PYRAMIDS-R-US

August 28, 2010 at 1:59 PM 8 comments

A few weeks ago I spent a supper hour (it took that long) reading an article called “America’s Ruling Class – And the Perils of Revolution” by Angello 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 this blog. 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 her thing from memory). Who’s more useful? How many people like 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 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”. It 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 Mesoamerica 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 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 which work poorly with 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 Mesoamerica as a model, they could make themselves living pyramids of cloth, jade, or shell.

And the more widely those signs spread (physically or metaphorically), the more ideas like “the worth of all people” became illusionary self-deception. The more people were excluded from the ruling class, the more strongly those on the fringe found it necessary to justify doing ever-more-questionable things to hang on to the symbols of status.

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 “intellectualism” be the particular form of the pride cycle to which our modern Western culture can most easily be tempted?

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stephen M (ethesis)  |  August 28, 2010 at 10:26 PM

    Moreover, if the politicians are so smart, why have they made life worse?

    Indeed, are they really so smart and is that what they are really rewarding?

    Reply
  • 2. FireTag  |  August 28, 2010 at 11:09 PM

    In Codevilla’s article, he does make the point that a political class based upon intellect will dumb itself down very quickly, just as a warrior monarchy will not have many generations of great generals. We may already be at a point of creating political dynasties, and access to the Ivy League may be more correlated with the identities of one’s parents and their political connections than is the case in the French academies.

    Reply
  • 3. TH  |  August 29, 2010 at 4:20 PM

    FireTag,

    We’ve had an opportunity to discuss these ideas at some length off blog, but wanted to raise one question…

    I do see, as you’ve cogently explained, the perils of the ruling class. However, I wonder how it is possible not to have a ruling class? This is kind of like having everyone turn in weapons. It works fine if everyone does it, but if some people do not, they can take power through the fact that they have an advantage.

    In America’s earliest history, the people wanted George Washington to be a king. It was his refusal that kept it from being so. Is it better to have a ruling class, one that rules benevolently (or at least win-win style), so that all can be protected until a time comes when no ruling class is needed? If so, how can that be done?

    Reply
    • 4. FireTag  |  August 29, 2010 at 4:58 PM

      Rulers (at least in the sense of decision-makers) are necessary to the functioning of a complex society, just as a regulatory system is necessary within the complex human body. There are, and will remain for the forseeable future, questions about the best way to organize the decision-making system FOR THE GOOD OF THE SOCIETY.

      The problem of the “pride cycle” occurs when the rulers lose their valid functionality within the community because they start to rule for WHAT’S GOOD FOR THEM independently of what’s good for others because others stop being people of their own inherent worth. These “others” are marginalized and ultimately enslaved by the community — because the “community” is increasingly defined ONLY as the ruling class.

      This doesn’t have to involve every member of the ruling class. It just takes some active choices to yield to temptation and a lot of apathy among colleagues. And people don’t suddenly become less inclined to yield to temptation just because they get letters after their names.

      Reply
  • 5. bewarethechicken  |  September 20, 2010 at 3:14 PM

    The ruling class is not made up of the intellectual, but the super-rich. The problem is not with people believing they are smarter than other (heck, I believe I’m smarter and more educated than many) it is with people believing that their superior intelligence or education is derived primarily from their own choices. While this is an important factor, to be sure, genetics, upbringing, and a host of external factors (primarily monetary) are far better predictors of wealth and intelligence than are any actions or inactions of a particular individual.

    Reply
    • 6. FireTag  |  September 21, 2010 at 12:24 AM

      BTC:

      I largely agree with your points here as they apply to the upper reaches of the ruling class, although I would place more emphasis on the notion of the money political power transaction being very much a two-way street.

      However, the super-rich/super-politically connected can’t make too many commoners part of the elite; otherwise, they wouldn’t be “common” or elite. As long as people don’t love others as much as themselves, which all of us struggle with even in our most loving relationships, the super rich get super richer, and only some of them actually will work very hard to surrender their own elitism to pull others upward.

      The solution for them, then, in a variety of situatiohns, is to keep inventing rungs on the ladder between the commoners and the actual ruling powers. I think this is where intellectualism comes in as an “opiate of the masses”, to borrow a term from the left.

      The August 2010 unemployment rate for people with 4 year degrees was 4.6%, so there has been no recessiohn among the college educated (although they’ve locked themselves into a long term wealth hit in investments and housing values). As you note, access to college is strongly influenced by things other than individual merit.

      My home county is a test case of how this works, and the risks people are willing to take to get into the edges of the ruling class. I live in one of the five richest counties in the US. About 1-2% of the homes in my neighborhood are going into foreclosure per month because people bought housing they could not afford in order to get their children into the County school system, which is also one of the most highly ranked in the nation. I believe I read before the primaries for school board a few weeks ago that Federal grants and subsidies had now become the largest source of support for the school system — even more than comes from what should be a huge property and sales tax base.

      Perfect example, IMO, of how the ruling class regulates entry to its ranks through political power. We have to be among the least needy counties in the country for Federal assistance to elementary and secondary education, but our resident elites would not tolerate it.

      Reply
  • 7. Margie Miller  |  September 28, 2010 at 9:25 AM

    I really would like the ruling class to be made up of the super intelligent and not the super rich, as it is now. Unfortunately many, many ordinary and sometimes uneducated citizens do not study issues or even speak to them. They just follow the pundits, thinking they are smart enough to do their thinking for them.

    Wrong!

    They are smart enough to twist the issues to their own advantage.

    I wish, here in OZ, that we could trust some of those in leadership to do the right thing for all citizens…to look after the best interests of the poor and the outcast…instead of their own interests.

    Reply
    • 8. FireTag  |  September 28, 2010 at 4:58 PM

      Welcome back, Margie. Glad to see from reading your blog that you’re moving forward strongly.

      I think I’m following your comment, but I’m not sure I see the distinction between the super-smart and the super-rich that you do. I’m not sure that things would be improved by replacing dumb crooks with smart crooks, and I see very little correlation over a generation or so between intelligence and morality. Smart immoral people can always make money. Smart moral people are a rare jewel.

      Reply

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