Wednesday, April 8, 2009

David Lebedoff's The Uncivil War

David Lebedoff's The Uncivil War: How a New Elite is Destroying Our Democracy.
David Lebedoff's original book The New Elite was a sensation in conservative circles when it originally reached bookstores back in 1981. It's central thesis was that a New Elite was attacking majoritarian rule in order to replace with a rule by experts culled from the ranks of the New Elite. For those who acclaimed the book, Lebedoff had hit on a crucial trend in American culture, that of the self-appointed expert who tended to be liberal in his outlook and viewed rule by the masses as a crude idea which produced even crude results.
Let us be clear: democracy is rule by the vulgar masses, and the masses are not always right or even virtuous. They are prone to manipulation, as those who have engaged in propaganda have noted time and time again. In America, we do not have democracy. We have a republic, with individual rights guaranteed even in the face of overwhelming opposition by a majority. Unfortunately, those rights exist on paper and depend largely on a majority consent for enforcement. That is why from time to time we have seen the most egregious violations of individual rights in American history, such as segregation and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.
What made these incursions against individual rights possible was the assent of the majority. For Lebedoff, this note on majoritarian rule is insignificant and possibly even irrelevant. He resorts to a revisionist view of the American ideal that all men are created equal. In Lebedoff's view, this means that the men who authored that clause believed that ability was randomly distributed rather than clustered within certain groups.
This is not borne out by historical fact. The Founding Fathers clearly believed that ability was clustered within their ranks and the ranks of others like them. That is why slavery was not illegal, and why those who did not own property could not vote. Whether you refer to ability as the capacity to do things or as the measured intelligence of certain people, history is quite clear that the Founding Fathers and their peers regarded themselves as occupying an exalted position in relation to those who were poorer or of a different skin color.
The Founding Fathers did not regard women as men, and therefore had no compunction about denying women suffrage. They did not regard slaves as men, and therefore had no issue about breeding slaves for desirable traits and castrating those slaves who did not exhibit qualities that their owners believed would translate into returns of labor. In point of fact, Lebedoff's assertions about what was meant by “all men are created equal” are demonstrably false.
Furthermore, Lebedoff's updated volume of his original 1981 book touches on recent events in American polity with the same tinge of revisionism. In particular, he begins the first chapter with a focus on the 2000 presidential election contest between Al Gore and George W. Bush. For Lebedoff, the contest was the quintessential culmination of the conflict between what he refers to as the New Elite and the Left Behinds. In the blue corner, we have Al Gore, a man enamored of intellectual pursuits who has spent a career doing his damnedest to look intellectual. In the red corner, we have George W. Bush, a man who has spent his entire life disdaining intellectual matters and who perhaps has been defined by his willful anti-intellectual qualities. The question before the American voter in 2000 was this: do you root for the pseudo-intellectual or for the anti-intellectual?
In Lebedoff's view, Al Gore's status as a member of a perceived New Elite was the main reason Bush won. This is poppycock. Bush did not win in 2000. He did not win either the popular or the electoral vote. The reason he was awarded the contest was because of the very activist court policies that Lebedoff decries in later chapters of his book. The Supreme Court intervened in the election, which was essentially a matter for Florida as a state to decide through recount. The Court had no business being involved. In the event that fraud was alleged to have occurred, the matter was for the authorities to investigate, in particular the Justice Department and the state election authorities in Florida.
However one might regard Al Gore, he won the presidential election of 2000. He was thwarted by the decision of a court which overrode the will of the American people. Subsequent recounts and investigations by the media confirmed what many suspected, which was that Al Gore had won Florida and therefore had carried both the popular and the electoral votes.
Lebedoff is correct in his skewering of Al Gore as a man who is not an intellect so much as he is a fan of intellectuals. If autograph seekers were to congregate outside the Academy, one could easily imagine Al Gore in the crowd with a Sharpie and a thick book. The illustration chosen by Lebedoff to exemplify Gore's wonkiness is that of an interview he gave to Louis Menand in The New Yorker.
Gore states that he was positively impacted by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty's work Phenomenology of Perception, which “he found 'useful in cultivating a capacity for a more refined introspection that gave me better questions that ultimately led to a renewed determination to become involved with the effort to make things better.'” Whew. Menand writes that 'It is a little hard to imagine having this conversation with George W. Bush.' In fact it is not hard to imagine having such a conversation with George W. Bush at all.
The key to Gore's above quoted remarks lies in how he says something without saying anything at all. He does not give any illumination as to the specific content of Merleau-Ponty's work, other than to mention the title in an interview. What is so impressive to Menand is not that Gore demonstrates a masterful comprehension of the work, but merely that he has allegedly read such a book.
This translates to George W. Bush in one simple respect: his faith. George W. Bush made a lot of hay with voters in 2000 when asked who his favorite philosopher was. His answer was “Christ, because he changed my heart.” There is no great detail contained within the statement, no depth of personal testimony, but voters in the evangelical ranks were impressed not by Bush's grasp of what a relationship with Christ connotes, but rather by his public statement that he had been “changed” in some ambiguous way by Christ. George W. Bush manages to say something without really saying anything at all, and the major unifying link between he and Gore lies in their ability to say something that reaches their constituencies without saying anything specific to those constituencies. Both Gore and Bush are hollow men.
For Lebedoff, Bush is the more genuine man because his scorn for the intellectual pretensions of Gore is worn openly on his sleeve for all to see. Lebedoff refers to an article by Tucker Carlson in Weekly Standard, in which Carlson asks Bush “to name something that he isn't good at.” Bush's response? “Sitting down and reading a 500-page book on public policy or philosophy or something.”
Lebedoff goes on to state that Bush isn't endorsing stupidity, because Bush is aware of the fact that voters do not want stupid presidents. What Bush is doing is indicating a virtuous awareness of the real requirements of the job he is applying for: “He understands that someone in his administration has to read such books, but that his own job, choosing between policy alternatives, is more usefully linked to the application of core values than the analysis of transitory data.” In short, because Bush has a similarity with voters when it comes to their core values (and Lebedoff is right to pick up on the fact that American voters are inherently suspicious of candidates who supplant values with intellectual or wonkish assertions), Bush is the more likable candidate. Except he isn't: Bush lost the election.
Moreover, the eight year record of the Bush Administration indicates the problem of electing a president with no real interest in comprehending or analyzing transitory data. Bush governed on instinct, and that would be fine if his instincts had been at least somewhat informed by the data of history and the statistical feedback that resulted from the applications of his policies. Bush and his cowboy cabinet governed on instinct and their supposed experience, and they led the American people into a war under false pretenses in the process, led the economy into not one but two downturns, the second of which has the potential to turn into a global depression and arguably already has.
He and his advisors often ignored the expert advice of generals who actually had prosecuted military wars and studied transitory data from historical records of military campaigns to arrive at their conclusions. When General Eric Shinseki showed the temerity to disagree with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on the number of troops needed to invade and occupy Iraq, he was dismissed. It would later become apparent that Shinseki had been right as the ground situation deteriorated quickly in Iraq and the overextended American forces could not secure the urban areas of Iraq to defeat a rising insurgency.
There is a price in dismissing legitimate expertise in order to go with one's gut. That price so far in Iraq has been over 4,000 American lives and an untold number of Iraqi civilian lives. What Lebedoff objects to is the asserted but demonstrably fake expertise of individuals like Gore, but the instinct and experience he points to as being a better substitute is in fact as toxic as the pseudo-intellectual theories of Gore and his cronies.
This is not to say that Al Gore is an idiot, any more than it is to say that George W. Bush is an idiot. Neither man is stupid. They are both shrewd politically, but asinine in governance. When George W. Bush was given the opportunity to apply his methods to government, he achieved a dubious record. The economy entered recession and only mildly recovered with a stultifying rate of GDP growth at 0.2%. Had Al Gore been ushered into the White House, his record would likely have been as bad if not worse.
Lebedoff discounts this, largely because he is so obviously in favor of Republican rule. He believes that values borne of experience outweigh so-called expertise. However, isn't legitimate expertise borne of experience? And by that criteria, wouldn't a man who had spent virtually his entire life in Washington, first as a Senator's son and later as a Senator himself, have greater expertise in the workings of Washington due to his experience within Washington? Not necessarily, according to Lebedoff.
Lebedoff believes that Al Gore's affection for the standardized test and his love of measured intelligence disqualify him on some level. He points to Al Gore as a man who believes firmly in expertise determined not by actual experience in a field, but by intelligence measured first in the form of tests and further indicated by an affiliation with or loyalty to those philosophies and ideals adhered to by the New Elite.
As Lebedoff points out, the former criteria disqualifies Gore, because his SAT scores are actually lower than those of George W. Bush. The latter criteria, that of similar tastes in books and philosophers, is what unites Gore with the New Elite. The New Elite is fluid in their identification, with many of its members actually having lower test scores than those they disdain, but they achieve membership in the New Elite due to their hollow embrace of books and abstract metaphysical philosophies that give them the patina of intellectualism that they do not measurably possess in the form of SAT or Stanford-Binet scores. One suspects that they do not understand the books that they read, or the philosophies that they profess allegiance to. However, it is enough to appear that they are aware of such larger concepts.
However, both camps are equally hollow in their attachment of virtue to abstract and dubiously asserted intelligence, experience, and values. Plenty of men possess high intelligence quotients and do little if anything to indicate that they are of vastly superior intelligence. A good many men have experience, but their experience does not keep them from making catastrophic mistakes. Other men have values or at least profess values in common with average people, but go on to act in ways that completely repudiate their professed values.
There is no one way to determine that a candidate for high office will be better than another utilizing the three aforementioned criteria. Taken independently of each other, each may indicate something flattering or something denigrating about a candidate. Taken collectively, each may be joined to the other to present a balanced and somewhat more accurate indicator of who a candidate is and how he will govern.
Lebedoff places a premium on the adherence to roots and traditions. The Left-Behinds that Lebedoff so clearly identifies with are men and women who adhere to traditional values. But what are traditional values? According to Lebedoff, the traditional values depend largely on background and roots: “Farmers stress the virtues of the rural ethic. Aristocrats speak of breeding. Members of every group seek to locate the most commendable trait its members share, then emphasize this one aspect of identity to enhance the status of the group and through it their own self-esteem.”
For Lebedoff, the New Elite reject the values of roots and background in favor of a value system in which the ideal is based on intelligence as measured by tests. While they may not make as much money, or possess greater social status, they possess something of greater merit: measured intelligence.
“Jobs, income, lifestyle, and taste were made possible for some individuals because they scored well on tests. (Even those who gained their comfortable livelihoods through nepotism or luck believe this.) This is the focus of the New Elite pride. They like to emphasize not what they have but how they got it. They see themselves as the only class whose position was earned by scientific measurement.”
However, what of those who do not do well on tests? What of the George W. Bushes in the world, who fail to achieve high marks on pilot aptitude tests and yet still manage to achieve entry into the pilot training program while others go into ground combat in Vietnam with similar scores? There are reasons we have tests to measure aptitude, and chief among those reasons is the desire to see the best man get the job. Are the tests perfect? No, but they are far better than the alternative that came before them: pure nepotism and cronyism.
Lebedoff states that the tests are flawed, and therefore the basis that the New Elite has to claim superiority and the justification to overturn the majoritarian ideal in order to have rule by experts is flawed as well. However, he fails to recognize why we came to this point in our history: the test oriented society is a reaction to the overreaches and abuses of a traditionalism which too often stifled merit in order to reward primogeniture. Lebedoff's citing of major historical figures such as Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Disraeli who he says saw themselves as existing apart from a class based on intelligence is erroneous as well.
Henry Kissinger and his Bohemian Grove contemporaries believe fervently that theirs is a merit of intellect. They are the experts, and the world is theirs to rule as a result. Certainly the people get to choose, but they have to choose from alternatives presented to them by the experts. This is not pure majoritarian rule at all. It is an aristocracy of expertise in which the people select from those options put forth by the experts rather than forging their own way.
While certain individuals of obvious intelligence do not see their intelligence as giving them the right to determine social policy for others, Henry Kissinger clearly does, and his determination of social policy has had tremendous implications for people across the world. Lebedoff can assert that Kissinger measures success by power rather than grades, but the reality is that Kissinger received passage into the circles of power by virtue of his measured achievements in grading. We are all defined to an extent by the grades we make in school. Kissinger's ego is defined by the class in which he fits, and the method by which he first attained entry into the class where his ideas about power could implemented and acclaimed was measured intelligence.
Because Kissinger has conservative traditionalist leanings and affiliations, Lebedoff does not designate him as a New Elite, but apparently as one of the Left Behinds. The absurdity of this should be obvious. Much of what Kissinger did in the course of his celebrated career as a diplomat depended not on the informed consent of the majority, but on their ignorance of his actions conducted in secret. The fact of the matter is this: the majority of the American people did not agree with Vietnam, and yet it continued. They did not agree with opening dialogue in order to normalize relations with China before Kissinger began his secret diplomatic overtures to China. There was no public debate of such moves on the floor of Congress.
Henry Kissinger took it upon himself to govern without regard for the consent of the majority. He didn't ask for their consent. He didn't appeal to their elected representatives for permission. He didn't publicize his actions in order to achieve transparency. It was only after the die was cast and everything had been moved into its place that his efforts became public knowledge. Why? Because Kissinger disdained the public to a large degree. He and his boss Richard Milhouse Nixon considered themselves to be men of vision, and their vision was one that was too advanced for the average American to comprehend, let alone consent to before its implementation.
To say that a man who authorized countless realpolitik maneuvers shares traditional values with Americans in the heartland is idiotic. Americans recoiled at the images of Vietnamese civilians running naked down roads after their villages had been napalmed and they had been burned. One of the major reasons individuals like Kissinger function as they do is because they believe that the world is too big a concept for the average American to comprehend. When challenged on his various machinations, Kissinger's reply was telling: “One should not confuse foreign policy with missionary work.” A respect for majoritarian belief and ideals does not come through in the reply. Rather, a sneering condescension at the lack of sophistication that those who would ask such a question possess is what comes through. Clearly, we just don't get it, because we aren't the experts.
We do get it. We have values which tell us that we shouldn't be doing certain things abroad, but our leaders pay lip service to those values and try to convince us after the fact that war is a dirty business anyway, so we might as well go along with the program that they've already implemented. They didn't require our consent going forward with such methods, because we had, after all, elected them to high office in the first place. Therefore they had license to do such things as it became necessary.
What Lebedoff refers to as Left Behind is merely the Old Elite. George W. Bush has not been left behind once in his entire life, nor does he have a record of accomplishments or experience that could be pointed to to justify his rise to our nation's highest office. He was elected as governor in Texas, but the governor's office is largely ceremonial in Texas.
He does not possess a business record that would indicate tremendous acumen or introspective. What he has comes by virtue of his birth: access. It is why he could raise capital for Arbusto and Spectrum 7, and it is why he was offered a director's position at Harken Energy even after presiding over two bankrupted companies. It is why he was admitted into a pilot training program in the Texas Air National Guard even after low scores on the aptitude test.
His claim to merit (namely birth and the connections thereof) is as dubious as the so-called New Elite claim to merit on the basis of measured intelligence. What Lebedoff resents is the overturning of the traditionalism and social order that gives rise to such men, because they happen to be the men he identifies with politically. Regardless of how those men masquerade around as born again Christians, they are still the old aristocrats fighting against any semblance of meritocracy that might erode their position of primacy.
Their expertise comes from birth and from the front row seat to power that they occupy by virtue of their birth into privilege. While Al Gore may deny his roots to a degree, he still gained entry into power not so much by his measured intelligence, but instead through the access afforded to him as the son and heir of a United States Senator. He might want to believe that he achieved power through his own merit and intelligence, but the reality is that he achieved it primarily as a result of primogeniture, and in this respect he and George W. Bush are alike.
For Lebedoff and today's conservatives, their problem with Al Gore is that he has denied the roots that gave him entry into their ranks. He now identifies not with their common interest, but with that of the intellect and the academic. He is enamored of intellectualism while his social peers are enamored of class and rank.
Lebedoff exhibits a deep distrust of scientific measurement and a security bound up in traditional values and outlooks. There are things that cannot be quantified or measured by science, and Lebedoff clearly resents the attempt of what he perceives as a New Elite to apply pseudoscience to those questions of government that he feels should be resolved by the application of traditional values.
For Lebedoff, the beginning of pseudoscience is the intelligence test.
To a degree, Lebedoff's resentment of intelligence tests is borne of a valid objection. No one can really say what exactly an intelligence test measures with the exception of the ability to do well on intelligence tests. As it stands, many of those who do well on intelligence tests go on to attach some form of self-validation to their result, forgetting that while the test is an indicator of ability, it is not an achievement in and of itself. One may score as a genius on an intelligence test and live the life of a buffoon. I can personally attest to this.
No one can deny that the rise of the intelligence test in American life has had a measurable influence on American culture. Prior to the test, intelligence was not scientifically quantified. There was no means of attaching the imprimatur of specificity to how smart one was. There still isn't, but the vast majority of Americans believe that there is, and this is what counts.
Perception is what makes Lebedoff's assertions possible. In a conservative publication, Lebedoff's thesis should have been shredded, for it is bunk. Much of what he attributes to the New Elite is in fact a dead on characterization of the Old Elite, if only one substitutes social class for intelligence tests. However, both approaches are fraught with problems.
Lebedoff highlights experience versus reason to demonstrate the New Elite's failures when he presents the case of McGeorge Bundy, a brilliant man who advocated for the military involvement of the United States in Vietnam. Bundy articulated the domino theory, which roughly stated that if Vietnam fell, the other countries in Southeast Asia would also fall to communism. The military officers who replied against Bundy's reasoning by virtue of their experience failed to dissuade Bundy from his beliefs. As a result, we entered a war based solely on reason to the detriment of experience.
Now fast forward to modern times, in the last six years. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and other Project for a New American Century members argued for regime change in Iraq and stated that it could be accomplished successfully and with minimal difficulty. This was clearly not the view of the first Bush Administration, which had refrained from invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein.
Over the objections of experienced military men, intelligence officers, and former personnel within the first Bush Administration, Cheney and his cohorts went into Iraq with half of the force needed and dismantled virtually ever bit of civil bureaucracy that the country had. Social services disappeared overnight. The ground became fertile for insurrection and an insurgency developed. Reason at the detriment of experience ruled the day. And yet, the President at the time was the representative of Left Behind America, and supposedly believed by extension in government by experience rather than arbitrary reason.
Lebedoff's thesis on George W. Bush is thus dismantled. Dick Cheney identified himself as a New Elite of a sort, but he wrapped his expertise in the swaddling clothes of traditionalism and experience. In reality, Dick Cheney was a paper tiger, a failed Ph.D candidate who much like his boss had relied on connections and networking to get to the places where his ability was insufficient to gain entry. He had measurable greatness, of course. He was a former Secretary of Defense, a Congressman, and an advisor or appointed cabinet member to three Presidents. Because he was a Republican, a conservative, and an apparent advocate of traditional beliefs, Dick Cheney had bona fides with Lebedoff and so did his boss, even though in deciding policy matters, Cheney fit the pattern of the New Elite in relying on rationality as opposed to experience.
Lebedoff goes on to characterize the New Elite as a group concerned with single issue politics, as in the issues pertinent to narrow special interests. This is foolishness as well, and one has only to contrast what Lebedoff writes with the reality of his Left Behind candidate George W. Bush and the Texas politicians like Dick Armey and Tom Delay who helped get Bush elected :
“Once, the strong political party permitted those without great wealth or a famous name to run successfully for office. As the role of the party diminished, however, media campaigning filled the gap. It is a very expensive filler. Now the candidate without private means or public fame can survive only by raising huge amounts of money, and this means turning to special-interest groups. It means supporting narrow issues rather than those of more concern to the majority [emphasis added]. The hegemony of single issue campaign finance is the legacy of the New Elite's effort to dominate financing itself.”
There is no more accurate description of Republican fundraisers than the above paragraph. Whether abortion, lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans and corporations, or sales tax referendums to raise funds to build professional ballparks, Republicans have sought narrow issues as a means of profit and gain. George W. Bush made his 15 million dollars off of the sale of the Texas Rangers largely due to the single issue of a tax increase in Arlington, Texas. Tom Delay explicitly instructed contributors that if they wanted to do business in a Republican controlled Congress, it would be necessary to refrain from giving funds to Democrats. These two men espoused traditionalist rhetoric but engaged in the very practices Lebedoff deplores as the signatures of the New Elite.
There is a contempt everywhere in American politics for majoritarian rule, and that contempt goes further in its denigration of the individual rights which give rise to majoritarianism. The individual rights to vote, to freely assemble and associate politically, have all been eroded in nearly irreparable ways by the dominant two party system. While Lebedoff would like to pretend that majoritarianism occupies primacy over individual rights, the fact remains that it does not. We don't exist in a democracy. We exist in a republic, and within republics individual rights prevail over majoritarian ideals. To recognize this is not to exhibit contempt for majoritarian ideals, but to uphold the proper balance of majoritarianism in a republican form of government.
Lebedoff is right to highlight the disdain towards democratic self-determination exhibited by those who believe in rule by the experts, but he is intellectually disingenuous in pretending that the Left Behinds that he points out do not resort to the same methodologies as the so-called New Elites. Two wrongs do not make a right. The great problem in America is that regardless of who is in the minority, they confuse their rights with a prerogative to overrun the majority will. Conversely speaking, the majority usually confuses its democratic prerogative with the power to trample the rights of individuals.
The problem with America is a basic ignorance of civics, not a malicious conspiracy of one minority or majority against the rest of the people. The Americans who make up our country today err because they don't know that the hell their country is or how to apply the principles governing their citizenship to everyday reality. So long as our civic and history courses continue down their present course, we will continue to produce citizens who are woefully unequipped to handle their civic obligation in a manner consistent with the principles that guide our Republic.
A people ignorant of its own history cannot be expected to honor that history. That's the point Lebedoff misses.