May 4, 2004
Prestige and the leftBy Thomas Lifson
During the past century, the left managed to seize the commanding heights of those institutions which generate and grant prestige in American society. Control over higher education, arts organizations, charities, publications and broadcasters, as well as most major foundations and award—granting institutions, provides jobs and financial resources for activists, on the one hand, and a reward system to co—opt the energies and resources of a broad range of talented and successful members of the public, on the other.
Without its semi—monopolistic control of the institutional infrastructure of prestige, the left would be quickly decline to a level of powerlessness commensurate with the failures of the left in the real world. From the fall of Communism to the failure of the War on Poverty (followed by the stunning success of welfare reform), the ideas of the left have been repudiated by reality. Yet, instead of withering on the vine, the American left continues to dominate our culture, indoctrinate our youth, and recruit new wealth to the support of its causes.
A near—billionaire of my slight social acquaintance will serve to illustrate the process of co—optation. He is a man whose lifetime of hard work and entrepreneurship, rising from humble origins, taught him many pragmatic lessons. In private conversation he enthusiastically affirms the fundamentals of conservatism —— the dangers of big government, the need for self—reliance, and the importance of a strong national defense capability, among others. Nevertheless, to the frustration of his coterie of conservative friends, he has been giving many millions of dollars to left wing—dominated university programs, arts organizations, and even donating to some liberal local
Now that he has all the toys that he could ever want, this man craves the approval of others of high accomplishment. He wants to be taken seriously, not only by other rich people, but by people of accomplishment in other spheres of human endeavor. Due to his interest in a particular branch of the arts, he has donated substantial monies to university programs and a private foundation, administered by others, and his name appears on a college building and on a fellowship program. Various works of art now pay tribute to the essential support received from programs bearing his name. If one believes that art is timeless, then he has achieved a form of immortality.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow posited a 'hierarchy of needs,' explaining that as we satisfy the more basic needs for oxygen, food, water, and other physiological requirements, we turn to safety needs , providing security and stability, and then to the 'higher needs' such as belonging (including love and a social context), esteem (from others and from ourselves), and what he called self—actualization, the affirmative sense that we are being all that we can be, using all our capacities for growth, and living life at its fullest.
In a large and complex society, institutionally—granted prestige plays a crucial role in satisfying Maslow's higher needs, especially for those who have spent their energies striving for achievement in one field. Elites of accomplishment are spread—out geographically, as well as by specialization. It is not possible to earn a broad reputation outside of one's narrow world on the basis of personal interactions. Memberships on nonprofit boards of directors, awards committees, advisory councils, and the like, offer a chance to broaden one's social circle, and gain a sense of belonging to a group of worthy peers. The ability to associate with others of high status, ascribed intelligence, or glamour, leads to esteem, social and personal. If we are surrounded by such people, and they accept us, we must be just like them, and therefore more worthy than we would otherwise know. Finally, we all have a longing for higher expression, for connection to values which transcend the mere production of wealth. Charitable work, artistic work, and intellectual work, all offer the hope of connecting with these self—actualizing spheres of human endeavor.
Prestige is the shorthand way of discovering which works of charity, art, or intellect are worthy. If a busy professional or personal life prevents the leisurely contemplation of the relative value of works in these fields, prestige tells us which ones to read, hang in our museums or homes, or to give our fundraising support. Critics, employed in universities and the media, awards, granted by nonprofit institutions of various sorts, and curators, librarians, programmers, and other professional 'sorters' all tell us which ideas, trends, artists, poets, and novelists are most profound.
There is one other sphere in which the same needs can be fulfilled, which is not so completely dominated by the left: religion. While the 'mainline' Protestant churches have been largely captured by the left, the more robust and faster—growing evangelical churches are mostly indifferent, if not hostile to, leftist ideas and values. Many Catholic religious orders and institutions have been subsumed into the same sort of left wing thinking as the Episcopalians, Methodists, and other 'mainline' Protestant groups, but conservative Catholic elements have access to support from other parts of the Church, and are holding their own. Except for some Orthodox sects, most Jewish religious institutions were long ago captured by the left.
For those who choose to focus their lives on their religion, those who can remain indifferent to the values of the secular sphere, co—optation by the left is less of a danger. And, of course, the rugged individualists among us, those few who sincerely don't care about the opinions of the dominant culture, or who define themselves in opposition to it, can also avoid the tendency to the left which otherwise attends a rise in wealth, prominence and prestige.
At long last, an alternative set of prestige—generating institutions is slowly emerging, to counteract the vast institutional weight of the left. Religiously—affilitated colleges and universities, such as
Similarly, awards programs not enthralled to the cultural left are also emerging. The Eric Breindel Award is a beginning in counteracting not just the Pulitzers, but scads of other left—dominated journalism award programs.
Many more explicitly conservative institutions and awards are needed. John O'Sullivan, the former editor of the National Review, years ago formulated O'Sullivan's First Law: 'All organizations that are not actually right—wing will over time become left—wing.' O'Sullivan's insight remains timeless, so it is necessary to include specific and binding language in the very charters of such groups.
The ace—in—the—hole of conservatives in changing relative prestige standing, and, indeed, in moderating the leftward drift of established institutions, is ridicule. Left to themselves, cultural liberals have a strong tendency to drift into absurdities. For those rooted in real life, the absurdity of much 'cutting edge' thought, art, and culture is patently obvious. Moreover, the evil twin of prestige is snobbery, which is always an inviting target for the rest of us not granted entry into the favored circles.
The most potent cultural triumph of the right in the past decade is the staking—out of a significant territory in the realm of humor. Comedians such as Dennis Miller have discovered that smart—aleck humor directed at the left wins more chuckles and guffaws than ridicule of President Bush, the
Compare the respective audiences of radio talk show humorist Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken. The general public is more than receptive to ridicule of the left.
Prestige can melt into mere pretentiousness, under the withering rain of well—aimed humor. If I had several spare million dollars, I would establish a foundation and a set of awards for conservative humor. Now that would be an awards show worth televising.