A college professor recently defended speech codes and regulations that discriminate against moral and religious conservatives on campuses by explaining that “students have been indoctrinated for the first 18 years of their lives by their parents and by their churches; we only have four years to undo the damage.” This professor’s words express a common attitude, not only among academics, that is rarely stated with such candor. It expresses perfectly what I mean by “vulgar elitism.”
Did you notice the oxymoron in the title? “Vulgar” denotes “of the common people,” that is, the “mob” or the “masses.” The elitism of our intellectual, media and entertainment elites is vulgar because it has none of the elevating substance of a self-respecting old-fashioned aristocracy. Old-fashioned aristocracies were hypocritical in the old-fashioned way: Their hypocrisy was the tribute vice paid to virtue. At least they had some idea what virtue might be, and a few seriously cultivated such virtue.
The new elites are deceptive and self-deceived in a more profound way. They pay no tribute to virtue but only to “progress.” (Sometimes they might say “democracy” or “freedom,” but these are always to be understood in what for them is the true, “progressive” sense.) But what is “progress”? By what idea of the good is progress to be defined? Toward what good condition of the soul or of the community are we supposed to be progressing? Since all such questions of a true, higher good must be rejected as religious or at any rate unscientific or irrational, then “progress” can only be defined negatively by the destruction of all “irrational prejudices” concerning a better or more virtuous life.
So our progressive elites are an anti-aristocratic aristocracy. That is, their authority is based, not on the claim to some virtue or some truth, but on their denial that there is any such thing. This is why it is so darkly funny to hear progressives rise to the defense of “truth” against the shamelessness in Republican high places.
The progressives have been teaching us for two generations now that, at least where morality is concerned, “truth” is relative, a social construction, a mask of power. The only truth, advanced minds have been telling us for decades, is progressive liberation from the “truths” that a conservative, hierarchical, patriarchal and uptight society has drummed into us just to prevent us from enjoying the fruits of liberation without consequence or remorse.
On this view, desires, wishes and fantasies take the place of truth. Choose your fantasy, and require society to endorse it. And, eventually, to pay for it. This is hardly fertile soil for nourishing respect for a truth above our desires. Truth is indeed in trouble, but its troubles did not begin in 2016.
Populists are understandably restless under the cultural rule of such destructive elites. But the reaction against an anti-aristocratic aristocracy is understandably confused. Populists have a good and justified idea whom they are against, but too many have lost touch with anything positive — anything virtuous, lovely or of good report or praiseworthy — that they might be for. Traditional populist movements in America were grounded in moral and religious sensibilities inherited from nonpopulist authorities of earlier times, from teachers, ministers and statesmen of elevated vision.32 comments on this story
The reaction against corrupt elites takes place on the morally barren grounds devastated by those very elites. Contemporary elites are more vulgar than the people, but the people have almost caught up. The people respond to a populist leader who shares their resentment of the authority of the elites; they sense that the dominant cultural authority is hollow, vain and destructive. But the anti-elitist people have almost lost access to an alternative moral framework and social reference point. They know what they are against but can’t say very well what they are for, except for some desperate appeal to a vacuous “greatness.” The people are left to hurl the formulas of relativism and identity politics back at their cultural “betters.”
We may be left with no realistic option but a choice between vulgarities — the snobbish, sophistical vulgarity of the progressive elites, or the blind and resentful vulgarity of a “deplorable” class deprived of worthy models and authoritative norms. Not much of a choice. But there’s no question where the greater blame lies.