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Thus Always to Bad Elites
Our mendacious leaders treat the American people as Britain treated the colonists.
One of the fascinating oddities of the American revolution was the way many mutually hostile groups of elites in America decided, in a brief period, to join forces in what seemed like a fool’s errand—a revolution against the imperial elite of Great Britain.
Among their goals, these different and incompatible elites of New England, New York, Virginia, the Carolinas and, eventually, Pennsylvania all wanted to reclaim and/or protect their long-established liberties, immunities, and rights of self-rule. What these different colonial elites had in common was a collective desire to fight a more distant elite that sought to control them with new and innovative methods for purposes that supported imperial power over local control.
As a result, the American Revolution brought together the elites of very different cultures as part of a common cause against a singular threat to each region’s liberty.
Still more important, however, is why that threat arose when and how it did. From the late 17th century (essentially from the Glorious Revolution of 1688) to 1776, a new ruling class emerged in England. This new class of elites posed an existential threat to the longstanding political freedom of the colonies and their long-established folkways.
The new imperial ruling class in England created new institutions, such as the Bank of England and the East India Company, and they adopted new ideas about sovereignty, law, and empire. They even cultivated new accents, reinforced through elite educational institutions like boarding schools, that demarked this new class from the rest of society. The cultural distance between Great Britain’s power elite and the American colonial elites broadened with each generation.
With an imperial perspective, England’s ruling class reorganized the empire in the years prior to the American revolution, consolidating and centralizing power. One illustrative example was the creation and expansion of the Admiralty courts, imposing a judicial system based on Roman Civil Law utterly unlike the common law, one of the few objects of universal reverence in the American colonies. These changes not only overrode the colonial elites but created more hierarchies, separating the system of justice from citizens.
Colonial elites recognized the threat to their liberties and to their institutions, culture and folkways. More than a “tax revolt,” the American revolution was about the preservation of plural ways of living, plural cultures, and plural liberties against a powerful, centralized, distant and homogenizing governing elite.
Now is the time to recognize these elements of our origins as a country. The political dynamics of our age bear important similarities to those between the colonies and the Crown in the revolutionary era.
Back to the Future
In 2021, we are experiencing a similar disjunction, between an elite that seeks to alter the conditions of American life—everything from folkways to the administrative and legal rules that structure our society—and a wide variety of folks (plural peoples) who are victims of this new governing elite. The corresponding reaction to these innovations and abuses is causing a raucous struggle to find leaders (elites) who can give voice, direction, and guidance to the inevitable resistance to our own imperial elite.
Today, we have a very different elite than America did as recently as the 1980s in terms of their nature, goals, ambitions, style, and ways of exercising power. The deepest fact of our time is that America has a bad elite, a mendacious one whose skills, values, goals, tastes, and types of knowledge are hostile to our nation’s inherited cultures and plural people. The new elite that has emerged in the last generation or two has no interest in preserving anything but perhaps their own power. They lack historical knowledge and vision, which they supplant by, or exchange for, the powers of transformation and change. Intoxicated by the power possible with emerging technologies, inspired by visions that only a deracinated globalist perspective could make attractive, this elite thinks of creative destruction as applied to culture.
As winners in what they imagine to be a meritocratic struggle, they can see nothing of an inherited world worth preserving for their very success. The peculiar characteristics of their evolving power have given to our new elite the soul of adolescent art applied to a global canvas. They lack any experiential or historical ballast to weigh them down, to slow them in remaking everything according to their desires. For them, streamlining power is key to creation and the annoying obstacles to their new creations are not really checks to prevent tyranny but, rather, limitations—unnecessary friction in the headlong rush to transform.
For this new elite, for instance, the good of free speech has become invisible because, for them, free speech is simply friction, resistance to their goals. The elimination of hate speech is the goal, the unimpeachable good, that the openness of free speech prevents. In half a generation, the work of centuries is undone and the levers of tyranny put in place.
Like the British elite of the late 18th century, America’s early 21st-century elite is imperial and has no respect for liberty, inherited folkways, or cultural forms. Similarly, they seek to centralize, control, and eventually obliterate (which is the real meaning of transformation) all cultures and peoples who do not fit their vision of the good. The problem with America today is the British problem that drove the American Colonies out of the Empire. It is not a problem with elites as such, but with our own.
The Logic of Decay
No society lives without elites, and so the task ahead of us is the elimination of one elite and the cultivation of another. The resistance movement must be about reclaiming our heritage by bringing forward elites who understand America in all its layered reality—its rich pluralism, its complicated history, its enduring beliefs and aspirations, and its deep and abiding devotion to liberty—the political reality, not the freedom to live out one’s fantasies—as the glue of our national mosaic.
To be sure, we are prone to forget the truths our heritage conveys. In the messiness of real life, moral reasoning is complex, textured, and—when tested by certain kinds of trials—laden with uncertainties. Add to that the intellectual torpor born of moral indolence, and life, along with our picture of its potential improvement, grows messy. The greater the mess, the more attractive are moral shortcuts.
Since most of us cannot function well without feeling as though we are governed by moral ideals that make us feel righteous, our attraction to simplistic moral declarations is greater when existential complexity makes moral reasoning hard. Once we have embraced the simple moral equation, we rush to adopt an intellectual framework that shields us from the impossible complexity of the world beyond our heads.
This is the problem we have today: a longing for intellectual command of an unruly reality encourages us to use a very restrictive vocabulary that forces all the phenomena of our lives into a few conceptual containers, producing a sense of order and control. As a result, we operate with a distorted view of our world, and this has serious consequences.
Once our world is ordered this way by a narrow vocabulary, truths that don’t fit that vocabulary are invisible to us—and thus a great deal of our lives are controlled by things invisible.
In our time, the current and limited lexicon of democracy encourages us to think of “public” and “the people” as ruling or ought to rule. We hear frequent claims about the need to make the process more democratic and, of course, to our anxious ears come sweeping claims about our “democracy” being threatened by this or that.
Among the truths lost in this flattening and Procrustean logic is the inevitable need for an elite. We approach the word “elite” as a means of denigrating people as threats to democracy (which may or may not be true in any given case) rather than as an intellectual tool for understanding the nature and direction of our society (with its democratic impulses) now. The question isn’t whether to have an elite but, rather, how to have a good elite for our purposes.
The answer will require political turmoil. We must now endure dramatic, painful, institutional battles outside of the federal government: in universities, non-profits, medias, arts, and the array of mediating institutions that constitute the sinews of a self-ruling folk. Only when the living cultural entity we reify with terms like “the people” can find a healthy way of developing elites who love what they govern can we say the resistance is over.
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