jimsleeper.com » Washington Post Reverts to Truth-Dodging: ‘Blame the Ivies!’

Washington Post Reverts to Truth-Dodging: ‘Blame the Ivies!’

By Jim Sleeper – October 25, 2010, 4:38PM

They’re ba-a-ack! Now that America’s wealth “is more concentrated in fewer hands than it’s been in 80 years” and “the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans… earn as much as the bottom 120 million” (as Bob Reich put it here below) conservative opinionators are doing just what they did about it twenty years ago.

They’re giving Americans a “new elite” of Ivy League liberals to resent and to blame.

The tactic is evergreen, and not just because Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray enjoys recycling Bobos in Paradise author David Brooks’ two-decade-long obsession with the Ivy League. (Murray did it again yesterday in the Washington Post, citing Brooks right alongside Glenn Beck.)

“What sets the Tea Party apart from other observers of the New Elite,” Murray announces, “is its hostility, rooted in the charge that elites are isolated from mainstream America…. Let me propose that those allegations have merit.”

Let me propose that what sets the Tea Party’s hostility apart is its funding by an elite Murray doesn’t mention, the one that’s cannibalizing “mainstream America.” And let me point out that with even as conservative a writer as David Frum making a similar observation, the Post’s judgment in publishing Murray on this is more than a little suspect here — indeed, “embarrassing,” as Frum puts it.

Conservatives have been stoking Ivy-envy since before Joe McCarthy attacked Dean Acheson. It’s so easy – and, sadly, so often justified — that you forget how irrelevant it is to the real new elite that’s channeling Tea Partiers’ and other populists’ resentments against anyone and anything that might actually relieve their distress.

The only thing “Ivy” about this resentment-stoking elite — much of it drawn from that wealthiest one-tenth of one percent — is that an all-Ivy Supreme Court majority last spring enabled its unrestricted and, increasingly, undisclosed mis-direction of resentment. I skewered the Court here and in the Boston Globe last spring, but this is one Ivy elite that Murray and Glenn Beck didn’t mention.

The liberal Democratic commentator Mark Shields did mention it, and with good reason. When President Obama, a graduate of the Harvard Law School, nominated its former dean, Elena Kagan, to the Supreme Court on May 10, 2010, the PBS News Hour’s Jim Lehrer asked Shields what he thought of the fact that, with her confirmation, all nine justices would hold degrees from Harvard or Yale.

Shields sighed. “I have to tell you,…I am so tired of Ivy Leaguers, I really am. I want somebody who went to a state university, who didn’t grow up in the Eastern time zone, who worked nights, maybe, to pay for their own books, who either was in the enlisted ranks in the United States military or knows somebody who was, somebody who… is west of the Hudson, and east of Malibu. Why do we… restrict it to this pool…., I really just think it is terribly elitist I mean, it sounds like the British ruling class.”

Shields is a geyser of metaphors that spring from an old, working-class, Irish parish sense of right and wrong. His sense of fairness, leavened with tart irony and compassion, is shared by millions of non-white and new Americans who don’t watch the News Hour but struggle every day to wrest some honor and decency from the slippery and corrupt neo-liberal web of contracts and deals that America is becoming.

Shields recognizes, as Charles Murray does, that most Ivy Leaguers experience that slippery web as a pulsing, alluring network. For some of them, like Mark Zuckerberg, it’s a playground or a garden of earthly delights because they design it, manage it, and explain and justify it to the country and the world.

The Ivies select applicants who give every promise of doing all that. The Ivies and a score of other elite colleges are preeminent — and, as Murray charges, increasingly self-insulating — in credentialing, networking, and elevating people to positions of power and high public trust.

Not only has Yale, for example, with its relatively small undergraduate college (5000 students) and smaller law school (less than 600), trained 22 of 111 justices of the Supreme Court since 1789; its share of recent justices has increased despite competition from great universities that didn’t exist during its first century and a half.

The Ivy only thickens if you take Harvard and Princeton into account and tally up not just the politically famous but the politically influential and their advisers, aides, chroniclers and critics.

But the Ivy thins out rather quickly if you look at who has been using the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that billionaires such as the Koch brothers can fund the Tea Party and that new glut of campaign ads against Democrats.

Murray wants to make sure we know that while Ivy Leaguers write for the conservative Weekly Standard as often as the “more liberal” New Republic, “72 percent of Harvard seniors said their beliefs were to the left of the nation as a whole, compared with 10 percent who said theirs were to the right of it.”

But this is tantamount to admitting that the Ivy League elite isn’t the one that’s funding the Tea Party and the attack ads. Nor are the Ivies the crucibles of the “Enron” elite that has eviscerated people’s pensions, or the “Countrywide” elite that has ravaged their home-ownership prospects, or the “GM” elite that has given corporate welfare a whole new meaning.

A lot of Ivy Leaguers did give us the casino-financing that pits Wall Street against Main Street. You might think that Murray would criticize that part of the Ivy elite. Then again, you can understand why he wouldn’t, just as he didn’t criticize the Supreme Court’s conservative majority for Citizens United. Remember, Murray, Brooks, and Beck are dodging and deflecting the truth, not telling it.

Mark Shields does tell it. After all, it was the latest Yale appointment to the Court that got him going on the subject of the Ivies. But the way he criticizes the Ivies exposes what’s fraudulent in Murray’s faux-populist criticisms of them.

Shields reminds us that a lot of Americans once expected a lot more of the Ivies than they do now. They expected something that the old colleges once nourished and stood for at least often enough to produce a Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt or a John Kennedy or — if he can get a better grip on his presidency and his promises – a Barack Obama, not to mention countless unsung leaders who wove the fabric of American civil society.

Shields recognizes that good leadership isn’t constituted only by Ivy League professional expertise or earning capacity or the credentialing and networking that secure them, any more than it’s constituted by robber-baron shrewdness and greed. It has to rest on some proof of dedication to a civic-republican compact which a would-be leader would sacrifice his or her professional standing and even his or her life to defend.

Puritan and classical strains of moral reckoning figured so deeply in a Yale education for so long that, through countless graduates you’ve never heard of, these currents shaped a vigorous civil society. Harvard’s George Santayana called Yale the “Mother of Colleges” because Yale graduates were founders and/or first presidents of more than a hundred American colleges and universities in the 19th century.

Yale’s concern for cultivating friendship and public trust caught the imaginations of millions of young Americans soon after the turn of the 20th, when they devoured serialized magazine stories of the fictional Yale men Dink Stover and Frank Merriwell, whose moral and physical adventures inflected much of a generation’s rites of passage to adulthood.

I wrote about this last week in the Yale Daily News on the occasion of the college’s 309th birthday, warning that if the Ivies’ lose touch with the depths of their civic mission and settle for neo-liberal bromides, draped in raiments of “diversity,” they’ll become cultural gallerias and career-networking centers for a global elite that’s unaccountable to any polity or moral code. If they do that, they will indeed set themselves up for still more contempt from the likes of Murray, Brooks, and Glenn.

The tragedy for the Ivies is that beneath conservatives’ opportunistic, gnawing contempt lies the genuine disappointment of a Mark Shields. This is something to reckon with not only in New Haven, Cambridge or Princeton but also in Dallas, Indianapolis, and Boulder.

The new elite, typified by the Tea Party funders and by strategists like Karl Rove (who never went to college but packed the Yale Law School auditorium with curious undergraduates on a recent visit) preys on the public sphere not from moral or ideological conviction but from perverse drives that a serious liberal education would teach one to reckon with and to temper. The new elite — George W. Bush’s crowd — thinks it’s shrewd, but i hasn’t a clue to what it’s really doing and what’s at stake.

What the Ivy League elite at its best used to offer at times like this was leadership that knew, even before all the data were in and the “cures” for distemper prescribed, how to save keepers of the civic faith from faint-heartedness.

The Roosevelts and Kennedy certainly did some of that. They had a civic-republican faith that ran spiritually deep even though it wasn’t doctrinally religious. They had enough security and training in the arts and disciplines of civic-republican politics to fend off demagogues and swooners and to display enough authority and trust to give others heart.

They had to decide when to affirm virtue and enforce order, on the one hand, and when to risk the irrational exuberances of markets or worse, on the other. They had to understand that a healthy society, like a healthy individual, walks on two feet – a left foot of social provision, without which the communities and values that conservatives cherish couldn’t survive, and a right foot of irreducibly personal responsibility, without which the smartest social engineering reduces persons to clients, cogs, or worse.

In his presidential campaign Obama promised to guide Americans in making such judgments more wisely than other leaders had done. He invoked the civic compact’s biblical depths, citing, for example, in his speech on race in Philadelphia, the Old Testament story of Ezekiel’s dry bones coming to life as a parable of national rejuvenation, a parable he’d learned at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a black branch of the Puritan Congregationalist churches.

But he wasn’t drawing only from the Congregational church, whose own roots run back into the founding of Yale; he was drawing from the classics and the civic-republican ethos he’d encountered at times at Columbia and — dare we hope it? — at Harvard Law School.

He won the election in no small measure because many Americans hungered for a leadership that could reach that deep. They haven’t seen much of it since. And it’s because the Ivy elite has failed to provide it anywhere else that we have the Koch brothers and the rest of a real “new elite” swooping in, one that Murray and Brooks and Beck don’t mention and that’s far worse than the Ivy one it’s trying to convince broken-hearted Americans to blame.