Sunday, February 03, 2013

Elite Problems


By Gary Berg-Cross

Immigration and defense “experts” are abroad in the land.  At least a look through the keyhole version of this seems to be what one see’s as part of media coverage of the early debates on immigration reform and the senate hearing to confirm a new secretary of defense.  To paraphrase one person’s summary of the latter hearing, the only thing more embarrassing than Hagel’s answers were the senator’s questions and posturing. We expect some meritorious discussion of topics, but instead we got what Chris Hayes (of MSNBC UP fame) described this way:

Thursday’s Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel was an omnidirectionally embarrassing debacle for everyone involved.

First there were the Senate Republicans who seethed with such theatrical contempt for Hagel and his ideas you would have thought the president had nominated Noam Chomsky for the post (who, incidentally wouldn’t be my first choice to head the Pentagon but who I’d take over Donald Rumsfeld in a heartbeat). Republican senator after Republican senator threw questions at Hagel that even by the debased standards of a nominating hearing were the cheapest kind of demagoguery and bullying….

If you were a visitor from another country and just listened to Hagel’s Republican interlocutors you would have had to ask, where did this moral monster Chuck Hagel come from, where had this seditious dissident been hiding for the last decade? And the answer, of course is: mostly in the Republican Senate Caucus!


We expect and deserve more as part of our democratic republic by the elite folks we send to Congress, but of course we have grown used to being disappointed by them. 


In his new book, The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, the above mentioned Chris Hayes takes on a host of issues around our being mis-served by meritorious elites. He has plenty of evidence to work with just in the recently completed decade (2000–2010 -aka “a decade of failure”). He doesn’t seem far off in arguing that every major societal institution has failed in some way. Early on big businesses collapsed with Enron and Worldcom, and expert auditors and analysts failed to catch it.  The Supreme Court was more partisan than serenely supreme in deciding Bush v. Gore. Just a bit later in the decade the Bush administration and our intelligence apparatus failed to protect us from the 9/11 attack. Who can forgive our corporate media who let us down as the administration lied and mis-represented info to edge us into 2 wars.

Norman commented more broadly on the media and its weak reporting on who is accountable for what on MSNC:

ORNSTEIN (7/25/12): Figuring out who to hold accountable is fuzzy now and it’s the biggest one we have, given the way the parties are operating. They not only gridlock and do great damage, as you say, and it really is damage to the country, the fabric of the economy, but they leave voters with little opportunity to figure out who genuinely to blame. And frankly, the press corps is an unindicted co-conspirator to that.
In those unaccountable wars the military failed to get us a “win” and when we think of post-war nation rebuilding, well it was a catastrophe. We had years of the RC church engaged in and covering up of sex abuse. Same for the football program at Penn State.
The Bush administration had an inept management approach to the natural disaster called Katrina. We could add, as Chris does, a view of elite athletes on steroids.  We might cap it off with the failure of oversight for the housing bubble and then the financial collapse of unregulated bank practices that crashed our economy. Throw in a decline in government practice and the elite interdependence, such as Big media failing to effectively warn society of housing bubbles and leveraged default swaps.  It is a compelling picture of failure.


Hayes book elucidates his hypotheses of why it all went so wrong. Part of it concerns specialization and Sociologist Robert Michels’ idea of the iron law of oligarchy, published in his 1911Political Parties. Michels noted (as had Plato and Aristotle before him) that even political parties and groups ideologically committed to equality and democracy (yes even in the freethinking community), became more or less oligarchic in their operation like more unabashed elitist and aristocratic parties of the right. Michels’ grim conclusion was that it was impossible for any party, no matter its belief system, to actually bring about democracy in practice. Oligarchy with its rule by a few, true elites is inevitable because any institution has to “organize itself” for effective against the opposition. This self-directed organization in turn requires delegation of responsibility to someone in charge of specific things and thus with specific talents (or resources). Institutions and thus society finds itself in a dependent relation. Over time we are forced to trust and depend on a small cadre with delegated authority. Thus natural forces lead to an “us and them” – leaders and following, trusting masses of non-leaders. Of course immigrants are main targets of such thinking.  Michels speaks of it a great ‘gulf which divides the leaders from the masses.’ The type of thing we hear in both the immigration and defense confirmation debate and it abounds in fundamentalist religions where the Mosaic elite speak with God and the congregation sups on tableted words of wisdom from on high.

Of course there are institutions who recognize the need for democratic practices and open voices and I am happy to note that we in the humanist community are among those that do. One has to go no further that the Humanist Manifesto II, yes written by old fashion elite thinkers,  to see many declared democratic principles and warnings concerning elite power:

The beginnings of police states, even in democratic societies, widespread government espionage, and other abuses of power by military, political, and industrial elites, and the continuance of unyielding racism, all present a different and difficult social outlook.



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