Self-Defined Notables (in a Small Town)

Over these years of writing, I have sometimes referred to self-important political and community figures in Whitewater as notables, town squires, etc. It should be clear (at least one hopes!) that these descriptions rest not on the basis of others’ actual talent as elites but instead on their overweening (ludicrous, unjustified) sense of entitlement. (Most people – not merely a few – are very clever; society could not function otherwise.)

Still, Eliot A. Cohen’s description of national elites does convey the same selfishness one finds among many small-town ladder-climbers:

The stories of [Ed] Whelan and [Judith] Butler [recounted in Cohen’s full essay] have nothing to do with whether one thinks Kavanaugh and Ronell did nothing at all or behaved appallingly. They have everything to do with the current crisis of American elites in many fields, including the law and higher education. For the lawyer and the professor are exquisitely similar. Their academic pedigree is magnificent: Harvard Law School, Yale graduate school. Their position in their profession is eminent, if detached from the rest of the world. If you are a liberal, you probably do not know or care that Whelan writes often for National Review and is a leading figure in conservative legal circles; if you do not know, or care to know, much about critical theory, the writings of Butler are academic in the unflattering sense of that term. But in their world, they are, if not royalty, lords of the realm.

Their motives here are also similar: Eminent friends are being taken down at the peak of their professional career by someone who is, in their world, a nobody. It’s outrageous, and it has to be stopped. And if, by so doing, you defame a classmate of Kavanaugh’s, accusing him of attempted rape, or effectively threaten to obliterate a graduate student’s career by lending a mob of literature professors the imprimatur of the MLA [Modern Languages Association], so be it. That is the point and that is the sin: the willingness to stomp hard on a defenseless little guy in order to protect your highly privileged pal.

Of the many forms of cruelty, that directed against those who are weak or powerless is one of the worst. Of itself, it undermines whatever legitimacy a person can claim by virtue of intellectual or professional distinction. Societies and governments will have elites—that is simply inescapable, except perhaps in an ancient city-state, and probably not even then. But in a free society, for those elites to exercise their power—their very real power, as those subject to it well know—they have to do so with restraint and good judgment. The alternative is, sooner or later, revolt, which is why higher education often finds itself battered by angry citizens who, in a different setting, conclude that the legal system, too, is rigged.

The libertarian impulse is, and always will be, to contend and balance against those who use powerful institutions for themselves and their few friends.  Those who have this tendency to climb so high as they can, into government in particular, and then kick down at any and all is not confined to major cities; small towns, too, have their share of this, albeit on a narrower scale.

That narrower scale, however, is not so much smaller that cliques, filled with a false sense of their own merit, cannot (and do not) torment anyone who interferes with their thin schemes and wide self-image.

Eliot A. Cohen’s essay, The Crisis of the American Elites, has a resonance even in this beautiful, but sometimes troubled, town.

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