January 5, 2010

WILL COLLIER has a bone to pick with David Brooks. “What Brooks, with his touching faith in ‘pragmatic federal leaders with professional expertise’ doesn’t want to talk about, of course, is just how badly the Ivy League class has failed over the past couple of decades. All those rows of degrees from Harvard didn’t keep a pack of Brooksian elites–mostly members of the Democratic Party–from running Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac straight into the toilet, and taking the private economy with them. Hiring out of the Ivies also didn’t save Lehman Brothers or AIG from doing remarkably stupid things with other people’s money. And as for ‘professional expertise…’ just what profession does the Obama cabinet posses expertise in, other than hardball politics?” And George W. Bush went to Yale and had a graduate degree from Harvard — though, somehow, that didn’t seem to qualify him for membership in the educated classes.

UPDATE: More on Brooks: “Curiously absent from the Brooks column is any sense of what caused all of this. Primarily, it is caused by the real and perceived failures of the educated class, from Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill. There has never been much political momentum on the issue of global warming (the Senate pre-emptively rejected the Kyoto treaty on a 95-0 vote) because of economic concerns. Thus, it is not surprising that the public becomes less interested in such action amid a serious recession. If the public has become more pro-life, it may be that the now commonplace technology of sonography has graphically brought the reality of the issue into more and more families, while the supposedly educated class adheres to old dogma. If the public is more concerned about their Second Amendment rights, it may be a reaction to the fact the party in power tends to infringe on them. Indeed, the public reaction on all of these issues may be seen as a reaction against an agenda that lacks a mandate (more on that below).”

ANOTHER UPDATE: Okay, I went and reread that Brooks column. When I posted a link this morning, I didn’t see it as being as objectionable as these responses suggest, and on rereading I still don’t. Yes, there’s the air of Brooksian condescenscion toward the great unwashed, but that’s practically required for the NYT columnist gig, and remember, he’s trying to explain this stuff to the Upper West Side crowd. And I’m not so sure he’s using “educated class” in a positive way. See, e.g., “The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class. They believe big government, big business, big media and the affluent professionals are merging to form self-serving oligarchy — with bloated government, unsustainable deficits, high taxes and intrusive regulation.” So cut Brooks at least a little slack, here.

And reader David Marcus writes: “When Brooks refers to the educated class, which your other commentators equated with Ivy League, I think he really is referring to the New Class as set out by Herman Kahn in the late 1970’s.” Yes, the New Class idea originally appeared as a critique of the Soviet nomenklatura apparatchiks by Milovan Djilas, but Kahn noted that it applies elsewhere, too. I believe that John Kenneth Galbraith noted this, too, only with approval.

MORE: Prof. Kenneth Anderson writes:

New Class analysis needs to be reset into an American context – once place that does that is the great social theory journal Telos. And I try to do that in a law review essay on lawyers, therapeutic authoritarianism, and the New Class, in the Columbia Law Review.

Here’s a bit from the conclusion:

The old elites wanted to be the top of the communities in which they had grown up; whether to lead or dominate, to serve communities or exploit them, at least they understood themselves as having a place in them. The new elites, by contrast, want no connection; they understand that power is elsewhere, money is elsewhere, and mobility is everything; if indeed they have to live somewhere, it will be if at all possible in a wholly private, gated community. Yet simultaneously they want to dominate.

The New Class pushes its mobility to absolute limits, launching itself into what it imagines is a global society conducted in the jet stream, made weightless by the complete mobility of capital, but with devastating consequences for those left behind on the ground. For those who cannot fly, there is first, the administration of life by these same elites and their hirelings, the authoritarian, bureaucratic formations which, to be sure, express themselves alternately in soothingly therapeutic psycho-babble or communitarian slogans of the common good or assertions of new and endless rights and, second, economic insecurity in the midst of being urged to greater self-esteem …

In this unforgiving light, the unhappiness of lawyers looks rather less like professionals experiencing the loss of fulfillment that accompanies losing “ownership” of the social ends of the legal profession and rather more like the unhappiness of experts who, having established to their own satisfaction the certainty of ends not open for argument by non-experts, wonder why they are not also loved.

The issue of the New Class and its lawyers is authoritarianism. In an age when the therapeutic has appropriated rights talk, and with it lawyers, turning it and them into agents of New Class authoritarianism and social control, the real question that needs to be answered is why there exists the continued “hegemony within the public culture of an essentially indeterminate and at the same time absolutist discourse of rights.” It predominates because, far from being merely a language of individual liberty or even unbridled individual license (as, for example, the communitarians would have us believe) it is today a language of state authority, a language of therapeutic paternalism; those who actually dream of being “liberals” will not reclaim rights talk any time soon. Its appropriation is at the core of the process by which the state today controls, as Christopher Lasch wrote, “not merely [the individual’s] . . . outer but his inner life as well; not merely the public realm but the darkest corners of private life, formerly inaccessible to political domination.”

Lawyers are deeply complicit in this colonization of the language of rights by the culture of therapy. They participate because it serves the agenda of a class that, unfamiliar with democracy except as an impediment to its social engineering, is incapable of any form of discourse that is not directed from the top to the bottom. Expertise, particularly in the social sciences, is a language of hierarchy and social control, and lawyers today, as a professional formation within the New Class, deploy the language of rights to the end of making the therapeutic coercive in the public sphere.

It is not a glorious profession because it is not a glorious class, and lawyers are right to be unhappy.

Gosh, I feel kinda guilty for enjoying life so much now.

RELATED: Bad sociology.

MORE: Reader Joe Jackson writes: “You’ve probably already posted all of the give and take that you intend to post concerning the David Brooks column. But I can’t resist relating this: Back in the early 90s someone gave me an autobiography by Ben Bradlee. It was a lousy book, poorly written, in fact an embarrassment. But one little anecdote has stayed with me. When he first arrived at the Washington Post, retired Executive Editor Leonard Downie’s nickname, according to Bradlee, was ‘Land Grant Len’. Seems that Downie, unlike most of the other hot-shots at the Post, including Bradlee himself, was not an Ivy Leaguer but rather a graduate of Ohio State, a Land Grant institution. David Brooks fits right into this mind-set.”

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