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In Defense of Elitism
National Review Online ^ | May 13, 2002 | Johnah Goldberg

Posted on 05/17/2002 8:47:28 AM PDT by FreetheSouth!

In Defense of Elitism
We need it.
Johnah Goldberg 
About a decade ago, one of the Smithsonian museums
here in Washington had an exhibit on the history of
human civilization, or something along those lines. I
didn't see it, but a friend of mine went and his
description always stuck with me. One of the displays
was a comparative timeline of different cultures. At,
say, 1250 you'd see what the British, the Japanese,
the Chinese, or the Arabs had come up with. The sight
that really struck home for my friend was a beautiful
Renaissance Italian clock, with movable gears and a
stunning hand-painted face with a sun and moon
alternating for AM and PM. The clock came from the
15th or 16th century, I think. But that's not really
important. On the same timeline for African culture
there was a wood mask with eye- and mouth-holes cut
out in some "novel" way. The little explanatory card
on the wall tried to make it sound, somehow, as though
the handcrafted clock and the mask were similarly
impressive accomplishments. To which my friend
responded, roughly, "Are you high?"

I may have gotten the details a bit off here, but the
substance is obviously true. Some things are better
than other things. Some cultures are better than other
cultures. Some things are more worth studying,
celebrating, and emulating than other things. Or as
the late William Henry III put it in his wonderful
book, In Defense of Elitism, "It is scarcely the same
thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in
your nose."

No doubt, if I were to say this in an Ivy League
faculty room today (or yesterday, or last year, or ten
years ago) it would be considered scandalous — not
because it isn't true, but because it is. 

The war on what I like to call "factual correctness"
is a top-to-bottom cultural project. If the truth
hurts, change the definition of truth. Facts that
might inconveniently intrude upon the self-esteem of
others must be demolished. So, as grade schools
eliminate keeping score at games, postmodernists try
to eliminate the notion of keeping score at anything,
ever. Scores, you see, imply winners and losers, and
if anybody feels like a loser then they feel bad — and
anything that makes you feel bad is necessarily

Meanwhile, the University of California wants to get
rid of standardized tests rather than be embarrassed
by the "disparate" results of those tests. Gangster
rap gets compared to Mozart and the mentally
handicapped are allowed to vote — because "who's to
say" that gangster rap isn't the classical music of
today, and who's to say that a man with the IQ of a
seven-year-old doesn't have an "equally valuable
perspective"? Animals have "rights" because they have
"feelings" — which are so much more important than
judgment, intelligence, or knowledge. Graffiti should
be considered to be high art, since so much of what
was traditionally held to be high art is just an
amalgam of prejudice and tyranny. 

It's thus throughout the West. Italian Prime Minister
Sylvio Berlusconi was vilified for noting that Western
civilization is superior to Islamic civilization
because the West is more free, tolerant, and
prosperous than the Islamic world. But even his
critics couldn't dispute what he'd said; they just
thought it was wrong or mean for him to make such
factually correct statements so soon after September
11. More recently, the assassinated Dutch maverick Pim
Fortuyn was vilified for telling similarly obvious
truths. And, let us not forget the pea-soup-thick bile
of moral equivalence and inverted logic that Israel
elicits from elites around the world who are content
to call democratic Israel a Nazi state — while
describing various crapulent and dictatorial regimes
who countenance demands for the actual eradication of
Jews, as peace-loving and tolerant. 

Of course, readers of National Review Online in
general, and this column in particular, are hardly
strangers to the perspective offered above. 

But while conservatives of all stripes can agree to
one extent or another that today's cultural elite is
suffused with moral and intellectual asininity, they
can differ wildly on whether elitism in general is
worthwhile. You see, just because this elite sucks
doesn't mean elitism does. 

It's understandable that, in our open and egalitarian
culture, we would look with great skepticism on the
notion that some people are better than other people.
But that's not really what elitism, properly
understood, is about. 

In America, "elitist," "snobbish," and "aristocratic"
have become largely synonymous. That's a shame.
"Elite" derives from the Latin for "elect," though not
necessarily in the democratic "electoral" sense. It
means those who — through efforts and talent —
self-select themselves as qualified to lead, and
teach, by example. 

Meanwhile, the word "snob" originally meant
"shoemaker," and in the 18th century students at
Cambridge University turned it into a word to describe
the middle-class townies who tried to affect a station
they didn't deserve (in effect, the original creators
of the word "snob" were in fact terrible snobs in the
modern sense). It was William Thackeray who, in his
1848 Book of Snobs, defined the term to mean "someone
vulgarly aping his social superiors." In other words,
snobs are people who put on airs about who they are
and who look down on those they are no different from.
Meanwhile, "aristocracy" (which derives from the Greek
for "rule by the best") sounds quite a bit like
elitism, but the chief difference is that aristocrats
are born, not made — which is all the difference in
the world. 

It's an old fable that the greatest trick the devil
ever pulled was to convince the world he didn't exist.
Today, the prevailing elite has pulled off a similar
trick. It has convinced the world that only the
ignorant, the unlearned, and the unsophisticated
believe there are capital-T Truths; worthwhile
standards for merit, beauty, or art; and bright-line
distinctions between right and wrong. They've done all
of this, mind you, while preserving their own
privileged status for making such pronouncements —
like a politician who champions campaign-finance
"reform" just so long as it ensures his own
incumbency. In this sense, they are more snobs than
elites, because they spend so much time trying to
assure the world that conservatives are fakers —
"pseudo-intellectuals" and "pretend-journalists" — in
order to keep them out of their clubhouses. 

The worst thing about all of this isn't that there
aren't enough conservatives at Ivy League schools or
at the New York Times. No, as William Henry, an
espoused liberal, observed, the worst byproduct of
this elite's diabolical trickery is "the erosion of
the intellectual confidence needed to sort out, and
rank, competing values."

Right though they are to be fed up with this elite,
too many conservatives believe that any elite is
illegitimate. Reading through the e-mail on my
censorship column, I was astounded by how thoroughly
many conservatives have come to believe that nobody is
qualified to decide what is good or what is bad. This
was not just an understandable opposition to the state
making decisions best left to its citizens, but a
full-throated distaste for the idea that such
expertise could be possible for anybody. 

This is absurdity on stilts. Elitism, again in the
words of William Henry, means "some ideas are better
than others, some values more enduring, some works of
art more universal. Some cultures, though we dare not
say it, are more accomplished than others and
therefore more worthy of study." 

We talk of elite athletes, elite scientists, elite
craftsmen, or elite soldiers, and everyone understands
that these people are simply better, more expert at
what they do than the rest of us. It is only when we
get closer to those realms where experts have decided
to bend every fact and twist every standard — in an
effort to mend the bruised egos of backward nations
and boutique domestic victim groups — that "elite"
becomes pejorative. This is a tragedy, because
conservatism will become meaningless if, in an effort
to displace the current elite from its perch, we
embrace the notion that nobody has a right to that

Right now, the word-elite of journalists and academics
are the ones asking, "Who are we to judge?" This elite
is the one incapable of discerning the difference
between a bone through the nose and the moon launch.
It is this elite which says that the canon isn't worth
reading; that the Constitution is a fig leaf for white
racism; that the Enlightenment wasn't worth the
trouble; that freedom and democracy are just
"abstractions"; that beauty is just so much lookism. 

Well, if an elite soldier believed arms were for
hugging, if an elite athlete argued that video games
were the best for exercise, if an elite scientist
argued that two plus two equals a duck, we would fire
these people — we wouldn't redefine what it means to
be the best soldier, the best scientist, the best
athlete. And we certainly wouldn't conclude that we
don't need elite soldiers or elite scientists. The
task, for conservatives especially, is to fire the
teachers and journalists who believe that a bone
through the nose is equivalent to a moon launch — not
to eliminate altogether the positions they should
rightly hold. 


TOPICS: Editorial
KEYWORDS: johnahgoldberg
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While I do not often agree with Johnah Goldberg, I think he has a real point.
I did a search for this title and found zero, so
1 posted on 05/17/2002 8:47:28 AM PDT by FreetheSouth!
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To: FreetheSouth!
I read this article the other day. It is good. I like Jonah. Sure, I don't agree with everything, but at least he doesn't take himself as seriously as some of the other "talking heads".

I don't mind the post (or repost if it is?), but formatted would be nice (not bitchin', just suggesting).

2 posted on 05/17/2002 8:52:29 AM PDT by mattdono
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To: FreetheSouth!
Already posted here
3 posted on 05/17/2002 8:53:04 AM PDT by Tennessee_Bob
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To: FreetheSouth!
I agree with him 99% of the time. He is a great chip off his ole mamma! Excellent article!
4 posted on 05/17/2002 8:53:49 AM PDT by buffyt
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To: FreetheSouth!
And who do you trust to tell you which things, cultures and people are better than others?
5 posted on 05/17/2002 8:55:44 AM PDT by BikerNYC
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To: FreetheSouth!
Looks like Jonah is now swiping ideas from William Henry's book In Defence of Elitism

6 posted on 05/17/2002 9:03:52 AM PDT by The Green Goblin
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To: Tennessee_Bob
Thanks, you just won me five bucks!
7 posted on 05/17/2002 9:06:16 AM PDT by FreetheSouth!
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To: FreetheSouth!
The problem with the intellectually "elite" these days is (1) they aren't any such thing, and (2) if you have to declare yourself elite, you ain't. Personally I prefer the term "pretentious," but it's hard for us intellectual elites to spel.
8 posted on 05/17/2002 9:06:36 AM PDT by Billthedrill
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To: FreetheSouth!
Amen! I have always been an anti-populist myself.
9 posted on 05/17/2002 9:07:09 AM PDT by Clemenza
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Comment #10 Removed by Moderator

To: FreetheSouth!
The Big Lie of elitism is on display every day at every large airport in the world. How strange that no successful U.S. airline buys their aircraft from Uganda, or ensures that 30% of its pilots are black or Hispanic "to mirror society." How mystifying that passengers don't demand that the mentally impaired and the psychotic be hired as airplane mechanics, "to be fair to all points of view." Anti-elitism/pro-lunacy thrives only where people know it will not endanger them directly -- tax-funded (i.e. money stolen by Liberals) university departments of sociology and feminism; the NEA; The National Organization for Women; the United Nations; the Democratic National Committee, etc.
11 posted on 05/17/2002 9:09:22 AM PDT by pabianice
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To: FreetheSouth!
Was it a bet on me specifically or just in general??
12 posted on 05/17/2002 9:09:54 AM PDT by Tennessee_Bob
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To: Tennessee_Bob
Now that was really funny.
13 posted on 05/17/2002 9:11:12 AM PDT by ArrogantBustard
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To: mattdono
It shows formatted on mine, any one else see just a big block of text with no line breaks or paragraphs??
If it's not formatted, it's what I get for using Frontpage to do it quick and dirty.
14 posted on 05/17/2002 9:13:28 AM PDT by FreetheSouth!
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To: FreetheSouth!
Showing formatted with double-spaces between lines and double-double spaces between paragraphs.

Ever try to copy and edit the source?

15 posted on 05/17/2002 9:15:34 AM PDT by Tennessee_Bob
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To: FreetheSouth!
Bob just linked back to this same post ;o)
16 posted on 05/17/2002 9:16:28 AM PDT by Guna
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To: Tennessee_Bob
Not on you unless you fall into the "FASCIST WANKERS" department:)
If I was a bet'n man, I say you fall into the "SMARTASS" department:)~
17 posted on 05/17/2002 9:19:14 AM PDT by FreetheSouth!
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To: BikerNYC
And who do you trust to tell you which things, cultures and people are better than others?

I reserve the right to make those determinations for myself.

18 posted on 05/17/2002 9:19:54 AM PDT by Dakmar
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To: FreetheSouth!
Nah - no fascist here. The receptionist here at work says that I'm an "a##hole," but that's for completely different reasons. So - yeah - I'm in the smartass category. :)
19 posted on 05/17/2002 9:20:53 AM PDT by Tennessee_Bob
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To: BikerNYC
Me, an elite of one, the most elite of the elite;)
20 posted on 05/17/2002 9:21:53 AM PDT by FreetheSouth!
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