The Corner

Anne Applebaum Responds

Anne Applebaum has partially responded to my post yesterday on her column.

She writes, again, that the backlash against the successes of meritocratic higher education — which, she insinuated, is what fuels the Tea Parties — is not aimed merely at super-educated liberal elites, but all elites. She says I should listen harder for all of this anti-education rhetoric around me. She cites Christine O’Donnell saying “she didn’t go to Yale” and Sarah Palin going after “spineless” Ivy Leaguers. And so on.

I’m trying not to let my exasperation get the better of me, so let me explain what I think she is missing. Attacking the Ivy League is a very old, very recognizable shorthand in American political discourse. What Applebaum is doing is reading these statements literally, and painfully so.

(She is also asserting that Ivy League simply means the smartest and the best, as if there was no plausible case that the Ivy League’s reputation is any way overblown or underserved. She has to do this to make her case that conservatives don’t believe in educational excellence, because the only “proof” she has are a few statements attacking such schools.)

The problem is that when conservatives zing the Ivy League or the educational elite, they are no more offering an omnibus indictment of educational excellence than liberals are denouncing all Texans when they take potshots at George W. Bush’s Texan roots. Similarly, when Yalie George H. W. Bush stuck it to Michael Dukakis for his views borrowed from “Harvard Yard,” he was not offering a plenary indictment of academic excellence generally. Rather, he was speaking idiomatically about certain types of people who tend to hail from the Ivy Leagues. I find it simply bizarre that Applebaum cannot or will not grant the possibility that certain words and phrases in political discourse have a valence different than their black-letter meaning.

Let’s take her weird grievance against Ginni Thomas. In her original column, Applebaum was dismayed that Thomas had told a crowd of Tea Partiers that “we are ruled by an elite that thinks it knows better than we know.”

And in her follow-up post Applebaum writes of Sarah Palin’s and Thomas’s “inarticulate and wide-ranging broadsides against ‘the elite’ — all of the elite, which by definition includes themselves.”

Again, in order to smash the square peg of her thesis into the round hole of reality, she essentially has to buy into the idea that Thomas is either a hypocrite or suffering from cognitive dissonance. Doesn’t she realize that her husband went to Yale and sits on the Supreme Court!?

Uh, yeah, she knows that. And why Applebaum can’t give Thomas et al. the benefit of the doubt on this is beyond me. Moreover if you asked Glenn Beck or Christine O’Donnell or Sarah Palin what they think of Clarence Thomas (or Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Tom Sowell, William F. Buckley, and so on), they would not invoke educational excellence as a black mark against their reputations. No, they would celebrate it. Why? Not because they’re hypocrites, but because when they denigrate Ivy League elitists, they have a particular elite in mind.

Which brings me to these head-scratching bits from her response:

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this issue has tied conservative intellectuals in knots, particularly those at the National Review (a magazine whose masthead used to feature my husband, and for which I used to occasionally write). On the one hand, the magazine was founded by an old-style elitist, William F. Buckley, and plenty of Ivy Leaguers have written for its pages. On the other hand, the editors apparently feel obligated to support Sarah Palin and Ginni Thomas’s inarticulate and wide-ranging broadsides against “the elite” — all of the elite, which by definition includes themselves.

What? First of all, William F. Buckley railed against the elites in higher education since his first book, God and Man at Yale. He famously talked about preferring to be governed by the first 500 names in the Boston phone book than the faculty at Harvard. Buckley used to write a regular feature, The Ivory Tower, that presaged virtually everything Applebaum finds so new and distressing from Palin and Thomas.

Second of all, what knots? Who or what at NR is she referring to? I have no idea. This strikes me as a perfectly Frumian straw man. Then there’s this:

So anxious is Goldberg to dismiss the idea that a part of the right is “anti-education” that he actually attributes arguments to me that I never made. I never mentioned envy, for example, but he attacks my “theory of envy” as “not merely wrong but actually silly.” He also goes on, nonsensically, about liberals who are “bossing people around.” What, conservatives never boss anyone around? They never think they know best?

Huh? Applebaum is now moving the goalposts. What I objected to was the bizarre insinuation that what is motivating Tea Partiers and other conservatives these days is a backlash against elite education, academic achievement, or the rise of the meritocracy as personified by the Obamas. That remains what I dismiss.

Are there “anti-education” conservatives out there? Maybe, though I haven’t met any and Applebaum still hasn’t offered any evidence of any. Again, she claims otherwise because she thinks the Ivy League is a perfect stand-in for academic excellence and merit, and anyone who says bad things about dear old Yale or Harvard must be against those things. 

Applebaum says she never brought up envy. Fair enough. All I can say is that when she writes about a popular backlash against the meritocratic elite, it sounds to me like the resentment she’s describing amounts to envy.

Lastly, there’s this bit about conservatives ordering people around too. If she thinks this point is nonsensical, I’m at a loss as to how she can make sense of a half century of conservative thought and the main currents of contemporary American politics. Since Barack Obama was sworn in, the federal government has intruded into American life in ways not seen for a generation or more. In the case of health care, it is a truly unprecedented and transformational incursion. This is what has sparked and fueled the Tea Parties, who demand that the government stop doing these things, stop “bossing them around.” What offends them — just as what offended Bill Buckley for his entire adult life — is a self-anointed progressive elite that believes it has the knowledge and intellect to restructure society as it sees fit, often heedless of tradition, constitutional norms, the expressed will of the American people and reason. That is what Ginni Thomas is referring to when she says “we are ruled by an elite that thinks it knows better than we know.”  

And I’m with her. But then again I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, so what do I know?

Update: Grr, argh. In my sloth and lethargy, I allowed Jay Nordlinger to beat me to one of my points. Scroll down.


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