David Brooks is on his evergreen subject again, the American elite and why it’s kind of failing. He’s rather good at this, having quietly made the necessary pivot from celebrating the advent of the new “meritocracy” (in his Bobo book, published in 2001) to recognizing, post-financial crisis, that the new elite isn’t serving the country very well and isn’t very popular.
There sometimes arises the question of how much truth a subject can bear, and this may be the case in discussing the current American elite. Several years ago Brooks related this anecdote:
A few years ago, I wrote a book about the rise of a new educated class, the people with 60’s values and 90’s money who go to Starbucks, shop at Whole Foods and drive Volvos. A woman came up to me after one of my book talks and said, “You realize what you’re talking about is the Jews taking over America.”
My eyes bugged out, but then I realized she was Jewish and she knew that I was, too, and between us we could acknowledged there’s a lot of truth in that statement. For the Jews were the vanguard of a social movement that over the course of the 20th century transformed the American university system and the nature of the American elite.
Brooks doesn’t go into this in his current column. He never does. Perhaps there’s no need to: in a way, his key criticism of the new elite–that its members insist on perceiving themselves as outsiders even though they are insiders–stands as implicit acknowledgment of a sociological fact best left, most of the time anyway, unspoken.
Why the reticence? Perhaps somewhere there is a fear of awakening a slumbering beast of heartland anti-Semitism. There has never been much anti-Semitism in America, but given the global historical record, this is, to say the least, an understandable concern.
I would surmise the greater reason is connected to the one area where Brooks most sympathizes with the prejudices of the current elite and most favors their prejudices over those of the old one. American foreign policy is very different under the new meritocracy. The generation of Harrimans, Lovetts, Achesons, Marshalls, and Kennans would have no difficulty imagining a corrupt and self-serving Wall Street class — they had lived through the 1929 crash, when WASPs ran the show and ran it badly. But I doubt they could imagine an America which so completely perceived its foreign-policy interests–its choice of enemies, its choice of wars–as so congruent to those of Israel. The old WASP elite were, almost to a man, opposed to the creation of Israel and to American recognition of the state; they saw nothing but trouble arising from America’s support for Israel. They can be faulted, certainly–none of them lobbied for America to make room for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish war refugees (displaced persons, in the jargon of the time) languishing in refugee camps in 1947, many in Germany of all places.
They made their peace with President Truman’s decision, and went on to serve their country in important ways. And for a generation at least, it could be fairly argued that their fears were much overwrought.
But now? We have a huge bill to pay for a war with Iraq, and perhaps a larger one in store for a looming war with Iran. A Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, contorts itself into paroxyms of deference to a far-right Israeli leader.
The old Protestant Establishment, or its heirs, shakes its head in bewilderment and despair. But as Brooks points out, with as much perception as any writer out there, we have a brand new establishment now.