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Top Down

by Helen Rittelmeyer

Pathology of the Elites: How the Arrogant Classes Plan to Run Your Life, by Michael Knox Beran (Ivan R. Dee, 312 pp., $26.95)

The ideology of the American ruling class has done great harm to those classes which do not have the privilege of ruling, and few people are better equipped to analyze the “pathology of the elites” than Michael Knox Beran, a regular NR contributor (indeed, some of the essays in this book have their origin in the pages of this magazine). Beran is not only the author of several acclaimed books, including studies of Robert F. Kennedy and Thomas Jefferson, but he has followed the prep school–Ivy League–law school–Westchester pipeline with great precision, so Pathology of the Elites is something of an inside job.

Beran’s exposé goes like this: The American ruling class purports to be liberal and humanitarian, but this is a soothing self-deception; what it really wants is power. The expansion of its bureaucratic and cultural power has, both by design and by accident, eroded the power of rival institutions. Pastoral charity has been replaced by the far less humane welfare office, “with its whiff of Lysol and futility.” The virtues of self-government have been denigrated and undermined by government programs. The common man once learned civic virtue in the public square and personal virtue from the Western canon; experts have excluded him from the former, for lack of credentials, and progressive educators have denied him access to the latter.

Beran acknowledges that many liberal efforts are well-intentioned, and lets Lionel Trilling explain what went wrong: “Some paradox of our nature leads us, when once we have made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.” Beran opens the book with this quotation and returns often to its thesis: that concern for one’s fellow man is very fine, but the liberal version is deficient in ways that end inevitably in oppression. It is crucial for Beran to get these deficiencies right, because his prescription for the pathology of the elites is “conservative compassion” (as in Chapter 6, “Conservative Compassion versus Social Pity”), and he makes conservative compassion sound like liberal social pity minus all the problems. Many of the deficiencies he identifies hit home; a few do not.

Moral systems, including the Christian ones that Beran seems to like, tend to impose themselves on people, never more so than when their adherents are elites with the power to do the imposing. But he perceptively notes that liberalism singularly lacks “protocols of self-examination.” Meritocrats put great faith in their merit, and technocrats see no reason for self-doubt when their solutions are dictated by mere common sense and math. The old “moral and spiritual traditions of the West” had humility, which stood as a buffer against utopianism and therefore totalitarianism.

But do we really believe Beran when he says that liberalism is deficient in love? He returns again and again to the old complaint that liberal programs fail to address themselves to whole persons “made in the image of their maker,” citing welfare and public education as two instances where I-and-Thou has been replaced by I-and-Client. But in most of our school systems, teachers could use a little less cultivation of the whole child and a little more impersonal rote instruction. (Indeed, Beran’s chapter on memorizing poetry, “In Defense of Rhyme-Time,” is one of the book’s best.) Welfare programs are bureaucratic, but so are most churches. Religious charities perform their charity face to face, on the human level, but so do social workers. And contracting charity services out to community organizations — which liberals started doing a long time ago, in response to charges that their poverty programs were too impersonal — has not usually made them more effective, or less liberal. Liberal advocates of welfare understand that their targets are whole persons; what they do not understand is economics.

But a general strengthening of civic culture, which is one of Beran’s main recommendations, would certainly be a good thing, regardless. It’s hard to reduce civic culture to a white paper, so Beran’s suggestions are mostly vague, but he mentions New Urbanism more than once as a concrete way to rehabilitate agora culture through “the old public spaces.” He gives special praise to Poundbury, the quaint (and centrally planned) British town commissioned by Prince Charles and designed by Leon Krier. Beran’s faith in the promise of this “little city, rich in civic focal points” sounds very like an argument Krier himself made for including at least one church in his urban plans: “Even if people don’t go to church anymore, it is important to have such a public space, a landmark which is always open to all and fulfills mystical and symbolic functions” (as one architecture critic summarized Krier’s rationale). Which would be nice if it worked, but even Krier now admits that it doesn’t. Poundbury itself has no church, because by the time Krier was designing it, he had come to the conclusion that a public space’s “mystical and symbolic functions” depend entirely on residents’ wishes, not the architect’s.

Beran would agree with the older and wiser Krier that top-down plans work only when they are grounded in native traditions; he says as much in his essay on George W. Bush’s “freevangelical” foreign policy. And, with an admirable modesty entirely in keeping with his thesis, he does not pretend to have mastered the native traditions of those non-elites who rarely mingle with lawyers from Westchester County, N.Y.

His lack of empathy for the ruling class is surprising, though. In all of their benevolent gestures, Beran detects in liberals a Nietzschean will to power, rather than genuine concern run aground on the shoals of reality. As a graduate of Groton, he should perhaps have taken a lesson from Endicott Peabody, the school’s founder and its headmaster for 56 years and several generations of elite boys. (FDR said that, apart from his parents, Peabody influenced him more than anyone.) Peabody spent his life struggling with the pathology of the elites; he was disturbed by how few of his graduates ended up ministers and how many ended up Wall Street liberals and New Deal mandarins. But he never lost hope that his wayward pupils would retain some of the lessons he had tried to impart — his plaintive last words were: “Franklin Roosevelt is a very religious man.” Beran’s analysis might have been even more trenchant if he had been able to find, in spite of his frustration with the elites, that kind of charity for them.

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