Updates & musings on the manipulative Elites (the Lords of Style & Virtue thread)

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The new national American elite

EXCERPTS: . . . Both sides miss the real story of the evolution of the American class system in the last half century toward the consolidation of a national ruling class -- a development which is unprecedented in U.S. history. That’s because, from the American Revolution until the late 20th century, the American elite was divided among regional oligarchies. It is only in the last generation that these regional patriciates have been absorbed into a single, increasingly homogeneous national oligarchy, with the same accent, manners, values, and educational backgrounds from Boston to Austin and San Francisco to New York and Atlanta. This is a truly epochal development.

[...] Compared with previous American elites, the emerging American oligarchy is open and meritocratic and free of most glaring forms of racial and ethnic bias. ... Elite banks and businesses are desperate to prove their commitment to diversity. At the moment Wall Street and Silicon Valley are disproportionately white and Asian American, but this reflects the relatively low socioeconomic status of many Black and Hispanic Americans, a status shared by the Scots Irish white poor in greater Appalachia (who are left out of “diversity and inclusion” efforts because of their “white privilege”).

Immigrants from Africa and South America (as opposed to Mexico and Central America) tend to be from professional class backgrounds and to be better educated and more affluent than white Americans on average -- which explains why Harvard uses rich African immigrants to meet its informal Black quota, although the purpose of affirmative action was supposed to be to help the American descendants of slaves (ADOS). According to Pew, the richest groups in the United States by religion are Episcopalian, Jewish, and Hindu (wealthy “seculars” may be disproportionately East Asian American, though the data on this point is not clear).

Membership in the multiracial, post-ethnic national overclass depends chiefly on graduation with a diploma -- preferably a graduate or professional degree -- from an Ivy League school or a selective state university, which makes the Ivy League the new social register. But a diploma from the Ivy League or a top-ranked state university by itself is not sufficient for admission to the new national overclass. Like all ruling classes, the new American overclass uses cues like dialect, religion, and values to distinguish insiders from outsiders.

Dialect. You may have been at the top of your class in Harvard business school, but if you pronounce thirty-third “toidy-toid” or have a Southern drawl, you might consider speech therapy.

Religion. You may have edited the Yale Law Review, but if you tell interviewers that you recently accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or fondle a rosary during the interview, don’t expect a job at a prestige firm.

Values. This is the trickiest test, because the ruling class is constantly changing its shibboleths -- in order to distinguish true members of the inner circle from vulgar impostors who are trying to break into the elite. A decade ago, as a member of the American overclass you could get away with saying, along with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman, but I strongly support civil unions for gay men and lesbians.” In 2020 you are expected to say, “I strongly support trans rights.” You will flunk the interview if you start going on about civil unions.

More and more Americans are figuring out that “wokeness” functions in the new, centralized American elite as a device to exclude working-class Americans of all races, along with backward remnants of the old regional elites. In effect, the new national oligarchy changes the codes and the passwords every six months or so, and notifies its members through the universities and the prestige media and Twitter.

America’s working-class majority of all races pays far less attention than the elite to the media, and is highly unlikely to have a kid at Harvard or Yale to clue them in. And non-college-educated Americans spend very little time on Facebook and Twitter, the latter of which they are unlikely to be able to identify -- which, among other things, proves the idiocy of the “Russiagate” theory that Vladimir Putin brainwashed white working-class Americans into voting for Trump by memes in social media which they are the least likely American voters to see.

Constantly replacing old terms with new terms known only to the oligarchs is a brilliant strategy of social exclusion. The rationale is supposed to be that this shows greater respect for particular groups. But there was no grassroots working-class movement among Black Americans demanding the use of “enslaved persons” instead of “slaves” and the overwhelming majority of Americans of Latin American descent -- a wildly homogenizing category created by the U.S. Census Bureau—reject the weird term “Latinx.” Woke speech is simply a ruling-class dialect, which must be updated frequently to keep the lower orders from breaking the code and successfully imitating their betters... (MORE)
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How Americans came to distrust science, scientism, technocracy & its elite

EXCERPTS: . . . The postwar period, which we now remember as the “golden age” of American science, brought a society-wide reckoning with the place of science in modern culture. Critics of varied political and religious persuasions argued that even the horrors of atomic warfare paled in comparison to science’s capacity to unravel the social fabric itself. Science, they contended, replaced the familiar view of human beings as moral actors with a new conception that ignored their capacity for moral choice and reduced them to the status of animals or machines. Such arguments helped to pave the way for the upheavals of the late 1960s and 1970s, even as the radical theorists of that era altered critiques of science’s cultural effects to fit their own purposes. A tendency to trace social ills to the cultural sway of an ideologically infected science carried through that transformative period and up to our own day, even as the details of the indictment have changed.

[...] Across the political spectrum, citizens tend to pick and choose among scientific theories and applications based on preexisting commitments. They are frequently suspicious of basic research procedures as well; many believe that peer review and other internal policing mechanisms fail to remove powerful biases. Conservatives often charge that peer review enforces liberal groupthink, while some progressives say it leaves conventional social norms unexamined.

Even as individuals, scientists face growing skepticism. Concern about scientific misconduct is widespread, and most Americans doubt that the perpetrators face serious repercussions. Significant numbers trust the experts who apply knowledge more than those who produce it. And such suspicions are especially strong among Black and Latinx Americans—largely Democratic constituencies—as well as among Republicans. Viewing these patterns, many scientists fear that they now live in a “post-truth” world where much of the citizenry has turned against them. The March for Science movement launched in 2017 represents an unprecedented mobilization of rank-and-file researchers against perceived cultural and political threats to the scientific enterprise as a whole.

As the 2020s dawn, it is crucial to understand the sources and contours of this skepticism toward science and scientists. We stand on the brink of revolutions in fields from biotechnology to robotics to computing, even as global warming accelerates. As a result, arguments over science underlie some of our most divisive and consequential policy debates. From climate change to fracking, abortion to genetically modified foods—and much else besides—contemporary political battles generate disputes over the legitimacy of scientific theories, methodologies, institutions, concepts, and even facts. In this context, scholars, citizens, and policymakers must think carefully about science and its cultural and political ramifications. The prevailing views on these matters will significantly determine our future—and perhaps even our survival as a species. And to understand why science is so widely distrusted in the United States, it is essential to understand how that attitude has arisen.

[...] It may seem surprising that few Americans ascribed pernicious social effects to science before the 1920s. After all, a populist suspicion of elites and experts runs deep in American political culture. Yet that populist sentiment rarely targeted scientists before the 1920s. Many Americans viewed science as a kind of “people’s knowledge,” a practical, commonsense mode of reasoning that stood against all forms of elite authority. The political ascendance of Progressivism after 1890 made science increasingly central to governance, but the habitual identification of science with a populist rejection of authority largely persisted. Meanwhile, hardly any Americans believed that science had given their culture its distinctive character...

[...] But small groups of cultural critics began to trace social changes that alarmed them to the cultural influence of science. Some lamented the mobilization of science by city and state governments: in classrooms, where biology lessons and sex education courses violated conventional norms, and in mandatory vaccination programs, which involved state agencies intervening directly in citizens’ bodies. Other critics worried about the growing federal bureaucracy, which continued to gain regulatory authority despite the rightward shift in electoral politics after 1920. Still others thought a climate of utilitarianism and industrialism had corrupted politics and learning alike. The hedonistic tenor of the 1920s consumer culture and the violations of sexual propriety by Jazz Age youth also signaled to some critics a widespread loss of moral guideposts.

Above all else, however, loomed the popular vogue of psychology, with its emphasis on cultural conditioning, childhood traumas, and other nonmoral, nonrational causes of behavior. The post–World War I years witnessed an explosion of popular interest in all of the natural and social sciences. But psychology became a veritable craze [...leaders...] identified science as the source of a dangerously amoral worldview that had captured the public mind and eroded society’s cultural foundations. These critics of the 1920s levied a charge that would become increasingly common in subsequent decades: modern science had dissolved conventional understandings of the human person and led the entire culture astray.

Over time, the specific contours of this argument shifted with cultural and political changes. In the 1930s, the emergence of a moderate welfare state [...] fed into the powerful associative logic of commonsense reasoning, leading a number of Americans to equate science with the technocratic, managerial liberalism ... to question the authority of science and turning some critics of the social sciences against the welfare state. Meanwhile, many other skeptics argued in the 1930s and 1940s that the secularization of modern societies at the hands of scientists and their allies had created a moral vacuum that was filled by the totalitarian state.

[...] As the Cold War took hold, the New Deal state became the “national security state” and birthed the military-industrial complex. With science growing ever more central to American governance, both instrumentally and ideologically, all manner of critics concluded that a spiritually deadening, technocratic outlook was forcing American society into science’s inhuman mold. A scientific understanding of humanity, in this view, permeated the culture at large, having radiated outward from the universities to shape public opinion and policy formation. Reality itself, many thought, was changing to fit the narrow, reductive interpretation of the scientists and planners: People were treating one another like machines, and behaving more and more like machines themselves. Such fears often centered on the alarming prospect of social engineering—the possibility that social scientists could reshape personalities and social practices in keeping with predetermined ends. The power-hungry social engineer and the mindless technocrat became stock figures...

The threat here lay in science’s apparent denial of the moral freedom of the individual, which many critics believed had turned American liberalism into a near-copy of Soviet ideology. [...] Such critics identified science as a materialistic and deterministic mode of thought that reduced all phenomena to unchanging patterns of cause and effect, ruling out the existence of minds, ideals, values, and other nonmaterial entities. Applying this model to human behavior destroyed human autonomy and dignity, they argued.

[...] Above all, mid-twentieth-century critics emphasized science’s impact on philosophical anthropology: theories of the human person. ... Most critics sought to bring a seemingly amoral, nihilistic science under the sway of some version of “humanism” that emphasized the moral freedom of the individual. Varieties of humanism proliferated in response to the apparent threat from science: there were Christian, conservative, Marxist, classical, and literary humanisms, and many hybrids as well. Each portrayed the human person in immaterial, voluntaristic terms, ignoring the body and identifying exercises of individual subjectivity—valuing, preferring, choosing—as the truly human modes of behavior.

[...] In the sixties, left critics joined conservatives in arguing that scientism represented the characteristic ideology of a ruling elite. For these commentators, studying any subject scientifically meant applying a particular conceptual framework—a reductive, materialistic, mechanistic, and often quantitative lens. ... On this view, science embodied the mechanistic viewpoint of classical, nineteenth-century physics; it was isolated from normative claims and confined solely to spatiotemporal phenomena.

By definition, such a science was strictly neutral with regard to morality—and thus, the critics declared, utterly impotent as a guide in human affairs, except insofar as one’s goals were purely technical and instrumental. Although the scientific method fit the physical world, human dynamics stood outside the “nature” that scientists could explore. From this perspective, studying human beings scientifically meant assuming that they acted like physical objects. ... a growing number of critics considered this kind of “scientism” not only a faulty philosophy but also a dangerous cultural force that permeated the modern age—increasingly seen as an “age of science”—and had produced its characteristic problems. They traced social norms, cultural practices, government policies, and even wars to science’s amoral outlook. And such arguments appeared among critics from across the political spectrum and religious believers of virtually all theological persuasions.

These views of science and modern culture carried through to the 1960s, shaping that decade’s multiple, overlapping revolts. The left-wing humanism of many student radicals and activist professors often hewed surprisingly closely to the views of liberal, centrist, and even conservative commentators from the 1950s. They, too, portrayed a society relentlessly driven by technical imperatives to trample on human values at every turn. But the stream of humanistic criticism also flowed into new channels as it was caught up in the political earthquakes of the 1960s and 1970s.

Left critics now joined conservatives in arguing that scientism represented the characteristic ideology of a ruling elite. Yet these radicals identified science as a bulwark of traditional social norms, not a corrosive threat to such norms. They increasingly argued that science’s cultural influence buttressed social inequalities, keeping favored groups in power and others down. In the 1970s, left-leaning critics also ascribed pernicious effects to biology as well as the social sciences. Here, the target of criticism was not science’s morally relativistic character but rather its entanglement with assertions of innate group differences. This kind of argument circulated among critical scholars with growing frequency in the late twentieth century and shaped debates over biotechnology and other controversial issues.

Meanwhile, many free-market thinkers of the 1970s continued to link modern science to socialism as well as moral relativism. Over time, some eventually warmed to the anti-Darwinism of the burgeoning Christian Right, which would later deepen the convergence by adopting the economic conservatives’ climate denialism in the 1990s. [...] Since the 1970s, claims about science’s baleful cultural influence have anchored important strands of radicalism and conservatism, even as they have largely disappeared from the rhetorical arsenals of liberals and centrists.

From both ends of the political spectrum, one hears sweeping challenges to modernity, defined as an age of enthrallment to scientific rationality. [...] Recent critics have also linked science to capitalism and state power ... the underlying assertion persists: science causes serious social and political problems by enforcing faulty understandings of humanity. That mode of analysis is much less common among mainstream commentators today than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, but it remains influential in universities and among theological conservatives... (MORE - details)

Andrew Jewett (book): Science Under Fire: Challenges To Scientific Authority In Modern America
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Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule’s technocratic despotism

EXCERPTS: At first glance there is perhaps no odder couple in American higher education today than the Harvard law professors Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, whose intellectual partnership straddles the country’s widest political gulf. Sunstein’s and Vermeule’s diametrically opposed political commitments might appear to render their partnership not only implausible but unintelligible. And yet, for over a decade ... they defend the modern administrative state’s value in securing certain societal goods.

Yet there is also a sinister side to Sunstein and Vermeule’s redemption of administrative power — one that goes well beyond rejecting the libertarian anti-statism so common in American discourse. Law and Leviathan ends up embracing an extreme form of technocracy: rule by social-scientific elites.

[...] Sunstein and Vermeule were especially concerned with klatches of conspiracy theorists who held the American government responsible for the terrorist attacks. ... they proposed deploying government agents into civil society to conduct “cognitive infiltration” of “real-space” ... planting “doubts about … theories and stylized facts.”...

[...] How, exactly, would government agents manipulate these groups of citizens? Sunstein and Vermeule’s answer: They would draw on the latest work in cognitive psychology and sociology. Social science could exploit certain mental and social mechanisms to make available a vast new form of power. Such action was ethically justified by the consequentialism common to technocratic thinkers: In this view, a morally responsible political actor was one who was willing to manipulate a population on the basis of his mastery of the complex methods and theories allowing for quantified risk assessment.

[...] That social-scientific elites were in a position to determine moral policy was itself part of Sunstein and Vermeule’s wider argument about state executions. Indeed, they spent a significant portion of their paper speculating that those “who object to capital punishment” in light ... were exhibiting a thought process that was sub-rational — the “product of … cognitive error” that was unable to conceive of “statistical lives.”

In this way, the essay clearly expressed a central and enduring theme of Sunstein and Vermeule’s collaborations: namely, that a unique form of cognitive and moral authority was embodied in the person of the technocrat. Perhaps not surprisingly, Sunstein and Vermeule consistently argued that such technocrats should be given increasing powers. Those with expert knowledge in the human sciences — like Sunstein and Vermeule — were the major protagonists of political life.

In fact, technocratic predictions about human behavior have been notoriously unable to make good on their epistemic claims. [...] technocratic political authority of the kind espoused by Sunstein and Vermeule is premised on a form of knowledge that is unavailable. And if so, their vision of technocratic rule is neither rational or moral.

Sunstein and Vermeule’s most recent work, Law and Leviathan, charts a different course toward rescuing technocratic authority. This latest effort is not primarily centered on cost-benefit analysis, consequentialist arguments, or claims to a predictive knowledge of the mechanisms supposedly determining human behavior. Instead, Sunstein and Vermeule argue that administrative technocrats are to be trusted with broad decision-making powers because they are subject to an internal, rational, and binding law of morality. Throughout the book, they refer to this as “the morality of administrative law.”

[...] the principles Sunstein and Vermeule defend in Law and Leviathan are not merely moral precepts but “preconditions” for both the intelligibility and “efficacy of administrative law as law.” The result is a kind of midlevel, Kantian deontology for bureaucrats. (Deontology is a school of thought that holds morality consists in dutifully following rules.) The austere morality of rule-following as a precondition for a working bureaucracy is intended to allay critics’ fears of an expanded and potentially abusive administrative state...

[...] But here the problems begin, for although rules of consistency may be well and good, they are also simply too abstract to orient substantive action. The last four years of American public life have shown us that there is nothing about rules and norms that guarantees moral action. The culture and character of the people within the rules and institutions have everything to do with how the rules are interpreted and followed.

[...] Consider the vast difference in the ideological cultures Sunstein and Vermeule defend when they are not collaborating. In Nudge, [progressive] Sunstein and his co-author argue that ordinary people are subjected to frequent irrational biases that make them cognitively incapable of rational self-governance. Thus, what a rational and moral state requires is an expert class of social scientists ... who can “nudge” and manipulate citizens toward more rational behavior through the administrative apparatus. For Sunstein, the ultimate goal is a mix of libertarianism and welfarism that in many ways echoes the ideological culture of the Obama presidency...

[Conservative] Vermeule accepts Sunstein’s mechanism — the nudge — but his ends are somewhat different. He would put administrative rules at the service of re-Christianizing society. This is what Vermeule dubs “integration from within,” in which “elite administrators” [...] exercise the technocratic knowledge of “behavioral economics” in order to “nudge whole populations in desirable directions.” For Vermeule, that means abolishing the very liberal culture that bureaucrats in Sunstein’s regime would be seeking to nourish. Liberalism must be eliminated for its inexorable moral depravity...

[...] The morality of administrators is never enough to create a neutral, trustworthy bureaucracy. The real question is what political culture inhabits the bureaucracy. Ironically, some of the biggest pushback against the technocratic rule proposed by Sunstein and Vermeule comes from within the very political traditions they respectively claim to espouse — liberalism and Catholicism.

Liberal politics in its most influential variants — including John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and J.S. Mill — places a high value on individual autonomy and self-governance as central goals of political life. But there is a deep conflict between technocratic manipulation of populations and the goal of liberal individual agency, independence, and self-governance.

[...] From this perspective, it is not at all surprising to learn that Sunstein’s participation in the Obama administration spurred conspiracy theories that he was carrying out cognitive infiltration and other manipulation that imperiled civil liberties. Sunstein’s technocratic commitments are, in fact, not easily reconcilable with mainstream liberal values.

Similarly, Vermeule’s version of Catholicism is in tension with the church’s own teaching. Catholic theology is a form of ethical humanism [...] For this reason, Catholic social teaching has consistently and staunchly rejected consequentialist ethics that subordinate individual dignity to the sort of cost-benefit analysis that so frequently appears in Sunstein and Vermeule’s work...

At the heart of Sunstein and Vermeule’s flawed defense of technocracy is the failure to see that this form of politics is not simply a neutral tool for enacting vastly different ideological programs. Technocracy is instead a highly tendentious way to organize society around very specific conceptions of authority, knowledge, rationality, and power.

Indeed, technocracy today is in a state of crisis. [...] And yet despite all this ... technocratic thinking continues to flourish in American universities. Technocracy’s dominance in mainstream social theory is in fact partly an effect of the retreat of the humanities. As critics both inside and outside the university continue to ask humanists to justify the “value” of a liberal-arts education, funding streams are diverted to those whose approach to the knowledge of human behavior is more putatively practical and scientific.

Technocracy flourishes [...] because its advocates are able to borrow the prestige of the STEM disciplines to bolster their own authority. Claims to a science of human life have in this way helped generate well-funded and ultra-prestigious clusters of technocratic intellectual authorities atop which sit figures like Sunstein and Vermeule, called upon by American presidents. But technocrats, for all their (often spurious) methodological wizardry, cannot easily supplant the cultural and historical modes of explanation of humanists, nor humanists’ respect for the knowledge and agency of ordinary people... (MORE - details)

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