This has not been a great moment for American elites. My Washington Post colleague Dan Balz wrote on Monday, “If the country once was seen as the world’s most effective and enduring democracy, the latest events tell a far different story, that of a nation at war internally and with its institutions under assault.” That seems like a problem with elites. As I noted in “The Ideas Industry,” respect for American elites is not high right now. It seems as though the constant theme of elite commentators this week will be to bash elites some more.
Along these lines, Eliot Cohen had a smart piece in The Atlantic over the weekend about two scandals involving two very different elite intellectuals: Judith Butler’s unthinking defense of fellow scholar Avital Ronell despite evidence that Ronell had abused her power as a senior scholar, and Ed Whelan’s badly misguided effort to claim that Christine Blasey Ford must have confused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh with some other dude.
Both Butler and Whelan have apologized for their egregious blunders, so this is not a case of Cohen attacking people who think they did no wrong. Rather, he asks how two very smart people could have messed things up so badly:
The stories of Whelan and Butler have nothing to do with whether one thinks Kavanaugh and Ronell did nothing at all or behaved appallingly. They have everything to do with the current crisis of American elites in many fields, including the law and higher education. For the lawyer and the professor are exquisitely similar. Their academic pedigree is magnificent: Harvard Law School, Yale graduate school. Their position in their profession is eminent, if detached from the rest of the world. If you are a liberal, you probably do not know or care that Whelan writes often for National Review and is a leading figure in conservative legal circles; if you do not know, or care to know, much about critical theory, the writings of Butler are academic in the unflattering sense of that term. But in their world, they are, if not royalty, lords of the realm.
Their motives here are also similar: Eminent friends are being taken down at the peak of their professional career by someone who is, in their world, a nobody. It’s outrageous, and it has to be stopped. And if, by so doing, you defame a classmate of Kavanaugh’s, accusing him of attempted rape, or effectively threaten to obliterate a graduate student’s career by lending a mob of literature professors the imprimatur of the MLA, so be it. That is the point and that is the sin: the willingness to stomp hard on a defenseless little guy in order to protect your highly privileged pal.
Of the many forms of cruelty, that directed against those who are weak or powerless is one of the worst. Of itself, it undermines whatever legitimacy a person can claim by virtue of intellectual or professional distinction. Societies and governments will have elites—that is simply inescapable, except perhaps in an ancient city-state, and probably not even then. But in a free society, for those elites to exercise their power—their very real power, as those subject to it well know—they have to do so with restraint and good judgment. The alternative is, sooner or later, revolt, which is why higher education often finds itself battered by angry citizens who, in a different setting, conclude that the legal system, too, is rigged.
The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts does not disagree with Cohen’s argument here so much as finds it incomplete. There are two additional, interrelated elements that need to be fleshed out to truly understand Butler and Whelan’s failures.
The first one is banal but still important: American elites do not admit that they are elites. Let me use myself as an example here. I have degrees from Williams and Stanford. I’m a full professor at one of the top international affairs schools in the country. I’ve published six books and have a regular writing gig for this august newspaper. I live a comfortable life — not quite the “Crazy Rich Asians” definition of comfortable, but pretty comfortable. By most standards, I should stand up and declare myself to be a member of the American elite. But no one does this, because to declare oneself a member of the elite is to say, quite plainly, that one occupies a higher social station than others in America. And in a country that still clutches fiercely to an egalitarian ideal of society, this is neither an easy nor a comfortable declaration to make.
This is one reason it has been so trendy for folks to bash American elites. Part of it is that these elites have made massive mistakes — see Chris Hayes’s excellent “Twilight of the Elites” for more on that point. Part of it, however, is that it is easy for some elites to bash other elites by defining the term in a way that excludes oneself. I agree with Cohen that Butler and Whelan qualify as elites. I wonder if they would make the same acknowledgment, however.
The rise of the meritocracy and the fall of the Eastern Establishment is mostly a good thing, but one of the negative outcomes was that it destroyed the sense of noblesse oblige that the nation’s older aristocracy passed down from generation to generation. Both the Kennedys and the Bushes knew they were part of the elite, and they owned that moniker. Members of those families were taught by their elders that their great fortune carried a duty for public service. Today’s meritocrats are too busy climbing to the top to appreciate the responsibilities of occupying that precious real estate.
This leads to the second factor at play; even people who qualify as elites in every sense of the word can find a way to think of themselves as an outsider. This has been a theme of American elites for quite some time. George Kennan was the perfect embodiment of the foreign policy elite in this country, but one would not get that sense from his autobiography or biography. Kennan’s self-conception was that he was an awkward kid from Wisconsin who never fit in at Princeton or any of the later august societies he joined.
I suspect that Butler and Whelan also feel like outsiders. Butler is a big cheese in the academy, but I am sure she looks out at the country from her academic sinecure and views herself as part of an aggrieved minority. Similarly, Whelan is a conservative living in a very liberal legal town. No matter what his actual power as a key cog in the conservative legal movement, he considers himself part of a spirited minority.
This is how elites in this country can rationalize the act of punching down. They don’t think of themselves as elites, which means that they are not punching down.