March 4, 2009


The Roots of Liberal Condescension: Snobbery is the last refuge of the liberal-arts major. (WILLIAM VOEGELI, 3/04/09, WSJ)

We can make sense of this incongruity by moving beyond his famous line about the telephone directory to the rarely quoted explanation for why he would oppose being governed by eminent scholars:

Not, heaven knows, because I hold lightly the brainpower or knowledge or generosity or even the affability of the Harvard faculty: but because I greatly fear intellectual arrogance, and that is a distinguishing characteristic of the university which refuses to accept any common premise. In the deliberations of two thousand citizens of Boston I think one would discern a respect for the laws of God and for the wisdom of our ancestors which does not characterize the thought of Harvard professors—who, to the extent that they believe in God at all, tend to believe He made some terrible mistakes which they would undertake to rectify; and, when they are paying homage to the wisdom of our ancestors, tend to do so with a kind of condescension toward those whose accomplishments we long since surpassed.

Later in the essay, "The Aimlessness of American Education," Buckley elaborated on the "common premise" the university rejected: "The Ten Commandments do not sit about shaking, awaiting their inevitable deposition by some swashbuckling professor of ethics. Certain great truths have been apprehended. In the field of morality, all the basic truths have been apprehended."

Buckley's position, then, is not really populist. The ism of populism is the idea that the people are inherently more sound and virtuous than the elites. Buckley is saying, less categorically, that we live in an age when the people happen to possess better judgment than the professors. If the reverse were true, if the professors had more respect than the people for God's laws and tradition's wisdom, Buckley's argument would have favored entrusting government pari passu (as he would have said) to scholars instead of citizens.

What sets the people in the phonebook apart from the professors, according to this argument, is that they believe in and defer to profound truths existing outside of history. They are willing, furthermore, to accept that the "democracy of the dead," incorporating the cumulative judgment of people long gone and forgotten, might well have grasped those truths better than people, even very smart people, who happen to be alive at this moment.

The professors, by contrast, expect to be deferred to, not to be the ones deferring. Their "intellectual arrogance" is a consequence of the assumptions of progressivism, an ism that treats progress as the fundamental reality. The belief in progress is the belief that the present is better and wiser than the past, and the future will be better and wiser than the present. Truths outside of history, such as the laws of nature and nature's God, either don't exist, can't be known, or don't matter.

When we say that conservatives are the Stupid Party, we mean only that they accept the wisdom handed down to them and see no need to rethink everything for themselves. When we say that America is Anti-Intellectual, we mean that Americans have a healthy distrust of anyone who does think that his own thoughts ought replace those we inherit from the ancestors.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 4, 2009 10:15 PM
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