Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Best and the Brightest II

Joseph Epstein on our elites:

after teaching at a university for 30 years, I have come to distrust the type I think of as "the good student"--that is, the student who sails through school and is easily admitted into the top colleges and professional schools. The good student is the kid who works hard in high school, piles up lots of activities, and scores high on his SATs, and for his efforts gets into one of the 20 or so schools in the country that ring the gong of success. While there he gets a preponderance of A’s. This allows him to move on to the next good, or even slightly better, graduate, business, or professional school, where he will get more A’s still, and move onward and ever upward. His perfect résumé in hand, he runs only one risk--that of catching cold from the draft created by all the doors opening for him wherever he goes, as he piles up scads of money, honors, and finally ends up being offered a job at a high level of government. . . .

I did my teaching at Northwestern University, where most of the students had what I came to regard as "the habits of achievement." They did the reading, most of them could write a respectable paper, many of them talked decently in response to my questions. They made it difficult for me to give them less than a B for the course. But the only students who genuinely interested me went beyond being good students to become passionate ones. Their minds, I could tell, were engaged upon more than merely getting another high grade. The number of such students was remarkably small; if I had to pin it down, I should say they comprised well under 3 percent, and not all of them received A’s from me.

Meanwhile our good student, resembling no one so much as that Italian character in Catch-22 who claimed to have flourished under the fascists, then flourished under the Communists, and was confident he would also flourish under the Americans, treks on his merry way. From Yale to Harvard Law School, or Harvard to Yale Law School, or to one of the highly regarded (and content empty) business schools, he goes, as the Victorians had it, from strength to strength.

Epstein reminds me of David Brooks’ Organization Kid, except Epstein is more skeptical than Brooks about the merits of this meritocracy.

Discussions - 28 Comments

This theme of turning against academic meritocracy and redefining elites as those who do well in school is the perfect election follow-up for conservatives. Bush - who has clearly been much respected, at least until VERY recently, by many here at NLT - made much of the world (oh wait, I mean the "ignorant ninny" - that's NOT an elitist attitude, is it?) wonder if any well-connected goof-off or slacker could get accepted to Harvard or Yale. And the conservative base's superstar of the recent election, who absurdly claimed foreign affairs experience via proximity to a foreign land and couldn't even name a favorite publication of interest, has now dumbed down the definition of elite to something disturbingly close to that of Seinfeld guest curmudgeon Izzy Mandelbaum ("You think you're better than me??!!"). Following the Epstein route, the next occupant of the Oval Office should be a "passionate" guy who doesn't study hard, does poorly on tests, oscillates between community colleges and jail, all the while sharing the wisdom he garners from (who else, but) Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, etc.

Or was Epstein really just speaking favorably of that old standard of the elites, the cream of his classroom's crop - the smart, hard-working and passionate? If so, I fail to see how he's really exhibiting much skepticism of academic meritocracy at all.

He really twists himself into knots to appear to be consistent: "In recent years I have come to think that some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale Law Schools: Mr. and Mrs. Eliot Spitzer, Mr. and Mrs. William Clinton, and countless others" - but of course, he conveniently leaves out a long list of conservative superstars and favorites (and interestingly, he has now narrowed things down to the LAW schools) -

Harvard Law has graduated Ashbrook/NLT favorite Bill Bennett, as well as Alberto Gonzales, Ben Shapiro, and the right-fringe John Hinderaker of PowerLine.

Yale Law has graduated Pat Robertson, Ben Stein, and conservative heroes John Bolton and John Yoo.

Neither of those lists include conservative's favorites (of varying degree) serving as Justices on the SCOTUS - Chief Justice Roberts and Scalia both come out of Harvard Law, while Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito are grads of Yale Law.

So, Harvard and Yale (Law) and whatever elite school is being targeted, are Part of the Mythical Meritocracy Problem, at least when they graduate a Clinton or Obama. If it's Scalia or Hinderaker, then no problem!

He goes on with "...these institutions serve as the grandest receptacles in the land for our good students: those clever, sometimes brilliant, but rarely deep young men and women who, joining furious drive to burning if ultimately empty ambition, will do anything to get ahead." Let me guess, the "deep" ones are those who are passionate conservatives (maybe this overlaps with Weekly Standard subscribers?)?

and "Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan were two of the greatest presidents of the twentieth century. Truman didn't go to college at all, and Reagan, one strains to remember, went to Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois."

How far can we go with this? Should (as in, it should be our GOAL) our next POTUS (that is, after Obama) be a high-school dropout who lived as a wandering self-taught philosopher and warrior for The American Way (as defined by Bill Kristol)? I bet, as long as he recited from The Bible and Limbaugh as he preached from atop a fruit crate in the park, Epstein's answer would be yes.

Amazingly, he finishes with this: "I myself feel [the academic elite institutions' meritocratic] thinness so keenly that, on more than one occasion, I have, by way of informing one friend or acquaintance about another, said, 'He went to Princeton and then to the Harvard Law School, but, really, he is much better than that.'" NOW who's the elitist? Perhaps Epstein really is Mandelbaum?

Conservatives have their own "organization kids". They were not especially prominent in the Bush administration (and many on the cries about Bush "anti-intellectualism" had alot to do with the relative lack of those types) but this group is strongly present elsewhere. Chief Justice John Roberts and Bobby Jindal seem to fit many of the biographical qualities of the "good student". I doubt that makes them less principled or capable than the conservatives who went to less elite colleges or took a different path to national prominence.

But there is something to be said for not drawing our governing class too much from one pool of people who share many of the same experiences. There is alot to be said for including people who come from military or small business backgrounds among many others. If liberals have a little too much reverence for the "good student" who went to the elite university, then conservatives should not have an undue prejudice against the "good student", merely an understanding that greatness and decency can come out of many different kinds of biographies.

"They're cooperative team players ... They accept authority ... They're rule followers." The authors paint a picture of incredibly wholesome youths who will correct the narcissism and nihilism of their Boomer parents" However, he says that they don't put much thought into virtue and conform to authority figures. What are they then conforming to?


"On the contrary, it is now pretty widely believed that the killings at Columbine and similar tragedies teach us that parents have a duty to be highly involved in the lives of their kids." I thought this taught us we neeeded gun control and metal dectectors and cops at shcools, along with increased rewards for taddling and a sense of fear that anyone could come into the school shooting at any time.


"Democracy and dictatorship are no longer engaged in an epic struggle; victorious democracy is the beneficent and seemingly natural order. No more fundamental arguments pit capitalism against socialism; capitalism is so triumphant that we barely even contemplate an alternative." This point did not last a decade did it?


I really found these two articles interesting. Their was always something I felt uneasy about while in college just a few years ago. It was the rush to accept whatever was told by profs. It was the apathetic nature people had about ideas, rather seeking to just get their B and move on. The capacity for groupthink was suffocating. The worst part was that I felt that these students, who are likely way more succesful than I, were almost unaware that they were paroting ideas. Instead, they naturally adopted the conventional thinking and somehow justified it as right without doing any of the intellectual work. My underlying fear, or paranoria, about these people is that they will accept any order. They don't ask is this right, but will this help me get ahead. It is a corporate mentality that praises conformity and calls for witch hunts when someone challenges them. With that said, it would all be fine if they were conforming with the good....but, I really fear what they are capable of doing when the mentor they are playing lapdog with becomes a monster.

Craig, there is a large group who are neither lifetime 4.0 GPA garnering students with a bunch of Ivy League degrees nor bumkins who oscillate between "community colleges and jail". The members of that group include lots of impressive people who might have a lot to offer in high government service. There are a couple of extremes to be avoided. The first is the assumption that what Epstein calls the "good student" is to be assumed to be superior to the rest of us based on their grades or degrees rather than on their ideas and post college attainments. Much of the resentment that is expressed about the high GPA, elite school meritocracy is the assumption that those outside the group are (or ought to be) a subject class to their betters. The contempt that greeted Palin elicited an intense counter contempt from many workig class, and middle class Americans outside of the "good student" meritocracy. The could see that she was being looked down on by people with better GPAs, degrees from more elite colleges but far fewer political accomplishments. If they look down on a figure like Palin (mayor and reforming governor), what must they think of the rest of us?

The second extreme is to assume that people with a "good student" background must be assumed to be somehow defective. They got where they are by a combination of hard work and brains. That ought to be respected. But there are alot of ways that hard work and brains can be demonstrated in this world and they also deserve respect.

As for the "You think you're better than me?" question. Maybe it is best not to assume mental or moral superiority in middle-aged adults based on their GPAs and the schools they went to. Maybe we should let them show their quality based on their words and actions. It is a fair test, and many in the high GPA, Ivy League credentialed meritocracy will pass the test, but not only them.

Military professionals and writers on military matters have often remarked on this subject. But they phrase it a bit differently.

They see it as the distinction between staff officers and command talent.

Poor Craig missed the point entirely, and went off to knock down a strawman and embark on some overly emotional defense of the Ivy League.

Reading the piece, McClellan comes to mind, for he was the type of person Epstein speaks of. McClellan would have made an uncommonly fine staff officer, as would Halleck for that matter. But when placed in command, the skills that enabled them to easily make headway in their careers did not assist them when confronted with problems that called for imagination.

What struck me the most about Epstein's essay was its shamelessly partisan (as in partisan for conservatives, if not necessarily the GOP) nature. As I pointed out in my earlier comment, it's not as though the Obama administration is the first to have a lot of people from elite universities and law schools. GWB himself went to both Harvard and Yale.

But yet it seems that Epstein is just now getting worked up about this "valedictocracy." And that's because the Dems (or the Commies, pinkos, socialists, terrorists, pals of terror, liberal fascists or whatever they're being called today by the right-wing) are now leading (or, about to lead). If the "valedictocracy" in place had similar resumes but right-wing views then it would be accurate to call it a true meritocracy. That's Epstein's gist. If those who rise to the top are left of center (or left of him) then the meritocracy is flawed in some way. If those like him rise to the top, then all is right. Epstein is trying to make it seem like some painfully nuanced, almost mysterious distinction is being made here, but it's quite transparent that he's just making an ideological distinction within the ranks of the elites. And then, putting an even further elitist spin on it right at the end.

If one wants to question the college & university rankings, and the very idea that the U.S. is a meritocracy, I am all on board, regardless of who's in office. If one wants to propose that even people who haven't been to college or to a non-elite college should be taken seriously as possible national leaders, I'm all on board. But as it happens, many of the most-qualified people - but certainly not all - have graduated from elite schools.

Dan, I hardly see how I "knock[ed] down a strawman" - Epstein was clearly showing an interest in presidents who didn't go to college or "only" to non-prestigious schools, as when he cited Truman and Reagan. I wanted to know how far that idea could be taken. If you could point out where I was offering a "defense of the Ivy League" or, especially, how it was "overly emotional," I'd like to see where.

Of course, what's missing from Epstein's piece is any mention of Sarah Palin. Her candidacy is one manifestation of such acceptance of non-elites. Now, I'm no irrational Palin-hater (some claims about her dimness have surely been overhyped - by Republicans it seems! - I'm happy to give her the benefit of the doubt that she knew Africa was a continent, for instance), but while she might have said (and repeated, ad nauseum) several key words and phrases that stirred the conservative base, I think it's hard to make the case that she demonstrated much DEPTH or seriousness on anything. As Steve Hayward noted in a post here just recently, Reagan was at least able to name Human Events as one of his favorite periodicals. Palin couldn't cite one. I really doubt anyone here at NLT would have that problem, even Hal Holst. But there was plenty more than that to make one doubt Palin was qualified to be the (V)POTUS. It's not elitism, it's about having basic, minimal standards and expectations for someone serious, even if that person is on the other side of the ideological spectrum. But the right (right-fringe?) heard her folksy talk and knew that she was fiercely anti-abortion and ready to nuke whoever the "bad guys" were (or her handlers told her were the bad guys) at the moment, so they latched on to "their" Sarah. I couldn't care less that Palin never attended an elite university, but she also doesn't appear to have cracked a great many books on anything deeper than "Public Speaking for Dummies" or some pamphlets from Wal-Mart on the wisdom of tax abatements.

But Epstein's implication that elite schools are the schools of liberals just doesn't wash, as just a glance at the SCOTUS, for starters, indicates. But he has subtly thrown his weight behind the idea that conservatives can and should separate themselves, so he's also hinting here for home-schooling, Horowitz's ABORs, and colleges like Hillsdale, Patrick Henry, Regent, etc. and internal institutes like Ashbrook that offer conservative/Christian conservative education - all of which defy this liberal elitism. So he's done his job.

Craig, do you seriously believe that Palin is as unread as all that or that flubbing a question tells us what we need to know about what she knows? Are we to judge all candidates by their worst public moments? Do you believe that Obama thinks there are 57 states? One of the uglier part of the last campaign was the double standards at work in how gaffes were treated. When it was Obama (or Biden), the gaffe was just a manifestation of our shared humaity with the candidate - loveable really - and it surely did not reflect badly on the candidate. With Palin, it showed us that she only reads public speaking manuals and Wal-Mart pamphlets (because that is where people like her shop). It is almost like there is a cultural bias or something.

Yes, I think that Palin is not terribly well-read. If you read my comment again, you'll see that I don't just accept whatever rumors are tossed out (such as the one that she thought Africa was a country - I don't buy that, just as I don't think Obama thinks there are 57 states), but it's pretty clear from having watched her that the gaffes were not just punctuating otherwise intelligent explanations of ideas and policy proposals.

I really have no idea where Palin shops. The pamphlets that I mentioned were of the propaganda variety that the Wal-Mart legal team might ply a small-town mayor with to get them the tax breaks they want.

Craig, I didn't credit you with believing the dumber anti Palin rumours. Just that (if your comment about your interpretation of her flubbing the question of what newsppapers and magazines she reads is at all serious)you seem to look at Palin's gaffes as proof of ignorace. Ok, but what about Obama's gaffes? It is about as plausible that Palin reads zero news periodicals as Obama thinks there are 57 states. Why the double standard.?

Those small town mayors sound pretty gullible. Not like those big city community activists. Maybe if she had gone to a better school, you would not assume that she is so gullible.

I really hate the cultural civil war that has raged around Palin and I especially hate that it continues post election. The Palin critics have some good points. She really didn't have alot of answers on the economy (though no fewer than her running mate)and her performance was sometimes shaky - even if her critics tend to overstate how often that was. What bugs me is that much of the anti Palinism really does come across as cultural snobbery and is punctuated by double standards (when compared to Obama) on matters like experience, or gaffes, or prying into her family life, or reporting on her associations.

I don't think the article was partisan for the reasons mentioned: both sides come from the same background. The second article was done well before this election cycle. What is troubling is that they are saying ideas are lost in the shuffle of achievements. These people are more concerned with getting an A than trying to understand the material. Education is a means to end, the implication is that ideology is also a means to an end. Your in a liberal Prof's class, act like a liberal. Hence the mention of the guy who flourished under the commies and the fascists. The $64,000 is will these people stand up for anything, or will they go along with policies that are simply wrong so as to not rock the boat or harm their career.

Pete, did the anti Palinism come across as cultural snobbery before or after she stood before the world and called Obama a terrorist? She did it at 10 different events and 3 different interviews with national media. Those weren't gaffes, and there is no double standard in calling her a train-wreck of empty slogans, an arrogant, irrational, self-deceived demagogue.

ren, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt here, when did she call Obama a terrorist (as opposed to pointing out his association with the terrorist Bill Ayers)?

I saw these annoying students year in and year out when I taught. They would dutifully take their notes, study for hours on end every night, memorize the material for the test, and get their good grades - all because they were expected to get into the right schools, and they usually did.

My experience of them was that they could hardly answer a question that wasn't right out of the textbook, like what is virtue? They also didn't seem to care very much unless it was going to be on the test. Their writing was substandard because it lacked originality and a willingness to take intellectual risks. They were also shocked to receive a grade for what I thought was poor writing and thinking because every other teacher had given them "A"s and they now expected it. But even worse, a "C+" might ruin their chances of getting into Dartmouth. They always took the "right number" of AP classes and joined lots of clubs (and tried to be president), not because of any desire for leadership or challenge or excellence, but it was because that's what the principal, mommy and daddy, and the college recruiter told them to do.

Give me the kid who is filled with intellectual curiosity, who reads books in his spare time for fun (the others rarely did). Give me the kid who eschews the ivy league and chooses the right college for him with the right principles. Give me someone who broke the mold.

A meritocracy is great, but when the merit measured is really not all that impressive or admirable and is really just plain bland, it seems more like a bureaucracy to me. That does not really embody the American spirit. This country was built on those who thought outside the box and didn't follow along with the herd - they adapted and innovated and discovered. That does not describe the organizational kid. And, the organizational kids were not the ones that I now remember. It was those half a dozen kids who were built of something better.

Craig, reread the last sentence of your first paragraph on this thread.

You might want to take this as an invitation to "revise and extend" your remarks.

That last sentence was the strawman that Epstein never proposed, which nonetheless you raised and then went after with quite a gusto.

Sure, you made a valid point, but you stretched it a bit.

Ok, Dan, I wrote:

"Following the Epstein route, the next occupant of the Oval Office should be a "passionate" guy who doesn't study hard, does poorly on tests, oscillates between community colleges and jail, all the while sharing the wisdom he garners from (who else, but) Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, etc."

Did you stop reading there? I immediately followed up with:

"Or was Epstein really just speaking favorably of that old standard of the elites, the cream of his classroom's crop - the smart, hard-working and passionate? If so, I fail to see how he's really exhibiting much skepticism of academic meritocracy at all."

I didn't say that Epstein "proposed" that, I simply said that if we keep going down the path that feels mistrust (and some fairly obvious contempt) for "the kid who works hard in high school, piles up lots of activities, and scores high on his SATs, and for his efforts gets into one of the 20 or so schools in the country that ring the gong of success." we might just lose any sense of standards. Don't aim for the top, aim for the middle - and expect to be treated as though you've risen to the top. Note that Epstein's son went to Stanford, not Eureka (or even Claremont or Ashbrook at Ashland) - why not? I don't think Epstein really buys his own line of bull.

If anyone is being obfuscatory here though, it's Epstein, and he's doing so precisely because he can't just say what he keeps hedging and hinting at. Bright, ambitious, hard-working students who rise to the top and who happen to be conservatives are the passionate, deep students he respects. The bright, ambitious, hard-working students who rise to the top and happen to be liberals are just crass, unprincipled opportunists of the most cynical variety. And in today's post-election Conservative-Land, that's the non-elite version of reality.

Without denying the merit of the typology outlined by Tony Williams, I would suggest a caveat. A key function of a formal education is intellectual socialization--learning that most of your ideas are not original, someone else usually knows more than you, your paper comes back covered in red ink, and so on. You learn that knowledge and thinking are is a group effort that unfolds across time. "Top" students have typically internalized those lessons, although admittedly this can entail cynicism and diminished creativity. People who avoid this socialization may be more original and less jaded, but they're also more likely to become cranks and crackpots, unsystematically self-taught and alienated from the wider conversation among people knowledgeable about that subject.

I wish Alex would extend his remarks further.

The execrable Craig Scanlon at least once had the saving grace of brevity.

But perhaps this struck him in a tender spot.

I'd like to think that America is still the sort of country where the "gong of success" can be rung by people outside the handful who have attended the top twenty colleges. I mean, it's a country of over three hundred million people.

But I'm becoming more and more convinced that the Scanlons of the world are really pining in their hearts for the more elitist model popular in other parts of the globe. What's a managerial state without a managerial class? More to the point, a small and exclusive managerial class, one populated by those sorts of people who got A's on their way to a Havard law degree. You know, the sort of people currently running the country into the ground.

Although I would be open to evidence to the contrary, I suspect that people with elite degrees are found in much greater abundance in government leadership roles than in the private sector leadership roles. In the business world I think people are less concerned about where a person went to school than by what they have accomplished since leaving. Moreover, in the business world there are reasonably objective measures of what a person has accomplished. For example, one can examine whether the sales of a company increased when a new marketing Vice-President was hired. If sales went up, no one is too concerned whether the new VP graduated from Harvard or Kentucky State. If sales went down, no one is impressed by the well-written marketing plan put together by the Harvard MBA.

In government, it is much more difficult to measure the effectiveness and contributions of a government employee so there may be a greater reliance on credentials than objective accomplishments.

I'd like to make a pitch here for valuing and respecting formal education and expert knowledge, and for wariness toward the layman's disdain for specialists. An important issue, I think, is that non-specialists often make casual use of knowledge that they themselves don't really understand.

One consequence is failure to distinguish between “things” and constructs. I was taken aback when astronomers declared that Pluto wasn’t a planet, because had I imagined that planet-ness was part of Pluto’s essence. When the US invaded Iraq, advocates of exporting freedom made comparisons with WW2. As a historian, I told my classes that there’s no such thing as “spreading freedom,” since “freedom” is merely a constructed term for what happens when a variety of separate societal developments come together. In both cases—astronomy and history—misinformed laymen took a theoretical construct (planet, freedom) for something that has an autonomous existence in the real world.

Another consequence is failure to understand what a discipline can or can’t tell you. Thus, the methodology of history gives no moral meanings and offers no lessons for the future, so using history to teach, say, patriotism damages its intellectual integrity. Likewise, turning archival evidence into coherent history requires much imagination, while writers of (good) fiction represent the real world as they know it. Therefore, much fiction is “real” while much non-fiction is imaginative and constructed.

One could go on like this. In many fields, real knowledge can’t be crammed or googled, only acquired through a serious education and a lifetime of reading and thinking. Nor is “experience” a substitute. First, it is a poor guide in a changing world. French officers tried bayonet charges in WW1 and the Maginot Line in WW2 because they were relying on experience when they should have been reading up on technology. Second, “experience”-driven leaders often still rely on book learning, except that it’s garbled or misleading. Thus, our politicians continue to draw “lessons” from the notion that Reagan destroyed Soviet communism, when in fact it was internal factors—economic stagnation, declining oil prices, the reformist generation of Khrushchev’s Thaw—that fatally undermined the regime.

Bottom line, in my view: a) beware of the self-taught who disdain experts; b) experience is a complement to formal learning, not a substitute.

I probably shouldn't dignify John's name-calling bloviations with a response but I am mildly amused that after I make abundantly clear my position, via:

"If one wants to question the college & university rankings, and the very idea that the U.S. is a meritocracy, I am all on board, regardless of who's in office. If one wants to propose that even people who haven't been to college or to a non-elite college should be taken seriously as possible national leaders, I'm all on board."

He just carries on, unabated, with:


"I'm becoming more and more convinced that the Scanlons of the world are really pining in their hearts for the more elitist model popular in other parts of the globe."

Let's hear it for the development of reading comprehension skills!

I'll leave with this. A lot of elite school grads are probably qualified and prepared to hold elite leadership positions, but not all of them are. Additionaly, plenty of non-elite school grads are also similarly qualified and prepared. There are idiots from Harvard and brilliant scholars from Unknown Tech College. But that distinction can't and shouldn't be drawn along ideological lines, as Epstein is clearly attempting to do.

Alex, I appreciate your attempt to spread respect for formal education. But I can't shake the feeling that formal education (and respect)is merely a social construction. I suspect that your hostile interpretation of that (granted overly simple)phrase "spreading freedom" is itself an ideological construct of the often more subtle ideas of people who believe that government policy (both domestic and foreign policy) can advance what people recognize as freedom. Who would deny that African Americans in the Deep South have more freedom (and not just "freedom") today than they did fifty years ago ot that government policy, among many other factors helped institutionalize that freedom? I agree with most of your point except to caution you not to have to much contempt for the ability of nonacademics to draw valid conclusions based on their seperate set of experiences (in the military, in local politics, in business and even the dreaded autodidact). All ideas and policies should be held up to reasoned scrutiny and an academic background (or even the preponderance of opinion among academics on matters beyond their particular specialty) is not the ultimate measure of validity. I have great respect for formal education, but have never considered college faculties or student bodies to be especially immune to ideology or political passion.

Pete, thank you for your comments. I guess I didn't mean that only academics create valid knowledge. What I did mean is that a) expert insiders in any field (including business, labor, law enforcement, the military, etc.) develop knowledge that's generally superior to what amateur outsiders come up with on their own, and b) the best "insider" knowledge in any field involves a lot of academic-type theoretical reflection, not just the application of past experience. Both academics and non-academics write important books, but on the big issues I wouldn't trust someone who isn't a serious reader. On your second point: imposing "freedom" by force or fiat is classic big-government social engineering, which works if and only if local conditions are right. True racial emancipation didn't happen after the Civil War because the US gov't was no match for the internal forces of Southern society; things were different a century later because the South itself had changed. The Allies in 1945 destroyed some of the instruments of Nazi power, but Nazism's essence--the all-embracing political machine, the habits of violence and intimidation, the hatred for foreigners, the disregard for rights and legality, the chiliastic attitude toward politics--could only be changed by the Germans themselves. The fact that so many of us believed our own "patriotic" propaganda, and thought that American force by itself had brought democracy to Germany and other Axis countries, is in my view an important reason for our miscalculations in Iraq.

Alex, I do get your points and there is real truth to them, but there are also real problems. For one thing "imposing freedom" is a polemical and misleading formulation of American policy at least as problematic as "spreading freedom". Any anaysis that tries to examine American policy from that framework is crippled by the conceptual framework (not to say that some valid insights might arise even from a flawed framework). Other problems arise also. The German cultural change was very influenced (to say the least) by the allied military campaign and later policies. The post WWII Germans - both the leaders and the general public - made their own choices about their political arrangements but American policy, military and otherwise played an important role in that development. The same could be said about the reestablisment of democratic institutions in western Europe or the establishment of a stable democratic regime in Japan. To say that the US "imposed" democracies in any of those places would be absurd. Most of the credit for that must go to the people in those places. To say that American policies helped spread democracy by making that development possible (partially by toppling undemocratic regimes, but in other ways too)has alot of truth to it. When examining statements it is important to look at what is true about them as well as what is false, and to look at the ways in which the statements are intended to be understood.

You are also right that concrete circumstances limit the ability of government policy (whether military or otherwise) to bring about desired results. But a realistic grasp of the possibilities in a given is neither too grandiose nor too constrained. Sometimes American policy has meant the difference between North Korea and South Korea. The same might also be said in Iraq. The US has surely not "imposed" democracy , but in the last 24 months, changed US policies has been crucial in the creation of a safer, politicaly more moderate Iraq in which the jihadist elements (both Sunni and Shia)are much weaker. The change in Iraq is clearly drawn in large part from forces in Iraq's culture and people, but what fair minded person would argue that the same developments would have occurred in the event of a hasty US withdrawl?

What propaganda were critics of the "surge" relying on when they miscalculated and predicted it would fail to bring down violence in Iraq? The question is of course mean, unfair, and polemical but the style of the question is no less problematic when applied to other targets.

Pete, I don't deny that policies by the US or other outsiders can have huge impacts on local developments such as the cases you mention. My original point had to do with the importance of theoretical knowledge for those who try to devise such policies. Iraq is a case in point. My reference to mistakes has to do not with the surge but with 2002-3, when people looked to 1945 as a precedent when a closer examination of the Iraqi situation would have shown that Algeria in the '50s, Chechnia, or Lebanon in the '80s provided more likely scenarios of how events would unfold.

Alex, no question that the Bush administation bungled the war from 2003-early 2007. The situation developed very differently than they expected. But many experts (who really were expert)expected the surge to fail. That is not an argument against expertise, just that expertise can lead you in different directions and that judgement is indispensable. We aren't really that far apart. I would also tend to distrust someone who totally ignored all the experts. But that does not mean that leaders should uncritically listen to the preponderance of experts. Even among experts there are often good faith splits and the majority in the expert community might not have right on its side. There is a difference between having respect for those who have studied a subject and taking your cues from the votes at an academic conference. I suspect you agree with that.

"Who would deny that African Americans in the Deep South have more freedom (and not just "freedom") today than they did fifty years ago ot that government policy, among many other factors helped institutionalize that freedom?" What about the other people living there??????????????? When you are building a strawman make sure its a safe distance from a fire.

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