Friday, May 30, 2008

Elites, Good and Bad

Tibor R. Machan

Democrats are all bent out of shape about how to think about elites--the group in society that claims to be superior to the rest of us. Senator Obama is dubbed an elitist for saying that many turn to religion out of frustration. Senator Clinton is trying to flee her own elitist legacy, what with an education from various elite institutions. So what is so bad about being a member of the elite?

In many previous ages and even now in many regions of the globe certain people were deemed to be above the rest, as a matter of their birthright. They were and are considered to be part of the natural aristocracy--rulers by excellence! This means that they need accomplish nothing at all to rank high among human beings. The feudal system is rife with this notion, as are many other in which class warfare is afoot.

But there can be aristocrats who deserve their higher standing in society. This would arise from having achieved something worthwhile, such as a great scientific discovery, an engineering or some kind of artistic feat. Such accomplishments would ordinarily gain a person recognition and even standing in a community. And so one could join the aristocracy or elite without the fiction of having inherited it in some mysterious, mythical way.

Trouble is that when the semi-official philosophy in the land is egalitarianism, even this sort of elitism is frowned upon. No one is supposed to be regarded as having higher rank than anyone else--that is one thesis of egalitarianism. And among liberal democrats this philosophy is rampant--nearly everyone gives it lip service even when it is totally absurd (such as the folks do at National Public Radio, which is one of the snootiest organizations in the country).

Many trendy notions contribute to the mess--for example, relativism and subjectivism about values. If what makes something worthwhile is only a matter of a subjective feeling--some simply like it more than other things--there can hardly be any rational reason for attributing to it higher rank than to competing accomplishments. If it is all relative whether one deserves the Nobel Prize in economics or physics, then the idea that the achievements of these people are superior to that of others and the prize is deserved make no sense. Thus, egalitarianism must rule! Everything people do is of equal worth or, indeed, worthless. The very idea of “worth” becomes meaningless since no objective standards are supposed to exist by which to assess what we do in any realm at all.

Post-modernism, which is but a recent version of subjectivism and relativism, also produces this egalitarian outlook. It is all a matter of how you look at it, you see, so how could anything really be a more worthwhile achievement than something else?

Clearly the liberal democratic ethos embraces some of these ways of thinking about the world and about human conduct. For example, all of the poor are equally deserving, never mind how they got to be poor. All of the sick, too, are equally deserving of support, never mind how they got sick (say by accident or because they acted recklessly). No one is a failure in school or at work, only impaired somehow. No one is at fault in a divorce! And so forth and so on.

When these views dominate in a community, such as in the Democratic Party, any type of aristocracy or elitism is a liability and those who wish to flourish--to win votes for example--must reject any thought of earned merit by anyone. That is just what we now witness with Senators Obama and Clinton, a desperate effort to deny any kind of special achievement, even while they both contend, paradoxically, that they deserve to become president of the United States of America because of their superior judgment and character!

Elitism, however, is actually quite all right when it involves earning one’s high rank, in science, the arts, athletics, and in other spheres where human beings set out to triumph. But an ultimately condescending egalitarianism obscures this fact. The phony humility of such egalitarianism aims to deny something entirely unavoidable in human affairs, namely, that some do better than others and thus deserve more! Those will be the accomplished elite and no effort to deny this fact will manage to actually avoid it. Such denial will merely produce confusion and contradiction, neither of which reaps any benefit at all.

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