This is Academy Awards weekend, so it seems an appropriate time to ask the question: do the elite arbiters of conventional opinion in politics and culture have a clue left about the world they share with the rest of us?
This past week the New York Times carried two pieces that raise the question: Frank Rich’s Valentine’s Day massacre of New York-Washington insiders, and Timothy Egan’s piece about the Eastern elite’s dismissal of the late writer Wallace Stegner, spurned because he was a creature of the West and not the West End.
Why are the judgments of the elite usually wrong and why do they cling stubbornly to faulty thinking? Francois de la Rochefoucald got right to the heart of it:
Jealousy is bred in doubts. When those doubts change into certainties, then the passion either ceases or turns absolute madness.
A sharpened, polished jealousy is the renewable energy source that drives ambitious cultural and political elites. Through it, the potential energy of self-doubt becomes kinetic, which manifests with the confident certainty of the madman who believes he is Napoleon.
Railing against the political and cultural elite can be entertaining and therapeutic. But there are serious crimes afoot here, and they require more than private indignation or catharsis.
Here’s what Egan said:
The fact that a writer of Stegner’s stature felt ghettoized with the dreaded tag of "regional author" raises the question of whether our national literature is too tightly controlled by the so-called cultural elite — those people who talk to each other in some mythic Manhattan echo chamber.
Just as in the presidential campaign, Obama has once again outwitted the punditocracy and the opposition. The same crowd that said he was a wimpy hope-monger who could never beat Hillary or get white votes was played for fools again.
To excel in their fields the elite have to master the customs of their own tribe. This is their real expertise. Lack of it will lead to exile, social torture or therapy bills the rest of us never even have nightmares about.
Worse, the elite don’t learn to know what they don’t know because of their near-monopoly on matters cultural and political. They can learn that some of their choices aren’t as good as others of their choices, but all the choices have been theirs. Heads they win, tails we lose.
The elite know in their hearts they are there because of inherited social advantage, luck, accident, or "connections." Their challenge is to put this corrosive knowledge to useful work.
The pretense to meritocracy is the always-decaying dinosaur that turns to self-doubt that’s pumped to the reptile-brain refinery to be transformed into useful jealousy, which makes the engine of self purr with certainty. Uncertainty would betray the pretense to meritocracy, and the Great Chain of Elite Being would come undone.
The rest of us can be lulled to sleep about these dangers when the gap is narrow between what the elite know and what they think they know. But when it is wide, and it’s wider now than the skies of Stegner’s West, our drowsiness might kill us.
The dominant theory of democracy in America today is Elite Democracy. With admirable honesty, conservative jurist and intellectual Richard A. Posner calls it just that. It’s his belief that political participation might distract the masses from essential work, like shopping. That’s why he approved, in his U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, Indiana’s voter I.D. law. Yes, fewer people might vote. But who cares? Only the elite are equipped to take on the complex problems of our time.
But that’s just it. The elite, blinded by the light of their own certainty, are the least equipped to lead. Theirs is the art of the courtier, not the science of the laboratory. We need experts, but we need a multiplicity of minds and voices engaged with the experts. Knowledge of ourselves is and always will be uncertain. The denial of uncertainty is a most dangerous thing.
There is hope. The internet has loosened the elite’s grip. And it was, after all, Rich and Egan, two non-steerage passengers of the Queen Mary of Elite media outlets, the New York Times, that started this meditation.
Nonetheless, most of America is not visiting progressive web sites or getting their books from independent publishers or bookstores. Beyonce Knowles didn’t need YouTube.
And, with all due respect, it still appears that the elite responsible for the worldwide economic collapse are the first in the lifeboats, certain as they are that only they can point the way to dry land.