In an old episode of The Simpsons, Truong Van Dinh, a young Asian-immigrant boy beats out Lisa in a patriotic-essay competition. In his submission, “USA A-OK,” Truong writes:
When my family arrived in this country four months ago, we spoke no English and had no money in our pockets. Today, we own a nationwide chain of wheel-balancing centers. Where else but in America, or possibly Canada, could our family find such opportunity?
It’s funny because it’s (sorta) true. Of course, four months is a little unrealistic to roll out a nationwide chain of wheel-balancing centers, but you get the point.
As John Podhoretz has been pointing out quite a bit of late, one of the most remarkable things about the Sarah Jeong story is that she isn’t being hailed as pristine example of American meritocracy, openness, and decency.
This is a woman who came to America as a young child, got a degree from Berkeley and Harvard Law School, decided not to pursue law and signed up to work for some online start-ups writing about technology. By the time she’s 30, the editorial board of the most prestigious newspaper in America hires her. So of course her defenders insist she’s justified in denouncing the four Ps (the Patriarchy of the Pale Penis People). I mean look how the man has kept her down!
Never mind that there are very few nations where this sort of career path could be replicated, including in Jeong’s native South Korea or many of the supposedly more enlightened Scandinavian utopias we hear so much about these days.
The whole thing is ludicrous, which is why I liked Reihan’s essay on the strategic pose of being an over-achieving anti-white Asian so much. He writes:
Think about what it takes to claw your way into America’s elite strata. Unless you were born into the upper-middle class, your surest route is to pursue an elite education. To do that, it pays to be exquisitely sensitive to the beliefs and prejudices of the people who hold the power to grant you access to the social and cultural capital you badly want. By setting the standards for what counts as praiseworthy, elite universities have a powerful effect on youthful go-getters. Their admissions decisions represent powerful “nudges” towards certain attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, and I’ve known many first- and second-generation kids — I was one of them — who intuit this early on.
Read it all, but one of the things I like about Reihan’s take is the deep cynicism of it. I don’t mean this as a slight, but as praise. The line between sincere ideology and careerist strategy Reihan draws is so thin and permeable it’s easy to miss it at certain points. It’s very Christopher Lasch (a very high compliment in my book).
But it’s also consistent with the writings of my recent obsession: Joseph Schumpeter. Schumpeter predicted, before the massive expansion of higher education, that capitalism would breed a new class of intellectuals (writers, journalists, artists, lawyers, etc.) who would be motivated by both ideology and self-interest to undermine liberal democratic capitalism. “Unlike any other type of society, capitalism inevitably and by virtue of the very logic of its civilization creates, educates and subsidizes a vested interest in social unrest,” Schumpeter wrote in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. He adds a bit further on: “For such an atmosphere [of social hostility to capitalism] to develop it is necessary that there be groups whose interest it is to work up and organize resentment, to nurse it, to voice it and to lead it.”
Sarah Jeong is not the ideal example of what Schumpeter was talking about, viz. capitalism (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez fits that bill better). But she is a good example of the larger adversary culture that universities not only “nudge” students toward, but actively indoctrinate them into. Simply put, there is an entire industry dedicated to the proposition that not just the American past, but the American present, is disordered, bigoted, and oppressive. And Jeong’s meteoric and meritocratic rise demonstrates how so many of our best and brightest have gotten that message. How many have internalized it as ideology or have just cynically decided that’s how you get ahead is an open question.