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In Defense of Elitism (1994)
William Henry was a two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (once for reporting, once for criticism) and served as Time Magazine's culture critic. Apparently, he was a pretty standard issue left wing intellectual. But modern American life gnawed away at him until he wrote this brief, cogent attack on the mindless egalitarianism that he saw destroying the nation. In a nutshell: elitism assumes equality of opportunity and then places emphasis on excellence and success while egalitarianism, instead, emphasizes equality of results--success is no longer a good thing and excellence is suspect. The egalitarian assumes that differences in performance are the result of insidious discriminatory factors rather than an inevitable outcome dictated by natural talents and tries to both handicap those who perform well and coddle those who perform poorly.
Harris does a creditable job of surveying the popular culture to marshall facts for his argument. The sheer weight of the data he offers on topics like affirmative action, Afrocentrism, Women's studies, social promotion, etc., makes a pretty irrefutable case that America's cultural elites have ceased to be elitist and have abandoned themselves to a set of political standards based not on quality, but on a system of political entitlements. Now, this is hardly a new argument. Indeed it was one of Alexis de Tocqueville's chief concerns; that a nation that was so obsessed with equality would eventually abandon the idea of equality of opportunity in favor of the demand for equality of results. No, it's not the novelty of the argument that makes this book noteworthy. What makes the book fascinating is the hilarious psychodrama which unfolds as Mr. Henry adopts this conservative argument, while trying to justify himself to his liberal cohort.
Before he really gets going, Mr. Henry offers us his Left bona fides:
I am fully aware that much of what I deplore as retrograde
tribalism or wrongheaded moralism is
No, seriously. I didn't make this up. I know it reads like some kind of Stalinist Show Trial self-denunciation or cocktail banter from a Tom Wolfe character, but the guy actually wrote all that. And as the book goes along, we're treated to all kinds of tidbits about his black or gay friends and his deep sensitivities for the unfortunate, usually just before he sticks the shiv in some representative of a minority group. It's a hoot.
But the end result is that, contrary to the title, while he presents a devastating attack on egalitarianism, he lacks the courage of his convictions and does not honestly defend the elitist values that he espouses. He backs away from the logic of his own arguments and refuses to explore why the Elite Culture of which he is so fond is fundamentally a product of white Christian straight men. He ignores the fact that the rise of egalitarianism and the pace of the attack on elitism have quickened in the seven or eight decades when the franchise and political power have been rapidly expanded to the very people whose work product he suggests does not measure up to traditional elite standards of excellence. Watching the virtual self-hypnosis that he had to go through just to go out as far on a conservative limb as he did, it is no wonder that he could drag himself no further. No wonder, but it is too bad.
Mr. Henry died shortly after the publication of this book, so we'll never know whether he eventually would have been able to face the full import of his own argument. Instead, he leaves behind a very entertaining, though ultimately incomplete, polemic against the sorry state of American culture.
-READING GROUP GUIDE: (Random House)
-The Affirmative Action and Diversity Project: A Web Page for Research
-POS334-L: THE RACE AND ETHNICITY BOOK REVIEW DISCUSSION LIST
-REVIEW: IN DEFENSE OF ELITISM (Roger Kimball, New York Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: In Defense of Elitism Learning the difference between art and Art. (David Ribar, Nashville Scene)
-REVIEW: (Steven Hayward, Reason)
-REVIEW: In Defense of Elitism (Reed Woodhouse, Boston Book Review)