“The reason power corrupts” said Kyle Rothweiller in an otherwise forgettable essay, “is that sooner or later its possessor comes to believe he deserves it.”
It always risky to climb above your station and look down on the swells. Daniel Defoe found that out the hard way. After publishing The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, in 1703, he went to the pillory followed by Newgate prison. He had made fools of the high-church men by suggesting intolerant, violent extremes against religious non-conformists of his day. The holy men publicly agreed. Sharper readers of the era recognized that the tract was a satire lampooning the whole idea. Clerics who got laughed at set their hounds on the anonymous author. Once outed they made sure he paid.
Some 200 years later William Somerset Maugham’s play, “Our Betters”, was stifled by his betters in the British government for nearly a decade. They were worried that well-heeled American damsels would be riled by the way they were portrayed in the comic drama…as rich schemers foraging English gentry for titles. The first war was on at the time. East coast US ports were providing every material thing, along with a line of credit to buy the stuff, Crown forces desired. Hale and hardy Midwestern farm boys for the trenches were next on the shopping list. 10 Downing Street wasn’t about to let the London stage queer the deal.
Maugham was being wryly ironic with his use of the word “betters” in the play. The idea of who is, and isn’t, supposedly “better” than others has been flipped around with rhetorical judo since the time snootiness became human nature. The denizens of American high-society were warming to the mores of British hierarchy at the time of The Great War. Our ruling circles included no shortage of A-listers who knew their way around English drawing rooms. Upon US entry into the conflict, they wasted no time getting as heavy-handed with publicly aired ideas as The Office of the Lord Chamberlain in England. The Committee on Public Information began its war on unwelcome opinion 6 months before the first doughboys landed at Saint-Nazaire.
In May, 1917 producer Robert Goldstein’s film “Spirit of ‘76” opened in a Chicago theater. Less than one year later Goldstein was sentenced to ten years in federal prison. The movie was made before the US joined the Allies. It wasn’t a crime then to make redcoats look bad in their fight against Americans. Troops from the sceptered isle were doing a lot of bossing people around on continental soil in the 18th century. That’s what started the Boston Massacre. Brits thought they were better than the “crude colonials”.
Ruling in the aptly named case, United States v. “Spirit of ‘76”, sentencing Judge Benjamin F. Bledsoe said: “Count yourself lucky that you didn’t commit treason in a country lacking America’s right to a trial by jury. You’d already be dead.” John Bull, invented in the Arbuthnot screed Law is a Bottomless Pit, couldn’t have said it better. Goldstein, who was Jewish, likely suffered from the prejudice against Germanic surnames common at the time. Whatever finally became of him is unknown.
George Will’s November 21 column concerns Joel Stein’s book: “In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book.” That title might be a lot funnier if there weren’t quite so colleagues of Will and Stein, who think they are better than dissenters, presently advocating for censorship of one kind or another. Some of them don’t even seem to realize that their published words are doing it.
“Populist,” like “elitist” or “troll,” has a definition that shifts according to the needs of the user. This is one of many reasons the 4th estate can never be a truly qualified professional class like physicians, airline pilots or bricklayers. The art of describing reality cannot be severed from any individuals place in it. Limiting who is allowed into the realm of offering perspective efficiently limits the realm of perspective. Why else would those anti-elitist Nazis have been so keen on keeping published viewpoints within bounds they defined?
In a specific example defending “elites” Will tells us:
“Granted, expert economists did not anticipate the 2008-2009 financial crisis, but some of them prevented it from becoming Great Depression 2.0. Today’s anti-elitism wields what Stein calls the Meteorologist Fallacy — because forecasts are sometimes wrong, meteorology is worthless…”
He fails to qualify that “some of them prevented it from becoming the Great Depression 2.O”. Instead, relying on a quote from Stein:
“Populists argue that banks can’t be trusted because their mortgage derivatives collapsed in 2008. It’s an argument that is tricky to refute unless you’ve ever dealt with a child. Their first method of challenging adults is to say that you were wrong this one time about that one obscure fact, so you’re probably wrong about humans needing to go to sleep at night.”
So, who are these “Populists” Stein refers to? And what assumptions were these derivatives based upon? Googling “mortgage to income ratio” this citation is at the high end of what’s on the first page of hits:
“Mortgage lenders say that a mortgage payment should not exceed 31percent of an applicant’s gross monthly income. To figure your mortgage front-end ratio, multiply your annual salary by 0.31 and divide it by 12 months. Dec 15, 2018.”
How many people found qualified for mortgages by 2008 failed to meet this criteria? And how were such details figured into the calculations used in formulating the derivatives in question? Is this what Stein is calling an “obscure fact”? If it is the writer has effectively disqualified himself from any discussion of finance. What if Maserati came to Wall Street with a plan to sell one million units in the United States? Would the income of potential buyers be scrutinized? This whole treatment, by both Stein and Will, is dilettantish, superficial and…childish.
In many ways, some of the worst features of 2008 crisis are still in play. Much of the country, anywhere within the range of abundant decent paying jobs, continues to struggle with oppressive rents and mortgages. In Alexandria, Va., where I live, more than one million square feet of commercial real estate has been vacant for a decade in the one mile between the Potomac River and the Masonic Temple on King Street. That’s some of the most coveted space in northern Virginia. Still, lease rates per square foot never abate. Let the “experts” explain that. The ever present presence of street people along that route keep many noses distractedly close to the grindstone.
Meanwhile, the uppermost crust of the banking elite have their mouthpieces advocate for elimination of hard currency several times each year in major publications. They openly declare a right to electronically control every transaction on the planet. In any case, there have been enough relevant banking scandals in recent decades to go on at book length covering. We’ll suffice it here with this small observation: Most banks today charge a fee to cash a check at the very bank it is drawn on. They will shake down the poor and desperate squeezing dollars any way they can.
“Elites are necessarily small groups that exercise disproportionate influence. In any modern, complex democracy, the question is not whether elites shall rule, but which elites shall, so the perennial political problem is to get popular consent to worthy elites.”
The redundancy of the word “elite” in this passage could help clue Mr. Will in to why all those grubby populists are guilty of so much lese majeste. Inside the beltway you can barely go from one conversation to the next and avoid butting heads with someone who finds himself worthy of bossing Joe Six-pack around. What the lobster-backs did on Boston streets in 1770 was generally mild in comparison to modern “elitist” proposals. The British class system of rule by “elites” arrived here on the same vessel that brought war censorship.
Will’s bizarre satisfaction with the present caste system leaves readers wondering what the man reads. Does he really imagine our foreign service has been achieving diplomatic coups of late? Is North Africa’s present state what we were shooting for? Was the plan for Syria pre-Trump improving prospects there? Was there ever a comprehensive understanding of Turkey’s popular struggles with that country’s notorious deep state? Was George keen on the second Gulf War? How about Viet Nam? A delve into American foreign policy blundering wouldn’t fit in a single book but many volumes. It’s “elites” are indefensible.
Mr. Will has written himself about the confiscatory outrages of asset forfeiture. Is he under the delusion this was accomplished through grassroots efforts? It was law enforcement and political elites that imposed this mass rip-off upon Americans. Has the man heard about the carnage and destruction wreaked by the proliferation of SWAT raids? Once again, it would take more than one tome to do this subject any justice. Does he think there was a referendum that served up the 1033 program? LEO elites with the discretion of Barney Fife, Eric Holder among them, decided that the local sheriff in Podunk needed a tank.
The story of Richard Jewell has been dramatized for mass consumption. It would be nice if that had been an isolated incident. Most people have forgotten Brandon Mayfield and Steven Hatfill. Few have even heard of Abdullah Higazy. Then there is the shifty story the Bureau tells about accidentally killing hostage Ulises Valladares in a bungled rescue attempt. The Washington Post, the daily that publishes his column, has devoted quite a lot of ink to the FBI’s fabrication of evidence at its laboratory. Does he bother reading it? What never gets covered anywhere is the fact that FBI trains the elite of law enforcement from nearly every jurisdiction in the US. It would be helpful to know the relationship of this training to the presently deadly and absurd tactics local police have been adopting. Here again, this hardly scratches the surface of anomalies originating at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The word “elite” by itself evokes Ivy League images for most of us. Is it only kooky conspiracy theorists in awe of recent news from the academy? Will has described lots of weird developments on campus in his columns too. Pedagogical obsessions with abridging speech while transgenderizing youth might be hilarious but for the influence they wield in bringing about such “improvements”. It was 1961 when William F. Buckley said he’d “rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the telephone directory than faculty of Harvard University.” Does anyone believe things have gotten better? The vast expansion of administration at universities is a kind of parasitology being imitated by the forces of elitism in numerous other fields. The people actually producing that industrial commodity known as “education” are suffering mass demotions while management sucks up revenue with high salaries, perks, junkets and generous expense accounts.
What passes for expertise in Will’s own occupational bailiwick, “news” media, has plunged to levels that would astonish fin de’ siècle yellow journalists. Is it even necessary to provide examples?
Some would have it that only sermons bearing an official imprimatur are qualified to be broadly disseminated to the congregation. The universal church of unfake news is busily preparing its Council of Nicaea. They insist that central control of mass communication is not on the agenda. The unordained will remain perfectly entitled to an audience of surrounding barstools.