Let’s Stop Celebrating Stupidity

October 13th, 2010 at 10:18 am | 80 Comments |

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Jonah Goldberg of the National Review has responded at some length to the column I wrote on Tuesday about meritocracy. His response made me think that there is still more to say on this subject.   Goldberg seems to think the anti-elitist rhetoric which is in wide use at the moment (the subject of my column) is acceptable because it is aimed at a particular elite: the liberals, the Obamas, “a very specific and self-styled elite.” He should listen harder, because in fact the rhetoric is far more sweeping than that, encompassing not only liberals but anyone with higher education.  Sarah Palin told O’Reilly that Americans are seeking to rid themselves of “spineless” people with an “Ivy League Education.”  Glenn Beck has mocked “the Ivy League” and people with degrees at great length. Christine O’Donnell’s political ad (the one which begins “I didn’t go to Yale…”) doesn’t attack “liberals who went to Yale.”  It attacks anyone who went to Yale.

What interests me is the fact that this backlash has come now, precisely when the Ivy League’s long campaign to make itself less exclusive has finally borne fruit. We can argue about the merits of that campaign, or the merits of the Ivy League. But clearly, our black President and our black First Lady would not have graduated from Harvard Law School in the 1950s. The fact that they did do so in the 1980s explains, in part, where they are today. There may be many things wrong with it, but Harvard Law School is no longer “elitist’ in the traditional, landed-gentry sense of the term. Whatever else it may be, Harvard Law School has become an engine of upward mobility. It seems odd that conservatives are attacking institutions that can create opportunities for people not born into wealth or privilege – particularly since conservatives support, at the same time, the elimination of the estate tax. If privilege is the enemy, why not tax estates at 100%?

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 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. 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 mention 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?   Nor does he seem to realize what the consequences of this burst of anti-elitist rhetoric are likely to be.  A generation ago, the Republican Party had the lead among educated voters.  George Bush senior easily defeated Michael Dukakis among college graduates.  In a remarkably short period of time, that advantage has nearly vanished.  Doesn’t the Republican party want them back again?

Cross-posted at the Washington Post’s PostPartisan blog.

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80 Comments so far ↓

  • Rockerbabe

    Would someone please define “elitist” for me? It seems elitist is whatever the writer wants it to be and that is never clearly defined. All of the folks who talk about Harvard and Yale being elitist may have a point; but, if I could have figured out how to pay for those schools back in the 1970′s, I would have tried my best to get into one of those schools. but, alas, I went to the University of Louisville for both my BS and MBA and since I truly believe you get from school what you put into it, I think I got a first rate education and my career is my evidence.

    Now, since when is having a good education [from any school] an elitist thing? I do not know anyone who thinks that; in fact, most would like for their kids to go to college and professional schools as this provides the best way to have a “better” life than those of one’s parents. And, I know quite a few adults who have gone to college after the kids were grown and finally left home!

    It seems to me, those calling the college and professionally educated “elitist” probably haven’t gotten all that good an education themselves, have a difference in opinion [so they call those folks "elitist"], or they just do not have anything constructive to offer the average citizen. The last reason, I think, is because if one calls something “elitist” long enough, then the average citizen might just believe that a good education is not desireable. I think the likes of Palin, Beck, O’Donnell, Boehner and McConnell should all be ashamed of themselves for their attack on education, educated citizens and the differences in opinion we all hold at some point about almost everything. Being ignorant is no excuse for being so stuck up and disrespectful of others.

    PS: they do shoot grisely bears were I come from.

  • JeninCT

    CentristNYer wrote:

    “Ironic how that describes most of the GOP’s top tier candidates these days: the people who want to use government to control womens’ pregnancy decisions, keep gays from marrying or serving openly in the military, and give unfunded tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans. ”

    Ironic how Obama supports most of these. And if Palin and Paladino are pro-life it doesn’t bother me one bit. I don’t expect politicians to agree with all my views.

    Rabiner: For what it’s worth, I think social security should be voluntary, or phased out or SOMETHING. Not sure what, but it’s all the mammoth programs have become the 800 pound girolla in the room and need to be fixed.

  • Telly Davidson

    In politics “elite” has become really just a code word for people who would presume to (out of superior education or seeing “the big picture”) use govt force people to do what they don’t want to do — whether its buy health insurance they can ill afford, bus their children into the ghetto/barrio, force a quota on an employer, force you to sell your house because Starbucks wants to build a shopping centre, force you to carpool once a week to cut down on pollution, etc. It has been exploited by the right versus the left, because liberals are much more interventionist by nature in domestic affairs and because they were stereotyped as “egg head”, out-of-touch pseudo-intellectuals (see “Kerry, John”) — but “authoritarian conservatives” of the Bill Bennett / Dick Cheney school can often be just as guilty.

    The other criticism of the “elites” is that the Palin/Huckabee set can remember a world where a high-school graduate could get a 30-year, retire-at-55 job at GM or Whirlpool or construction, and where ANY college education was a pass. Today, a person who *didn’t* attend an Ivy League college or a prep school (and for the record, I didn’t) has WAY more of a climb ahead of them to truly “elite” jobs. Did young top-level columnists like Chris Cillizza, Tucker Carlson, Ezra Klein, Matt Taibbi go to Texas State Teacher’s College (like LBJ) or a small private one Reagan’s alma mater Eureka? Did young novelists and filmmakers like Jonathan Safran Foer, Benjamin Kunkel, Noah Baumbach, or Lauren Weisberger graduate from Keepya-Bizzie State U?

    Now compare that to where Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan went to college — oops, they DIDN’T — or the relatively obscure alma maters of Walter Cronkite, Kurt Vonnegut, Dan Rather — even Steven Spielberg was a Long Beach State man. To paraphrase Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman”, “BIG change! HUGE!” They see their childrens’ futures dissolving before their very eyes — even if they do go to State or a small college, because they can’t pay the $30,000 freight for Harvard or Yale or Stanford.

    (You go, anniemargaret — agree w/ almost all your above)

  • CD-Host

    Note that those who have it really hard (AKA the poor) seem unimpressed and they continue to vote for Democratic “elitists”.

    Actually JonF no. If you look at social moderates fiscal conservatives they are 15% of the population. The largest group of them is disaffected voters. These voters tend towards low education voters who tend to be young males very unhappy with redistributionist policies. They are agitated that these policies seem to skip them. For example better healthcare for the elderly or poor than the lower middle class. Often very anti-immigrant. They are quite poor and strongly drawn to the Tea Party (i.e 10% of the population). There excitement is one of the reasons the Republicans are polling so well among independents.

    So no. The movement does appeal to quite a few poor. Now there are groups like pro-government conservatives and disadvantaged democrats who are poor and economically liberal and no question those are big groups. But it simply isn’t the case that the poor are all liberals. In general the poor are very anti democratic elitists too, they just mostly dislike Republican elitists more.

  • drdredel

    I’ve said it before, I’ll keep saying it. The anger at the elites is very directly linked to people hating the notion that someone out there is better than them, in some way.

    The Soviets put this into practice right after the revolution and proved that (surprise surprise) knowing more about something (like growing food, or building roads) is not just a myth in the heads of those that have been doing said things for years and years.

    The term “I’m YOU” in that idiot’s ad speaks directly to this very real problem. The public (that would be swayed by this stupidity) actually believes that any schmuck with a shovel can walk into congress and do that job. This only indicates that the people have no idea what congresspeople actually do.

    As Bill Maher frequently points out, they want elites cutting them open in the operating room, and they want elites representing them in court or flying their air planes because they’re JUST smart enough to understand how those tasks require actual expertise. But for their government they want “YOU”.

    Good luck with that.

  • CD-Host

    drdredel –

    Do you have any evidence for that? I think the problem with elites is that they don’t represent interests of the American people but rather the interests of their class. To quote the master For each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, merely in order to carry through its aim, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society, that is, expressed in ideal form: it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones….. The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas. (Marx German Ideology).

  • MSheridan


    I’ve got to thank you not just for a quote I’d never seen before, but for the perfect set-up for one of my favorite aphorisms:The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern.
    –Lord Acton

  • communists-basher

    Listen, Libs… stop preaching your Progressive Liberal Socialism in the elite schools and we’ll be respecting them again. Until then, the Ivy League education is a Socialist indoctrination platform.

  • drdredel


    I’m not sure what you’re asking me to provide evidence for. That the Soviets killed off all their elites? That every field has experts (including politics)? That being educated (not necessarily in ivy league schools) is better than not being educated?

    Having read your posts, you don’t strike me as someone that would ask for evidence for the above statements, so, I’m not sure what you’re asking me for evidence of.

    Also I’m not sure what your intent with that quote was.

  • communists-basher


    “As Bill Maher frequently points out, they want elites cutting them open in the operating room, and they want elites representing them in court or flying their air planes because they’re JUST smart enough to understand how those tasks require actual expertise. But for their government they want “YOU”.”

    Someone who sides with Bill Maher is the worst kind of Liberal Jew there is. And for a former Soviet Jew, it makes him almost as evil as Soviets were.

    There is no difference between a Liberal Progressive Jew hating a conservative Christian and the Soviets hating their elite. Both did/will pay dearly.

    What’s really hard to believe is that a former Soviet Jew can be such a Liberal schmuck.

  • communists-basher

    If those wonderful ‘achievements’ by professor Obama and his professors czars aren’t any indication of what elite government can bring to the table then I don’t know what is.

    We need people with VALUES govern this great country, not former dope/cocaine smokers ivy-school educated Socialist ideologues by trade.

  • drdredel

    What’s really hard to believe is that a former Soviet Jew can be such a Liberal schmuck.

    Not that I care too much about other people’s opinions, and it is a little embarrassing that I get such pleasure from pointing out how much of an ignoramus you are, even if it does keep you coming back for more abuse, but in any event, as you probably know, because you live amongst them, most former soviet jews share my point of view… at least the ones younger than 40. So, why you would find this “hard to believe” is confounding.

    Now would probably be a good time for you to go ahead and regale me with tales of your illustrious education, lest I start to think that you’re just an angry dolt who thinks that he *should have been admitted to this or that institution if not for some highly unfair circumstance.

    Why are you so angry, anyway? Was your daddy an alcoholic?
    Ok… sorry, that was unfair… I know he was… but that’s just the way things go for most of us Russians. But if you’re angry at him you should go talk to him! (or visit his grave, as the case may be). There’s no reason to take your insecurities and short comings out on us! We’re your friends!

    So… my advice (cause I know that’s why you’re here, is for my advice) is to take a deep breath, and relax. Pull your taxi cab into the drive through at Dunkin’ Donuts, get a nice chocolate glazed and enjoy!

    Btw… I think you should reconsider your whole “VALUES” stance. Most Russians despise religion in general and religious people in particular, and “values” is code word for “we need to live in a religious theocracy where the government can tell us who and how often to fuck”. As you may have noticed, only a very small minority in this nation (and certainly not your russian jewish friends) agree with such an approach to democracy.
    As you can imagine, I have already pegged you as someone that believes in Zeus. Which makes you an even bigger moron, since we all know that only fools believe in Zeus.

    No, again… I’m kidding… I know you believe in the god of Abraham. Funny thing is though… only fools believe in him as well.

    go figure.

  • JonF

    CD Host,

    I think we are using differnet definitions of “poor”. For you “poor” simply means “working class white”. I am simply thinking of the bottom quintile of the income distribution. To the extent these people vote (and yes, many do not) they definitely skew toward the Democrats.
    As for the Tea Party its support comes mainly from the older (white) middle class and above. It’s simply the Republican base rebranded with a new name.
    I am not sure where the issue of social moderacy came in; I don’t recall mentioning social issues in this context at all.

  • JonF

    Re: Most Russians despise religion in general

    Odd then that the Russian Orthodox Church generally scores highly in opinion polls of popular institutions in Russia. Perhaps the Russians are unaware that it is a religious institution?

  • CD-Host

    drdredel –

    You had made a claim, “The anger at the elites is very directly linked to people hating the notion that someone out there is better than them, in some way.” In other words that the anger was fundamentally jealousy. I was disputing that and arguing the anger was fundamentally self interest. People don’t hate the elites because they are “better” but because they are attacking the other classes.

  • CD-Host

    JonF –

    There is a huge difference between a categorical statement implying vast majorities or all, vs. skew. I agree with your skew statements but not your categorical ones about how the poor vote. As for economically conservative socially moderate that fundamentally is the core of the Tea Party and its ideology. So when you talked about Tea Party support vs. Republican that is how it came up.

  • Fairy Hardcastle

    Rockerbabe, an elitest is someone who does not believe that there are “all men are created equal” and that there are “inalienable truths” about human happines. Instead, an elitist believes that some men are more equal than others and that that is the only truth we can know about the human heart.

  • CentristNYer

    JeninCT // Oct 13, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    “Ironic how Obama supports most of these.”

    And yet he doesn’t. Other than on the issue of same sex marriage, his position is contrary to the vast majority of Republican policy-makers, who would use the government to control peoples’ choices on issues like abortion and to funnel (unfunded!) tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans.

  • CentristNYer

    Fairy Hardcastle // Oct 14, 2010 at 8:38 am

    “…an elitist believes that some men are more equal than others…”

    That would make you an elitist, Fairy, since you believe that only straight people are entitled to have their marriages sanctioned by the state. Thanks for clarifying.

  • bamboozer

    DUH! Socialism!!! Duh!!! Communism!!! Duh Obabmas a Muslim!!!! If you stop celebrating stupidity what will Conservatives have to talk about?

  • Rockerbabe

    Socialism is not taught in college, neither is communism. But then again, you seem to confuse learning ABOUT these political systems with indoctrination. No one is indoctrinating anyone, except those too afraid of a little learning. The best way to fight something you hate, is to know about that issue in all its aspects. That is what college is suppose to do – teach one about the world around them and how to distinguish one thing from another. You obviously are confused.

    Fairy Hardcastle:
    Thanks for your definition of elitist. Not mine, but at least there is some clarity about what the more right-wing pov happens to be.

  • PracticalGirl

    In looking over this and many other threads on this Forum, I’m struck by how often posters use their vast and great educations (unprovable, since we’re all anonymous, but I’ll just give it all the benefit of the doubt) as the arbitrer for why we should take their opinion as Gospel. Funny, that education and the ability to articulate a point (in the end) is the thing most people think should elevate one thought from another yet in the rank-and-file Tea Party world would be the two things TP voters would reject you for first, if you ran for office.

  • CD-Host

    PracticalGirl –

    Great point. Let me just comment though there is a big difference between discussing policy on a forum and trying to get a formal democracy collapsing into outright oligarchy back into being a defacto Democracy. Two of our likely Senators are going to have direct ties to militia movements. Sarah Palin can go to any small town in the United States and get 20,000 cheering fans from the local area. That might be far more effective in fighting off oligarchy than knowing the right books to quote during a debate.

  • MSheridan


    Re this: That might be far more effective in fighting off oligarchy than knowing the right books to quote during a debate.

    I’m sorry, I don’t buy that for a second. Oligarchy, government by the few, has been a danger at other times in this nation, but the current march toward plutocracy began under Reagan. He was the first completely mainstream exponent of cutting taxes and limiting the size of government. Since his election in 1980, we’ve had 30 years of similar talk. And yet neither he nor any of his ideological descendants, including Sarah Palin, have done a damned thing to shrink government (much the reverse) or make it in any way less a tool of “the few.” Now we’ve got the Tea Party arguing for the repeal of the 17th Amendment (allowing for the popular election of senators) and FOX News dismissing a lack of fiscal transparency in campaign contributions and advertising as a trivial unimportant matter. If we were allowed another 30 years, we’d still be waiting for this crowd to live up to their rhetoric. Most of the voters who support them can’t even name the significant cuts they’d like to see made, and the ones who can are completely opposed by the others (“Get the Government OUT of My Medicare!”).

  • Fairy Hardcastle

    Not sure I agree with PracticalGirl — have you been to a TP rally? The biggest cheers are for the best speakers, like any other rally.

    I like CD-Host’s larger point which shows a trust in the good common sense of the American people. In other words, most of us may not be able articulate the finer philosophical points of capitalism or democracy as methods for good human society, but we feel and know that our freedoms are essential and that a growing Federal beast is antithetical to our freedoms.

  • anniemargret

    FairyHC: “The biggest cheers are for the best speakers, like any other rally.”

    Means absolutely nothing . Morons can be cheered (read=Palin/Beck/Angle/O’Donnell). Put a little glitz and glamour and what’s that old saying….’a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing?’ These folks epitomize it.

    We choose CEOs because they’re smart and efficient and know what they are talking about. Now we’ve got a bunch of yahoos who think they are capable of governing a nation, even when they cannot even prove a minimal awareness or education on the role of government, American history, or world history – they rely on superficiality, and our nation will suffer for it.

  • CD-Host

    We choose CEOs because they’re smart and efficient and know what they are talking about.

    I wish. We choose CEOs because they have the right friends on the board and will be happy to make room at the trough in terms of indirect payoffs. 30 years ago we choose CEOs because they were smart, efficient and knew what they were talking about.

    Corruption is far far worse in corporate america than government.

  • CD-Host

    MSheridan –

    I agree with most of what you wrote. The Tea Party is gaining power very very quickly. Two examples of cut proposals:


    As for the combination for an anti-corruption movement, class resentment and a non state militia being effective in fighting off an plutocracy. I’d offer the example of the redeemer movement in the American south. Sarah Palin’s people haven’t held power yet. We’ll have to see if they are Republicans or something different. There are hints of both.

    I have some hope in this country. As I wrote in another context But as I thought about it more, one can make a pretty good analogy between the reconstruction scalawags and our current elected officials, the reconstruction carpetbaggers and k-street. Carpetbaggers were Northern business interests that had come down to the South after the civil war bribed public officials and seized control of the means of production. The Redeemers considered these people the way occupied people consider the investing class of a foreign invader and understood with absolutely clarity that their continued involvement eliminated the ability to self govern. Our current crop of corporate oligarchs is if anything worse than the crop of business interests that exploited the south’s defeat. A Scalawag, literally a worthless deformed animal, was a term for the southerners that were helping the north, generally government officials, the recipients of the bribes. Its a great word to apply to the modern government officials that have let money so corrupt their purposes that they no longer do anything like what they were sent to Washington for. The Redeemers which arose out of the first Klan had a simple program for rebuilding self rule drive the Northern army out of the south; and then soon thereafter put in place economic reforms ending carpetbagging. This gave the South, or at least the white south, back a democracy a government which represent the people rather than national business interests. The analogy is very very apt; the Tea Party’s primary enemy is the sort of crony capitalism that both our parties support. Being a Northerner myself the Klan has nothing but negative emotional connotations for me, but when I abstract away my own upbringing and try and relate to this like a southerner; yeah I get it, and I agree.

  • MSheridan

    The failure and dismantling of Reconstruction was a catastrophe for the south, and not just the black subset of its population. If the Tea Party had its way, it seems to me likely to create a degraded sharecropper class in the name of freedom and limited government. So that particular example may turn out to be apt, but I sincerely hope it is not.

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