An elite that dare not call themselves elite

Natalia Dashan attended Yale University on a scholarship.  She was one of the 2 percent of Yale undergraduates whose parents are in the bottom fifth of American income earners.

She recently wrote an essay about something that struck her about some of her well-to-do classmates..

They lived and acted as if they in fact were poor.   They looked for reasons to think of themselves as oppressed.  They were in a near-constant state of rebellion.

Yale University Shield

But the rebellions were not over anybody’s material interests.  They were over whether how things were named or what someone said was appropriate—for example, whether “master” was an appropriate job title for the head of a college or whether a faculty member was out-of-line for scoffing at worries about racial stereotyping in Hallowe’en costumes.

Dashing also was struck by how quickly the faculty and administrators caved in to student protests, no matter how foolish their demands might have seemed to someone outside the academic environment and even in the absence of evidence that the protestors represented anybody but themselves.

The historic role of Yale, Harvard and other Ivy League universities has been to educate upper-class Americans to take on the responsibility of leadership—that is, for being a member of a ruling class.

Dashan concluded that the elite—defining the elite as those who grow up with the expectation that they and their children will attend Yale, Harvard or the equivalent—no longer want to assume the responsibility of leading and ruling.

So young people born to wealth and power look for ways to define themselves as oppressed, and older people, who should be their mentors, fear to appear in the role of oppressor.

The problem is that it is largely a performance—what I like to call psychodrama, but which more accurately could be called live-action role-playing.  It is tolerated because it is no threat to anybody, except the unlucky individuals who get caught in the crossfire.

Why this loss of confidence?  Dashan thinks it is fear of responsibility.  I think that is a large part of it.  But I think the more important part is a decline in belief in the values that gave confidence to earlier generations of elite Americans.

When I read Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, I was struck by how different the Harvard he attended was from the Harvard of today.

The goal of Harvard University in the 1870s was not only to provide an intellectual education, but to shape students’ character based on ideals of patriotism, Protestantism and manliness.

Young men were expected to participate in footfall and other contact sports to toughen them up, but also to teach ideals of sportsmanship—doing your best, but obeying the rules and not whining if you lose.  Attendance at morning prayers at Appleton Chapel was compulsory.

It is true that these ideals excluded a lot of people—Catholics, Jews, freethinkers and women, not to mention un-athletic men.  I would have felt this morality very restrictive if I had lived then.  Evidently many others over the years felt the same.

The unanswered question was:  What do you put in the place of these ideals?  Young people need to believe in something.

When I attended the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, there was a new ideal based on what I call procedural liberalism.   My professors taught me that the purpose of a university was to provide a value-neutral “free marketplace of ideas.”

Rather than studying and learning known truths, students and scholars were supposed participate in a search for truth.  Academic freedom consisted of giving everybody the equal right to express their opinions and convince others by means of rational argument.

I in fact believe in procedural liberalism, but as a political or moral creed, it is thin soup.  It is not an ideal, as a friend of mine once remarked, to which you would be converted on your deathbed.  Furthermore, value neutrality is an impossible ideal.  Everybody operates on the basis of some value.

Yale Liberary Rare Book Collection

The radical students of the 1960s rebelled against procedural liberalism.  They saw it as a means of deflecting moral outrage away from Jim Crow racism and the Vietnam war.

As many of them pointed out at the time, the Vietnam intervention was begun largely by self-described liberals with elite educations.  The U.S. policy in Vietnam was made by “the best and the brightest”—what President Lyndon Johnson called “the Harvards”. They were all procedural liberals.

The intellectual lineage of Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and other architects of the Vietnam War goes back to Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who didn’t like each other, but who sent American troops to intervene in the affairs of foreign countries.  It goes forward to today’s Council on Foreign Relations and the editorial writers for the New York Times, who still believe in trying to dominate foreign countries.

The Sixties radicals were often foolish, and a few of them were terrorists, but as a group they were serious people, and the best of them were heroes.  Protestors could expect to be beaten up by police and vigilantes.  Young civil rights workers in the South risked death, and some were killed.  Draft resisters risked jail, and some went to jail.

Both sides in the 1960s were fighting over real issues.  What you see at Yale and other colleges today is a psychodrama or live action role playing of the Sixties rebellion, but without resistance or risk.  Here’s how Natalia Dashan describes the situation:

Western elites are not comfortable with their place in society and the responsibilities that come with it, and realize that there are deep structural problems with the old systems of coordination.   But lacking the capacity for an orderly restructuring, or even a diagnosis of problems and needs, we dive deeper into a chaotic ideological mode of coordination that sweeps away the old structures.

When you live with this mindset, what you end up with is not an establishment where a woke upper class rallies and advocates for the rights of minorities, the poor, and underprivileged groups.  What you have is a blind and self-righteous upper class that becomes structurally unable to take coordinated responsibility.  You get stuck in an ideological mode of coordination, where no one can speak the truth to correct collective mistakes and overreaches without losing position.

This ideology is promulgated and advertised by universities, but it doesn’t start or stop at universities.  All the fundraisers. All the corporate events. The Oscars. Let’s take down the Man.  They say this in front of their PowerPoints.  They clink champagne glasses.  Let’s take down the Man!  But there is no real spirit of revolution in these words. It is all in the language they understand—polite and clean, because it isn’t really real.  It is a performative spectacle about their own morale and guilt.

Source: Palladium Magazine

Here I need to make some disclaimers.  Members of the American elite aren’t all alike and don’t all believe the same thing.    The legacy of the 1960s radicals was decidedly mixed.  Part of that legacy was a rejection of science and reason and an embrace of irrationality, a legacy that still plagues us today.  Yale University does many good things.  I am currently reading an excellent book published by Yale University Press.

Also, the social elite, such as I am writing about, is not the same as the economic elite and the power elite, although there are overlaps.

Also, many of those responsible for the current U.S. state of affairs never went anywhere near an Ivy League university.  And so on.  In short, nothing is all one thing.  But recognizing that there are exceptions to every generalization, the only way I can make sense of things is to make sweeping generalizations.

The confident old elite were like members of an exclusive club that some were born into, and some could gain admission with great difficulty, but that sometimes expelled members who did not obey their rules.  The rules were sometimes universal moral values and sometimes the narrow prejudices of New England white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

But the rules had power because the elite believed their values were objectively real.  Nowadays the prevailing belief is that values are a matter of personal preference.  I have my moral code, you have yours and hopefully we have enough in common that we can cooperate.

The present-day USA is more tolerant and humane than it was a century ago.  But if you believe that your values only reflect your personal preference, it is going to be hard to stand up against public opinion or intellectual fashion.

You are going to find it easy to rationalize choosing the path of least resistance.  You are going to find it easy to substitute live-action role-playing for hard work and risk.  I don’t have a good answer to this.

A confident elite can be oppressive and wrong-headed.  But at least you know who is responsible when it leads you into a ditch.  What do you do with an elite that won’t give up its power, but pretends it doesn’t have any?  What do you do with an elite that no longer believes in its old moral code, but claims moral authority?

These were the characteristics of the French and Russian aristocracy just prior to their countries’ revolutions.


The Real Problem at Yale Is Not Free Speech by Natalia Dashan for Palladium Magazine.  A long essay, but rich in insight and well worth reading in its entirety.

More on America’s elites and The Restlessness by Alex Small on Physicist at Large.  A brief summary and comment on Dashan’s article.

Yale and the Crisis of American Elites by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.  [Added  8/19/2019]


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4 Responses to “An elite that dare not call themselves elite”

  1. whungerford Says:

    The draft made war real. During my college orientation, male students were addressed by a recruiting officer who told us we all had to serve; he said we had one chance right now to sign up to be officers or else we would certainly be drafted to fight and possibly die in Vietnam. It was a moral dilemma–to fight in a war that seemed phony, or dodge the draft by one means or another. The officer lied–most of us weren’t drafted and never served. Opposition to the draft ended the Vietnam war. Once the draft was abolished, war was no longer personal for many; wars would go on indefinitely


  2. Benjamin David Steele Says:

    I wonder if this relates to what I wrote recently about a certain kind of victimization culture. But the point I was making is that it seems to be part of the post-bicameral shift. As we increasingly become enmeshed in hyper-individualistic egoic consiousness, the victimization mentality becomes exaggerated.

    It has nothing to do with real trauma or not. We know the power of the mind in creating our experience. The elite losing confidence, as you describe it, maybe linked to the general increasing anxiety and instability of society. Also, maybe related to increasing inequality ——– Keith Payne, in The Broken Ladder, points out that everyone including the rich begin acting oddly.

    Your conclusion is right on point. Looking to the past is helpful. This is why we are in a reactionary time, in the sense that Corey Robin means. It is when the elite show weakness that the reactionaries get brazen. But public outrage and potentially revolt/revolution can get stirred up as well.


  3. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    It is all a grand kabuki theater. Or to steal from Shakespeare, “Sound and fury signifying nothing.”

    And, like the Father in Peter Pan, we are more interested in parading our victimization than actually doing something in life. It gets us attention and sympathy with little effort.(Barrie was an incredibly perceptive and subversive author.)


  4. Word from the Dark Side – civil war and everyone calm down | SovietMen Says:

    […] don’t think that they […]


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