Monday, July 19, 2010

Codevilla: Here Goes.

(The thunderstorm kept me off the computer. I scratched outline notes on the porch. Good thing. This is going to be many posts, so it's better to divide it up.)

First off, it's not a conspiracy, this ruling class thing. This hardly needs to be said to my readers, but I bring it up because that is going to be the accusation, that Codevilla and all these nonliberal commentators are claiming that they are victims of a conspiracy. No matter how many times that is specifically denied, it will be repeated, as a way of ridiculing and marginalising critics. The ruling class does not choose its members or keep its power by conspiracy. It doesn't have to. It was a cultural wave of the 20th C, the right people absorbed the lessons, and they can intuitively sense who qualifies and who doesn't - not with perfect accuracy, but well enough.

After all, you don't have to teach a cat to catch mice.

Even speaking about something called a ruling class smacks of weird guys complaining about the Illuminati and pointing to the pyramid eye on the back of the dollar bills. (That we react that way is part of how we have been influenced as well.) Nonetheless, I'm not backing off from it.

The same charge was leveled 20 years ago when accusations of media bias started arising. Larry King would tell a caller - who had said nothing about a conspiracy - "There is no conspiracy, caller! Get a life!", hang up, and sneer "the country is being taken over by lunatics." Newsweek and Time ran articles about the supposed bias, which they disbelieved in but no one doubts now, focusing large portions of their coverage on how ridiculous the idea of a conspiracy was, and what nutcases the people who believed it were.

The second accusation will be that powerful forces - secretive wealthy businessmen, conservative think tanks, and corporate interests - are encouraging this kind of irresponsible talk, with hints that this groundswell may eventually result in violence.

All part of the automatic tribal response to criticism. Codevilla and others will be accused of being publicity hounds, playing to the masses, whatever. Attend to content. Keep to the data, not the social disciplining by our betters.

So not a conspiracy, this ruling class. It is an automatic response of any tribe threatened with loss of status, because in evolutionary biology, loss of status always meant loss of food, mates, and protection. We respond to any attack as if it were existential. We're just wired that way, and have to work to overrule it. They perceive a threat to their tribe, interpret it as a threat to their safety, and conclude that the nation itself must be in danger.

So just pretend for the moment, just to try it on, that the ruling class consists of 15% of the population. Most of this class are aspirants and supporters, only 1% actually rule. But the remainder identifies strongly with its goals - believes that the rulers have been drawn out from its number - partly true - and are the best hope of the world. They perceive the ruling class as an all-star team drawn from their league, so they root for them.

So, if this class of people is a sort of special interest group, what groups are the possible competitors? Which groups have a reservoir of money, or moral authority, access to the eyes and ears of the people, or even (gulp) weapons? Yeah, make that list.

Which of those groups is not systematically painted as evil, dangerous, or ridiculous by the ruling class and its supporters? Answer: none. If the ruling class were indeed just another tribe vying for power, wouldn't its footsoldiers spend their energy just this way, mocking businessmen, churches, the military, alt-media, and any other group that might become too big for itself? Would it not automatically perceive them as a threat and move to discredit them? Not the 1% rulers, of course. They would remain aloof from that and even get their polite cliches in a row about these other groups.

There are more captive power groups as well, and groups that are in current symbiosis while it is determined which shall digest which. More about those later.

On the basis of Codevilla's essay, I am rethinking the relationship between the Arts & Humities Tribe and the Government and Union Tribe. I think the good professor gets closer to the truth. But I hope to have something to add to the understanding.


james said...

Have a look at VDH's ideas on the theme from a couple of days ago.

As I was reading Codevilla, Psalms 12 kept ringing in my ears. Probably unfairly--no doubt some of the ruling class have good intentions.

Retriever said...

Had scribbled a hasty response to VDH before reading Codevilla

But you know me, agonizing over the kid in One of Those Schools who is hearing the siren calls that I was beguiled by at the same age...Who wouldn't want to be one of the Best and Brightest???

But then, I fell off track, and am just a working slob now, with no power or influence....:)

Good post, AVI, as always!

terri said...

I slogged through the American Spectator article.

I found a lot of it to be the typical culture war flame-fanning, especially when Codeville talks about the ruling class arresting students for wearing crosses and praying at school, or discouraging marriage through tax law--the famed marriage penalty.

Really? Please direct me to articles that list the names of all these praying, cross-wearing students who were arrested. Marriage penalty? Not exactly, it depends on your income and in some years single people have been comparatively penalized by tax law.

It's impossible to have any tax law that is equally beneficial/detrimental to all people.

That has nothing to do with his "ruling class" argument...I just don't trust people who make bare assertions without giving me some concrete examples to back it up.

I did appreciate his criticism of the apologizing-for-America tendency in this "ruling class". We shouldn't apologize for being American...or even for some of the mistakes our nation has made when we are so frequently being pressed to solve problems that no one else wants to even bother with thinking about.

The main problem with his article is that he offers no solution. At least, it didn't seem that he did. He ended with a hope that the "Country" people would take over politically and then refrain from doing the same type of things as the current "ruling class".

That's not a solution as much as it is a vain hope.

When I was reading the article all I could think of were the similarities in churches. A small group of people approved by an even smaller group of people who expect the general masses to trust them to rule rightly.

Is there any large institution/organization that doesn't work this way....a few very influential, powerful people at the top with everybody else a semi-willing follower?

I guess it's not that I disagree with the idea that we have a "ruling class"....I just don't see any solution that doesn't trade one type of ruling class for another type of self-sustaining ruling class.

Maybe I missed the point.

Retriever said...

Terri, great comments! If my energy holds out, will link to them and respond to....Hope you are working them into a longer post over at your place. We could write a book about the church parallels alone. Think mega churches and the evangelical cults of personality purveying their own dopey versions of Hope and Change.
For now let me just be wicked and say congratulations for following Malcolm X in believing that if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem!

terri said...

Maclom X...yes...well just watch out you white devil!


jaed said...

Is there any large institution/organization that doesn't work this way....a few very influential, powerful people at the top with everybody else a semi-willing follower?

I think the problem is not so much the existence of a leadership cadre, as the characterization of that leadership as a "ruling class" - that is, a leadership group that sees itself as inherently superior, and everyone else as, variously, stupid, ignorant, and/or venal. That contempt is the part that's toxic.

Kurt said...

Jaed--that's a good point. It reminds me of something I wrote on my unsuccessful attempt at blog back in 2003 about how I abhor puritanism because puritans--as I think of them, at least--always have the sort of attitude you describe as viewing those who are not part of their group as stupid, ignorant, and/or venal. I'd have to look up the entry to find the exact language, but it was similar enough.

When I was in college, there was a relatively young feminist professor who was extremely left-wing and was very involved with the campus activist fringe. Her scholarly field of study was puritanism, and I was always puzzled by that until I recognized--years later--that she identified with the puritans' exclusionary zeal--even though she clearly differed in methods and approach. Nevertheless, I think the Codevilla piece hints at some of the connections between puritanism and progressivism without making them explicit.

Years ago I read a history about progressive reformers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries which was entitled Ministers of Reform. That book described them as coming from largely "little New Englands" in the midwest and elsewhere and in transferring the missionary zeal of their respective religious traditions into the cause of social reform.

jaed said...

A really interesting point.

The Puritans as I understand the movement saw themselves as an exclusive group, but not as dominant - that is, as believing that they were the natural rulers of everyone around them. I'd argue that this is a relevant difference. The Puritans thought of themselves as an example for the rest of mankind, and in that sense as superior, but I don't think Codevilla's ruling class sees themselves as an example so much as natural rulers on account of superiority.

Still, I think you're onto something important in identifying the puritan/New England impulse as a contribution to ruling-class attitudes. Have you read *Albion's Seed*, by any chance?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I echo the recommendation of Albion's Seed - one of the finest works of history I have ever read. I wrote one Puritanism in January and find I have not put that series on my sidebar.

You can see those "Little New Englands" across the north of the United States - not coincidentally, the areas settled by New Englanders. See the naming of Portland, OR, for example.

That moral intensity, even after the religious part is dropped, does persist in many causes, many of them liberal. Environmentalism, especially the kind of individual lifestyle that seems intent on touching no unclean thing, seems the best nomination. Puritans believed that one person's sin affected the entire community - not unreasonable, actually, though we have decided that our issues of personal freedom in America trump that and give us more good in return; environmentalists believe that doing bad things to the environment in, say, Montana, affects us in NH. Some externalities can be identified, of course - that isn't a thoroughly unreasonable idea either. But it is mostly an aesthetic, a being bothered by how things look, or people doing bad things.

Kurt said...

When you first mentioned Albion's Seed I knew I hadn't read it but couldn't place what it was about. I looked it up on Amazon, though, and then I remembered being at least familiar with the ideas outlined within the book. I'll have to read it one of these days.

Most of my knowledge of puritans and puritanism comes from assorted readings in primary source materials and in assorted literary histories or analyses of those materials. I took a seminar with the aforementioned feminist professor in college, and in graduate school, I studied with one professor who approached the material with assorted postmodern influences (but who had a special interest in John Cotton), and another professor who was an expert on Cotton Mather. As I had no great fondness for the material, and as I haven't been involved in the study or teaching of anything like that since the late 1990s, mostly I just retain impressions, and I don't always remember finer points or details (if I ever fully grasped them, that is).

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Kurt, those professors would tell you that despite good research and interesting methodology on some questions, DHF oversimplifies the issue and overreaches in his conclusions. As to the former, well, duh, that's why I want to read it - I'm not interested in your recommended reading list of thirty volumes. As to the second, yeah, probably. His overall structure works best for his first two groups, the Puritans and the Cavaliers, but doesn't explain the Quakers in the Mid-Atlantic states or the Scots-English Borderers quite so exactly. Still a pretty good summary of even those, though.

His writing style is pretty good, also, making it an easier slog.

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