Sunday, March 20, 2011

Maintaining An Elite

One of the things that stuck with me from Bryson's book is the ability of an elite to continue to operate the levers of power to maintain its image of itself, long after any real superiority it had has vanished. It is a repeated theme of history.

The first part is the easiest of course. The Church of the Smoldering Embers considers itself more righteous that the Congregation of the Bruised Reeds because they judge data selectively. Any Smoldering Ember who shows righteousness is considered a typical member of the Church, while those who misbehave are considered "not real members," fringe players or exceptions. The South Branch Smoldering Embers have always been a little, uh, primitive, dear. The righteous among the Bruised Reeds are seen oppositely: they are regarded as exceptions, while those who fall short are considered more typical of that Congregation.

Thus the impression is continually reinforced, whether the data is abundant or scanty. We remember the good examples from among our number and gradually forget the bad. It is not only elites, but all tribes that do this.

The second tactic is an extension of the first. The Church of the Smoldering Embers defines righteousness as having lots of smoldering embers. Bruised reeds are considered nice enough, but really beside the point in terms of righteousness. It's embers that are the right stuff, and because they've got so many of 'em, it proves they're more righteous.

Elites apply this universally. In my recent post on money and the NT, I noted that elites of the last few centuries have defined themselves in terms of how they got their money, where they grew up, where they went to school and the subjects they took. They define those as elite, and they've got lots of 'em, so they're deserving of their status. Add in the basic tribalism of remembering only the brilliant things your people said and the stupid things those unfortunate others said, and it is a simple matter to continue to consider yourself superior indefinitely.

I'm thinking Bertie Wooster's circle here. Though Bertie himself was a kindly enough chap, willing to give a fellow credit where credit is due.

No comments: