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Yale & The Crisis Of American Elites

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Here’s a really important essay by Natalia Dashan, a recent Yale graduate, who says that “the real problem at Yale is not free speech.” It’s an essay about her alma mater, but really it’s about the moral collapse of the American elite. Dashan came from a poor family (they were once on food stamps, she said), and was shocked to find so many truly rich kids at Yale pretending to be poor. Excerpt:

When these kids grow up, they end up at conferences where everybody lifts their champagne glasses to speeches about how we all need to “tear down the Man!” How we need to usurp conventional power structures.

You hear about these events. They sound good. It’s important to think about how to improve the world. But when you look around at the men and women in their suits and dresses, with their happy, hopeful expressions, you notice that these are the exact same people with the power—they are the Man supposedly causing all those problems that they are giving feel-good speeches about. They are the kids from Harvard-Westlake who never realized they were themselves the elite. They are the people with power who fail to comprehend the meaning of that power. They are abdicating responsibility, and they don’t even know it.

Normal class dynamics shouldn’t trouble anyone. It doesn’t do much damage to society for the rich to sometimes hide their status to stay safe, or for the poor to pretend that they are richer than they are to fit in with their idols.

But something else is going on—something more systemic. We mock each other over wealth and mannerisms, to the point that we forget how and why wealth is built in the first place. We forget the extent of our own power and start blaming an ephemeral elite beyond ourselves for the ills of society. And when something does need to be challenged in elite thought, not in the fake, recuperated way that Greta Thunberg ritually challenges an already-supportive crowd at Davos, but in the real way that carries personal risk—we bail. When we see an unfashionable truth that may risk criticism or ostracism, we forget our own position of strength and assume we cannot bear those risks. We give up the fight before it even starts—as if somebody else can or will fight it.

That is what can lead to societal dysfunction. But it is also a symptom of that dysfunction.

Dashan says that we have elites who have power, but don’t know how to use it responsibly. It’s not simply a matter of using it to enrich themselves. Something much weirder is going on. She used the free speech crisis at Yale as a way into the phenomenon. I won’t quote her recap of those events — I wrote about most of them on this blog when they happened — but they had to do with woke students bullying professors, basically, and getting what they wanted out of the spineless administration. She talks about all the good, liberal professors who were abused by these bullies over extremely minor infractions, all with the cooperation of the Yale administration. More:

It doesn’t matter that the ideology is abusive to its own constituents and allies, or that it doesn’t really even serve its formal beneficiaries. All that matters is this: for everyone who gets purged for a slight infraction, there are dozens who learn from this example never to stand up to the ideology, dozens who learn that they can attack with impunity if they use the ideology to do it, and dozens who are vaguely convinced by its rhetoric to be supportive of the next purge. So, on it goes.

This is the nature of coordination via ideology. If you’re organizing out of some common interest, you can have lively debates about what to do, how things work, who’s right and wrong, and even core aspects of your intellectual paradigm. But if your only standard for membership in your power coalition is detailed adherence to your ideology, as is increasingly true for membership in elite circles, then it becomes very hard to correct mistakes, or switch to a different paradigm.

And this helps explain much of the quagmire American elites are stuck in: being unable to speak outside of the current ideology, the only choice is to double down on a failing paradigm. These failures lead to lower elite morale, resulting in the class identity crisis which afflicts so many at Yale. Ironically, the result is an expression of that ideology which is increasingly rigid on ever more minute points of belief and conduct.

Dashan eviscerates these people — those who lead these protests, and those who quietly submit to them — as exhibiting moral cowardice, indeed a moral cowardice that is consequential for the future of society. More:

Shouting from the rooftops that “They aren’t doing enough!” is much easier than following any traditional system of elite social norms and duties, let alone carefully re-engineering that system to reestablish order in a time of growing crisis.

Western elites are not comfortable with their place in society and the responsibilities that come with it, and realize that there are deep structural problems with the old systems of coordination. But lacking the capacity for an orderly restructuring, or even a diagnosis of problems and needs, we dive deeper into a chaotic ideological mode of coordination that sweeps away the old structures.

When you live with this mindset, what you end up with is not an establishment where a woke upper class rallies and advocates for the rights of minorities, the poor, and underprivileged groups. What you have is a blind and self-righteous upper class that becomes structurally unable to take coordinated responsibility. You get stuck in an ideological mode of coordination, where no one can speak the truth to correct collective mistakes and overreaches without losing position.

This ideology is promulgated and advertised by universities, but it doesn’t start or stop at universities. All the fundraisers. All the corporate events. The Oscars. Let’s take down the Man. They say this in front of their PowerPoints. They clink champagne glasses. Let’s take down the Man! But there is no real spirit of revolution in these words. It is all in the language they understand—polite and clean, because it isn’t really real. It is a performative spectacle about their own morale and guilt.

If you were the ruler while everything was burning around you, and you didn’t know what to do, what would you do? You would deny that you are in charge. And you would recuperate the growing discontented masses into your own power base, so that things stay comfortable for you.

Read it all. It’s very, very good.

This is why readers who say that nobody should care what happens on elite campuses are wrong, and foolishly so. Who do you think runs this society? Erich Fromm, in his classic work Escape From Freedom (which explores the psychology of fascism), says that in any society, the views of the power-holding elites set the course for the rest of that society, for the commonsense reason that those elites run the organizations that order the society.

A new survey finds that many hiring managers comb through a potential employee’s social media accounts, and some will not hire someone whose opinions on politics and related matters they find objectionable. Think about that before you post anything controversial. The political and social views of elites matter in all kinds of practical ways. In the workplace, nobody dares to stand against these ideologies for the same reason that nobody stands against them at institutions like Yale: because to object is to draw attention to oneself as a “bigot.” Nobody wants to be the first. As Dashan said, everybody observed what happened to Nicholas and Erika Christakis. Neither the facts, nor their liberal bona fides, nor anything protected them from the ideological mob — a number that included some of their faculty colleagues.

The legal scholar Jonathan Turley flags a particularly egregious instance of this ideologically-driven war on basic standards:

American University has brought in an academic from the University of Washington-Tacoma with a curious mission for an academic institution: to teach academics not to grade on the writing ability of students as opposed to their “labor.” Professor Asao Inoue believes that writing ability should not be assessed to achieve “antiracist” objectives.

Inoue is the director of the UW-Tacoma Writing Center and has explained that “White language supremacy is perpetuated in college classrooms despite the better intentions of faculty, particularly through the practices of grading writing.” It appears that grading on writing ability is one of those acts of white supremacy. He has insisted that professors who use a single neutral standard for all students are perpetuating racism: “[using] single standard to grade your students’ languaging, you engage in racism. You actively promote white language supremacy, which is the handmaiden to white bias in the world.”

You might be thinking, “OK, that’s nuts, but that kind of thing would never fly in STEM disciplines.” Let me introduce you to a peer-reviewed 2017 paper by feminist scholar Donna Riley, who in the same year became head of the Purdue University department of engineering education. Purdue is one of the top engineering schools in the country. Here’s the abstract:

Rigor is the aspirational quality academics apply to disciplinary standards of quality. Rigor’s particular role in engineering created conditions for its transfer and adaptation in the recently emergent discipline of engineering education research. ‘Rigorous engineering education research’ and the related ‘evidence-based’ research and practice movement in STEM education have resulted in a proliferation of boundary drawing exercises that mimic those in engineering disciplines, shaping the development of new knowledge and ‘improved’ practice in engineering education. Rigor accomplishes dirty deeds, however, serving three primary ends across engineering, engineering education, and engineering education research: disciplining, demarcating boundaries, and demonstrating white male heterosexual privilege. Understanding how rigor reproduces inequality, we cannot reinvent it but rather must relinquish it, looking to alternative conceptualizations for evaluating knowledge, welcoming diverse ways of knowing, doing, and being, and moving from compliance to engagement, from rigor to vigor.

In the paper, she writes:

One of rigor’s purposes is, to put it bluntly, a thinly veiled assertion of white male (hetero)sexuality” because rigor “has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness, and erectness; its sexual connotations—and links to masculinity in particular—are undeniable.

Er, right. Here’s a tip for travelers: if you arrive at a bridge over a gorge, you’d better hope that it stands stiff and erect, and that one of Donna Riley’s rigorless students, with their diverse ways of knowing, didn’t have anything to do with engineering the thing.

How does a person of those crackpot views rise to a position overseeing engineering education at one of the country’s top engineering colleges? I think Natalia Dashan has the answer. Donna Riley did not hire herself. Institutional elites whose responsibility it is to affirm and defend standards have morally collapsed in the face of ideological extremism.

One more example: that extraordinary transcript of the in-house “town hall” meeting that New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet held with his staff. I wrote about it last week here. There’s a lot in the transcript that conveys a collapse of professional journalistic standards in the face of ideological extremism, but this is perhaps the most astonishing. These are the opening lines of Baquet’s presentation to his staff, whose concerns about the paper’s coverage of racism and Donald Trump prompted the session. Emphases mine:

If we’re really going to be a transparent newsroom that debates these issues among ourselves and not on Twitter, I figured I should talk to the whole newsroom, and hear from the whole newsroom. We had a couple of significant missteps, and I know you’re concerned about them, and I am, too. But there’s something larger at play here. This is a really hard story, newsrooms haven’t confronted one like this since the 1960s. It got trickier after [inaudible] … went from being a story about whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia and obstruction of justice to being a more head-on story about the president’s character. We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well. Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story. I’d love your help with that. As Audra Burch said when I talked to her this weekend, this one is a story about what it means to be an American in 2019. It is a story that requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred, but it is also a story that requires imaginative use of all our muscles to write about race and class in a deeper way than we have in years. In the coming weeks, we’ll be assigning some new people to politics who can offer different ways of looking at the world. We’ll also ask reporters to write more deeply about the country, race, and other divisions. I really want your help in navigating this story.

Get that? Baquet said that the Times oriented its entire newsroom to covering the Russia collusion story, and now it’s doing the same thing to cover race and Trumpism. We are going to hear from now through Election Day a steady drumbeat of stories from the Times about how Trump and everything associated with him is racist. This is not right-wing paranoia; this is the most rational conclusion from the recent words of the executive editor of The New York Times — a newspaper that publicly states that the arrival of the first African slave is the “true founding” of America. Seriously, this is a screenshot from the paper’s webpage:

I can hear some of you now: “Oh, who cares what the New York Times thinks! Only the elites read it.” Yes, exactly. As professional journalists know, the Times, even more than the Washington Post, is the standards-setter for American journalism, both print and broadcast. It is also the newspaper of record for academic and cultural elites. The main reason I subscribe to it is for the same reason that Cold War Kremlinologists read Pravda: to know what those elites are thinking. I’m actually not joking. The Times‘s advocacy pieces on things like the travails of gender nonbinary people may puzzle most people, who might see it as a larky manifestation of Manhattan obsessions. But you can be sure that editors at newspapers around the country are observing these things, and making decisions to cover — sympathetically, always sympathetically — the same phenomenon locally. You will not see in the Times, or in any other media outlet following the Times, anything critical of this trend. Soon, the message will be received by elites, and those who wish to achieve power, that objecting to any of this, on any grounds at all, is taboo.

This is how cultural change happens. As Natalia Dashan wrote about Yale:

You get stuck in an ideological mode of coordination, where no one can speak the truth to correct collective mistakes and overreaches without losing position.

As regular readers know, I’m researching and writing a book about the rise of what I call “soft totalitarianism.” It’s not going to be a book about Socialism 2.0, though I concede an earlier iteration was closer to that than where I am now. Most of the same fundamental conditions that gave rise to 20th century totalitarianism exist now. (I’ve been reading Fromm’s 1941 book this weekend, and it’s unnerving to see this.) As far as I can tell, we have two major factors today that did not exist before:

  1. Staggering technological capabilities to surveil individuals at intensely granular levels, and an unprecedented capacity to modify behavior. This has not been imposed on a servile populace by a totalitarian government, but has been developed by capitalists, and welcomed by consumers.
  2. A power elite that adheres to radical identity-politics ideology, and that will use its power and privilege to promote that ideology, and to demonize any challengers to it.

Our old 20th-century ways of thinking blind us to what’s happening. For example, we think of totalitarianism as something imposed from above; read Shoshanna Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus to cure yourself of that illusion. (Note well: you don’t have to agree with all the conclusions of Zuboff and Harari to be deeply challenged by their takes on how we have welcomed technologies into the most intimate parts of our lives.) And take up the novels of Michel Houellebecq, if you can stomach them (I can). If we’re bound by 20th-century categories, we think that Government is the Bad Guy, and Business is the Good Guy (or, if you’re on the left, vice versa). That’s how we’re blindsided by Woke Capitalism.

But I digress, as usual. The point is, read Natasha Dashan’s essay. Again: the crisis at Yale matters because, as she says, the crises at top colleges determine what is acceptable for everybody else. That’s just how societies work. And, the crisis at Yale is a particularly acute version of a crisis in the American leadership class. Dashan writes:

Yale is having an existential crisis. Students are taught to break the system, but Yale doesn’t even want to teach them what the original system is, what it was for, or how to productively replace it. The university is so lacking in vision that it doesn’t even know what the ideal student looks like, or what it wants to teach them.

Maybe the university has lost every purpose other than giving students a social environment in which to party. If the students aren’t educated or visionary, at least they’re networking and hedonically satisfied.

Except they’re not. It would be one thing if they were happy—but even this is not true. They don’t know what is expected of them, or what they should aspire to be. The lack of expectations creates nihilistic tendencies and existential crises. In 2018, around one quarter of Yale undergraduates said they sought mental health counseling. One quarter of Yale students took the “Happiness and the Good Life” course in 2018 in an attempt to find answers. Students are demanding more mental health resources. A new wellness space was created with bean-bag chairs and colored walls. But the real sources of unhappiness are more systemic. They are rooted in uncertainty about the future.

If Yale students are uncertain about the future and their role in it, what does that say about the rest of society?

Indeed. It took the daughter of immigrants, a Yale graduate who was once on food stamps, to provide this astonishing analysis of an institution she clearly loves. Readers, don’t sit back and take populist satisfaction in this crisis. Every society has to have a leadership class. As Dashan points out, Yale has a very deep bench, and (for one) provides many of our Supreme Court justices. If our US leadership class is corrupt in important ways — “Look, the head of engineering education at an important US engineering school thinks rigorous engineering is bigoted!” “Look, the executive editor of The New York Times is building his entire newsroom to promote an ideological narrative!” “Look, a celebrated academic is teaching that clear writing is racist!” etc. — somehow, they will be replaced. The bridges (so to speak) will fall down, and society will need leaders that can rebuild them. Are you quite sure that those who will replace these elites will be an improvement?

I wonder what the power elites of the Weimar Republic would have to tell us about that.

UPDATE: Today’s NYT entry in its “1619” project:

The argument is worth considering — by which I mean that it’s not ridiculous on its face; you should read the piece — but it ultimately boils down to an associational fallacy. If right-wing politics in 2019 are only a contemporary manifestation of pro-slavery politics of the mid-19th century, then anything the populists say amounts to a veiled defense of slavery. It wouldn’t be difficult to use the same logic to construct an essay arguing that progressive politics today are essentially a revived Bolshevism, or fascism.

The key thing to observe here is not whether or not this essay makes a plausible case for its audacious claim. The key thing is that The New York Times has published this piece as part of an open campaign to smear the political right with the taint of slavery.

UPDATE.2: A reader writes (I’ve scrubbed identifying details out of this at his request):

My [relative] just graduated from Yale with a degree in [deleted]. She seems psychologically healthy — cheerful, outgoing, self-confident. What I find incomprehensible — even though I’m quite familiar with Wokeness and with the plans of college seniors — is how she’ll spend her two gap years. She will participate in a program that teaches impoverished New York City children how to choose and prepare “healthy” food (I expect that this means a mostly vegetarian diet). She just completed a two-week training program in (basically) how not to sound condescending while conveying these lessons.

But here’s the part of it that leaves me speechless (that is, unable to discuss it with my [relatives] — if I tried to, we would just end up angry at each other): the program pays my [relative] and her colleagues nowhere near enough to live in NYC. They are told to make up the difference by going on food stamps.

Yes, that’s right, taxes collected from hard-working construction workers and hairdressers in flyover country, whose children have no chance to getting into Yale, will subsidize the self-righteous resumé-building of Yale grads on their way into the elite. I’m sure that my [relative] and her colleagues have found a way justify this to themselves and each other. The “slumming it” aspect of the program fits nicely with Dashan’s argument about the elite’s guilt-driven performative spectacles and denials that they’re the ones in charge. Moral collapse!