Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Follies of Fools


I guess I'll have to start this out with a review of "America's Ruling Class--And the Perils of Revolution", by Angelo Cordevilla, since excerpts from that article appear to comprise roughly 90% of your five part post. As you know, the article first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of the The American Spectator, and since has made the rounds at all the usual conservative blogs, including the SPPI. In July, Rush Limbaugh made rather a big deal of it on his radio show. A modestly expanded book form has now appeared, with a 6 page introduction by Rush, along with a further 60 pages consisting of a copy of the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and an extensive bibliography.

I don't think I could do a better job of summarizing this article (and now, book) than renegade conservative David Frum has here and here. These are a few excerpts:

"Good book or bad book, however, “The Ruling Class” takes us as deep as we are ever likely to get into the minds of Tea Party Americans. It is important not for what it argues, but for what it reveals...

Here’s what it does reveal:

...The central concept of the Tea Party is the division of the nation into two parts: the legitimate and the illegitimate, “real America” vs unreal. This is the idea behind Sarah Palin’s speeches...

...The dividing line between “classes” is not wealth. You can be a multi-millionaire and yet still be excluded from “the ruling class.” The dividing line is formal education, and the values and attitudes typically absorbed by highly educated people. You might almost say that the class struggle as defined by Codevilla is waged between people with more money than education, and people with more education than money...

...If one idea unites “The Ruling Class” it is Codevilla’s conviction that white Christians are targets of oppression and discrimination fully equal to that which ever oppressed black Americans. Thus Codevilla asserts that today’s ruling class “can no more believe that a Christian might be their intellectual and moral equal than white southerners of the Jim Crow era could think the same of Negroes.”...

...But here’s a curious fact about Codevilla’s book. Through “The Ruling Class,” Codevilla repeatedly estimates that 1/3 of the country follows “The Ruling Class” while 2/3 belong to the good-guy faction, “the Country Party.” Who are these bad 1/3? They cannot all be Stanford graduates.

Here’s why Codevilla gets coy. He notes that the Democratic party’s most loyal voters live on streets named after Martin Luther King. They are unwed parents. They are protected by the Community Reinvestment Act.

Codevilla’s story never explicitly acknowledges race, but it is unmistakably racialized. If Christian whites are America’s new Negroes, what happened to the old Negroes? Apparently they joined the Ruling Class...

...Perhaps the most surprising thing about Codevilla’s book is the absence of much in the way of a political program. It wants constitutionalism and lower taxes and less spending and less debt, which is all fine. But if you were a Tea Party politician looking for answers to the question, “What do we do?” you won’t find those answers here. Surprisingly, Codevilla more or less washes his hands of both politics and policy.

And there the book ends...

...It may seem a frustrating and disappointing end point. Having told people everything that is wrong with America – identified the guilty parties to be removed – promised that it will be easy to take power – you quit without advising them what to do if they should happen to gain power. How is that helpful?

The answer is that “The Ruling Class” is not a book about governing. It’s a book about feeling: about identifying targets for blame, about mobilizing anger against those targets, about defining who is – and who is not – a proper American. The book does not aspire to be useful, but to be satisfying to those who feel most outraged and alienated.

Which brings us to the real division in America revealed by “The Ruling Class.” Plainly, there are many people to whom this book offers a powerful and convincing message. And then there are those to whom it will appear an unsubstantiated, unconvincing mess.

Just speaking personally here, all the elements that I would expect to find in a book on this subject – some attempt to define basic concepts, some effort at proof, some attempt to justify intellectual moves like defining college professors INTO the “ruling class” and defining the CEOs of major corporations OUT – all these elements are missing.

Codevilla piles bare assertion atop bare assertion atop bare assertion, in service of a series of generalizations that will seem convincing only to those who believed them already. The “Ruling Class” is a work of prejudice-ratification, not analysis in any sense. And yet … plainly there are plenty of people who ask nothing better from a book like this than prejudice-ratification. They know what they think, and what they want is somebody to reflect those thoughts back to them – only even more emphatic, even more impassionated, even more disdainful of anybody who might think differently.

If we were dividing America into segments, perhaps this would be as good a division as any: between those who live in the closed information system served by books like “The Ruling Class,” and those who live in more open systems, where assertions must be corroborated, and where generalizations must rest on evidence.

That divide seems to gape especially wide these days, judging at least by the enthusiastic reception of this embittered polemic by so many who call themselves conservative."

I would cut this post off here, but to keep this blog from becoming little more than a battle of excerpts, I'll add my own thoughts.

Mostly, "The Ruling Class" is just one big laundry list of complaints which social conservatives have been voicing with steadily ascending ferocity since I was in grade school. It's only novelty is to roll all these complaints into one big Super Conspiracy Theory, and identifies, vaguely, a tightly organized cabal of liberal academics as the conspirators. To say it fairly blames traditional Republican politicals equally is something of a misnomer. Actually, what it does is blames some conservatives for acting like liberals - wolves, if you will, in sheep's clothing.

Now I really don't have a problem with people who advance the argument that stable, traditional marriages are better for society than same sex marriages, that smaller government is better than bigger government, that Christian faith is better than atheism - and all the rest. I don't necessarily agree with these arguments, but certainly they deserve a fair hearing.

However, the real problem I have with "The Ruling Class" has nothing to do with whatever you or I think about the validity of these arguments. The real problem is that the article purposefully, directly and insultingly accuses academic achievement as the fundamental source of society's ills. You can't read it any other way. It states, matter of factly and in plain English, that people who commit themselves to excellence in the study of the arts and sciences and become experts, are magically transformed into elite, know-it-all snobs who despise the "common man". They want nothing more than to fashion a godless society in which common men are treated as cattle.

What utter bunk that is! Steve, I've known my share of experts. Some of them, frankly, are insufferable. These are the people who seem to believe their greater knowledge of one subject or another somehow makes them superior to me. I can't stand people like that any better than you can. But this is not the norm, and to build on this minor aggravation the theory that the simple pursuit of knowledge is morally corrupting is both childish and ignorant.

At a time when America is falling behind the rest of the world's developed nations in terms of academic achievement, and as never before needs to nurture and encourage education at all levels, we get blockheads like this Angelo Codevilla making education itself out to be a form of moral perversion. I don't think I can find words to describe how harmful this idea is, not just to America, but to civilization as a whole. So I'll just confine myself to one certain consequence.

How many kids I wonder, will be denied the realization of their academic potential because their otherwise thoughtful and sincere parents bought into disturbing fantasies like this one? This to me is where the pleasant distraction of political discourse begins to have real consequences for real people. You know Steve, here I'm talking about the "real people" out there in rural America which Mr. Codevilla claims he cares about. Fewer of them will become biologists, or climate scientists, or historians, or jurists, or any of a hundred other professionals America desperately needs, because Mr. Codevilla and his like have convinced some parents that study in these fields will turn their children into monsters.

One other point.

Many, including yourself I assume, will assert that education itself is not at fault, but that liberals have constructed an educational system which has the single goal of confirming their own social and political beliefs. Oddly enough this premise, as described by Mr. Codevilla, rests on the idea that it was the teachers and professors themselves who effected this construction, from the inside, if you will. Here's where things really begin to go off the rails and we start looking for a solution imposed by someone on the outside.

Ominously, Mr. Codevilla says:

"Achieving the country class's inherently revolutionary objectives in a manner consistent with the Constitution and with its own diversity would require the Country Party to use legislation primarily as a tool to remove obstacles, to instruct, to reintroduce into American life ways and habits that had been cast aside."

"...(The Country Party) would have to take responsibility for curriculum and administration away from credentialed experts, and they would have to explain why they know better. This would involve a level of political articulation of the body politic far beyond voting in elections every two years."

In other words, Mr. Codevilla advocates taking control of education away from educators and putting it into the hands of political ideologists. Again, that's the only way you can read this.

Steve, please. Think this through. Which practitioners of politics exactly are you planning on having decide which tenets of science are true and which are not? Who is going to be the new sheriff in town? And how can you be sure it will be a sheriff who always agrees with your brand of politics and religion? I mean, having set in motion a mechanism whereby politicians tell scientists what they can study and teach and what they cannot study and teach, how can you be so sure they will always agree with your point of view? Are you really that blind?

Furthermore (and lastly), what possible good can come of putting a public school teacher in charge of your child's religious education? With just the diversity and conflict among America's Christian denominations alone to go on, how can you possibly assume that teachers will always teach the religious principles you want your child to experience?

Or maybe you think it would be better to practice parochialism: public schools in predominantly Mormon areas will hire teachers to teach Mormonism, Catholic neighborhoods will teach Catholicism, Baptists will teach one of the several diverse Baptist theologies... I assume Reverend Wright's Trinity Church will furnish teachers to teach black liberation theology in Chicago schools. People of different Christian denominations in each area will just have to either like it or move out. What a mess!

Steve, that's what's going to happen when you put "religion back into government". You innocently assume government, either nationally or locally, will uniformly encourage your conception of the Christian experience. But what's worse: keeping religion out of government and in the hands of private individuals, or putting politicians in charge of it? Have you really thought this through?



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