Obscene Wealth

Aristotle’s notion of virtue is built around the concept of moderation. Virtue, for The Philosopher, is defined as a mean between extremes. Courage, for example, is a mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. Indeed, extreme behavior of any kind was anathema to the Greeks generally, though their behavior often lent the lie to the ideal. But at least they paid lip service to the notion, whereas we seem to have lost sight of it altogether.

In 1995 Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to a number of times in these blogs, published a rejoinder to Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses which Lasch called Revolt of the Elites. In that book he took exception to Ortega’s notion that it was the masses who would drag down democracy and eventually destroy it altogether through their “radical ingratitude” and their “incredible ignorance of history.” For all the masses know, or care to know, history started when they were born and will end with their death: they have no obligations to anyone. Lasch is convinced that it is the elites who will bring this about because they are so much like the masses whom Ortega describes and because they have lost their sense of community and, indeed, lost all touch with reality. Their “community” is one made up of “the best and brightest of contemporaries, in the double sense that its members think of themselves as agelessly youthful and that the mark of this youthfulness is precisely their ability to stay on top of the latest trends.” Note here the absence of any sense of belonging to a place and any group to bond with, a total immersion of self into self.

Lasch defines the elites as the opinion-makers, the “thinking class,” which he defines as “those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate.” These folks, feeling “no obligation either to their progenitors or their progeny,” are lost in a world of abstractions; they belong to no nation.

“The new elites are at home only in transit, en route to a high-level conference, to the grand opening of a new franchise, to an international film festival, or to an undiscovered resort. Theirs is essentially a tourist’s view of the world — not a perspective likely to encourage a passionate devotion to democracy.”

Certainly not to this democracy. They have dissociated themselves from what was their parents’ country and become non-involved citizens of the world, as it were. Traveling the world and taking their millions with them. And here’s the rub. The new elite control the wealth in the country and are in the process of destroying the middle class on which the capitalist economy and a vital democratic system have always depended. They are, above all else, the greatest threat, in Lasch’s view, to the preservation of this democracy. In fact, they don’t care much about the preservation of Western Civilization either. As Lasch points out, the “thinking class” who people the universities have turned their backs on Western Civilization which they traditionally pledged themselves to preserve. For these people

“. . . the very term ‘Western Civilization’ now calls to mind an organized system of bourgeois values [which keep] the victims of patriarchal oppression — women, children, homosexuals, people of color — in a permanent state of subjection.”

Preoccupied with minor concerns like political correctness and cultural diversity, they ignore such things as the dissolution of the family, the intrusion of the market into all phases of human life, and “the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy; and a suffocating cynicism, the moral paralysis of those who value ‘openness’ above all.” But above all else, outside the academy the new elite have been enabled to amass great fortunes with the approval of the very class they seem determined to eradicate. Capitalism has traditionally frowned on the amassing of wealth beyond a person’s needs. For John Locke and Adam Smith, for example, capitalist accumulation was tempered by a sense of community coupled with a strong feeling of restraint from accumulating unnecessary wealth which might otherwise go to those in need; this tradition has been lost. These convictions are reflected in the words of Horace Mann who, two hundred years later, helped us recall that “The earth was given to mankind for the subsistence and benefit of the whole race, and the rights of successive owners were limited by the rights of those who are entitled to the subsequent possession and use.” No one, according to this way of thinking, has a right to unlimited wealth and possessions they cannot possibly ever use. But those restraints are no longer with us. In light of these changes, Lasch expresses the hope that

“boundaries are permeable, especially where money is concerned, that a moral condemnation of great wealth must inform any defense of the free market, and that a moral condemnation must be backed up with effective political action. . . In the old days Americans agreed, at least in principle, that individuals cannot claim entitlement to wealth far in excess of their needs. The persistence of this belief, even though it is admittedly only an undercurrent in the celebration of wealth that now threatens to drown all competing values, offers some hope that all is not yet lost.”

But that “undercurrent” has grown very weak, not to say feeble, in the twenty years since Lasch wrote those words. And with it the hope that our democracy will survive grows weak as well. The infamous 1% who control more and more of this nation’s wealth, who do not see themselves as part of this nation or its people, who, indeed, see other people as simply exploitable, have taken this country so far away from the ideals envisioned by our Founders that we will assuredly never find our way back. And augmenting this demise is the full support of those mindless masses whom Ortega identified; those who see no reason why people should not accumulate wealth far beyond their needs because in their own shrinking minds they see themselves as at some point joining the group; those who have also lost any sense of moral restraint, who do not recognize how obscene — in the full sense of that word — is the accumulation of great wealth in a society where many have no food to put on the table or roof over their heads; those who are lacking in the moderation that Aristotle long ago insisted is the core of human virtue.

Prophetic Words

Every now and again as we read good books there appear, as if by magic, words that express so well some of the loose, disjointed ideas we have in our own heads. In reading Richard Hofstadter’s remarkable work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life I came across such words. Indeed, I have come across such words numerous times, as readers of these blogs are aware! In any event, Hofstadter’s comments about anti-intellectualism within our educational system ring true: I have seen it first hand and am aware that it has grown considerably over the years as the schools have moved steadily toward a more “practical” system that develops the “whole child” and downplays the importance of developing their minds.

As Hofstadter suggests, this attitude has been endemic in our culture generally, especially since the Civil War; we could be caught, increasingly, worshipping at the shrine of The Great God Utility — expecting of our educational system what we expected of our religion, “that it be [undemanding], practical and pay dividends.”  Still, there were a few people, like this “small town Midwestern editor” quoted by Hofstadter who understood the need for intelligent citizens in our democracy:

“If the time shall ever come when this mighty fabric shall totter, when the beacon of joy that  now rises in pillars of fire . . . shall wax dim, the cause will be found in the ignorance of the people. If our union is still to continue . . .; if your fields are to be untrod by the hirelings of despotism; if long days of blessedness are to attend our country in her career of glory; if you would have the sun continue to shed his unclouded rays upon the faces of freemen, then EDUCATE ALL THE CHILDREN OF THE LAND. This alone startles the tyrant in his dreams of power, and rouses the slumbering energies of an oppressed people. It was intelligence that reared up the majestic columns of national glory; and this sound morality alone can prevent their crumbling to ashes.”

Aside from the fact that few editors today, Midwestern or not, have this man’s facility with words (or his love of hyperbole), he points out the necessary connection between educating young minds and the preservation of our republic, which we seem to have forgotten: education not as job training or increasing self-esteem, but as empowerment, the ability of citizens to use their minds and make wise choices. The Founders were banking on it. Our schools seem to have forgotten what they are supposed to do. As Hofstadter goes on to point out:

“But if we turn from the rhetoric of the past to the realities of the present, we are most struck by the volume of criticism suggesting that something very important has been missing from the American passion for education. A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference — underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else — the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of the academically gifted children. At times the schools in this country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media, and those extend upwards to a system of higher education whose worst failings were underlined by the bold president of the University of Oklahoma who hoped to develop a university of which the football team could be proud. Certainly some ultimate educational values seem forever to be eluding the Americans. . . . Americans would create a common-school system, but would balk at giving it adequate support.”

A page later, Hofstadter quotes the great education reformer, Horace Mann who predicted as far back as 1837:

“neglectful school committees, incompetent teachers, and an indifferent public, may go on degrading each other until the whole idea of free schools would be abandoned.”

In order to remedy this situation, Mann pushed hard to establish “normal schools” in Massachusetts on the Prussian model, which he saw first-hand. These schools were set up to train teachers, and they gradually spread in this country to become the “teachers colleges” that evolved into the state colleges which, in turn, morphed into the state universities we see everywhere.  The job of these state colleges and universities was, and still is, primarily to train teachers. As part of this process, teachers were to be “certified” to guarantee their competence. But this process, together with the starvation wages they are paid, has practically guaranteed that the poor quality of teachers that Mann pointed to in his day would persist. The process of “normalization” brought with it a huge bureaucracy, which has been aptly named “the Blob,” that has threatened to strangle the training of teachers and has discouraged many bright young people away from the profession, practically guaranteeing the very condition Mann determined to avoid. America now draws its teachers from the bottom third or bottom quarter of the college pool thanks in large part to the poor salaries they are paid and the “methods” courses they are required to take in order to be certified.

In any event, Mann’s words struck me not only as insightful, but as prophetic. In the end, the current condition of public schools in America comes down to the indifference of the public — their addiction to the extra-curricular coupled with their refusal to pay teachers what they deserve —  and a system of teacher training that tends, on the whole, to belittle intelligence and discourage those who would almost certainly make the best teachers.