Home/Rod Dreher/Masks And Malignant Meritocracy: A Dissent

Masks And Malignant Meritocracy: A Dissent

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I received an excellent letter from a Canadian reader who disagrees strongly with me on an issue. I will respond to his criticism after the letter, but it’s too good not to share with you all. He asked me to keep his name out of it. Emphases are in the original:

For whatever reason I found myself troubled by your piece “Mask Truthers.”  I am not even sure what it is exactly.  Perhaps it is your utter contempt and disdain for anyone who would angrily refuse to wear a mask when they are out in public shopping or otherwise going about their affairs.  I found myself laying awake last night stewing about it, which is highly unusual for me.  I usually fall asleep easily to recitations of the Jesus Prayer or The Lord’s Prayer.  But last night I could not focus.  I am trying to do my devotions and cannot concentrate enough to read the Word.  I know that writing this will not free me from my thoughts but make them more solid in my consciousness, the wisdom of John Cassian thrown aside.  It’s not so much thoughts per se, but questions that keep swirling in my mind.

Why would someone angrily refuse to wear a mask in public?

Selfish idiocy is not enough of an answer.  Rush Limbaugh and Hannity spouting off are not enough of an answer.  I sense of it is that the answer is class related.  I know that different thinkers and commentators use different terms, but the one I like the best is “meritocracy.” They are the “achievers” or the offspring of former achievers.   In the “Big Five” personality analysis, these are people who are high in “conscientiousness.”  They are organized, dependable, keep deadlines and are hard working.  They are the 20% who do 80% of the work.  Many of them are the movers and shakers in media, in business, in government and so forth.  They are working actively as a class to cement their power and place in society.

As a realtor, I see this in my work all the time.  I show houses and apartments across the social spectrum, and from seeing the homes of the successful, it is not surprising that they are successful.  The houses are clean, organized and they have done everything needing to be done to stage their home, even without spending money on stagers.  When you go into the homes of working class people they are often cluttered and even when the attempt is made to stage the homes, they just can’t bring it off.  The homes of the very poor are reflective of chaos and disorder.  Walking into the apartment of a poor person, it is not hard to understand why they are poor.   As a baseline, there is a significant portion of the population who are not high on the “conscientious” scale who are just not diligent enough in all of life to “get ahead” in terms that the meritocracy has set for such things, so what make us think that they are going to be conscientious now?

Increasingly those who belong to the meritocracy, regardless of political persuasion, are increasingly “the experts.”  This is important.  Those who are in the upper reaches of society are the ones telling us how to live our lives.  They model their lives in the media and on social media.  My children are involved in competitive swimming.  Swimming is largely a sport of the meritocracy.  The parents are constantly posturing on social media, constantly engaging in social climbing, positioning their kids with other kids who are the “right” kids.  They are the same one posting vacuous “wisdom” on Facebook, who tweet politically correct disdain for Trump, who bake fresh bread and post it on social media in part because that is what all the “cool” people have done.  They post about the “literature” they read.  They post about the “films” they watch.  Important.  Meaningful. Deep.  They also post about the people they meet, the trips they take, the social gatherings they have.  All of it says “I am in.”  Even people on the fringes of the meritocracy, even those members of the meritocracy who do not share its core political beliefs still engage in all the social posturing and scraping and all engage in social media as a tool of their advancement.  Everyone wants to be seen as being in the club.  One of the cool, important people.  It’s high school writ large.

They are increasingly focused on “safety.”  In our pool, for the last 25+ years, we have been able to split the 50m pool into two 25m pools with dive starts from the shallow end.  We have done so without injury or incident for that entire time.  A couple of years ago, the daughter of a neurosurgeon dove too deep and brushed her hands on the bottom.  She gets freaked out, tells her dad, and her dad, a genuine concussion expert, makes a stink and now 25+ years of injury free shallow end diving has to come to an end because the concussion expert tells us its not safe.

The people who are most willing to embrace the shutdowns and social distancing are the same people who have all the personality traits and social tools to climb the social ladder.  I see them on Facebook and Twitter tripping over themselves to demonstrate how thoughtful and conscientious they are.  Social distancing is the new tool for social climbing.

Increasingly, the “experts” are using the expertise to secure and cement their social and cultural power.  And as you noted in a recent post, the experts hate the non-experts.  And the non-experts know it.  They have been diving into the shallow end of the pool their whole life, and now some expert is telling us we can’t because their whiny little Suzy touched the bottom of the pool.  And the non-experts resent it.  That resentment runs deep and it has built up over time.

Why are the experts so afraid?  Why are the experts so afraid of illness and dying?  Why are they so afraid of their own mortality?

I think there is a class divide along those who are afraid and those who are not.  It is not a faith thing, although I do think faith has something to do with it.  I suspect that the more one embraces the core myths of the meritocracy — the myth of Science (as the source of Truth and the means to solve all problems), Progress, Technology — the more one embraces the notion that we can protect ourselves from and overcome every problem we face, the more one seeks protection from every threat.  We can make every pool safe.  We can make every playground safe.  We can make the world safe.  Science and technology will do it.  The experts will guide us.

But so much of living a full and rich and deep life involves doing things that are not safe.  They are not safe emotionally.  They are not safe physically.  Increasingly, ordinary folk are coming to realize this.  They are not afraid.  And they are sick of the meritocracy using their fears and anxieties as tools for political, social, institutional and cultural dominance.  How best to protest?  By being militantly, irresponsibly, rudely “not afraid” is becoming the way to show up and protest the growing hegemony of the meritocratic expert class.

And all of the meritocratic toadies and scrapers trying to climb the ladder, who urge that we follow the advice of the experts, the vast majority of them are relatively secure in their incomes.  They are still getting paycheques.  They can order their groceries sent to the house.  And as a tool of social climbing they have to express how scared they are, and how good they are for “staying safe.”  Every time I hear or see the words “stay safe”, I want to scream.  No!  Live life!  Be not afraid!  And since it is Star Wars day, “Fear is the path to the dark side.”

Why do “ordinary” folk not trust the advice of the “experts”? 

This is an important question to answer.  Expertise is a real thing.  I have expertise in theology.  It is sometimes painful listening to people talk theology, the Bible and philosophy.  I am an expert in real estate sales.  It is often too exhausting to engage people on these topics because it takes too long to walk them through decades of learning.

The truth is, though, that in large part, the experts have lost the trust of the people.  They no longer believe that the experts are giving them the best advice.  They don’t trust the experts, plain and simple.  Increasingly the “experts” they trust are not in fact “experts” at all but people who challenge and disagree with the experts.

Why don’t people trust the experts? In part they are so often wrong.  They gave us the “ever war.”  They sit in their think tanks and on their commentary shows and safely in the policy halls and send the lives and hard earned dollars of ordinary folk off to die.  They told us globalism and free trade would make us prosperous when we felt our jobs were threatened.  They are the dreaded consultants.  Then, after we lost our jobs, and we went looking for work, they were undercutting our income by importing cheap foreign workers.  Even if we learned “coding”, all of that is getting shipped to India now anyway.  They may not know the word arbitrage, but they live the reality of its effects.  And they see the meritocracy urging more and more globalism and open borders and they wonder why their leaders care nothing for them.  They gave us no-fault divorce.  They call us hicks and rednecks.  They call us racists.  They hate us for our faith, if we still have one.  They tell us what to wear.  What to watch.  What to read.  They tell us how to eat.  One minute “fat free” foods loaded with sugar are good.  Next its high protein and low carbs.  So what is it?


The musings of Dr. Fauci are no more scientifically rigorous than those two doctors whom YouTube de-platformed.  There has not been time for peer reviews or exhaustive double blind studies.  His is the advice that plays to the Safety Myth of the meritocracy.  Increasingly, we are seeing zero instances of Coronavirus as the benchmark for returning to normal life.  What if a vaccine is never developed?  There still is no AIDS vaccine.  There is still no herpes vaccine.

My sense is that expert class are increasingly seen as politically aligned with the movers and shakers in the meritocracy.    If you want to resist the growing hegemony of the meritocratic class over your life, what better way to do so than to be belligerently opposed to their advice and recommendations.  If diligence and conscientiousness are aligned politically with the experts who speak as the mouthpiece of the meritocracy and give them their orders, why is it so unreasonable to think that a lack of contentiousness would also become politicized as a counter-play?  We are seeing the results of what happens when the modus operandi of a Saul Alinsky becomes the tools by which the meritocracy cements and maintains its political control and cultural hegemony.  As soon as you hear someone say, “stay safe” or use the argument “we need to keep people safe” you know immediately which side they are on.  They have aligned themselves with the meritocracy.

Why would you bring guns to a state legislature in protest?

Because the meritocracy are a bunch of gun hating pussies that’s way.  It’s a show of “strength.”  It’s a statement, “You may have all the levers and instruments of political power, but we have all the guns.”  It has been my belief for a several years now that the politicization of our society and its radicalization are only going to get worse.  I also believe that if de-escalation is going to happen, the first steps must begin with the left and with the meritocracy.  They must begin walking back the Alinsky-ite attitude of the left.  They need to show “respect” to those that differ with them, who disagree with them and will not join them in the “climb” up the social ladder.  Calling them selfish morons and jerks only fuels the fires and widens the divide.

Why would people be willing to vote for and continue to support Trump?  Why, when there many more qualified and better people who could do the job and were willing to do the job?

If I were an American, I would have voted for Ted Cruz.  But the movers and shakers in the Republican Party hated him so much that they were willing to allow Trump to get the nomination rather than see Cruz win the nomination.  Why are so many people willing to vote for Trump?  It’s not just the red meat rallies.  It is not just that he thumbs his nose at the press and constantly battles with them.  Every other candidate was obviously a part of the meritocracy.  Even though Trump is super rich and was born with a silver spoon, he is gauche enough to be thought of as having a common touch.  He connected with people and made them believe that whatever he is, he isn’t one of “them.”  “Them,” the meritocracy, are so reviled and so hated that his supporters would vote for anyone, as long as they had no stench of “them” on themselves.  Anyone but a member of the meritocracy.   Trump understands this instinctively.  So, as long as he is seen as “not one of them” his base will follow.  And there is a large segment of the population willing to die of coronavirus than listen to the dictates of the meritocracy.  They are that hated and reviled.  But the leadership class in both parties do not see it, will not see it and wouldn’t believe it even if they did.  Nobody likes them.  There is no one other than Trump.  Tucker?  Name someone other than Trump who can or is willing to lead the fight against the growing hegemony of the meritocracy?  Do you think that the meritocracy is willing to stand down and end its war against the common people, the deplorables, to make peace and once again earn the trust of the people?  The common people know that they will do anything to destroy them.  Send their jobs overseas, flood the market with illegal aliens, wreck their families and towns and so forth.  There is already a war going on and people are starting to wake up to that reality.  Guns in the state house is only the beginning.  Who will fight for the common man?  Fight hard enough to win?  Right now the perception is that Trump is all they got.

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

This is the question that opens the Heidelberg Catechism, an amazing document and one of the core confessional teachings in the Dutch Reformed stream of the Christian faith.  Most of us who grew up in a church with roots in this tradition can give the answer of “The Catechism” from heart.  And it is this answer that makes me not afraid.  At the same time, I am also conscientious enough and polite enough to wear a mask, sanitize and stay home.  I also have two university degrees, am regularly asked to speak as an “expert” (preach from the pulpit), make a six figure income, send my kids to private (Christian) grade school and high school and we are on swim team.   By all metrics I should be a happy and contented member of the meritocracy.  But I just can’t do it.  I just can’t embrace it.  A big part of it is my Christian faith.  But I think a larger part of what turns me off from the meritocracy is that so many of them – people, who, on their own, seem like nice people – behave in way that reminds me of treatment I received in high school from the “cool kids.”  I see it at church.  I see it at swim team.  I see it on Facebook, Twitter and almost every time I turn on the TV.  Good looking “cool kids” telling me how to live my life and admonishing me to “stay safe.”  I don’t want to stay safe.  I want to live life.  I want to challenge myself in my faith journey to be as honest with myself as I can stand it and more.  I don’t want to be afraid.  I am not.  Why am I not afraid?  Because I share in a reality that is more real than the empty material world of the elites.  I don’t need to figure out what the world means to me, because it is already deeply imbued in its very fabric and foundation with meaning.  Truth, Beauty, Justice, and so forth are all out their waiting to be discovered, pondered and embraced.  Its not “safe” to pursue these things.  But I can do so knowing:

That I am not my own,

but belong –

body and soul

in life and in death—

to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood,

and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.

He also watches over me in such a way

that not a hair can fall from my head

without the will of my Father in heaven:

in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him,

Christ, by his Holy Spirit,

assures me of eternal life

and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready

from now on to live for him.

For many in my community, these words are the ordering principle and foundation for their approach to life.  Why would I be afraid to live if I know that my life belongs to Christ?  Can a virus take away my salvation?  Can it separate me from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ?

Even though I am not afraid, I know others are, and so I try to respect that as best I can. I wear a mask and other than trips to the grocery store and a few house showings, I have allowed myself to be kept prisoner.  But I would much rather be living life.

I think you’ll agree with me that that was an excellent letter. Of course I disagree with some of it. I won’t stretch my response out. You’re welcome.

  1. I don’t have “utter contempt” for people who “angrily refuse” to wear a mask when they go out shopping or otherwise to interact with people. That’s too strong. I do think it’s fair that I disdain their choice, though, because it strikes me as a pointless provocation, one that shows disdain for others. But I have explained this elsewhere.
  2. I think this reader makes a very good point about “safety” and virtue-signaling among the privileged. Can anybody deny that what he’s talking about is a real phenomenon? No. I think the reader offers an important insight into the social psychology of refusing to wear a mask. That said, the virus doesn’t care whether you think you’re sticking it to the snobs. If you chose not to wear a seat belt because you wanted to spite the Safety Nazis, you’re putting your own life in greater danger. That’s not a perfect comparison, though, because the point of wearing masks in public is not to protect yourself, but to protect others from you if you are carrying the virus and don’t realize it.
  3. The reader’s comments about the contempt many people have for experts are important. Again, there is the danger of what we call “cutting off your nose to spite your face” — that is, doing something that is harmful to one’s self-interest for the sake of making a useless point. I believe that the Canadian reader and I would draw the line between reasonable deference to expert opinion, and rejecting it, in a different place regarding coronavirus. That said, he’s not wrong to observe how “safety” is often a code word for a progressive power grab. That would actually be an interesting essay: how “safety,” the kind of thing that is usually associated with a conservative approach to life, became a hallowed principle among progressive elites, and in fact something that justified their ideological hegemony.
  4. Which is just to say that I still think the Mask Truthers are wrong, and meaningfully, even dangerously, wrong. And though I am a gun owner and a supporter of the Second Amendment, I hate the public display of guns in a state legislature in a political context. But thanks to this reader’s great letter, I have a better sense of why they do what they do. The reader has given me a lot to think about, and for that, I thank him.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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