Monday, September 12, 2011

In Praise of Elites

Friedman and Mandelbaum's That Used to be Us seems to be a cautionary tale about America's diminished future (sort of like Super Sad True Love Story without the laughs?). But I found the closing of David Frum's New York Times review to be intriguing.

Having already noted a tone of ambivalence in the book--talking about their optimism so much you get the impression they're trying to talk themselves into it--Frum suggests that they might not be putting all their cards on the table.
Friedman and Mandelbaum at one point praise the beauty of solutions that rise from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. This praise is not consciously insincere, but pretty plainly it does not accurately represent their operational plan. Friedman and Mandelbaum are men of the American elite, and they write to salute those members of the American elite who behave public-spiritedly and to scourge those who do not. They are winners, writing to urge other winners to have more of a care for their fellow citizens who are not winners.

And then this final reflection:

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that! Societies inescapably generate elites. Those elites can be ­public-spirited and responsible or they can be selfish and shortsighted. An elite can have concern and care for the less advantaged or it can callously disregard them. Maybe not surprisingly, the language of anti-­elitism has often been a useful tool of the most rapacious and merciless among the elite.

American society has had a big serving of that ugly anti-elitist spirit in the recent past. It could use more of the generous responsible spirit Friedman and Mandelbaum recommend. They say less than might be wished about what a more ­public-spirited American elite might do. But they have eloquently described what such an elite should want to do.

I find this intriguing, perhaps especially because American evangelicals are so prone to this grassroots-ism (which is probably why they can also be so easily lured by Tea Party activism). In this respect, Frum's unabashed affirmation of elites reminds me a bit of James Davison Hunter's critique of Christian grassroots-ism in To Change the World.

But it also got me thinking of Ruskin's "Tory socialism." Might we ever be allowed to dream of kings? Ruskin's kings are a strange lot: not slovenly aristocrats destined by mere blood, but men "capable" of "kinghood." So Ruskin's monarchical dream is actually sort of democratic, too:
my only hope of prosperity for England, or any other country, in whatever life they lead, is in their discovering and obeying men capable of Kinghood.