As Time Goes By

Janet Daley of the UK Telegraph and Angelo de Codavilla of Boston University, in what will be a landmark essay, argue that overt class struggle has come to America. Not the classic Marxist class struggle in which the wretched of the earth arise to break their chains. Rather the reverse, one in which the Masters of the Universe impose their unutterable vision upon the benighted masses. Daley tells the short form of the story, one in which a newly arisen self-appointed enlightened elite use bread and circuses to rent the mass necessary to crush the middle classes, all distinctly un-American.

The president's determination to transform the US into a social democracy, complete with a centrally run healthcare programme and a redistributive tax system, has collided rather magnificently with America's history as a nation of displaced people who were prepared to risk their futures on a bid to be free from the power of the state. ... They are talking a lot about this in the US now. Suddenly the phenomenon of class resentment is a live political issue.

What is more startling is the growth in America of precisely the sort of political alignment which we have known for many years in Britain: an electoral alliance of the educated, self-consciously (or self-deceivingly, depending on your point of view) "enlightened" class with the poor and deprived ... this sentiment is taking on precisely the pseudo-aristocratic tone of disdain for the aspiring, struggling middle class that is such a familiar part of the British scene.

Codevilla as might be expected, tells the long form of the story. In his version it begins as many things American do, with an original political sin. Not the obvious one of slavery in which the British Crown after all played a large part, but in what legitimized it -- and sanctified a particular form of opposition to it. It was the doubt that all men were created equal and had inalienable rights that created the first revolt in new republic. For even after the Declaration of independence there many who doubted that the idea of the equality of man could be taken literally. In this rebellion against the founding principles the slave-owners and indeed some abolitionists were agreed. In the view of the former, some men were destined to be subjected; in the view of the latter some men were destined to be enlightened -- by them. Codevilla writes:

By 1853, when Sen. John Pettit of Ohio called "all men are created equal" "a self-evident lie," much of America's educated class had already absorbed the "scientific" notion (which Darwin only popularized) that man is the product of chance mutation and natural selection of the fittest. Accordingly, by nature, superior men subdue inferior ones as they subdue lower beings or try to improve them as they please. Hence while it pleased the abolitionists to believe in freeing Negroes and improving them, it also pleased them to believe that Southerners had to be punished and reconstructed by force. As the 19th century ended, the educated class's religious fervor turned to social reform: they were sure that because man is a mere part of evolutionary nature, man could be improved, and that they, the most highly evolved of all, were the improvers.

Thus began the Progressive Era. When Woodrow Wilson in 1914 was asked "can't you let anything alone?" he answered with, "I let everything alone that you can show me is not itself moving in the wrong direction, but I am not going to let those things alone that I see are going down-hill." ...

The cultural divide between the "educated class" and the rest of the country opened in the interwar years. Some Progressives joined the "vanguard of the proletariat," the Communist Party. Many more were deeply sympathetic to Soviet Russia, as they were to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Not just the Nation, but also the New York Times and National Geographic found much to be imitated in these regimes because they promised energetically to transcend their peoples' ways and to build "the new man." Above all, our educated class was bitter about America. ...

By 2010 some in the ruling class felt confident enough to dispense with the charade. Asked what in the Constitution allows Congress and the president to force every American to purchase health insurance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi replied: "Are you kidding? Are you kidding?" No surprise then that lower court judges and bureaucrats take liberties with laws, regulations, and contracts. That is why legal words that say you are in the right avail you less in today's America than being on the right side of the persons who decide what they want those words to mean.

But unlike Europe, an American class struggle if it existed would be distinguished not by the rise of a proletariat, but by the emergence of an aristocracy who not surprisingly see themselves free to exercise their rights of judgment unencumbered by bourgeois sentimentality. The idea would breed in their veins and eventually it would make them almost an different species. When Elena Kagan was being interviewed by the Senate she refused point blank to hold an opinion on natural rights.  It was almost as if there was something in her DNA which balked at accepting the self-evident grant of liberty from a source beyond themselves. Rights, where they existed at all, had to spring from man-made instruments parsed as it happens, by people like her.

COBURN: I’m not asking you about your judicial. I’m asking you, Elena Kagan, do you personally believe there is a fundamental right in this area? Do you agree with Blackstone that the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, the right of having and using arms for self-preservation and defense? He didn’t — he didn’t say that was a constitutional right. He said that’s a natural right. And what I’m asking you is do — do you agree with that?

KAGAN: Senator Coburn, to be honest with you, I –I don’t have a view of what are natural rights independent of the Constitution, and my job as a justice will be to enforce and defend the Constitution and other laws of the United States.

COBURN: So — so you wouldn’t embrace what the Declaration of Independence says, that we have certain God-given, inalienable rights that aren’t given in the Constitution, that they’re ours, ours alone, and that the government doesn’t give those to us?

KAGAN: Senator Coburn, I believe that the Constitution is an extraordinary document, and I’m not saying I do not believe that there are rights pre-existing the Constitution and the laws, but my job as a justice is to enforce the Constitution and the laws.

COBURN: Well, I understand that. Well, I’m not talking about as a justice. I’m talking about Elena Kagan. What do you believe? Are there inalienable rights for us? Do you believe that?

KAGAN: Senator Coburn, I — I think that the question of what I believe as to what people’s rights are outside the Constitution and the laws, that you should not want me to act in any way on the basis of such a belief, if I had one or...

COBURN: I — I would want you to always act on the basis of a belief of what our Declaration of Independence says.

KAGAN: I — I think you should want me to act on the basis of law, and — and that is what I have upheld to do, if I’m fortunate enough to be concerned — to be confirmed, is to act on the basis of haw, which is the Constitutions and the statutes of the United States.

The notion of a class above the law, one which could wave away the petty customs of the unwashed, were on almost cartoonish display in a moment almost made for television during the sentencing of  Walter Kendall Myers, who was being sent to life in prison for spying for Cuba. He argued with judge Reggie Walton that he had a higher obligation from noblesse oblige to help the Cuban people. Kendall Myers is the grandson of National Geographic Founder Gilbert Grosvenor and the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell. Imagine the scene.

"The U.S. is not a perfect nation,'' U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton said, noting that his great-grandfather was a slave and his grandfather a sharecropper.

"But America is not the devil you may believe it is,'' Walton said. ``You had privileges unlike others, and yet you squandered those privileges at the expense of your own government.'' ...

Myers told Walton the couple's "overriding objective'' was to help the Cuban people.

"If you believed in the revolution, you should have defected,'' Walton said, adding that Myers showed "no sense of remorse.'' The defendant gave the judge a 10-minute discourse on why the couple spied and how they've found a "silver lining'' in prison: They've stopped smoking, he joked.

You could not have made the exchange up. The last remark about the cigarettes says it all. Even in the dock Myers was playing the Olympian, laughing at the petty conceits of a jumped-up Uncle Tom. The alumnus of a private boarding school and Brown University who had been a State Department intelligence analyst, university professor and weekend sailor of a 37-foot yacht grandly told the judge that he was only motivated by humanitarian ideals and would continue his ennobling work even behind bars. The descendant of a sharecropper might sentence him with his greasy little pen but for his part Myers could remain innocent before the great bar of his own opinion. The question nobody answered was whether he was also innocent in the judgment of his 'peers'.

"Our overriding objective was to help the Cuban people defend their revolution and forestall conflict between the two countries,'' Myers said as the couple stood side by side before Walton. "We are equally committed to helping the struggling people of the world.'' ...The couple received little of monetary value from the Cubans. Instead, prosecutors said, they were rewarded with medals -- and, in 1995, a private visit with Fidel Castro. ...

Myers told the judge that he and his wife served as teachers' aides in jail and had made friends among the inmates -- "many are African Americans trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, drugs, crimes and jail.'' Invoking Nelson Mandela, he told Walton that he hoped to be able to continue working with inmates.

The judge, though, said he was troubled by the idea of Myers teaching in prison, where he said inmates can be "radicalized to hate their own country.''

'Inmates radicalized to hate their own country', the judge might have added, by the very elite to whom the country had given everything. Of course not everyone is a Myers and there many members of the social elite who are patriots, but as with Philby, Burgess and Maclean -- to take the Anglo-American comparison further --  there is enough truth in the stereotype of the upper-class traitor to make the depiction disturbing.  Disturbing but not universal. Deep down in Codevilla's magnificent essay is the insight that despite the aristocratic pretensions of would be rulers their real motive is really base money and power. Class is ultimately founded on a division of spoils and nothing so grand as high ideals. Codevilla wrote:

Our ruling class's agenda is power for itself. While it stakes its claim through intellectual-moral pretense, it holds power by one of the oldest and most prosaic of means: patronage and promises thereof. Like left-wing parties always and everywhere, it is a "machine," that is, based on providing tangible rewards to its members. Such parties often provide rank-and-file activists with modest livelihoods and enhance mightily the upper levels' wealth. Because this is so, whatever else such parties might accomplish, they must feed the machine by transferring money or jobs or privileges -- civic as well as economic -- to the party's clients, directly or indirectly.

Don't let the fancy words fool you, Codevilla says, the elites may have come to Washington to "do good", but they are really staying "to do well". And that should be a comforting thought. We don't have to believe in class struggle just yet unless we want to impose a self-fulfilling paradigm on ourselves.  Class struggle is a dangerous word for the present. America may have an aristocracy, but there is nothing necessarily European about them; their titles all date from Tammany Hall. It's always nice to know that deep down inside the most grandiloquent svengalis are really driven about ego or money. Just like any con man or stick-up artist. Myers might not find prison so strange after all.


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