, then Walter Cronkite deserves to be swiftly forgotten.

Elections

Life Is a Lot Harder When You’re Not Running against Ted Cruz

Former Democratic Texas Senate candidate Rep. Beto O’Rourke gestures at his midterm election night party in El Paso, Texas, November 6, 2018. (Adria Malcolm/REUTERS)

All of a sudden Beto O’Rourke, the candidate who was most beloved by the national press in 2018, is getting brutal coverage in 2019.

The Week declares the pranks he played on his wife are “downright disgusting,” Slate is mocking his standing on countertops, and MSNBC commentators groan that he’s exhibiting white-male privilege.

Over at the Bulwark, Tim Miller contends that some of O’Rourke’s biggest fans in the media have turned against him because he’s now an obstacle to their referred candidates — Bernie Sanders, primarily — and if he gains traction with a soft-focus “Hope and Change 2.0” approach, then the rest of the Democratic party will back away from the “It’s time for a socialist revolution” tone they’ve embraced in recent months. Why embrace controversial proposals like reparations, abolishing private health insurance and specific Green New Deal legislation when you can just offer happy talk about brighter tomorrows and the American spirit?

(O’Rourke’s split-the-baby approach to the AR-15 is to ban the sale of new rifles, but allow current owners to keep the ones they have. Apparently, it’s safe enough for everyone to keep, but simultaneously so dangerous that no one should be allowed to buy another one.)

I think there’s another factor, though. In retrospect, the O’Rourke-mania of 2018 was a misallocation of resources. Sure, O’Rourke was way better than the average Texas Democratic statewide candidate, but the only way he was going to beat Ted Cruz was if the incumbent Republican got lazy and took his victory for granted — and Cruz made clear early on that he wasn’t going to do that. (O’Rourke’s past significant victories on the El Paso City Council and in his Democratic House primary were driven in large part by him out-hustling a too-comfortable incumbent.)

Overestimating a favorite candidate’s odds of victory is a small mistake. But committing $80 million — and an unparalleled amount of national media attention — to a long-shot candidate is a much bigger mistake. But it gets even worse for Democrats. Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, two of the progressive Left’s favorite candidates of 2018, fell just short of victory in Georgia and Florida. (Both candidates are now publicly contending that their election victories were stolen from them.) In hindsight, the $80 million donated to O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign looks like a waste. How differently would those races have turned out if $20 million of O’Rourke’s bundle had been redistributed with $5 million each to say, Abrams, Gillum, Senator Bill Nelson, and Ohio gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray?

A significant number of progressive Democrats look at O’Rourke and see a guy who was given unprecedented resources and advantages, fell short, and wants another chance at it, this time with even more resources and for higher stakes. Is it any wonder they fear a repeat of 2018?

Elections

Will Any 2020 Democrats Reject Abortion Extremism?

Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D., Texas), former candidate for Senate greets supporters in Carrollton, Texas, November 2, 2018. (Mike Segar/REUTERS)

During his very first week on the campaign trail, Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke has twice reiterated his support for a woman’s “reproductive rights,” even in the last three months of pregnancy, after an unborn child is able to survive outside the womb.

As our own Jack Crowe has documented on NRO, O’Rourke yesterday responded to a question about third-trimester abortions by restating the question to the crowd — intentionally leaving out that the woman had asked whether he supports the abortion of viable fetuses rather than simply delivering them.

“The question is about abortion and reproductive rights, and my answer to you is that should be a decision that the woman makes. I trust her,” O’Rourke said, greeted by applause.

Today at Penn State, O’Rourke was asked to clarify the answer he gave yesterday, and he doubled down. From Jack’s coverage:

“I just want to make sure that I had clarity: Yesterday when you were asked about abortion, you said it’s a woman’s right to choose, correct? Does that include up into the third trimester?” asked the Washington Examiner’s Salena Zito, who trailed O’Rourke as he was walking the Penn State University campus.

“I think those decisions are best left to a woman and her doctor. I know better than to assume anything about a woman’s decision, an incredibly difficult decision when it comes to her reproductive rights,” O’Rourke responded. “Roe v. Wade, though it’s being tested unlike any other time, it’s still the law of the land, it must be upheld. When we’re talking about universal health care, we’re talking about women’s health care.”

These comments aren’t particularly interesting in themselves, as they fail to respond to the specific questions being posed about abortion late in pregnancy and the implications of allowing the abortion of viable fetuses. His remarks are the usual platitudes espoused by politicians who wish to broadly defend abortion rights and demonstrate to left-wing supporters of abortion that they’re on board.

But in one sense, O’Rourke’s comments are highly interesting, because they indicate that he has decided not to invoke the usual Democratic defense of third-trimester abortion: the claim that these procedures only take place in cases when fetuses are gravely ill or when a continuation of pregnancy presents a grave threat to a mother’s life.

This sort of defense, of course, is inaccurate. Most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy take place for reasons other than fetal- or maternal-health complications, and directly aborting a fetus rather than ending a pregnancy via C-section delivery is never medically necessary. But Beto doesn’t even bother to pay lip service to the usual line. Instead, he simply says he trusts women and defers to Roe.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that Roe and subsequent jurisprudence contradict O’Rourke’s blanket permissiveness of a woman’s right to choose for abortion in all circumstances. Both Roe v. Wade and the subsequent Planned Parenthood v. Casey affirmed the state’s right to regulate abortion later in pregnancy, after the point of fetal viability. O’Rourke says he supports Roe even as he says he will never question a woman’s choice to abort.

Most obviously, these comments demonstrate O’Rourke’s lack of familiarity with abortion policy; he doesn’t demonstrate a particularly adept grasp of the usual talking points nor of the relevant jurisprudence. But the line he takes — along with the fact that a handful of his fellow 2020 contenders opposed a bill last month in the Senate that would have required doctors to give medical care to infants who survive abortion procedures — indicates that this election cycle’s Democratic candidates intend to embrace abortion on demand, until birth.

Education

Two Professors Who Model Civil Discourse

Ask many college students how one should react to someone who holds political views at odds with his and you’ll get an answer like this: “Silence him, punish him, and ruin his life if possible,” Of course, that’s a primitive reaction, but more and more college students are encouraged to see opponents as mortal enemies.

Fortunately, some educators are attempting to counter that barbaric trend. Consider, for example, professors Cornel West and Robert George. West is a radical leftist and George a conservative, yet they regard each other as friends and do their utmost to model civil discourse to students.

In today’s Martin Center article, Shannon Watkins looks at this “odd couple” and the broader issue of trying to restore a sound intellectual climate on our campuses. West and George recently spoke at an event at Duke University. She writes of that:

The two spoke about how they navigate their vastly different political views while maintaining a strong friendship, a skill seemingly rare on most college campuses. Their message and example isn’t just a much-needed antidote to an increasingly polarized cultureeither. It also contains an essential ingredient for what George and West call a ‘deep education:’ the desire to be challenged in one’s most fundamental beliefs.

Why would anyone want that? The answer is because we can all learn from others, whether they agree with us or not.

For several years, West and George have co-taught a Great Books course at Princeton, which must be quite a feast for the minds of the students.

The idea of bringing together scholars who disagree but always do so in a respectful manner appears to be spreading. Watkins writes:

Students in North Carolina have ample opportunities to emulate George and West’s Aristotelian friendship. Take Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service(POLIS). The center created an initiative called the North Carolina Leadership Forum to facilitate conversations on contentious issues. The forum co-chairs, John Hood of the John William Pope Foundation and Leslie Winner of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, conducted a “mini version” of the forum in 2017 with students and young professionals in the Research Triangle area. The primary purpose of the forum is, according to Hood, to ‘model civil dialogue.’

That’s a good step. I’d also like to see professors who egg on students to act in disrespectful and even violence ways when they confront philosophical opponents being shamed, rebuked, and sanctioned.

Education

An American Dilemma

The jewel of the New York City school system (Wikimedia)

This article in the New York Times is getting attention, understandably. It highlights an old, painful issue, involving “merit,” race, and ethnicity. The headline over the article is “Only 7 Black Students Got Into N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots.”

That high school is Stuyvesant. As the Times reports, students get into such schools “by acing a single high-stakes exam that tests their mastery of math and English.” This leads to racial and ethnic outcomes that are deemed undesirable. At Stuyvesant, 74 percent of freshmen next year — call it three-quarters — will be Asian.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio, among others, has called for the scrapping of the entrance exam and the overhaul of the admissions process. I have a memory, from 2001. Indeed, via the power of Google, I will quote the Times:

Contending that standardized college tests have distorted the way young people learn and worsened educational inequities, the president of the University of California is proposing an end to the use of SAT’s as a requirement for admission to the state university system he oversees, one of the largest and most prestigious.

(To read the article, go here.)

I talked to Abigail Thernstrom about this on the phone. She said something unforgettable: “This is a dagger aimed at the heart of Asians.” (That was not the intention of President Atkinson and his allies, of course. But that may have been a result.)

Back to Stuyvesant: Are those 74 percent of freshmen “Asians”? Or are they individuals? That is a key question, pushing to the fore our deepest beliefs.

In its report on Stuyvesant, the Times uses some curious language: “… out of 895 slots in the freshman class, only seven were offered to black students.” That word “offered” is interesting, isn’t it? Admission is exam-based, period (as I understand it). I myself would surely not get in, lacking the math (to put it mildly). Would I then say that I had not been “offered” a place?

Jeff Hart was — or rather, he won one. I was talking about Jeff in an earlier post. Our late senior editor went to Stuyvesant, brilliant New York kid that he was. He entered in 1943. The school, he wrote to me, was “the jewel of the NYC system.” Apparently, it still is. Jeff further said this: “Stuyvesant, now mostly Asian, was then mostly Jewish, Trotskyite, and chess-playing, and so competitive it would have made George Steinbrenner look like a Zen Buddhist.”

(For the uninitiated, or forgetful, Steinbrenner was for decades the owner of the New York Yankees, and damn competitive.)

I loved something else Jeff told me about Stuyvesant, namely: “My Jewish friends there interested me in Wagner and Marx, but failed with chess.”

Almost everyone Jeff knew at Stuyvesant went to Harvard to become a doctor. Jeff went to Dartmouth — and he, too, was pre-med. (He would soon change his mind, falling hard for the humanities.) He said that his professors at Dartmouth were not nearly as good as his teachers at Stuyvesant. He would later transfer to Columbia.

I don’t know whether Stuyvesant High School will survive, in its “meritocratic” form. It is at odds with what is now the American ethos. Envy is one of the most powerful forces on earth. So is the desire for equality. So is the urge to see people as members of racial or ethnic groups, instead of as individuals. Should students at Stuyvesant be counted up by race and ethnicity anyway? Should we know these numbers? Should they be blared in our papers? Can these kids not be simply — you know: themselves?

Let me pause to say something about “meritocracy.” It was coined, by the British sociologist Michael Young (father to Toby, the famous journalist), as a negative term, not a positive one.

The French motto begins with liberté and continues with égalité, before ending with fraternité. The first two of these are often at war. And so it will continue, in the New York City school system and everywhere else. But in this vast, star-spangled nation, from sea to shining sea, I hope there will always be room for a Stuyvesant or two, much as they offend our notions about inclusiveness.

Education

Elite Omphaloskepsis: A Series

Our policies are made by elites, and so our policymaking conversation is dominated by elite interests. Hence the hysterical outrage over the college bribery scandal, which is a branch of the argument over racial preferences in admissions — who goes to Harvard, and on what terms, matters a lot to them.

Among the lead stories in today’s New York Times is a lamentation of the fact that relatively few black students are accepted at Stuveysant, one of New York City’s most selective public schools.

In New York City, fewer than three-quarters of black students graduate from high school — and that’s the best number, ever. The black graduation rate lags the white graduation rate by twelve points. Two out of three black students in New York fail to demonstrate minimal proficiency in English; three out of four black students in New York fail to demonstrate minimal proficiency in math. The spread between black students and white and Asian students is enormous.

The most serious problem for black students in New York City’s public schools isn’t what’s happening at the best of them — it’s what’s happening at the worst of them.

But let’s have another round of soul-searching over who’s headed for Princeton.

Culture

‘If Columbus Had Not Crossed the Ocean …’

Professor Jeffrey Hart

Jeffrey Hart, our longtime senior editor, and an eminent professor of English, died last month at 88. I have a piece about him on our homepage. Here on the Corner, I would like to take note of a couple of things.

Over the years, I have enjoyed asking people — especially professors and the like — about their favorite professors, or most influential ones. You get some interesting answers. Some of the favorites, or most influential, are famous. Some are unknown. Some were famous during their careers and no more.

Jeff spent his freshman and sophomore years at Dartmouth and his junior and senior years at Columbia. (He took a year off between the two colleges, working in publishing.) At Columbia, he had the famous triumvirate of Trilling, Barzun, and Van Doren. At Dartmouth, there had been only one professor who “meant anything” to him, as he put it.

That was Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. His Wikipedia entry is interesting. He was born in Berlin in 1888. Converted to Christianity in his teens. Married a woman named Margrit Hüssy. They combined their names, which seems very modern, doesn’t it? Eugen was a brilliant scholar. He was an officer in World War I. When Hitler came to power, he and Margrit high-tailed it to America.

Jeff said that Rosenstock (as he was commonly known) had “his Existenz experience” at Verdun: “cut off alone in a shell crater during a French barrage.” Rosenstock became a “Christian-Existentialist,” as Jeff termed him. He believed in “creative will,” and his heroes were Nietzsche and William James.

In class, he would say things like, “Gentlemen, if Eleazar Wheelock had not come north to this lonely place, we would not be here today.” (This was a Congregationalist minister who founded Dartmouth in 1769.) “Gentlemen, if Columbus had not crossed the ocean …”

Jeff had arrived at Dartmouth “a confident naturalist,” he once wrote to me — and his classes with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy “wrecked” this forever.

About 15 years later, he was hired as a professor at Dartmouth by John Sloan Dickey, the president of the college. Dickey had been, said Jeff, “a Rockefeller protégé at the State Department.” Here is his Wikipedia entry. I loved reading this: “Regularly welcoming freshmen at Convocation with the phrase ‘your business here is learning,’ Dickey was committed …” When I have a chance to talk with college students, I often say, “Learn as much as you can. Spend your years in college soaking up all the education you possibly can. Just learn and learn. There will be time for politics and all that later.” Dickey also called the liberal arts “the liberating arts.” I love that, too.

Anyway, my piece on Jeff is, again, here. I tell some of the story of his life, as he told it to me, and provide some glimpses into his mind. “Independence of mind,” he once said, “is necessary to any good writer.” No one can call Jeff Hart dependent.

P.S. He was an excellent tennis player in his youth, a denizen of the fabled West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, Queens (site of the U.S. Open). He had many interesting things to say about sports, and I duly quote him in my piece. (“How good is Federer?” I once asked him.)

In fact, I have been quoting him lately on the question of Jordan vs. LeBron — not that Jeff ever addressed it directly, to my knowledge. But he would say, “You can’t compare across eras. You can’t compare Tilden to Sampras, Louis to Ali, Cobb to Brett, Jones to Nicklaus. All an athlete can do is dominate his own era. That’s it. He can’t do anything about the people before him or the people after him.”

LeBron James is the best athlete I have ever seen. But I think Jeff’s point is solid, and I rely on it frequently.

Politics & Policy

There’s a Fake Outrage Machine on the Right, Also

(Pixabay)

Last week I was dragged relentlessly on Twitter for suggesting that Tucker Carlson was subject to a “fake outrage” campaign when Media Matters dredged up his years-old, terrible comments to radio shock-jock “Bubba the Love Sponge.” I stand by my assertion. A group like Media Matters isn’t responding to public pain, it’s trying to create public pain by highlighting comments that no one cared about then and no one remembers now. It’s reacting to Tucker’s old comments not in sorrow but with vengeful glee. For opposition researchers, finding the killer quote is a cause for celebration, not lamentation. “Maybe now the bad man will go away.”

If there’s a right-wing analog to the Media Matters machine, it often comes in the ongoing effort to “nutpick” radical professors, highlight their most ridiculous (and often years-old) comments, and try to drive them out of their jobs. Coincidentally, one of those efforts is underway now at the University of California Davis. English professor Joshua Clover hates police officers, and the student newspaper printed an article exposing his years-old tweets calling for cops to die. The tweets are indeed dreadful:

  • “I am thankful that every living cop will one day be dead, some by their own hand, some by others, too many of old age #letsnotmakemore” — tweeted on Nov. 27, 2014.
  • “I mean, it’s easier to shoot cops when their backs are turned, no?” — tweeted on Dec. 27, 2014.

There’s no reasonable defense for Clover to call for the death of cops. And, by the way, there’s no reasonable defense for Carlson calling Iraqis “semiliterate primitive monkeys.” Criticizing or condemning Clover and Carlson is proper and justifiable. As I tweeted when the Carlson story broke, if the trending hashtag was #CriticizeTucker, then I was all-in, but since it was #FireTucker, I was all-out. Similarly, attempts to fire Clover (absent concrete evidence of on-the-job misconduct) are not just improper, they’re almost certainly unlawful. As I recently wrote in response to the calls to fire a Fresno State professor who celebrated Barbara Bush’s death:

Under relevant law, a public employee enjoys First Amendment protection when she can show her speech “addressed ‘matters of public concern.’” Then, if her speech passes that test, her interest “in commenting upon matters of public concern” must outweigh “the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”

But let’s be very clear about what’s happening here. When a person hunts through old, obscure tweets or rants with the goal of elevating the worst expression they can find, they’re not protecting anyone from offensive speech. They’re not protecting any vulnerable person from words that wound. In actuality, they’re trying to wound the vulnerable person to create a new outrage from old speech. They’re essentially saying, “These words are so terrible that everyone needs to hear them. These words are so terrible that the targeted community especially needs to hear them.”

Media Matters will tend to take old, forgotten (or never-remembered) words spoken by conservative public figures and then elevate those words for punitive purposes. On campus, the conservative pattern is to take words (old or new) by obscure speakers and then elevate both the words and the speakers to punish the professor and embarrass the university. Who really cares what an English professor at Davis thinks about police violence? Who really cares about what a random Fresno State teacher thinks about Barbara Bush? No one does. Not really. They have no meaningful impact on any public debate.

I’ll repeat again what I said last year — if you truly hate the offensive speech in question — if you truly believe it’s hurtful — why share it far and wide? Why amplify the offensive voice? Arguably, the worst rebuke for a troll, the worst punishment for the self-promoting radical, is indifference. That said, there are times when we do have to engage. When encountering hateful speakers and malicious ideas, I ask a few questions. Are these ideas gaining traction? Do they threaten to make a material difference in the marketplace of ideas? If the answer is yes, then I engage — with better ideas. If the answer is no, I let the offensive speech die a natural death.

But killing an idea through censorship? That’s not what free people do.

Culture

The Sting of Meritocracy

Cast member Lori Loughlin poses at the premiere for Netflix’s Fuller House at The Grove in Los Angeles, Calif. February 16, 2016. (Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS)

The college-admissions scandal revealed last week is both a scathing rebuke of our elite culture and (or rather, therefore) an endless font of delectable schadenfreude. Hollywood celebrities carted off to jail for using their wealth to help their kids cheat their way into college—surely that was the missing ingredient in the populist feast that is this moment in American life.

Lots of ink has been spilled about the meaning of the scandal, and I agree with most of what I’ve read about it. But I still think we might be missing one key point. The fact that the fraud and misbehavior here involved college admissions might be misleading us a little about just what is scandalous about the scandal, and about what it might tell us about the public’s attitude toward the meritocracy. Simply put, I don’t think this scandal is really about how people get into elite colleges; it’s about how elites behave in our society.

There are, very broadly speaking, two ways to think about why elites tend to aggravate the broader public in democratic societies: We might call them the sin of exclusivity, and the sin of unaccountability. The first is a function of the fact that it is very hard to enter the elite strata of our society (and any society), and the second is a function of the fact that the people who occupy those elite strata think they can do whatever they want without regard to the consequences for others. Our elites tend to obsess about the first a lot more, but it is the second that really drives populist resentment. And in our time, we have been trying to address the first in ways that have only worsened the second.

No society can avoid having elites. It’s almost a tautology: Whatever the rules of the game for ascension to wealth, influence, and power, some people will rise and some will not, and those who do rise are society’s elite because they have risen. But elite power in a democratic society unavoidably invites a certain kind of resentment and skepticism. A privileged class in a society that defines its ideal of itself as the absence of privilege and classes will always struggle to establish its legitimacy.

To deal with this, a democratic elite can make claims to legitimacy in two ways, which generally must be combined: by making sure opportunities are available for people to rise into the elite and by making sure that elite power and privilege are used with restraint and for the greater good to some meaningful degree.

For much of American history, the first of these requisites for elite legitimacy—access to opportunities to enter the upper reaches of our society—was the more obviously lacking. The apex of American political, cultural, and economic power was largely the preserve of a fairly narrow white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant near-aristocracy, centered in the Northeast and exercising power across generations. This was never an absolute barrier to others’ rising, of course, but it was a major obstacle.

The claim to power of this WASP elite, like that of most modern aristocracies, was a mix of heritage and rearing. They possessed their privileges by virtue of their birth, but they were raised and educated in ways intended to prepare them for responsibility and authority. And they were—at least in principle though in many cases also in practice—expected to subject themselves to a code of behavior, a commitment to public service, a degree of personal reticence, a regard for the rules of fair play, and a sense of responsibility that was rooted in the implicit recognition that their power was an inherited privilege, not an earned achievement.

Obviously even the limited moral code of this noblesse oblige never functioned in accordance with its idealized form in practice. The WASPs, like any elite, were frequently arrogant, entitled, and guilty of abuses of power. But they did internalize and institutionalize their code of behavior in ways that meant that such abuses were also hypocrisies, and this did act to restrain, form, and direct the behavior of American elites in some meaningful ways.

The sheer exclusivity of this elite became intolerable (most significantly to the WASPs themselves) by the middle of the 20th century, and this led to a process of explicitly broadening the entry criteria into the upper reaches of American life. Because elite colleges are the King’s Highway into every other elite institution, higher-education has been at the center of these reforms from the start. Basing admission on standardized testing, and especially the SAT, offered a way to select students from a relatively broader range of backgrounds. The appeal of the tests was not so much that they measured the skills or abilities most relevant to college success (let alone elite power) as that they measured relevant skills and abilities that could be quantified without regard to an applicant’s other characteristics. They offered a single, objective standard of comparison, and so would break the stranglehold of the patrician WASP families. This has opened opportunities for able Americans from many backgrounds, and diversified our elite dramatically.

These elites of different backgrounds nonetheless do have one thing in common: They generally measure up by the standards that are now said to represent “merit.” Yet those standards are not by any means self-evidently suited to supplying us with an able and legitimate elite. And they cannot avoid the simple and unchangeable fact about elites: They are inherently narrow and exclusive. In fact, our meritocracy has turned out not to be able to avoid even the tendency of elites to become outright aristocracies—that is, to transmit privilege generationally. Thanks to both assortative mating and the powerful incentives to game the tests that grant entry into the American elite, children whose parents are in the upper echelons of our society have a very strong (and growing) chance of finding themselves in those upper echelons as adults. At first glance, this kind of gaming seems to be what is scandalous about the admissions scandal revealed last week.

But there’s an even bigger problem. This new aristocracy is in some important respects less reticent about its own legitimacy than the old. Because each of its members must work to prove his merit—to pass the key tests, and clear the key hurdles—today’s elite is more likely to believe it has earned its power, and possesses it by right more than privilege. Because our elite as a whole has inclined to this view, it tends to impose fewer restraints on its own uses of power, and generally doesn’t subscribe to the kind of code of conduct that sometimes characterized past aristocracies. Even when today’s elites devote themselves to public service, as many do, they tend not to see it as fulfilling an obligation to give back for an unearned privilege but as further demonstrating their own high-mindedness and merit.

A meritocracy naturally assumes its authority is merited. But rather than prove its worth by its service to the larger society, the idea of merit at the core of our meritocracy is radically individualistic and dismally technocratic. The sort of elite that results implicitly substitutes a cold and sterile notion of intellect for a warm and spirited understanding of character as its measure of worth, and our society (including some elites themselves) increasingly cannot escape the intuition that this is an unjustifiable substitution. But rather than impose tests of character on itself, our elite inclines to respond to these concerns with increasingly intense displays of its ideal of social justice. It doubles down on the logic of meritocracy, adopts the language of privilege in its critiques of the larger society, and pushes for even more inclusive criteria of admission to elite institutions—all in an effort to make its claims to legitimate authority more persuasive.

But this ignores the second necessary element of elite legitimacy in a democratic society, which is the more important one. Most people don’t actually strive to enter our new aristocracy. The vast majority of Americans don’t want to go to Harvard, or to have their kids go there. It just isn’t part of their idea of success or their notion of the good life. But most Americans do care about living in a society where people are treated fairly and everyone plays by the rules.

The claims to legitimacy of today’s elite are met with skepticism not so much because it is too hard to enter the upper tier of American life (even if it is) as because those in that tier seem to be permitted to do whatever they want. Our elite is increasingly guilt-ridden, and the broader democratic public is increasingly cynical about its leaders, less because too few Americans can get into elite colleges than because those who do too often act as though they are then entitled to exercise power without restraints or standards.

Precisely because our elite does not think of itself as an aristocracy, it does not perceive itself to be in need of restraints. Ironically, to strengthen its case for legitimacy, it might have to understand itself more as an aristocracy. As the great essayist Helen Andrews argues in an astute piece on this subject, “the meritocracy is hardening into an aristocracy—so let it. Every society in history has had an elite, and what is an aristocracy but an elite that has put some care into making itself presentable?”

What would it mean, though, for our elite to make itself presentable, or persuasive? It would surely require some sense of what has made it unpresentable or unpersuasive to begin with. And our meritocracy has lacked that sense. We have implicitly mistaken an idea of merit meant to broaden the entry criteria into elite institutions for an idea of merit that could justify and legitimate authority. But authority is not legitimated merely by the ways it is obtained. Often more important in the end are the ways in which it is used.

Restraints on how elites use their power would require, among other things, a resurgence of a certain kind of institutionalism—one that views institutions (from Congress and the presidency to the university and the professions and into civic, religious, and family life) as molds that shape the people within them to take on a certain character rather than as platforms upon which those people can perform and build their personal brands. The meritocracy has pushed us in the opposite direction.

So although the scandal revealed by last week’s arrests involves college admissions, it has touched a nerve not because of a widespread desire to get into Yale but because of a widespread perception that the people who go there think they can get away with anything. It isn’t aggravating because it’s a betrayal of the principles of meritocracy but because it is an example of the practice of it. That’s not a problem that can be addressed through more fair and open college admissions. It is a problem that would need to be addressed through more constraints on the behavior of American elites—constraints built into formative institutions with a lower opinion of the inherent merits of those elites.

To say we aren’t thinking about such ways forward would be a gross understatement. We generally don’t even see the problem.

Elections

Will the Democratic Presidential Primary Polls Change Much?

Former Vice President Joe Biden addresses the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C., March 12, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

Whenever someone releases a poll about the Democratic presidential primary, like Emerson’s poll of Wisconsin voters out today, someone quickly offers the caveat that we’re still early in the primary process. The man who leads most of the polls, former vice president Joe Biden, hasn’t officially announced he’s running yet, although he’s dropped several clear hints that he will run. Current polling in both the early primary states and nationally generally shows Biden ahead, Bernie Sanders in second, Kamala Harris a distant third, and Elizabeth Warren in fourth, with the rest bunched up in the low single digits.

Yes, it’s early, but the polls might not look all that different in six months, or in eight months, or when Democrats start casting ballots in the primary.

If you look back at the 2016 Republican presidential primary in the RealClearPolitics average, every candidate started at about 15 percent or less. Trump launched his campaign in mid-June 2015, and by the end of July he was leading the pack with 20 percent. Ben Carson rose quickly in the summer and fall but tumbled rapidly as 2015 came to a close. Ted Cruz steadily rose, Marco Rubio was in the mix, and John Kasich spiked when only Trump and Cruz remained.

About two-thirds of the candidates in the field started at the bottom of the pack and remained there until they announced the suspension of their campaign. A bunch of candidates with traditionally impressive resumes, like governors Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal never got much traction. Experienced candidates like Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum never caught fire, either. In the crowded field and the two-tiered debate nights, a lot of candidates amounted to easily-forgotten also-rans.

The 2016 election teaches us that politics can be extremely unpredictable, but one big lesson was that in a crowded field, lesser-known and less-charismatic figures face enormous hurdles. Obscure Democrats are looking in the mirror and saying to themselves, “I could be the next Donald Trump.” Yes, but they are more likely to be the next Jim Gilmore.

How are these lesser-known candidates going to break through and get a lot more attention between now and the Iowa caucuses? Surely many are counting on the power of grassroots campaigning and getting earned media in the debates. A lot of these candidates are overestimating their ability to generate a memorable and persuasive movement on a debate spread out over two nights with, at minimum, fourteen candidates and perhaps as many as twenty.

The hard lesson of 2016 is that if the field is crowded, you have to build up your name identification and reputation among voters before you run for president, not during your campaign. (Liz Mair found that Donald Trump had 99.2 percent name recognition because he was the host on “The Apprentice.”) The problem with trying to build your name ID during a presidential campaign is that there are another half-dozen or so other Democratic politicians doing the same thing, probably in the same states and targeting the same demographics you are. And good luck standing out with your policies. You believe in universal health care? So does everyone else. You hate the very thought of Trump’s border wall? So does the rest of the field.

One of those candidates starting at the bottom with one percent of poll respondents and low name ID might defy the odds. But out of Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, John Hickenlooper, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand and Jay Inslee . . . most of them will not catch fire.

World

‘Fake News,’ They Say

Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow, January 23, 2019 (Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS)

Some of us have noticed something over the last few years: The term “fake news” has gone all around the world. I saw, when preparing a piece on Nicaragua earlier this month, that the Ortega regime dismisses reports by human-rights groups as “noticias falsas” — fake news.

Duterte, in the Philippines, uses the term as well. He wields it against Maria Ressa, for example. She is that phenomenally brave journalist who, with other such journalists, was honored by Time magazine. Bashar Assad says “fake news.” So do Maduro, Erdogan, and Xi. So does the Burmese dictatorship, which denounces the very existence of the Rohingya people, whom it has brutalized, as “fake news.”

In Mexico, the new president, nicknamed “AMLO,” does something interesting. He speaks of “la prensa fifí” — the fancy press (as against the populist, tabloid press, which depends on government advertising and supports him).

I am bringing up all this now because of news today out of Russia. I will quote the first paragraph of a report from Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty:

President Vladimir Putin has signed legislation enabling Russian authorities to block websites and hand out punishment for “fake news” and material deemed insulting to the state or the public.

Many times, when people — especially strongmen — say “fake news,” they do not mean incorrect or malicious reporting. They mean inconvenient or unwelcome news. In Russia, Putin has now pulled an already tight noose tighter.

Culture

The Power of Love — Even in Politics

Arthur C. Brooks

Arthur C. Brooks is one of the luminaries of the conservative world. An economist and public-policy analyst, he is the president of the American Enterprise Institute. He will soon decamp to Harvard, to teach. I have done a Q&A with Arthur, here.

His latest book is Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt. We talk about this issue, or these issues, of course. The idea of a “culture of contempt” is interesting. There is also the culture of the “sick burn” (related). At this point, many of us, I think, have had our fill of “sick burns” — even when they burn the other side.

In the course of our podcast, Arthur and I both tell some stories — including on ourselves. I had a memory, from the mid-1980s. I was watching The McLaughlin Group, as was my wont. (We all did.) Bob Novak was explaining why many on the right had a problem with Jack Kemp. After Novak had finished, Mort Kondracke said, “He’s not a hater, is what you’re saying.”

I burned when I heard this. I resented it a lot. But I also knew it was a little true, or maybe more than a little true. I myself wanted Kemp to show more passion, so to speak, against the other side — against my enemies!

You remember what Homer Simpson said about child-rearing, don’t you? “Kids are the best, Apu. You can teach them to hate the things you hate. And they practically raise themselves, what with the Internet and all.”

In 2000, Governor George W. Bush ran as “a uniter, not a divider.” Would that fly today? Is anyone interested? I put this question to Arthur Brooks. He is for passionate disagreement. And strong views. Also love — which is an interesting cocktail.

I further ask him, “What’s a conservative?” Big, big question these days — more than ever, I think. The term “conservative” — the very notion — is up for grabs. People mean wildly different things by it. (Mainly, they mean their own beliefs.)

Before he turned to economics and public policy, Arthur was a professional musician, a French-horn player. We duly talk some music in this podcast. At any rate, I think you will enjoy him a lot. As I mention on the ’cast, if I had the power to appoint him president — of the country, I mean — I would.

I’m all for the Constitution, trust me. But it’s an interesting parlor game, this appointive business. I used to play it with some friends, way back, in college and right after. (This was during the Reagan years.) My top guys were Bill Bennett and Henry Hyde. I thought WFB was most valuable with his pen, and his tongue.

Remember what he said when asked what position he would accept in a Kemp administration? “Ventriloquist.”

Culture

Radical Feminist Debunks Transgenderism — Listen Here

Sheila Jeffreys, an English radical feminist and author, has spent more than forty years fighting for women and girls’ sex-based rights. In 2014 she wrote a book Gender Hurts which controversially rejects the politics of transgenderism. Last week she was in New York with the Women’s Human Rights Campaign helping to launch the Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based rights. Here is a quote from an interview she gave with National Review. You can listen to the full audio of the interview below.

If you look at WPATH [World Psychological Association of Transgender Health] for instance, which is putting out a lot of the ideas and theories about transgenderism, purporting to be a medical organization, you need to look at who the funders are. And of course, it’s drug companies. It’s all the major drug companies. All the major names you’d expect to be there. Because the situation with children is that it’s very, very profitable for drug companies. If the children come in at quite young ages then the drug companies are able to delay puberty with drugs like Lupron… it’s off label. It is not approved for these purposes.

Jeffreys’s insights on transgender politics are fascinating, especially on medical harms for children. Listen here.

 

Culture

Monday Links

It’s the birthday of Wilfred Owen, the best of the WWI War Poets.

How Iranians made ice cream 2,000 years ago.

A Roman Bathhouse Still in Use After 2,000 Years in Algeria.

Sound effects — What the Movies Don’t Tell Us We’re Hearing. Related — This 1938 Film Shows How Sound Effects Were Made for Serial Radio Shows.

Can you pass the test NASA gave potential astronauts in 1958?

Why Did Women Start Wearing Makeup?

ICYMI, Friday’s links are here, and include the Ides of March, a couple who have eaten at the same restaurant six nights a week for 15 years, Saint Patrick’s Day origins, seat belt history, and Spring cleaning in the 19th Century.

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