Monday, October 17, 2005

Elitism, Enlightenment, Tradition and Our Future

Michael Barone of U. S. News and World Report has written an article, Spurning America, which I hope will be the opening salvo of a discussion of an important issue in American politics, namely, the role of tradition and religion verses adaptation in a modern society. The following is my response.

In the article, he chastises the liberal elites for a world of sins, the usual saw in attacking the left. So let’s first clarify what it means to be “elite”.


Elitism involves setting oneself apart and above the rest of society on the basis of what may be just a perceived superiority in the eye of the exhibitor of this behavior. Elitism is to be distinguished from enlightenment which is the true attainment of a state of knowledge that others might not have acquired in a particular field or discipline.

There are elitists of all political stripes, although liberals are most often accused of elitism, possibly because they reside in urban trend setting communities like the Northeast or West Coast cities, or because they have advanced degrees and prominent positions in academia. But, there is also a business elite of CEOs, investment bankers, and free marketers who conceive of themselves holding a unique knowledge of how economic systems work and how to scratch their way to the top of the economic pyramid without being too concerned about what happens to those who don’t achieve their prominence, or who think there is more to the health of a country than just economics. And then there are the literary and cultural elite who reside in the press or political think tanks pontificating on whatever they are paid to pontificate on. And finally, there are the political elites who have achieved high positions in government, possibly only through clever association with the aforementioned elites who provide the necessary campaign funds or writing and promotional skills to get them elected.


What may appear to some as elitism, may actually be enlightenment, if the individual exhibiting it has achieved a state of knowledge through study, experience, or travel that gives them a better perspective to judge the value of a theory, plan, or action. Someone may appear as an internationalist elitist if he cites examples from foreign sources attained through study or travel that the observer has not attained through comparable experience.

Someone unfamiliar with governance or economics may rely more on the personality of someone, which mirrors his own, rather than the documented history of a person’s actions if he is not informed of them, or if he does not understand how the experience relates to the requirements of his position.

Someone without a scientific background may equate the scientific method with any other theory or myth regarding an observed behavior or phenomena.

Someone growing up in a rural environment may have an extensive knowledge of the land, conservation and natural phenomena that someone raised or living in an urban environment has not acquired. Whereas, someone in an urban environment may have experienced a wide range of social behavior from a wide range of different cultures and ethnicities, while the rural resident may have experienced a relatively monolithic culture.

These differences in learning or experience, when viewed from the opposite viewpoint may appear as elitism when they are actually attributable to enlightenment through wider experience or study.

Tradition and Religion

Now let’s examine the makeup of those who most value tradition and religion as opposed to those who may be accused of taking an internationalist, and possibly more secular political stance. Here we might look at why some people prefer “my country right or wrong”, support their leaders, fly the flag, put patriotic stickers on their automobiles, etc. whereas others seem to protest against their government’s actions and cite examples from abroad rather than taking the former approach.

History is littered with empires that faded because they clung to what worked in the past instead of adapting to the present and future, taking account of the rapid growth of knowledge acquired over the years.

It used to be tradition in this country to enslave people because it seemed to work economically, and there was an “elite” attitude that these people were better off enslaved because of their lacking an ability to make their way on their own. Fortunately, we finally got rid of that tradition after discovering these people actually weren’t much different from their enslavers and could function pretty well on their own.

At one time we considered women lacking the necessary skills, or possibly due to their domestic responsibilities, the time and ability to participate in the electoral process or hold some jobs that required the “manly” skills. We have subsequently found through experience and learning that women do indeed have the skills and mental capacity to do almost all things previously done only by men, and fortunately have abandoned that tradition as well.

Now it has been a couple thousand years since our religions sprung to life at a time when there was essentially no science and where religion provided essentially all the answers to the unanswerable questions of the time. And, answers to many questions are required for an ordered society and for peace of mind for the individual, to give people a sense of purpose and comfort in times of stress or despondency.

Since then, we have passed these traditions on to our descendents, from an early age, as principles which have served us well and which they should adopt to get along in the world. But, we have also learned much since then about how the world works and what is required for an ordered society. We have discovered individual liberty, human rights, democracy, political institutions, etc. and we now we rely much less on the oracles or the priesthood to give us guidance on the right way to live.

At some point we may want to ask ourselves how much we want to rely on the knowledge we have acquired over these many centuries and how much we want to rely on the ancient religious faiths we have adopted. We still may enjoy our religious community, the comfort we feel from our religion in time of conflict or loss, and ceremonial aspects of celebrating religious holidays, etc. But, we should consider the degree to which we want our religious faith to dictate our everyday decisions in raising our children, pursuing our careers, and governing our society.

The Future

Our success as a country in the future will depend on our further enlightenment and recognizing that we can’t run in place, resting on our past success and traditions to see us through a rapidly changing future. It will require the less informed to become more informed. It will require that we not rely on our tradition of American exceptionalism, but recognize the other countries and civilizations may have discovered ways of prospering and getting along that we have been too isolated to appreciate fully. It will mean cooperation, not just nationwide but worldwide. We can continue to do battle over preserving our traditions, or put them in perspective with the requirement to continue expanding our knowledge, to sustain our past success and prominence as a leader of the world.

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