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The Smart Set

David Brooks' latest column has generated a good deal of commentay. (here's a good example of the critique).  Brooks' writes:

The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

Very suggestive.  (I'm reminded of Peter Jennings' famous comment that in the 1994 elections, the people "threw a temper tantrum.")  Brooks, although he sometimes makes light of the prejudices and lemming-like behavior of America's elite class, ultimately fits comfortably in that group.  Many liberals define their positions as those that intelligent people take. Hence any critique is uninformed, by definition.  But what happens when what is called "intelligence" is something else?  (I suppose it might be something similar to what happens when what is called "science" is defined as nothing more than calculations and correlations).

P.S. It might also be worth noting that the "educated class" is probably much less unified in opinion than it was thirty years ago. (Back then, there were many fewer conservative law professors, journalists, magazines, and think tanks). Perhaps that's partly where the anger comes from. It is becoming harder and harder to claim that there is a unified "educated class."  As that becomes the case, the myth that smart people agree on issues becomes harder and harder to maintain. As that happens, the myth of technocracy (build on Pragmatism) is exposed.  I suspect that it is disagreement about that ideal that gets under Brooks' skin.

P.P.S. Brooks writes "The Obama administration is premised on the conviction that pragmatic federal leaders with professional expertise should have the power to implement programs to solve the country's problems." An I thought they believed in diversity?  Only a truly federal system would allow that.  But technocrats don't want there to be fifty different sets of laws regarding health care, etc.

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Discussions - 9 Comments

(Back then, there were many fewer conservative law professors, journalists, magazines, and think tanks).

I think Stanley Rothman, Stanley Kurtz, and Stanley Brubaker would dispute you on the composition of the liberal arts professoriate. Dr. Rothman has conducted an extensive body of survey research on the opinions of different occupational groups and knows of what he speaks.

As for think tanks, they are small organizations. The entire body of fellows of the dozen or so most prominent think tanks of the right might staff one mid-sized liberal arts college. Alas, their fellows are too often not people with the requisite background to be called scholars. They are advocates or journalists. What do you mean by 'many more'? I think the National Center for Policy Analysis was founded in the last thirty years, but the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Mackinac Center, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center were all around a generation ago. The Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies has been captured by the opposition.

The democratization of communications has erased much of the boundary between the press and the public. It is perhaps true that there are more publications in opposition than there were, but we are still speaking of perhaps an increase from a half-dozen to a dozen. You had National Review, The American Spectator, Commentary, The Public Interest, Regulation, Public Opinion, Inquiry, Policy Review, Modern Age, and Chronicles of Culture. The Public Interest had closed and its sister publication, The National Interest is now outside the fold; Inquiry has folded, as have Regulation, Public Opinion and the two succesors to these. You've added The Weekly Standard, Reason, First Things, World, Re: Generation Quarterly, and City Journal. Am I missing something?

What has changed is the dissident presence in talk radio and television broadcasting. The former is somewhat of a mixed blessing.

If "suggestive" means "highly generalized twaddle" I completely agree. Brooks is making the all too common mistake of confusing a class of educated Americans with educated Americans in general. Yes, one can take polls of Americans with degrees and find greater percentages that agree with certain left-wing positions, but does Brooks really believe, as he seems to in general, that educated people who hold opposing positions are outliers. Isn't it just as probable that the "educated" class is susceptable to group-think and the influence of academia, which has become actively (and in many cases deliberately) politicized by the left?

The real problem with Brooks and others' analysis of "elites," "intellectuals," etc. is threefold. First, there aren't really as many true intellectuals and elites as some writers like to claim. Second, the reason for problem number one is because so many members of the chattering and political classes are working so hard at getting themselves pretentiously included in the "elites and intellectuals" class (Brooks is a near-perfect example of this). Third, being "educated" or a member of the "elite" or an "intellectual" doesn't necessarily grant you great wisdom in general than others, including many very "uneducated" people. It only specifies that you have a general experience, expertise, or knowledge in a certain field, bouyed by a general education of the liberal arts model. Plenty of people with such backgrounds are crap in plenty of areas, no matter how cleverly they write or how inspirationally they speak.

On the whole, I think the supposed problem of disconnect between the "educated class" (read "elites") and conservatism could be solved if those with pretentions of being members of the former group (or actual members, for that matter) would serve themselves up some generous dollops of humility and self-awareness.

here is an email I sent to Jonah Goldberg in response to his "corner" comment about the Brooks piece:

American wariness about the "educated elite" is nothing new. I recently inherited a large library and among the dusty tomes is a collection of Eric Hoffer's books. I carry "Working and Thinking on the Waterfront" in my battered brief case.

In the preface Hoffer describes what he calls "intellectuals":

"...They are people who feel themselves members of the educated minority, with a God-given right to direct and shape events. An intellectual need not be well educated or particularly intelligent. What counts is the feeling of being a member of an educated elite.

An intellectual wants to be listened to. He wants to instruct and to be taken seriously. It is more important to him to be important than to be free, and he would rather be persecuted than ignored. Typical intellectuals feel oppressed in a democratic society where they are left alone, to do as they please. "

Hey, Skip Gates, is that you in there?

The book is a diary and the first entry is dated June 1, 1958!!!

It seems to me that we are right to be wary and as the evidence mounts that the intellectuals don't actually have a monopoly on smarts Americans are responding appropriately.

The irony was that Brooks was trying to get his mostly liberal, upper middle-class readership to take the Tea Party phenomenon more seriously - and not in a "those racist Tea Party Nazis are calling Obama a Nazi" kind of way.

The problem was that Brooks was trying to change his audience's mind and kiss its butt at the same time. I think that Brooks was thinking of his intended audience as a group that was perhaps a little bit open to having its perception of the Tea Party phenomenon, but that this open-mindedness was very fragile. I think he was afraid that if this audience decided that he was one of those people, his more liberal readers would ignore what he had to say.

Look at the comments on Ross Douthat's blog.

You get alot of simplistic liberalism http://community.nytimes.com/comments/douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/23/the-war-over-california/

You get alot of liberal, partisan, tribal passion http://community.nytimes.com/comments/douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/29/the-filibuster-now-more-than-ever/

I suspect that there are probably alot more liberal readers who are closer to Charles Murray's description of his intended audience, "a bright, reasonable person who doesn’t agree with me but comes to my text ready to give me a shot. "

Brooks' message might have been jarring to even this, more open minded group. Brooks was telling his readers that the Tea Party phenomenon reflected real and growing concern about Democratic governance, and had a good chance of acquiring more credible and skilled political leaders. The other stuff about the educated class and "pragmatic federal leaders with professional expertise should have the power to implement programs to solve the country’s problems" is just a way of sucking up to his audience. Brooks is signaling to his upper middle-class liberal audience that "Hey, I'm one of you and not one of those Tea Party people. You should take me seriously." I understand the reasons for Brooks' approach, but giving into the temptation to cringe before his audience is not admirable.

That las comment wasn't anonymous. It was me Pete. Sorry.

I didn't walk away from this article with the feeling that the Tea Party movement gets under Brooks' skin. Sure, he distances himself from it at the very end. But it is quite a sterile essay, as most of his essays are.

And you could read what he says about the "elite" class in two ways: either it is him sucking up to his audience, as Pete says, or (and most conservative commentators talk about this 'class' the same way) it is a sort of ironic pejorative.

Owl, I agree that Brooks' article can be read , in part, as sly mockery of the "educated class", but I don't think that was how he intended it to be read by those whose minds he was trying to change. I think he was trying to flatter them rather than apply a more accurate label like "upper middle-class liberals" or "upper middle-class liberal meritocrats. There is also his very friendly description of this group's world view as "pragmatic federal leaders..." Brooks is careful to to endorse or distance himself from this world view (and it struck me because it reminded me of Obama' eulogy for Ted Kennedy) while Brooks did make a tacked on point to distance himself from the Tea Party movement.

I also didn't get the impression that Brooks was annoyed with the Tea Party movement. I thought his whole point was to try to convince the upper middle-class portion of his audience that the Tea Party movement was not crazy, not a joke, and not going away. But he seems to have thought that this would be too bitter a pill, so he coated in artificial sweetener

I read and enjoyed David Brooks' work on the Bobos (bourgeois bohemians), which skillfully dissected the strange combination of capitalistic acumen and college-educated taste in many of our fellow citizens.. But he was too credulous. He actually called the products of what he should have known was a shallow education our "meritocracy", just because many of these bobos did well in some pretty nice colleges and universties. But he should have read Rousseau's "First Discourse," which accuses the artists and writers of his time of exchanging one prejudice for another. People who embrace capitalism (with qualifications, to be sure) while rejecting the standards of the civilization in which it arose, are not thinking clearly. They might even be shallow.

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