Last week I spent a supper hour (it took that long) reading an article called “America’s Ruling Class – And the Perils of Revolution” by Angelo Codevilla.
The overall article is well worth reading to better understand current political debates, but that wasn’t what called my attention to it as a possible subject for Mormon Matters. Rather, the following paragraph toward the end of the Article startled me:
“Nothing has set the country class apart, defined it, made it conscious of itself, given it whatever coherence it has, so much as the ruling class’s insistence that people other than themselves are intellectually and hence otherwise humanly inferior. Persons who were brought up to believe themselves as worthy as anyone, who manage their own lives to their own satisfaction, naturally resent politicians of both parties who say that the issues of modern life are too complex for any but themselves. Most are insulted by the ruling class’s dismissal of opposition as mere “anger and frustration” — an imputation of stupidity — while others just scoff at the claim that the ruling class’s bureaucratic language demonstrates superior intelligence. A few ask the fundamental question: Since when and by what right does intelligence trump human equality? Moreover, if the politicians are so smart, why have they made life worse?” [Emphases added.]
When I read the bolded sentences above I almost sputtered to myself. “Of course, the intelligent should…” And then I remembered a series of conversations I had with my wife-to-be several decades ago when I was getting my baptism into the government policy environment in the DC area and she was free-lancing as a classical musician in New York City. When I visited her, it seemed her colleagues were always complaining about how little funding there was for the arts. When we were alone together, this conversation often continued as she noted that the government seemed to have plenty of money to pay me well for what I did. (I had enough spare cash at the time to fly back and forth between the two cities; she once, I found out later, had to walk home from seeing me off at the airport.) I had initially defended my privilege with exactly the same “Of course…” sputtering.
Well, true love triumphed, and we long ago moved on to debate other issues in our marriage, but my memory of those conversations stopped the sputtering, and I could start taking the article’s fundamental question seriously.
What trumps “the worth of all persons”, to use a Community of Christ terminology? Is it intelligence, which we now measure in our culture by having accrediting bodies grant us degrees that say we are intelligent? It is a very seductive idea, until I start to examine it closely. Why does a master’s degree in physics make me more intelligent than my wife’s masters degree in classical music makes her? She can play a piano; she gets calls to do that more often than I get called upon to solve third order differential equations (and she can still do it from memory, too). Who’s more useful? How many of me does society actually need?
Other cultures have believed (do believe?) that the basis of rule should be the ability to defeat enemy armies, to belong to a divinely-favored race or gender or ethnicity, or even a dubious claim to be sired by a previous member of the ruling class. Shouldn’t I be willing to question the basis of my belief in the rule of “intellect”.
I am proud of my degrees and my connections to what Codevilla’s article calls the “ruling class”. My pride shows, no matter how hard I try to become conscious of it and question my cultural assumption. Oh, oh!
Ancient people of many cultures built monuments to their gods. Often, it became a little confusing about whether the monuments were built to the gods, or whether the people who built them believed they were gods. In places like Egypt or Meso-America there eventually was no mistaking that the pyramids were about the rulers.
I look at the great monuments in Washington. Some are monuments to political demi-gods of the past. But some seem clearly monuments to the present rulers themselves. Oh, oh! In fact, the places you see Senators or House Representatives being interviewed on TV are not the most ornate Congressional office buildings. The newest structures have multi-floor glass walled interiors that work poorly with reflections from TV lights, so they go unseen by most people without day-to-day business there. (And why did I bother to tell you that? Oh, oh!)
Other monuments are ideological. If you can’t get your name on a monument (or at least an office building in your local district), get your name on a law. In the sciences, get an effect, or a theory, or an equation named after you. Win a prize. Leave your mark on history.
In the Book of Mormon, the falling of people into the “pride cycle” is frequently thematically associated with the wearing of “costly apparel”. Those on the fringes of the ruling class could not build monuments, but they could signal their membership in that class to everyone by what they wore. If we take Meso-America as a model, they could make themselves into living pyramids of expensive cloth, jade, or shell.
And the more widely those signs spread (physically or metaphorically), the more ideas like “the worth of all persons” became illusionary self-deception. The more people were excluded from the ruling class, the more strongly those still on the fringe found it necessary to justify doing ever-more-questionable things to hang on to the symbols of status. The gulf between the classes widened into violence.
I am very much on the “fringe” of my culture’s ruling class. I can signal my membership in that class through my university affiliations, the reports I’ve co-authored, the conferences and advisory hearings I’ve attended, and the offices of the government officials who’ve passed me written “attaboys”. I can make my pyramid out of paper, and my mark on history can last digitally until the digital formats themselves become obsolete. Oh, oh!
Intellectualism is not a vice. Neither is being a member of any elite. But could membership in a ruling “intellectual” elite be the particular form of the pride cycle to which our modern Western culture can be tempted?