on the (american) elites
open letters to david brooks

Bob Potter
Syracuse, NY

I'll tell you why Americans don't trust elites anymore.

We don't trust political elites because we can see that they are for sale to whoever comes up with the most campaign cash. The ones with the most cash are always the large corporations, so the government obligingly "gets out of their way". Under relaxed regulations corporations can legally do things that harm the general welfare (need I provide examples?). So we've learned not to trust the corporate elites.

Why don't we trust the elites of the "truth professions" (journalism, science, and education)? Because the corrupted corporate and political elites have waged a concerted campaign to discredit those professions. They simply don't want their misdeeds to be understood by the American people. Every time you hear "biased mainstream media", "global warming hoax", "ivory tower eggheads" or the like, you know what I mean. Even the word "elite" itself has been turned into a pejorative (but only when applied to the truth professions).

I could go on, but I'm too tired and depressed by it all.

Kate Madison
Depoe Bay, Oregon

..."This is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That’s neither possible nor desirable."

Could have fooled me, David! Seems like that is exactly what you are saying! Less transparency--hmmm, like more lurid little secrets and cover ups? We all know the long-term corroding effects of secrets in family and other systems. And you say no longer are rich families passing their thrones down to their progeny. What are you saying here? Seems to me that most of the graduates of business schools at elite Ivy League universities ARE the offspring of wealthy, or at least, well connected families! And they go on to work for big wealthy corporations. Oh yeah, a few affirmative action students here and there, but anybody paying full tuition has got to have money!!! Either that or drown in student loans.

I think you are right though that the rich and well connected these days do not go out for two martini lunches and a round of golf. They are much more likely to be workaholics, go home late at night and possibly do a few lines of cocaine.

As for empathy, WHAT? Our modern executive elites are no more or less psychopathic than those who came before. The upper 1% of our pathetic society is entitled, consumptive to a sickening degree, and has no clue what the word "enough" means--just as those who preceded them did not! Please do not try to con us by talking about the good old days! For most people they never existed!!

Redwood City CA

As the sum of wealth in society has grown, so-called "elite" education has become more and more a matter of learning how to ride the gravy train. As Mr. Brooks says, once your social origins were the key to the share of the pie you were likely to get. Now it's more possible to start on the outside and wind up in a very well paid inside, but at the expense of neglecting studies and activities that don't lead directly to a large bonus. There were good reasons for reading Caesar's Gallic Wars in Latin; first it forced you to learn another language and study a very different society, second it told you that winners and losers alike come to dust.

American education of the last few generations has a lot to answer for.

David Isenbergh
Washington, DC

I accept a lot of what Mr. Brooks says, but there's something I'd like to add:
Back in the 1950's, the elites were defined by their contributions to the practical well-being of ordinary Americans. I can recall a magazine interview of the late J. Paul Getty, in which he was asked to state the accomplishment he was most proud of. He replied that his greatest achievement was providing good jobs for tens of thousands of his fellow citizens. Think of Ford. Think of General Motors. General Electric. These great corporate entities enabled hundreds of thousands of American to enter the middle class. But today such entitites are no longer the great engines of domestic employment they once were. Shifts toward financial operations as well as reliance on foreign-made parts and assembly have greatly eroded their economic value for working American. The need to contribute directly to the common man, in terms of goods, services and jobs, is no longer a priority for America's privileged elite.

Phil in the mountains of Kyushu

What you take to be diversity at the top only looks that way from the outside -- skin color, gender, ethnic background. Yes, these new inclusions count for much, at many levels, both for the former excluded and their excluders -- or they would count for much, if the insides of all these rainbows hadn't also been corroded and reduced.

These reductions come from everybody who appears different all now getting the same de-personalized courses of instruction at all corporate academe. While people in classrooms shows obvious external diversity, instructors don't call on students to access these differences. Instructors call on students to reduce vocab and ranges of reference to each department's specialization orthodoxies. Americans haven't grown on the inside, but have shrunk -- to fit corporate agendas, such as the frauds that rule Wall Street, ga-ga consumerism that rules masses, the corporate money that rules the White House and Congress, and the permanent cycles of elections that now the Supreme Court says ought be even more lop-sided corporate.

All this diversity in superficial appearance doesn't help, either, as American policy steamrolls the world for the corporate interests, too, with thuggeries of military force as ongoing predictable. Americans don't know more foreign languages. Americans have no new peace initiatives, such as from the Fulbright program, which steadily chugs on simply as reward bennie for corporate academe.

No, you've really missed it here, seeing diversity on the outside, and mistaking that for insides which remain too largely gutted for the corporate training too many have gotten.

Cdr. John Newlin
Vista, Calif.

So, today financial firms recruit heavily from the Ivy League schools? Really? Given the lack of morals and the rampant greed and corruption so starkly evident in the financial community today, one must wonder if the Ivy League schools bother to teach ethics? Or perhaps they teach a different form of ethics. An ethos based on Gordon Gekko's "Greed is good" philosophy.

I'm not sure you are a journalist, Mr. Brooks, but for the sake of this comment, I will assume that you are. So you are a cultured analyst who drinks a lot of water? Actually your definition of modern journalists sounds a lot like that of modern elitists, Mr. Brooks.

Empathy is a skill? You've got to be kidding, Mr. Brooks. How does one, like yourself for example, who has no empathy whatsoever for the common middle class, acquire that skill? I admit that I haven't looked but I would bet that one cannot find a single university or college in this land that offers "Empathy 101."

After reading the rest of your offering today, Mr. Brooks, I am indeed convinced that you are so disconnected with American culture as to deservedly be asked, "From which planet do you submit your columns?"


Mr. Brooks has a curious concept of "meritocracy." While certainly more people have obtained formal educations and credentials, those attainments do not make them more learned, nor do they display much merit; for example, the previous president of the US had "gentleman's C's" while at Yale and doubtless also in his MBA at Harvard, yet one would never make the mistake of thinking that any of his achievements in life had anything to do with merit, whether he was running small oil companies into the ground or running a large, nuclear-armed country into the ground.

Elitism, contrary to what Mr. Brooks asserts, is alive and thriving in the United States. It is not the elitism of intellect that rules, however, but the elitism of money. Indeed, the latter has been on the rise for the last several decades; the gap between the rich and everyone else in the country has exploded, and the rich themselves have pulled a disappearing act from the rest of society. The social vacuum left by the vanished wealthy has allowed those making $100k per annum to entertain the delusion that they are the rich. Between the delusions of the merely comfortable, and the explosion of accreditation and formal education, a larger proportion of modern society than that of a few generations ago believes that it should have a share of power. Yet real power follows wealth, and wealth has become concentrated at decidedly feudal levels in the US. Furthermore, the growth of the number of positions of power has not increased with the growth of those who believe they should have it. The natural result of such conditions is an increase in instability, competition and conflict in society. One should note that similar conditions enabled the rise of men such as Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar in the Roman Republic, which did not long survive their contest for power.

Elizabeth Fuller
Peterborough, NH

Since our institutions have become more meritocratic the polar ice caps have shrunk, but few of us would claim that this phenomenon has been caused by widening the pool of intellectual elites or by expanding opportunities for education. Just because two things happen simultaneously does not mean cause and effect is involved. It's interesting to speculate why things have gone to hell in a handbasket now that leadership positions are more open to women and minorities, but we have to be really careful about what conclusions we reach and how we arrive at those conclusions.

You say that our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. Is that really true? It seem to me our system rewards those who make money, sometimes suppressing technical knowledge in order to generate profits. Even in the arts our society doesn't reward the conservatory-educated, talented musician with extensive technical knowledge more than the booty-shaking pop star. And when we call for a less progressive income tax, aren't we telling those who devote themselves to amassing technical knowledge and contributing to society that we don't value them enough to educate their children well or to provide them with the kind of health care available to those who generate outsized profits?

When a society elevates selfishness to a virtue, as Ayn Rand did, people don't fear being called selfish, and women and minorities can be just as selfish and venal as the good old boys. Maybe the reason things functioned more smoothly in the past was because those in power felt secure where they were. Now the opportunities to cut throats on the way up are open to more and more people, and the atmosphere has become one of kill or be killed. Ruthlessness is what is rewarded.

You point out that there is a need for empathy, and that empathy has nothing to do with a meritocracy. That depends on how you define merit. For many of us values like empathy are what define merit, and we would love to see it replace selfishness, not gradually, but as soon as possible. Before it's too late.

John T. Compton
Rhinebeck, NY

I'm still not clear how David Brooks defines "elites." George Bush and Barack Obama both went to Ivy League schools, so they are elites of a sort. But George Bush never had anything near a grasp of the facts that President Obama demonstrated when he singlehandedly embarrassed the GOP at their retreat. Neither Bush nor virtually any other politician in America today could have schooled the opposition the way President Obama did that day. No, the term "elite" has become conservative code used to demonize intelligence and complexity. It's used by the GOP to pretend it's a party of populists rather than the actual bought-and-paid-for party of big business and corporate greed. But after eight years of an incompetent Republican President and Congress, who did nothing but make the wealthy wealthier, it's getting harder for them to sell the idea that a great leader can be made out of an average American. Thanks to the Republicans, "plain spoken" is becoming a euphemism for "stupid but supports our platform." President Obama may not solve our problems, but his world-class intellect and natural curiosity should be a prerequisite for his job. That's not elitism - it's common sense. We've already seen what happens when we elect incurious, incompetent beer-buddy leaders. Torture, Katrina, unnecessary war and the Bush Recession.

Vincent Amato
New York City

Your strength as a writer and a thinker, David, is crafty disingenuity posing as innocence. Too much transparency? No power elite? Give me a break. The fact that the "old" power elite has withdrawn from the public political process does not mean that it has given up its power, its elitism, or its role in shaping events, just that it is too refined (in its own view of itself) to get down and dirty in the messier realities of the new, supposedly "multi-cultural" agora.

Janice Herbrand
Tacoma, WA

Thanks, David, for expressing an opinion that's going to make neither of us popular: there is something to be said in favor of an hereditary ruling elite. My family was never part of it, but we shared their values; or assumed we did.
These values weren't particularly complicated. You were to be honest in all your dealings, use your money wisely, and keep your private life private. I don't know which is more embarrassing, hearing about the mess many of those we look up to have made of their lives, or having to listen to their public apologies.
We didn't talk about empathy, or probably have much of it. Helping those less fortunate than you was your duty.
Granted that this ethical system wasn't perfect, but it's better than what we have now: judging people's worth by how much money they have.
I'm all in favor of everyone's having a chance to acquire wealth and power, but we do need some guidance on the responsibilities that come with them.

Prof. Jai Prakash Sharma

What C.Wright Mills perceived of the US political system and its power elite some decades back is still relevant, though the nature of power elite does seem to have undergone sea change over the years. For, then, it was socially and politically rooted elite, responsive to its support structure, now the elite is self serving and socially-politically insulated, hence fails to command respect and recognition.

Johnny E

"The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price,
peace at any price, safety first instead of duty first, the love of
soft living and the get rich quick theory of life." Teddy Roosevelt

No comments:

Blog Archive