July 20, 2004
Revolting ElitesBy James Holmes
Sighted this week in Princeton, New Jersey: a BMW sports car bearing bumper stickers that proclaimed the driver to have "A PBS Mind in a Fox News World" and enjoined Americans to "Think: It's Patriotic." However silly the sentiments conveyed, you have to give the designer of the stickers and the person who bought them credit for packing so much contempt and condescension into so few words.
By all appearances the owner of the BMW has fared well in American society. She —— a third sticker informed passersby that "Some Women Are Born to Lead: You're Following One" —— was driving a pricey automobile, living in one of the most upscale communities in the United States, and working either at one of our top universities or at one of the many prosperous firms located in and around Princeton.
What, then, accounts for her disdain for ordinary Americans?
A much remarked—upon phenomenon, especially since the famous Blue/Red America map was unveiled on Election Day 2000, is the disjunction between everyday U.S. citizens and the country's intellectual elites. Politics is one sign of this disconnect. Surveys routinely show that those who traffic in ideas are suspicious of American society, usually —— not always —— assailing it from the left. But this dynamic is apparent in many areas.
David Brooks of the New York Times has made a veritable cottage industry out of probing the rift between elites and non—elites; Christopher Lasch published a book in the early 1990s aptly titled The Revolt of the Elites. An elegant but less well—known study of this phenomenon came from the late Robert Nozick. A professor of philosophy at Harvard, Nozick asked in a 1998 essay, "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?"
He defined "intellectuals" not as people of a certain degree of intelligence or education, but as those who made their living primarily as wordsmiths. Poets, novelists, literary critics, journalists, and many professors fell into this category. Wordsmith intellectuals enjoyed incomes well above average, and they shaped public discourse to a disproportionate extent. They should seemingly be content with their lot. They weren't.
Nozick traced the dissatisfaction of the intellectual class to two factors. First, since antiquity "intellectuals have told us their activity is most valuable." Plato deemed that a caste of "philosopher—kings" should rule, while Aristotle valued intellectual contemplation above all pursuits. In short, said Nozick, intellectuals had been "praising themselves" for centuries when they assigned their activity the highest value.
This outlook bred a sense of entitlement in the intellectual class. But a capitalist society——ours being the premier example——didn't accord intellectuals the greatest rewards and prestige it had to offer. Successful capitalists made out better by any material measure. "Only the sense of unrecognized superiority, of entitlement betrayed, produces that animus" displayed by so many intellectuals towards their society.
Nozick's second insight was brilliant in its simplicity: Schooling, he opined, had instilled in intellectuals their sense of superiority. Book knowledge was the measure of merit in children's formative years. In school, up—and—coming intellectuals had been "judged against others and deemed superior. They were praised and rewarded, the teacher's favorites. How could they fail to see themselves as superior?"
This shaped their entire worldview. "The intellectual," observed Nozick, "wants the whole society to be a school writ large, to be like the environment where he did so well and was so well appreciated." But a market society did not prize verbal dexterity above all else. How could intellectuals fail to resent a society that denied them the rewards and prestige they believed to be rightly theirs?
There was another, closely related facet to schools, one that helped explain the worldview of intellectuals: central planning in the classroom. An authority figure —— the teacher —— allocated the greatest rewards and praise to students who accumulated the most book learning. By contrast, the wider market society distributed rewards not by the fiat of a central authority but by the "'anarchy and chaos' of the marketplace."
Intellectuals, then, were primed to resent the larger American society they found outside the classroom. They did reasonably well in the capitalist framework, as the example of our Princeton BMW driver attests, but their efforts were eclipsed by some whom they regarded as their inferiors.
Lashing out at their fellow Americans for, say, watching Fox News instead of PBS is a symptom of a deeper animus.
What to do? Is there any way to instill respect for non—wordsmiths among the intellectual class? Some have recommended reviving the draft as a way to bring the rich in contact with their less well—to—do peers. In theory this should work for intellectuals as well. The arguments for a new draft are unpersuasive to me, mostly because the military doesn't need and can't use that much manpower.
But the idea of mixing unlike classes of Americans is worth considering, whatever the mechanism that brings it about. It's in the common interest of Americans to combat the corrosive effects of intellectual disdain for our society. Let the discussion begin.
James Holmes is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Georgia's Center for International Trade and Security