Sunday, 13 November 2016

Elitism and Decline

We've been hearing a lot of critiques of "elitism" lately. Most of it is nonsense, predicated upon what Asimov poignantly described as "the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'" It is not elitist for me to say that I know more about first-generation Christianity than those who have not spent most of their adult life studying the matter, as I have; nor is it elitism for my senior colleagues in the field to say that they know more than I do. All things being equal, I know more on the matter than someone who lacks the formal training and vocational experience that I've had the opportunity to acquire, while a Jimmy Dunn or an Adele Reinhartz knows far more than myself. Conversely, I know next to nothing about almost everything else. I know very little about car engines, and nothing about brain surgery. As such, on those matters, I defer to those who have that specialized knowledge. I do not attempt brain surgery myself, and I do not ask a brain surgeon to fix a car. None of that is elitism. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's common sense, the rallying call of the populist.

In light of this, I want to make a bold suggestion: the problem of "elitism" is not elitism, but rather the irresponsible refusal to listen to experts on the spurious grounds that they are "elitist." The problem lies with the concept, not the reality that it supposedly but does not in fact describe. Lonergan identifies the refusal to listen to expertise as the basis for what he calls the longer cycle of decline. By refusing to listen to expertise decisions are made on the basis of ignorance, and these decisions inevitably create difficulties and crises--and these are in turn resolved not on the basis of expertise but rather on the basis of ignorance. It soon becomes a race to the bottom, in which everyone loses. It eventuates in but does not resolve itself in men like Trump, but he's just the symptom, a cynical bastard who capitalized on the decline to further his own narcissistic interests. He's an effect not a cause, an epiphenomenon really, a fact that no doubt would burn his fragile tiny-handed little ego but there you have it. In any case, it seems hard to deny that we are well into such a cycle at this point, and that it is not limited to the US. (Or the UK: the fixation on the POTUS election and the Brexit vote hides that this is very much a global phenomenon).

Now, of course, there are oligarchs in this world. There are people who have a disproportionate and wholly unmerited power over the lives of others. The conceptual problem that has emerged is an eliding of both this group and those with specialized knowledge into the single term, "elites." I am an expert in early Christian knowledge; I am in no conceivable sense an oligarch, and the suggestion that I am would constitute a Monty Python level absurdity; but the slippery usage of the term "elite" obviates this distinction. Sadly but not ironically, for this is part of the decline, the only way to effectively resolve the problems presented by oligarchy is to turn to those who have acquired specialized knowledge in how to run effective and fair democracies, but the decline itself precludes such a move. And when viewed from that perspective, suddenly cries against "elitism" become not radical but reactionary, which shouldn't surprise us as they have come most loudly from the far Right, for these cries are simply ways to silence the people who constitute the greatest threat to the status quo: a status quo that is characterized by the breakdown social and political institutions unparalleled in the experience of most people currently living in the developed world (do not mistaken status quo for stasis: the status quo can quite easily, and invariably is, a dynamic process, for such processes are necessary even to maintain the illusion of stasis). And so, we are damned to following this cycle downward towards its inevitable end, left only with the hope that the end will not be as bad as it conceivably might.

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