Thursday, September 20, 2012

Elites...and freedom of inquiry

I'm shooting for at least 5 posts a week. Mon-Fri. But I've got this Mon-Fri job that sometimes interferes. The past couple of days I've been on the road a bit so blogs are light this week. However, I spent a few hours in the car yesterday listening to a couple of really interesting presentations. 

First, I listened to Ross Douthat's presentation at University of Mary in Bismark, ND. This was mostly a summary of his new book "Bad Relgion: How we Became a Nation of Heretics." I'd already read Douthat's book and have jotted down my thoughts on itI think it's tremendously encouraging. While Douthat delivers news that is not all sunny for the faithful his presentation style is somewhat light. There is a humility that seems to comes from the sense that we aren't the first generation to be faced with what appears like insurmountable odds and that we won't be abandoned. Ours is a history of surprising resurrections.  

Next, I listened to an interview between Glenn Greenwald and Chris Hayes. They spent the time discussing Haye's new book "Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy." 


As I've noted before, I really like Greenwald's work. I haven't spent much time reading Hayes's stuff in the Nation or watched him on MSNBC so my initial take on him was relatively untainted by any particular cultural association other than him being the liberal journalist that he introduced himself as.  Listening to Greenwald and Hayes together, they both strike me as so extremely earnest. These guys are believers. In what? Well, believers in progress for sure. Progress for them looks pretty much like the egalitarianism that Modernism has been calling for and predicting since the late 19th century. Despite that, Hayes's approach comes across as fresh due to a genuine curiosity.  Hayes's work reminded me a little bit of David Brooks' "Bobo's in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There" that came out way back in 2001. Hayes readily acknowledges that the Meritocratic Elites he describes have totally lost the trust of the American public and abused their positions of power and influence. While Hayes seems genuinely surprised that these new elites have dropped the ball, Brooks pretty much predicted that they would do exactly that when he documented the new "bohemian bourgeois" with their high octane work ethic and pseudo-religious cult of the self. Granted, Brooks placed far less emphasis than Hayes does on the question of power but in sizing up the new elites he abbreviates to "Bobos" for a reason. One could also read the memoir of a young Meritocrat Elite coming to terms with his own personal failure, in George Stephanopoulos's "All to Human"  which is some pretty good tragedy reading, (actually the whole "rise and fall" tragedy is a well establish literary theme so history certainly knows this story by now). I was intrigued enough, (and had enough drive time left), to listen to Chris Hayes talk a bit more about his book on Mary Moss-Coane's show. She spends a good amount of time comparing "Twilight of the Elites" to David Halberstam's work from 1972, "The Best and the Brightest." Halberstam's book was apparently, a documentation for the generation experiencing the let down of 70's, Vietnam and the Cold War after some of the Kennedy luster had worn off. The contrast was that the elites of the 50's were born into their elite status.The promise of Meritocracy of course, is that by opening up the halls of power to all of society, (or increasing the competition),  not only would you ensure that it is the best and the brightest, and hopefully the most decent, who will ascend to power, you will in the end help to foster a more open and egalitarian society. What we are seeing however, is the same old bumbling leadership that we've seen before. More significantly, we are simultaneously becoming a society that is increasingly marked by a less and less level playing field. As good as the Greenwald interview is I'd have had them parsing out the specifics and defining their terms a bit more, (even "Elite" is such a loaded  word that it really does needs to be clarified), and then further establish which elites they mean and which failures they find most egregious. They spend some time glossing over the political and financial elites, but to his credit, Hayes acknowledges his own elite status as a journalist, and he seems quite unnerved by it, (a good way to limit your hubris I would say). I'm sure Hayes spends time on the specifics when he makes his case in the book, (which I really want to read now).  The one thing that I did find curious is how he touched on the Bush administration without comparing that elite failure with meritocratic elite failure. He acknowledges that some of the (meritocratic), Obama Administration looks an awful lot like the failure of the Bush Administration, (I wouldn't anticipate many of the players there would fall within what most people would consider part of the Meritocracy). What are the differences what is left of the plain old North Eastern aristocrats elites and the Meritocratic elites? Again, I need to read Hayes' complete book to give him a chance to address that one.

Finally, I listened to a presentation, by Tim Carney at Rice University in 2009. Carney's most recent work at the time was "The Big Rip Off: How Big Business and Big Government Steal Your Money."

Like Hayes, Carney's concern is with concentration of power. Although, Carney clearly is more oriented towards the right side of things he, like Hayes, sees a great deal of institutional failure that is serving to put the overall populace at risk and greatly limits upward mobility. Carney does spend time on specifics in his talk at Rice University. He is an equal opportunity offender calling out everyone from Monsanto, to GM, to Enron and of course the Bush and Obama Administrations. Carney breaks down his "Big Myth," which he describes as the false dogma that Big Business hates Big Government. Rather, he argues, the two manipulate one another to trade favors and ultimately, pull the ladder up behind them, (as Hayes might put it). While Carney seems to have some Libertarian leanings, he's not laissez faire. Rather than being anti-regulation he calls for responsible regulation. In fact, he is fully behind the government's authority to regulate industry. His proposal however is that Big Business shouldn't be prescribing regulation to limit competition.

I was fortunate enough to come across all of the presentations I've noted here without a single Google search. Had I done a search on Carney and Hayes I would have gotten a return with all sorts of TMZ results. 90 second clips with headings announcing "Smack down" and "slams" and "apologizes for." People look so much worse on MSNBC. Hayes apparantly is a left wing freak his spits on the graves of American servicemen who were killed in action. Carney is a right wing hack who is happy to act as a republican front with subtly racist shots at the President. So says the internet anyway. I would have never picked up on that from just listening to them share their research for 60 minutes each, (good thing I was able to go back and find the quick "worst of" videos to tell me the real story). The whole television format of pitting people against one another on screen for 60 to 180 seconds and then releasing them like pit bulls to go and spout abbreviated diatribes at one another as if they are mortal enemies has a real destructive effect. I think that in fact, both Hayes and Carney would readily agree that there exists within the infrastructure of our most powerful institutes a barely hidden conspiracy to subjugate the masses. It is interesting that the folks setting the limited debate format, (the companies paying for commercial time), are often the same ones limiting the conversation in Washington. It is a great way for them to control the opposition and limit exposure to the process of how power works.

All of this brings me back to something that has really been rattling around in my head for a while. You can't go wrong by asking good questions and seeking good answers. A rule of thumb for keeping elites accountable could be summed up as the rule of inquiry. No one should be above inquiry. This past Sunday, our priest made a point related to the Mark Chapter 8 reading in which Jesus asked his disciples who the world said he was. He then asked his disciples directly who they said he was. One of the points our priest brought up, (not his main point actually but one that stuck with me), was related to the issue of inquiry and dogma. Jesus encouraged people to ask the question of who he was. Our priest went on to point out that often people love to question, but then they are reticent to take the time to ponder or work towards knowledge in pursuit of the answer.  Sometimes we can be content to merely question without working towards an honest answer. He went on to finish the rest of his homily related to the greater point of how Christ's encourages us to really pursue the question of His identity, (and Peter's related accomplishment as well as his related error in the passage). So I've been dwelling on that point of inquiry this week. Inquiry, even when directed at valid authority, is a good thing, but inquiry contains a responsibility to seek authentic understanding, even if understanding of the Truth takes time or effort.

Always be curious.

Society will always have elites but elites pretty much reach their expiration date when they work to stifle accountability and inquiry. We should always be able to ask the question "why" of authority. All of the big institutional failures of the past decade seemed to come from elites obfuscating what they were up to. The bigness of Federal legislation leaves plenty of room for politicians to hide benefits and kickbacks. "We have to sign it so we can find out what's in it," should make a populace very, very nervous, especially if industry gets to ghost-write the legislation behind closed doors.  

Life is complex. Answers aren't easy and no one can know everything. Society will try to address, understand and even control that complexity with laws and systems with the promise of making life more manageable for more people. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. "Shut up"is not a good way to condense knowledge and assert that you have everything under control and everyone's best interest at heart. Even hyperlinks citing highly esteemed experts on the internet won't substitute for real internalized knowledge.

So, how do we know when the elites are doing their jobs well? When they work to create a culture that pursues and serves truth. Regardless of the institution, political party, industry, school or otherwise, if our agenda is truth, no one looses. That may sound like an overly succinct or quaint remedy but it's only because our culture has such an absurd view of itself.  If truth is a quaint abstract and perception is all there is to reality then we are easy prey for anyone who comes along with the flashiest marketing slogan.  

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