In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray argues that the “elite” ought to get out more. He has no quarrel with the idea or efficacy of an elite, he simply believes that its members in contemporary America have too little experience of the rest of the world. One of his acolytes, David Brooks, in his New York Times column this week, turns this around a bit. It is the “others” who need greater exposure, not the elite. He writes:
there are many more people who feel completely alienated from the leadership class of this country, whether it’s the political, cultural or scientific leadership. They don’t know people in authority. They perceive a vast status gap between themselves and people in authority. They may harbor feelings of intellectual inferiority toward people in authority.
The logic here is a bit perplexing: A (people feel alienated) and B (they don’t know authorities) therefore C (they perceive a vast status gap), which in turn implies D (a feeling of inferiority). Also, the switch between “leadership” and “authority” begs all sorts of questions. For one thing, it’s hard to call people “leaders” if they have alienated their followers. For another, “leadership” and “authority” are not synonymous and should not be conflated. Then there’s this question: Where did “intellectual inferiority” come from in this argument? Out of nowhere, it seems. I don’t think it follows that people on lower rungs of the American social scale feel, or have ever felt, that they are dumber than those higher up the ladder.
Back to Murray: Though I disagree with him on just about everything (a chapter in my book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth deals extensively with what I see as wrong with Murray’s views), I do agree that the elite know far too little about the rest of America. The reverse, however, isn’t quite so true. A servant knows a great deal more about the people she or he works for than those employers do about the servant. The same holds true of a clerk in a shop, the detailer of a car, or anyone else whose living is dependent on the wealthy. Overall, the lower classes know vastly more about the upper than the other way around.
In many respects, though he thinks he’s talking about social classes he doesn’t belong to, Brooks is describing the attitudes of his own (or, at least, the one he shills for). Late in the column, he writes:
People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid. Fear, of course, breeds fear. Fear is a fog that alters perception and clouds thought.
It is the rich who live in gated communities and are fearful when out in the “real” world. It is the rich who are so worried about the rest that they seek to wrest control of the political system from anyone without money. It is the rich who turn their eyes within, trusting only in the “echo chambers” they create.
A note: As a writing teacher, I naturally zero in on the use of quotes in papers. Brooks uses three in this column, all of them gratuitous and of the sort I warn my students away from. They look like the results of quick Google searches, inserted only to make the writer look erudite and the essay well researched. One comes from George Eliot: if you search the key words “loneliness” and “distrust,” it’s the first that comes up.