A Natural History of Elitism
From an interesting 50-minute discussion between Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro in November, while discussing common backgrounds in California, Carlson made the offhand comment, “We’re both elites”.
Well, as a matter of fact, they are. Only do they know what kind?….for there are several types of elites in a typical community; social, political, economic, even moral and educational.
And by whose appointment? That’s the question that separates America from all the organized societies and governments through history.
You see, unless a large group of people inside a particular society designates or commonly accepts one to be one its “elites” he or she really isn’t. The self-proclaimed “elite” is really an “elitist” which most people don’t want to go around bragging about, for it’s just a polite way of calling oneself a wannabe, and “Dig me, so you Come on down and buy whatever it is I’m selling.”
We’re seeing a lot of that these days.
A free people creates its own elites. We’ve acquired our own land, started our own businesses, and written our own histories, most of them found in county records and newspapers, still the preferred and most believed media in America.
In America the order of ranking elites is much less rigid than the rest of the world. Elitists hate that and call it populist. But that’s the lesson here. For while the rest of the world’s order of rank for its elites was more or less set into stone from the 9th until the 19th Century, America changed the rules by imposing a kind of natural law of ranking and everyone just naturally went along with it. Virtually every county in America, every town, even village built on the last fork of the last creek that feeds the smallest river in the territory, has its founding elites, that sign coming into town usually memorializing them. And other street signs remember other prominent citizens as well. One county in Kentucky even has a marker in front of the house owned by “the only man in Washington County to vote for Lincoln in 1860”.
You can see how discombobulated this made the Ancient World Order, and the whole idea of a hereditary, privileged elite who owned everything and named everything.
In a humorous sidebar to this history is to note that there was no such thing as an “educated elite” until relatively recently. For one, the people who had owned all the land of Europe for a thousand years had no great need to be very educated, but they did have great need for competent factotums to keep their books, pay wages and bills. The same for lawyers since the lords were the Law, thus requiring little interpretation and almost no public debate, and probably subbed them out to the kitchen staff during the “Tournament season”, (see below).
This was especially galling for university professors, until it finally came to head, possibly egged on in some part by Karl Marx, whose own personal beef with capitalists was not unlike the centuries-long beef universities had with the Nobility, over what was little more than a complaint about pay and R-e-s-p-e-c-t in a period when being educated and book smart had no real market value. (Ask Ben Franklin or any other clever person in Colonial America looking to make a good living and reputation without having to tend a farm, or afford one.). A mini-revolution by professors erupted in Europe in 1848, but was quickly put down, the professors forgetting that the only real practical educations to be had in Europe in those days were at the several military academies. And those graduates were all on the Nobility’s payroll.
As for lawyers, in Japan, when I was with the Army, and we discussed labor-management issues the (still-medieval) Japanese brought no attorneys to the meetings while Americans flew in teams from the States. And now, if you visit their website, you’d know how much the same people have progressed. Much to the chagrin of the Federal Bar Association, who complained loudly because Japanese corporate bosses sent their lawyers out to get coffee while our lawyers sat there with no one to talk to. Embarrassed and belittled, our lawyers came home outraged when they tried to discuss things of a business nature in which the Japanese principals knew so much more than they did. I can confirm from my own stint in industry in the 1980s, lawyers hate this kind of second-class citizenship in the boardroom, and it would be the 1980s before Japanese bosses started bringing their attorneys to the meetings, just to placate American politicians’ genuflection to the bar association.
As a lighter aside, I’m told that what we may be witnessing in America today might be God’s little back-handed “the joke’s on us” sense of humor, which He plays from time to time. But the fact that a person who has a degree in Economics from a major northeastern university may not therefore be entitled to be placed alongside America’s “educated elite” for that reason alone, is funny.
I simply hope that Tucker Carlson, in claiming membership for Ben Shapiro and himself in an elite club had something more favored by Nature in mind than that which we’re witnessing today.
But I want to distinguish America from all the rest, for we did turn the original applecart of social rankings upside down. And I get the sense, by reading American history, it was on purpose.
(In a series of commentaries we’re drafting at “Vets in Class” at VeteransTales.org, we inquire into the nature of what distinguishes America from the rest of the World, in culture and achievements. It’s largely about American Firsts and First Principles, none of which are matched by other nations throughout history. Please look in from time to time, as it’s a work in progress. And dropping a few dollars there would be appreciated as well.)
Take Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, who represented more than one type of elite in America. By 1776 he was a preeminent example of “landed gentry” in the American colonies, a Gentleman, a separate class in English society, the highest rank a man could attain without having a peerage bestowed by the King, and the title “Sir” attached to his name.
But only 30 years earlier Tom was a lower-born son of a surveyor who married well, and acquired land to grow tobacco, a profitable export cash crop ever since Queen Bess puffed on her first stogie. His father, Peter, was never formally educated (much like Benjamin Franklin), but did well enough to bequeathe 5000 acres of the family land to Thomas.
By the time of the Revolution almost all the American elites came from similar backgrounds. self-made men, farmers in the northeast, primarily New York and Massachusetts, and plantations in the South, Virginia and the Carolinas, most of whom were scarcely three generations deep. They still had dirt under their fingernails and callouses on their hands, something European nobles hadn’t known for half a millennium. All that land had to be cleared by teams of horses, sweat and blisters, the houses and outbuildings built by the owners, family and hired men.
Thomas Jefferson designed and built (and redesigned and rebuilt) Monticello himself, by his own sweat so was not sitting on the front porch sipping a mint julep.
So it was all up and down the American social ladder.
60 years later, Abraham Lincoln’s family had been in America for about seven (7) generations, the opposite of Jefferson, but his generation was still living in a log cabin, when, as a boy he borrowed a book, The Life of Washington, by Parson Weems, and possibly even read it by the light of the cabin fireplace, as we were taught in elementary school. That book and Thomas Paine shaped Lincoln’s political thinking all the way into the presidency in 1860 (so sayeth Richard Brookhiser, whose several biographies of the Founders, and current biography of John Marshall, I heartily recommend.)
Also, “mercantile elites” were rising up, creating wealth in other ways, built on the seagoing trade in Boston and Philadelphia, and later Charleston and Savannah. Those families, too, would be part of the core of the Patriots in 1776.
But these were only the second tier of elites in America at the time, never actually recognized until after the Revolution.
The first tier, the Who’s Who of America of 1776, would be luminaries who would make up what Americans have grown to know as Tories who remained loyal to the Crown.
It was only natural that this cream of Colonial society would remain loyal to the King, since he was in fact, the fountain from “whom all (rank and) blessings flowed”. They also thought there was no way they could lose.
Some Tories were mean and villainous, others not so bad, and who only picked the wrong horse. But all were quickly forgotten to history. Just ask Wikipedia, who lists all the Great American Tories and see if you ever heard of a single one.
By rank, they were the governors, appointed by the King, all the ranking bureaucrats and factotums who carried on the business of the Crown for the various colonies, including tax collection.
And then there were all the great educators, university and college presidents, and their staff.
And almost all the Churchmen from the English churches, who doubled as Education elites besides Religious elites. Yale was originally founded as a divinity school for second and third sons of landed farmers who could not inherit the family land (Primogeniture) so were guaranteed a very nice situation at a church. Yale was our first trade school?
Just like today, their elites lived in their own end of town, had their own parties and dances, and never hung out in ale houses with the colonial hoi polloi.
And yes, of course, the Press, which was always tied to the ruling classes in government and society, and will always try to be.
The essential fact about the Elites of ’76 is that they disappeared from history to be replaced by a new-and-improved American elite, almost overnight.
Like everything that had thrived in Nature for a thousand years, the ancient design of Social Elitism never completely died out. Nor have the Media, the pilot fish that yearn to swim with them, nor the wannabe camp-following cliques who follow every hint of a permanent power structure. It’s in their DNA.
In fact, the urge to lord it over one’s fellow man is actually more natural to Man as loving his neighbor as himself, so it depends on Who can get to men first. Again, America took the ancient laws of power out of the equation.
The ancient laws.
For over five hundred years the ownership of land defined social rank. In Europe there was a legal pecking order, the Feudal System, which ordained that only land owners could be the true Nobility. And since all those lands of Europe were first taken in war by tribal chiefs who would later come to call themselves kings, all subsequent takings of their land would be by the same process, war, only by different men who would call themselves kings (if they won), but forever preservingg the notion that all the property of Europe was owned by those kings.
(America was the first example where “mere people” took land away from a king, throwing that entire legal concept into chaos.)
How the Nobility became the Second Estate instead of the First was that the Nobility feared for their souls. So they inked a power-sharing arrangement with the Roman Church in 800 AD, naming the Church the First Estate, and themselves, the Nobility, the Second Estate, based on the general promise that no matter how barbarous and brutal kings lived their lives, if they confessed on their deathbeds, they would be spirited off to Heaven. How very clever. And demonic.
The fly in the buttermilk was that all the rest of society was lumped into the Third Estate, or commoners, the vast majority of whom were the property of the Land, serfs, meaning that every time a new king took the land, the people living on it was his property as well.
It was all very legal, and lasted for close to 700 years.
The problem was that this system had never made any adjustments for the rising Merchant Class (to which Benjamin Franklin, and much later, the immigrant Trump family would belong) so that by the 14th Century the Merchant Class possessed more than half the actual money in Europe.
The Nobility hated this class, largely because they managed their money so much better. Merchants always seemed to run surpluses in money, with loose cash laying around, while the Ruling Class/ Political Class were always running short., They were horrible money managers since they had virtually nothing to do with earning it, so had to often go on bended knee to borrow from the hated merchants. To make matters worse, the Merchants were largely foreigners, even worse, many were Jews.
(From an earlier essay about French serfs, consider the outlays their status alone foisted upon them:)
Nobles had to pay for staff and general castle upkeep, ordinary fixed overhead; the torch bills, extra rock for mortar, etc. And maintain their military. But then there were those damnable off-the-books expenses; the wife and daughters’ dress allowance down at Sachs Fifth de la Rue, the mistresses’ (plural) upkeep, weekend wenching money (petite cash) and then the priest’s special indulgences for absolution for all those mistresses and wenches (often taken out in trade), not to mention the oligatory war to assist the King, or a cousin invading Austria, or quelling an uprising in his own fief, or settling a land dispute, of which, in 14th Century France alone, over a thousand are recorded.
Finally, the parties (Wow!), called “tournaments” in those days, which, even in the darkest and most desperate days of want in the country, ran for five-six days at a stretch, with a whole lot of slapping and tickling, fine dresses, both buttoned and not, sumptuous feasts for up to 200-300 guests, over half the food never touched then thrown out, only not to the poor serfs in the village, but slops for the swine.
How America pulled this reshaping of Human History off
The story of Lincoln’s connection to the Founders, above, (per Richard Brookhiser), bears two key elements of how free people pass on their culture absent in the European system: the Handshake and a gratitude to the Shoulders the citizens stand on,
I’m a little bit of a broken record about this, I know, but it wasn’t that the Founders agreed to shake hands with the lower classes, but that they insisted on it, extending their hand to them, as in a binding contract. It was key to the entire Constitutional design. I taught Business Law to Soviet emigres in the early 90s. All were professionals, engineers and doctors. When we discussed contracts, they saw it only as a piece of paper, so I introduced them to “the handshake”, and then said it all begins with a “meeting of the minds”. Then we shook hands and they understood contract.
The contract between the Founding elites and the people of the United States is that the political leadership will promise to defend the people’s right to pursue life, liberty and wealth, so long as the people will promise to refill the national coffers with fine leadership. Reciprocity, which is a secular version of the Golden Rule, Mt 7;12)
From this we get some idea as to the kinds of shoulders we all stand on, just as Lincoln and Jefferson learned in their own way.
A lot of self-appointed elites believe that the ranking system designed by the Founders and contracted with the people is not natural, and the system they prefer, as designed by French kings in 800 AD, is.
We will always have a political class. We always did have a political class. But it cannot be allowed to live independent of us. That’s France, not America.
We will always have a Media. But its relevance will depend on us, not the political class. Medias come and go. The people can make any media irrelevant simply by pulling the plug on the lawmakers the Media needs to have hear them first.
We will always have a bureaucracy of sniveling clerks. But we also get to determine the size, and cost of it. And to be able to send the deadbeats packing. The most oppressive of killers of freedom, they operate under their own natural laws, as do predators in the wild, if allowed to get big enough to untether themselves from their relationship with the people.
This is what makes American unique in the natural world of political elites.
With this lesson learned, in Mark Twain’s words, (sort of)
Elitism is anti-democratic.
Elitism in un-American.