by Mark Anthony Signorelli (August 2010)
The declining literacy of our present age has been lamented many times, and yet, it seems to me, never sufficiently. The enormous changes in our culture and in our laws, which we have observed and which we are likely to observe in the future, stemming from the decline of our common discourse ought to be a matter of urgent concern to any sensible person, and yet I sense little urgency towards this phenomenon in the writings of most contemporary authors. Language is thought, or near enough to thought to expect that any decline in our linguistic capacities will precipitate a corresponding decline in our rational faculties. As the Scottish rhetorician Hugh Blair once wrote, “I must be allowed to say, that when we are employed a proper manner, in the study of composition, we are cultivating reason itself. True rhetoric and sound logic are very nearly allied. The study of arranging and expressing our thoughts with propriety, teaches to think, as well as to speak, accurately.” The extent of the irrationality likely to be introduced into our society by the deterioration of our public discourse can be adequately grasped when one reflects on the large confusion that can result even from the mistaken use of a single word. Consider, for instance, all the erroneous thinking occasioned by the misuse of the word “elite.”
In its primary meaning, the word “elite” denotes some real excellence or superiority in the person or group to which it is applied. It is a superlative term; an authentic judgment of value is inevitably implied by such usage. When, for instance, one refers to an “elite” military unit, one means that these men fight better than the average military unit. Similarly, if we talk about an “elite” athlete, we obviously mean that this person is more athletically gifted than the average person. If we apply the word, in this sense, to the cultural arena, it ought to carry this same significance; for instance, an “elite” intelligentsia should be a class of people truly possessing learned gifts, in a form and to an extent not demonstrated by the majority of people. This is what we mean – or ought to mean – when we employ this word without ironic intent.
The word “elite” also has a secondary meaning, which refers to those in power at any given time, the ascendancy which controls the institutional life of a society, and which, as a class, has a far greater influence on the tenor of culture and law than the mass of men. Of course, this secondary meaning of “elite” reflects the aristocratic prejudices of a distant past, a period which believed that those in charge merited their ascendancy, that they possessed knowledge and experience lacking in the average person, which warranted their direction of society’s most important affairs. It is a highly unfashionable thing to say in this most demotic of ages, but this was a belief that was often quite justified; the history of western society does in fact reveal that very often, public affairs were directed by men of unusual qualifications. At any rate, the word “elite” can be, and is, used now in this secondary sense without any reference to its historical origins and their inevitable moral connotations; that is to say, “elite” used in the secondary sense refers to those in power, without any sort of judgment on the deservedness of that power.
Sometime around fifteen to twenty years ago (and I pretend to no precision in this dating), the word “elite” began to be used, with great frequency, in American parlance to refer to those identifiable categories of people who have attained unusual prominence or status in the institutional life of the American people at the present time – to celebrities, politicians, journalists, and professors. Now, it is common knowledge to the American people that, as a rule, such categories of people are not more, but less virtuous than the average run of men – that celebrities are more stupid and debauched than the average person, that politicians are more corrupt and dishonest than the average person, that journalists are more bigoted and uneducated than the average person, that professors are more unsocial and ideologically perverse than the average person. Moreover, the application of the term “elite” to these categories of people was much more common among conservatives, who were as a rule more aware and resentful of their deficiencies than the public at large tended to be. An attribution of excellence or superiority to the movie stars and back-room political dealmakers was clearly the last thing intended by conservatives, so their usage of the word “elite” must have been in the secondary sense, merely as a way of referring to those who shape our culture and our laws in the present age.
But an astonishing thing seems to have happened recently – the meaning of the word “elite” in common usage has subtly slipped from its secondary to its primary significance, from simply referring to those in power, to attributing some sort of excellence, and merited influence, to those in power. The present social circumstances of our country, particularly since the inception of the current administration, have been represented by more than one pundit as a struggle between a liberal ascendancy, possessed of a superior degree of education and culture, and the masses who, perceiving the superior gifts of that ascendancy, are reacting against it with stores of resentment and envy. Amazingly, journalists and politicians and professors are now represented by more than one author as figures of genuine virtue, justly occupying their positions of influence on account of their extraordinary knowledge and experience. Even the celebrities, in so far as their political and social views are sought after with some regularity, are recognized by at least a portion of the public as being persons who views on these issues matter more than the average person’s. Akin to such opinions is the repeated assertion that American society presently takes the form of something called a “meritocracy,” which must mean that those in the ascendancy (the “-ocracy”) possess some special merit which warrants that ascendancy.
That such a perspective on our age would be promulgated by the liberal portion of the public is hardly surprising, since the institutional life of our country is almost entirely under their control, and they have every stake in persuading their countryman that this is a dominance which is deserved. But that the purported opponents of the liberals, the conservatives, would acquiesce in such a judgment is a remarkable occurrence, yet one which is becoming ever more common. Conservatives now routinely rail against the “elites,” in the name of the populace, as though it is the very notion of an elite, a small segment of the population possessing special gifts of intellect or character, which is inherently invidious. It would appear that conservatives are claiming not that the people are oppressed by our “elite” – in truth, a gang of fools and freaks – but that the people in all circumstances are oppressed by any elite, by an elite per se, no matter how genuinely qualified they may be. What is worse, some conservative columnists, in lamenting the rampant populism which has overcome their erstwhile movement, have taken to referring admiringly to our “elites,” calling them “an educated class” and such things, and encouraging a respect for their ascendancy nearly as enthusiastically as the liberals themselves. In short, it is no longer clear that when conservatives – or anyone else – use the term “elite,” they have not conflated the two senses of the word, and that they are not attributing some kind of excellence to those who most influence our society.
And this has created an absolutely ludicrous rhetorical habit, whereby that segment of the population which is the most generally useless is routinely referred to by a word which carries an unavoidable connotation of superiority or giftedness. As a consequence, it is no longer clear that any of us remember that the people we are referring to by this word are as a rule less, and not more, virtuous or intelligent than the average person. Yet surely it is one of the most obvious facts about the current state of our society that our institutional life is almost wholly in the hands of a class of people lacking a single necessary qualification to entitle them to that guidance. Surely it is an obvious fact that the extreme decadence and moribundity in which we find ourselves as a nation is owing, in very great part, to the extreme imbecility and iniquity of the celebrities, politicians, journalists, and professors who have exerted such a huge influence over our nation for several generations. If there is one unquestioned truth of our age, it is that none of us owes the least degree of reverence towards our political, cultural, or intellectual ascendancies, which have led us into progressively greater cultural sterility, academic devastation, and economic crisis. The people who have dragged us into these conditions are abject failures, and the rest of us are fools if we regard them as anything else.
Consider the qualities of a genuine elite, a body of men possessing a deserved influence over the culture and laws of their society. Those passages in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which describe the meetings of the famous Club, give us an adequate impression of what such a thing must have been like. The array of talents which sat together in those meetings is truly remarkable. Here were men whose minds were formed by a genuine education, by a thorough acquaintance with the classics of a variety of tongues, and by a rigorous program of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Here were men who, through long training, had acquired an advanced degree of virtuosity in their respective arts, and as a result produced works which still delight and edify audiences to this day; such were the poetical talents of Goldsmith, the playwrighting abilities of Sheridan, or the skill in painting of Reynolds, the last of whom proved himself to be as competent a theorist of his art as he was its practitioner. Sitting at that table were statesmen like Burke and Fox, whose careers were marked by an unambiguous and sincere pursuit of justice; sitting there also perhaps were scholars like Gibbon, or Smith, or Sir William Jones, whose accomplishments in their respective disciplines were seminal, and continue to provide insight to educated men. Towering always over the company was the figure of Samuel Johnson, a man of massive learning, and infinitely admirable character, whose entire career as an author and a scholar was devoted to improving the civility of his countrymen. The conversations of these men, always interesting and always insightful, ranged over a vast number of topics – the competing claims for poetic preeminence of Homer and Virgil, the effects of emigration upon the productivity of a nation, or the nature of true religious tolerance. The most powerful and affluent men of England would clamor for the opportunity to sit with this company, and when they left, they went marveling at the wisdom and fine-breeding displayed by the evening’s discourse. Such was an elite in the halcyon days of Western civilization.
Now, imagine a similar meeting of our contemporary faux-elites. Most of them have arrived straight from their therapist, and at least half of the company is under the effects of some chemical substance, prescribed or otherwise. They have all passed through an American schooling, which is just another way of saying that they are completely uneducated. Their literary attainments consist of a weekly perusal of the “free-verse” non-poetry in the New Yorker, and two trips into the Village to watch the “Vagina Monologues.” Their political principles are drawn wholly from their regular reading of the infantile columnists on the New York Times op-ed page; the best of the lot can toss out an allusion to Chomsky or John Rawls. Sitting there perhaps is the jackass who cut up a sheep, or canned his own feces, and called it art; sitting there also might be the even bigger jackass who paid millions of dollars to purchase these things. There is the well-known movie actress, whose conversation shifts between expressions of disgust for the foreign policy of the Bush administration, and humorous descriptions of her latest breast augmentation surgery. Perhaps the company is even graced with the presence of the latest acclaimed author, whose Pulitzer-winning novel treats the reader to a barely disguised autobiographical account of the perils of growing up Hispanic, or Asian-American, or lesbian, or homo-chicano, or African-American transgendered. Each member of this group has pledged his or her allegiance to some decadent post-modern ideology – whether it is feminism, or multi-culturalism, or sociobiology – and the whole of their conversation consists in the reiteration of one or two core principles of their favored delusion, as well as the frequent use of select words which, by the common consent of the company, are indicative of their mutual virtue, such as “tolerance,” “diversity,” and (spoken with an appropriate expression of horror) “racism.” Each and every one of them believes that real intelligence is directly proportional to the ferocity of one’s contempt for religion, and as a result, a very large proportion of their conversation is occupied by general raillery against what they call “fascists,” or “fanatics,” or “theocrats” – which is to say, Christians. This is what we now call elites.
Such a comparison conveys a vivid idea of the extent of ruination which our civilization has endured over the preceding three centuries, for, in many respects, what we mean when we speak about the decline of the West just is the enormous difference between the former description and the latter. More to the point, it is evidently absurd to think about these two groups of people in the same way – to hold the same respectful attitude towards the latter that we would have undoubtedly shown towards the former, or to describe the latter in the same terms – with words such as “elite” – that we would apply to the former. The difference between the two groups is the difference between a class of persons who had a right to their cultural and intellectual ascendancy, and a class of people who do not. It is the difference between a real elite, and a fraudulent one.
We are prevented from recognizing these facts by the superficial appearance of institutional vitality; we have universities, and literary awards, and political commentary in abundance, and the shear number and influence of these things cloaks their worthlessness from our consideration. We have become impressed by shadows. We meet a person with an advanced degree from an Ivy League institution, and fail to notice that such a degree signifies the acquisition of authentic learning about as much as an employee of the month certificate from the local Arby’s. We read about the latest Booker Prize or Nobel Literary Award, and forget that we live in an age which cannot even produce an author with the paltry abilities of a Blackmore or a Southey. We listen to the pundits pontificating on television about this or that policy, and do not consider that each and every one of these blowhards is so devoid of reading in political theory that they cannot distinguish between Montesequieu and a monte christo. We watch the gaudy awards shows sponsored by the farcically named “academy,” and forget that a year’s sum of cinematic creation, produced by the labor of thousands of people and the expenditure of billions of dollars, does not equal, in true artistic merit, a single sonnet of Sidney or a single lied of Schubert, each of which may have been turned out in an idle hour. We are beguiled by the prevalence, and not the quality, of American institutions, and consequently fail to realize that the persons directing those institutions might as well be naked savages howling in the bush, for all the culture they possess.
Our country is not a meritocracy, since those in charge have no merit. Nor do we possess anything that can reasonably be called an “educated class.” What we have is a “credentialed class.” We have a set of persons who have obtained all the outward markings of prestige, without developing a single one of the virtues which constitute a real and intrinsic entitlement to honor. They have played the game from the beginning. They read the Sparknotes and plagiarized the necessary papers to win the high GPA in high school, in order to gain admission to the prestigious university; they majored in women’s studies or conflict resolution in college, where they made the connections with like-minded persons of influence, who supported their application to graduate school; they completed their dissertation on the grievance du jour, presented it without dissent at the MLA, and received several offers for a tenure-track professorship. They have become the “elite,” and they did not have to learn a thing along the way, or demonstrate any of the attributes which alone could justify their preeminence. We have an almost parodic example of the type in our current President, a man honored with every one of the blandishments of a constitutional scholar – editor of the Harvard Law Review, a professorship at Chicago Law – who yet remains so perfectly ignorant of the actual constitution of our country, as to be unaware that its provisions and protections apply only to American citizens.
It is imperative that we make ourselves perfectly lucid about this state of affairs, so that we can stare directly at the awesome task awaiting us at this historical moment. The work confronting us is not the reform of this or that institution, but a complete reconstruction of the entire institutional life of our nation. The sooner we steel ourselves to this enormous fact, the sooner we can begin on the necessary labor. But it is equally imperative that we understand how this situation arose in the first place; otherwise, we are in distinct danger of spinning our wheels, and deepening the rut of our present malaise. This is no theoretical danger, either, but the evident trend of our times. A very large segment of the American population, and a majority of that portion identifying themselves as conservatives, have put their faith in the people at large to effect the necessary remedies for the catastrophic condition into which our ascendancy has pushed us. A broad populist movement is underway, and this is perceived as the necessary cure for the evils of our misnamed elite. But populism is not the cure for those evils; populism is a prime cause of those evils.
Why is it that movie-stars are so influential over the shape of our culture? Obviously, because the appalling taste of the public at large has elevated them to that status. And why is it that they are regarded as a legitimate source of political or social commentary? Again, because very large portions of the public have accorded them that status. It is amusing to recall that the acting profession was, more often than not, held by former ages to be disgraceful and dishonorable; Roman law placed the actress on the same legal level as the prostitute. In our times, this same category of person is hailed with an extreme of mindless adulation by an overwhelming majority of the populace. Now, if it is true that one of the cultural evils of our times is that such a category of person exerts too much influence over the manners and ideas of our nation, how likely is it that the majority of the populace, so mindlessly adulatory, is going to recognize this and alter their behavior? How likely is it that the public is going to rescind from such persons that preeminence which it now grants so willingly?
Similarly, what caused the erosion in standards in our universities, which allowed the present unqualified professoriate to come into being? It was the movement, inaugurated in the middle of the last century, to establish a college education as a regular social expectation for the majority of the public, rather than a path for the select minority willing to undertake the mental discipline of higher education. Since the only way to achieve this goal was to debase the contents of a college education considerably, the intrinsic learning represented by a B.A. became ever more insignificant. Eventually, the same dynamic overtook the graduate schools and the advanced degrees they bestow, until we arrived at our present condition, when English professors are quite often unfamiliar with the plays of Shakespeare, and Philosophy professors are quite often unfamiliar with the thought of Aristotle, and none of the humanistic disciplines can offer a coherent account of what constitutes its essential knowledge.
Society is in a civil state when criteria of excellence are deliberated, promulgated, and maintained in every field which has a large bearing on the cultural and political flourishing of a people – in the arts, in learning, and in statecraft. Education, in such a society, is an initiation into those criteria, which is to say that an educational system in a civil society exists as much to preserve the rational health of the nation as to foster the abilities of individual students. Certain texts, along with the appropriate methods of presentation and interpretation, become the primary instruments of transmitting the standards of learning, and over time, both texts and the wisdom they embody come to form a tradition of learning. Certain works of art, along with their methods of production, become the primary instruments of preserving artistic standards, and their beauty and virtuosity come to constitute an artistic tradition. Certain portions of history, along with their methods of preservation, become the primary means of conserving a nation’s political ideals, and the knowledge of that history develops into a political tradition. Such traditions become authoritative, in that they present the standards of excellence by which every individual endeavor is to be judged. Innovation is not precluded, but weighed against prior achievement, and broadly accepted only if proves itself against such a standard.
Of course, the contemporary intellectual, under the spell of Nietschze and Foucault, can consider such assertions only as the obfuscatory rhetoric of power; the standards in question merely the arbitrary tastes of a privileged few, imposed upon the people; such traditions merely testaments to the long-standing oppression of unwarranted oligarchies. That the contemporary intellectual does think this is simply evidence of how unfit his mind is for the mental duties of a civil society. But in this matter, the deconstructionist professor and the common man are now of one opinion, for the populist impulse makes one reject such assertions on very much the same grounds. Populism is quite as suspicious of tradition, and because of that suspicion, it engenders no desire to preserve or transmit traditions. Populism notices only the most superficial consequence of institutionalized standards of excellence, which is the obstacles they set up against the mass of men, preventing them from controlling the institutions. Populism does not quarrel with unqualified elites, but with elites per se
Anybody who will consider the history of American society from the middle of the last century until the present time will discover that this period witnessed a militant populism spread through every segment of our institutional life, and that the effects of this phenomenon were, first, the erosion of the standards of excellence throughout our institutions, followed by the ascendancy of an unqualified class of persons, who could only prosper in institutions thus deracinated of their intrinsic values. Most of us only contemplate present circumstances, and thus only see the unqualified ascendancy directing our nation; we fail to reflect upon how that ascendancy came to be. Those who are called elites are not members of noble families, dwelling in castles isolated on hills above the peasantry, and living apart from the society over which they domineer. Rather, they and their institutions are the fetid carbuncles sprung from the carcass of modern populist society. They are the green crud which has formed along the top of the stagnant swamp of the hyper-democratic state. They are not something apart from the masses, but the worst excrescence of the masses.
The last solution any of us should be seeking to apply to the current cultural devastation is populism. The last expectation any of us should harbor is that the recovery of civil society will be an endeavor for which the majority of Americans have any interest, or any capacity. The task before us is to create as many small, independent institutions of merit as we can, ideologically sealed from the prevalent culture – workshops of artists inspired and guided by the masterpieces of their predecessors, publications devoted to the dissemination of substantial learning, private schools organized on the principles of classical humanism, civic organizations committed to preserving the order and decency of our local communities. As Alasdair MacIntyre famously implored at the conclusion of After Virtue, “what matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” In such communities, standards of excellence will be discovered and upheld, and preeminence will ideally be accorded to those – for preeminence must always be accorded to some – who possess the intrinsic virtue and wisdom measured by such standards, and which alone entitles a man to the respect of his fellows.
Towards this end, I propose that we forswear the use of the term “elite” in all future discourse; when we wish to talk about actresses and journalists and such people, the words “clowns,” “frauds,” and “idiots” will do well enough. This is an admittedly trivial expedient, but one which may help us regain some clarity concerning the predicament in which we find ourselves, and the possible ways forward. The civilizational ruin surrounding us is complete, and our present errand is to rebuild the edifice of civil society right from the ground up. If this sounds like a task that will take generations to perform, that will entail unimaginable forms of privation and travail, and that will require heroic degrees of wisdom and virtue to bring to fruition, then we are clear about the reality of our historical moment.
If you enjoyed this essay and want to read more by Mark Signorelli, please click here.