The Revolt of the Elites
VTR Date: March 17, 1995
Guest: Wall, James
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: James M. Wall
Title: “The Revolt of the Elites”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And I’m pleased to welcome back to this table an old friend who over the years has consistently brought to our discussions a perspective identified with the religious sensitivities and sensibilities he looks for but seldom encounters among our intellectual leaders, one he too often finds disparaged at worst, or, at best, woefully misunderstood by them.
James M. Wall is the longtime editor of the distinguished national publication, “The Christian Century”. Late in 1994, he wrote in “The Christian Century” a particularly compelling editorial analyzing aspects of the late Christopher Lasch’s posthumously published W. W. Norton volume entitled “The Revolt of the Elites, and the Betrayal of Democracy”. And since Dr. Wall’s thinking seemingly resonates so powerfully with so much of what Christopher Lasch criticized about America’s contemporary elite, I thought it well to invite him here today to discuss whether these elites do betray democracy, just as intellectuals once thought the masses would. Jim?
WALL: Good morning. Glad to be here.
HEFFNER: Do they betray?
WALL: Terribly so. Let me tell you. I got very interested, first of all, in Robert Reich’s work because of the way he talks about symbolic analysis as a way of viewing the world, way of viewing workers. But I found on e thing missing in Reich, and it bothered me when I read his essays. Now, this is our Secretary of Labor who has written extensively in this area. And what was missing was: What are the standards by which the intellectuals of our society, the elites of our society, make judgments? What are the standards by which this leadership community determines what are the good and the bad elements of society? And that was missing. Then I read Christopher Lasch’s book, and I said, “This is what I’ve been looking for”. Because Lasch says the problem with Reich’s analysis, as good an analysis as it is, is that it simply does not have a baseline standard. It’s so relativistic. That’s typical of contemporary intellectuals. So relativistic. Whatever works is good; whatever feels good is good; whatever I want to do is good. And Lasch really goes after him for this, and goes after the elites for this, because of the damage it does to democracy. That’s a long answer to your question. Yes, it’s very damaging to democracy.
HEFFNER: What do you mean when you say “damaging to democracy”? Damaging to the will of the people? Damaging to the way our government functions?
WALL: How can a people, a free people, who must choose themselves as to how they want to function and to be governed, how can they do that if they don’t have some commonality among themselves regarding standards of what are good and bad? If they don‘t have some sense of civil limits, as Lasch describes it? If they don’t have some common agreement that this is a good direction to go in or this is a bad direction to go in?
HEFFNER: Yes, but in a sense, Jim, over the years, when you and I have spoken at this table, you’ve sort of said that there is a common sense of common purpose. And what Lasch is saying is that the elite rejects this. But one could go further and say that the elite rejects this because it’s not acceptable, because the common sense and the common purpose that manifests itself in our democracy is so below the levels that we could repair to.
WALL: See, I wouldn’t call it common sense or common purpose; I would call it a sense of values in the American democracy, which I have to say are rooted in a religious tradition. Now, that’s very important here. Where else will you turn for your values if you don’t turn to the highest ideals of a given set of people?
HEFFNER: Yet, in the times we’ve spoken together we’ve looked around at American life, at American society, and you, as I, have so often decried what we have seen in popular entertainment, in news presentations, etcetera. Is that not a fair statement?
WALL: Yes, we do decry that, because – and I’m with Lasch at this point – over the years, the elites, the secular leadership of this nation, have moved us away from depending upon values and have basically said to the masses, “Whatever feels good, we can do; whatever works is okay”. And there disappears any sense of a baseline of principle or values. And part of this is driven by the hard secularity of the elite leadership of this country. Hard secularity. They’re so fearful, fearful that somebody is going to moralize or sermonize. Whenever someone criticizes this point of view, they will always throw out those words: “sermonizing, moralizing”. Not feeling that this is something you have a right to tell me, because I’m an independent person and can do what I think best.
HEFFNER: Yes, but look, Lasch’s title: “The Revolt of” – and I don’t want to limit this to Lasch’s book, of course, despite your fascinating column on it – “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy”. If you define “democracy” as “the will of the people”, are you saying, “Well, what has become the will of the people has become that as a result of the manipulation by the elites?”
WALL: I would be willing to say something akin to that. I don’t like to make something so simplistic that, “Because this happened, this happened”. But our leadership community…Now, let’s be clear about what we mean by this. I mean the community that runs our institutions of the academy, of the media, of business, of all of those segments of society that sort of tell us which way we’re moving through society. And that’s where Robert Reich’s notion of the symbolic analyst is so helpful. These are the symbolic analysts, people who analyze symbols. They may be movie producers…
HEFFNER: I notice you put movie producers first in your column.
WALL: First. That’s right. They may be computer programmers, academic professors, architects, stockbrokers, financial planners. Those people whose ideas are put together and shape how we think. They will be high-school principals, they will be kindergarten teacher, they will be people who shape how we think. And if you do not have a baseline that the community in general is accessible to and agrees to, then you are struggling in your elitism without a way of helping people to make solid decisions.
HEFFNER: How would you remedy that?
WALL: I would remedy it by not being so quick to reject the notion of a religious sensibility ahs a word to say to our society. In all of the complex problems that this society deals with, and they are many, the homelessness, the balanced budget issue, the abortion issue, the cultural war issues, of which abortion is a major one, we ought not to hesitate to say, “If the religious sensibility has an input to make here, let’s listen to it”. Because I think, deep down – remember now, I’m talking about how the society has been shaped by the elitists that I’ve described form the academy and from the media and from business associations and business itself, but I’m also referring to the religious community’s ability – not always very well done, but they work at it – to get the basic, average citizen to think theologically, to think out of a religious sensibility in our society – so there is this residue of potential in our society because we have a community of religious background that thinks this way, and therefore, if we acknowledge it and permit this thought to come forward then we will have more creativity coming out of the people.
HEFFNER: You know, I shared with you just a few moments ago this other review of the Lasch book, Walter Kirn’s “Beat the Elite”. Not a bad title, because that’s what you’re doing…
WALL: Beating up on the elite, exactly.
HEFFNER: …beating up on the elite, and that’s what Lasch did. Makes it sound like something we’ve seen and known of a long, long time ago, continually, in fact, in American life. He refers to Lasch’s grim – and you got a kick out of this – Old Hickory sermon, that it’s “rich in innuendo, a populist rhetoric of derision that stayed remarkably constant over the years, whether the bad buys are city slickers, hippies, jet-setters, yuppies, eggheads, or reds, members of an aristocracy of brains”. Now, it does sound familiar, doesn’t it?
WALL: Well, it’s been a struggle all the way thorough American culture and Western culture. After all, what Lasch is reminding us is that at one time in the Western civilization, people who have had the responsibility to make decisions of leadership – in a democracy people still make decisions regarding leadership — at one time they had, Lasch would argue, a sense of responsibility. I have wealth. I’m a nobleman in England. I have wealth that has come to me not necessarily because of what I did, but because my family has passed it on to me. With that wealth comes responsibility to care for those who don’t have as much as I do. So sort of an ingrained sense of responsibility is there in the leadership in previous generations and in previous centuries. But today’s leadership that has wealth says, in effect, “I got this on my own; I’m going to spend it on my own. I’m going to make more no matter what impact this making more has on the rest of society”. Now that is really fundamentally what I think Lasch is arguing about why we have elites that have revolted against democracy.
HEFFNER: It’s interesting that it is true that we once thought that the masses themselves would betray democracy. The revolt of the masses would do in a democracy. But following what you said, and going back to Kirn’s review, he says, “The elites’ greatest crime, however, in paraphrasing Lasch, is social secession. They are high-class dropouts, ruthless, restless, at home only in transit”. And that’s what you’re talking about too, aren’t you?
WALL: Right. They’ve dropped out of community responsibility. They have said, “I have made money by manipulating symbols in this society, either as a movie producer, a television station owner, or as an academic, I have made money doing that. And what really matters is that I kept hat money to provide for my own little, narrow family, or for myself, my pleasure. Because I have this money I’m going to buy myself a big boat and I’m going to ride up and down the coast in that big boat. I earned it; I’m entitled to it”. That’s seceding from community responsibility.
HEFFNER: Jim, isn’t that a function of the marketplace notion that dominates our society?
WALL: Marketplace definitely dominates our society. And I believe in the market focus. But if you have market without values, if you have market without a standard, if you have marketing that says, “The only thing that matters if it sells”, then you have a very sour market.
HEFFNER: But, Jim, how else would one phrase it if the bottom line in a marketplace psychology or philosophy is the bottom line?
WALL: All right. But the buyer that buys that which anybody’s willing to sell without a sense of values, the buyer not being trained, if you will, by the elites, to have their own sense of responsibility, their own sense of dedication to the larger community, will buy whatever comes along, will watch these atrocious television talk shows where people are exploited.
HEFFNER: Now, now, now.
WALL: Not this kind of talk show. This is a very high-level talk show. But I mean the kind of talk shows where, “My sister slept with my first cousin, and my mother didn’t mind”, that sort of stuff. People will buy that sort of thing. It’s the level of the purchaser where the market drives us into that kind of thing.
HEFFNER: But, Jim, again I come back. How is that which is voted for by increasing numbers of people, seemingly majorities, how is that a betrayal of democracy, which is supposedly an expression of the will of the people?
WALL: Because when taste is corrupted, the democracy that determines taste is betrayed.
HEFFNER: Oh, come on, Jim, you’re the elitist. You were the one who was saying, “We cannot permit the people to do what they will do”.
WALL: No, I’m saying we’ll permit the people to do what they will do because we are a democracy. But we haven’t done an adequate job to train the people to know good from bad, to know right from wrong, to know certain language is pleasantly heard and certain language is offensive. Hate crimes are so easily fallen into by people. Whose fault is that? It’s the fault of the people who are guilty of hate crimes; it’s also the fault of a society that creates an environment that makes hate crimes sort of, yes, the thing to do.
HEFFNER: Should I reply that, “Dear Brutus, the fault lies not in our stars but in”, you know where, “in ourselves”?
HEFFNER: But then why, why do you insist upon this picture of us, or we the people, as so weak, being without standards, that we can be moved, pushed, deeded, molded by these elites who have seceded from society?
WALL: Well, the evidence is there that the people are so molded. We begin with that premise. What do we have out there? The evidence is there that the people are begin molded in a position where…I’m bothered by even some of the good things that come out of the mega-churches that are springing up among Protestants. And they have value to them, but nevertheless they basically say to the people, “What do you want?” They go out and they test the market, and the market tells them, “Well, we want a religion that doesn’t have a cross up in front of us”. So, okay, we’ll drop that. “We want a religion that has pop music on Sunday morning rather than these traditional hymns”. Fine. We’ll do it. Whatever you want, we’ll give you. Now, that kind of society that seems to ignore tradition, that seems to ignore the past, where things were passed along…You reject the past that’s invalid, but you hold onto the past where it has some merit and continues to strengthen the community.
HEFFNER: Would you modify what you say there to say that that sort of society that chooses to reject tradition, that chooses to reject the trappings of religious or philosophical patterns of the past, that chooses? You want to leave out this concept of choice.
WALL: Oh, no. Choice is…
HEFFNER: You talk about imposition. The elites have imposed this upon us.
WALL: No. The elites have imposed upon the democracy that chooses to drop its standards. It’s done so by bringing them up from kindergarten to graduate school to say secular ways of thinking are superior to religious ways of thinking. So in the process of choosing, voters, if you will, or tastemakers, or taste-acceptors; in society are doing so without a standard that comes out of what I think is meaningful in this country, namely, a religious tradition.
HEFFNER: Suppose you were to say that the elites have failed democracy by not continuing to make the kinds of demands that their predecessors did, that Jefferson and Madison and Lincoln and others did, that they failed, in a sense, to impose, by leadership, the standards that you want – and I agree with you in your desire to have us repair to those standards – but to say that this is a betrayal of democracy is very, very strange, I think a contradictory thing to say.
WALL: It’s funny you would find it strange, because I find it very consistent. You mention Abraham Lincoln, who was truly one of the great, theologically-oriented presidents that we’ve ever had. A man who respected the public, but led the public by reminding them, as he spoke throughout the Civil War, with his Northern side, and to the South as well, “Neither side is right in this battle. We both know that we come into this battle with our own self-interests at stake. And so let us not lord it over the other side. Let us simply acknowledge the errors we’ve made and move forward”. This is the theological leadership from a presidential office. He was a man who knew how to do that. He didn’t impose this world view on the public, but he tapped into a religious sensibility that was present in the public to which he was speaking, and I think they responded to that.
HEFFNER: Jim, let me repeat a question that I asked before. What’s the word? Remedy? I don’t know that that’s the right word. But what hope is there that you see, and how do you see it?
WALL: I hope, by making the case over and over again that I’m endeavoring to make here with you today, that a remedy is to say, “Let us honor the religious traditions that are present in this country”. And as we move into the 21st Century, those traditions will expand to include a lot of other religions besides Judaism and Christianity and Islam. A lot of the Eastern religions are growing. Let us honor the ultimacy element in our society. In a secular culture, where ultimacy is so resisted. That’s the remedy. You know, the Supreme Court is going to have to decide that we have as much right to practice our religion as we have to be protected for it in the church/state division. And our school systems are going to have to be more willing to speak of character development and of standards. And since the Ten Commandments happen to be a fairly basic document to the American culture, we might even, not necessarily teach them, but to suggest these as guidelines that have worked pretty well for your predecessors in life. That’s remedy.
HEFFNER: And you press the notion that the remedy would be found within the context of a religious sensitivity, not an ethical or philosophical?
WALL: Right, right. Because I prefer, because I find this American culture in which I live…If I were in Pakistan today, I would address this issue from the Pakistani point of view. I am speaking of the American religious/cultural scene, and I think that our base values come out of a religious point of view.
HEFFNER: When you say “base values”, you mean…
WALL: The baseline from which you make judgments as to what’s right or wrong.
HEFFNER: And the base values on which we act comes from this elite. You didn’t base it another way.
WALL: They guide…The elite teaches, trains, and shapes. That’s their purpose. That’s what Reich is referring to as a “symbolic analyst”. Our symbols are manipulated by the elites.
HEFFNER: And the role that you play as a clergyman and as an editor?
WALL: As an editor, and as an ordained clergyperson, I am a symbolic analyst. And I have a big responsibility to analyze symbols and to communicate symbols. By “symbols”, I mean metaphorically ways of speaking about reality and patterns of life from my perspective, which happens, in my case, to be that of a Christian person. I would like others who have their own sense of ultimacy to do the same from their perspective.
HEFFNER: And in the world of the future, as we reach the next century, do you see your hopes and aspirations for the nature of democracy being fulfilled? Or do you see more of the same?
WALL: I suspect it will not be what I want it to be. I suspect it will not be the perfection that I would want us to have. We never will reach that. But I think, yes, we can make progress in that direction. There is still a revulsion among the people going on right now about what kind of manipulation is happening in the movies that they get, in the television that their children are exposed to. That kind of revulsion will say, “What can we do about this?” Now, the danger of that is harsh censorship directed by a limited number of people. That’s not democracy. The people should decide we don’t like this, and create some kind of change in these patterns.
HEFFNER: And you see this, in your crystal ball, as happening?
WALL: I think so. I think it’ll…We go in cycles, I’ll admit this. But I can see that once enough people are revolted by what the elites have given us in terms of our lack of moral standards and lack of values, there will be a revolt in that direction. And the danger, of course, is that we will then move closer to a moralistic point of view, which will, again, have to be corrected. We don’t want that in a democracy.
HEFFNER: Why not? You deplore its absence.
WALL: Moralism…I don’t deplore its absence. I’m saying that’s the end result of the extreme of moving back into a sense of values. Morality I support. Moralism, which is the negative side of morality, I don’t support.
HEFFNER: We have two minutes remaining. Let’s put it right on the table. To what degree do you see this instance, the Christian Right, as becoming a greater and greater power in revolt against what you’ve described?
WALL: They are also in revolt against elites. In that sense, I’m with them, in the sense that they’re bothered by the same thing I’m bothered by. Their alternative, however, is a form of moralism, is a form of imposing a relatively narrow range of solutions. I mean, they have very concrete ideas about how you’re going to solve this problem. You’re going to give everybody a rifle or a pistol. You’re not going to take away people’s right to bear arms. You’re going to have some very precise guidelines regarding abortion, which means no option for choice. You’re going to do a lot of things like this which they have decided is right. That’s not the direction I want us to go. I want us to go in a direction when the people generally will decide out of their common understanding of what is religiously driven rather than the very narrow focus that the religious right brings to us.
HEFFNER: I understand what you expect from the elites. I don’t understand how you expect to find that sensitivity arising from the masses of people.
WALL: It’s there already, to some extent. Remember, the masses, by and large, go to synagogue, go to church, go to mosque. By and large, they do. So the potential is there for tapping a resource within the people if the elites would stop saying, “What you do on Sunday or Saturday or Friday is okay, but keep it there”. The elites keep saying that. And the people who do these things on Friday or Saturday or Sunday and go to their worship centers want to say “No” to the elites, and say, “No, I think it applies the other five days of the week, too”.
HEFFNER: Well, Dr. James Wall, let’s set that against a political perspective. So stay where you are, if you will, and let’s do another program, relating it to the political scene in America. Okay?
WALL: All Right.
HEFFNER: Good. Thank you.
WALL: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time, too. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, please write: THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $4.00 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.