26 Jul 2010

“The Best and the Brightest” 2.0

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Conservatives’ favorite metaphor is Munich; liberals’ is Vietnam.

As the Obama Administration continues sinking into disrepute, Neal Gabler, in the Boston Globe, points to the same kind of smug Ivy League hubris that persistently failed in Vietnam as being responsible for the current administration’s woes.

Just like the New Frontiersmen so thoroughly trashed in David Halberstam’s book, Team Obama has demonstrated a “we know better” approach to policy which is distancing them farther and farther from the general perspective of the country.

[According to David Halberstam, the Kennedy and Johnson administration Brahminate] “were men more linked to one another, their schools, their own social class and their own concerns than they were linked to the country,’’ which meant that their sense of the public good was always subordinate to their sense of their own brilliance.

Above all, the best and the brightest believed in their own infallibility. They distrusted politics almost as much as they distrusted the proletariat because politics was about compromise and satisfying ninnies (us) who they felt were much beneath them. They were cold, logical, bloodless, and deeply pragmatic. They considered liberal idealists fools, and emotion a weakness. They knew best, which made them extremely intimidating. They failed because they didn’t think they could possibly be wrong.

In many ways, Obama was a sucker for this kind of coldblooded, upper-crust approach to policy and the elitism that went with it. Half-white, half-black, half-American, half-African, part Kansan, part Hawaiian, middle class and transient, Obama made the primary plaint and question of his book, “Dreams From My Father’’: Where do I belong? That question was posed as one of racial identity, but in the end, whether he fully realized it or not, Obama found himself not in black culture or white culture but in the culture of the best and the brightest. That’s where he belonged. That’s where he seemed to feel most comfortable.

So it is really no surprise that he has packed his administration with what one might call The Best and the Brightest 2.0 — people who are as dispassionate and rational and suspicious of emotion as the president prides himself as being: a bunch of cool, unflappable customers. (The exceptions are Vice President Joe Biden and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.) Like The Best and the Brightest 1.0, these folks — guys like Larry Summers, outgoing budget director Peter Orszag, and Tim Geithner, on the economic side; and William J. Lynn 3d, deputy secretary of defense, and James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state, on the foreign side — are Ivy-educated, confident, and implacable realists and rationalists. Like their forebears, they have all the answers, which is why they have been so unaccommodating of other suggestions on the economy, where economists have been pressing them for more stimulus, or on Afghanistan, where the president keeps doubling down his bets.

The difference between 1.0 and 2.0 is that 2.0 are not all Protestant, white males sprung full-blown from the Establishment as 1.0’s fathers and their fathers’ fathers were. Like Obama himself, they are by and large onetime middle-class overachievers who made their way into the Ivy League and then catapulted to the top levels of class and power by being . . . well, the best and the brightest. But in elitism as in religion, no one is more devout than a convert, and these people, again like Obama, all having been blessed by the Ivy League, also embrace Ivy League arrogance and condescension. On this, the Republican critics are right: The administration exudes a sense of superiority.

So what difference does it make if our policy-makers think they are above criticism? As Halberstam shows in “The Best and the Brightest,’’ people who are concerned not with the fundamental rightness of something but with its execution, because the rightness is assumed; people who see what they want to see rather than what is; people who see things in terms of preconceptions rather than of human conduct; people who are incapable of admitting error; people who lack skepticism and the capacity to grow beyond their certainties are the sorts of people who are likely to get us in trouble — whether it is an ever-lengthening war in Afghanistan or ever-deepening economic distress here at home. After all, we’ve been there once before.

I think the similarity Gabler identifies of a dogged advance into political destruction on the basis of a mistaken sense of Ivy League superiority is dead on, but there is the difference that those establishment experts of nearly 50 years ago were merely conventionally liberal in the same basically empty and purely formal way that they were also Episcopalians or Congregationalists or Presbyterians.

The Obama Administration’s determination to pursue a massive expansion of spending and of governmental expansion in defiance of an economic crisis represents the opposite of 1960s liberal pragmatism. Its hubris is not merely the hubris of the well born, the well-connected, and the talented. Theirs is the hubris of the enlightened initiate of the left’s theory of History, of the committed believer in the ideology of socialism and statism which is today more radical, and even more deeply entrenched in America’s elite universities, than it was so long ago.

Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy believed their policies would succeed and they would win. The Obama Administration is willing to die on the barricades in order to leave behind socialized American health care.

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SDD

There have always been groups of people who knew (or at least were sure they knew) what the “correct” course of action was for everyone else. What is a somewhat more recent development is the subordination of the individual to these Wise Men — not only do they know best, but that fact entitles them to coerce everyone else into conforming to their wisdom.
There is an interesting parallel with religious extremists. Evangelical or Pentecostal Christians are quite convinced that there is one true God with a son named Jesus, and they are eager to tell you that we will all be better off accepting His Grace. Radical Islamists are quite convinced that there is one true God and his prophet is Mohammad. In addition to telling you that we will be better off submitting to the will of Allah, they insist on the right to force non-believers into submission – unto the point of death.
So far the only thing the liberal Wise Men are dedicated to killing is economic growth.



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