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In Defense of Elitism Paperback – August 1, 1995
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From Publishers Weekly
Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic Henry debunks ideas of inherent equality, arguing that not all achievements are the same.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
The late Henry (he recently died of a heart attack) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning culture critic for Time and a self-described white, Yale-educated, suburban, registered Democrat. One guesses he spent his youth being a liberal but, judging from this book, became another neoconservative in middle age because of the excesses of affirmative action, feminism, multiculturalism, etc. What the United States needs now, argues Henry, is elitism, which he never defines but which seems to mean a social system that rewards only competence, not skin color, gender, disability, etc. Henry never seems to appreciate fully how much talent was going unrewarded before affirmative action, feminism, etc., or that any human activity, no matter how worthy, is liable to silly or dangerous excesses. Unfortunately, this book may attract the attention of reactionaries like Henry, so academic and public libraries should consider it for purchase.
--Jeffrey R. Herold, Bucyrus P.L., Ohio
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Consider these observations from Vol. 1 of Democracy in America:
“There is, in fact, a manly and lawful passion for equality that incites men to wish all to be powerful and honored. This passion tends to elevate the humble to the rank of the great; but there exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to attempt to lower the powerful to their own level and reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom. Not that those nations whose social condition is democratic naturally despise liberty; on the contrary, they have an instinctive love of it. But liberty is not the chief and constant object of their desires; equality is their idol: they make rapid and sudden efforts to obtain liberty and, if they miss their aim, resign themselves to their disappointment; but nothing can satisfy them without equality, and they would rather perish than lose it.“
…And from Vol. II:
“Political liberty bestows exalted pleasures from time to time upon a certain number of citizens. Equality every day confers a number of small enjoyments on every man. The charms of equality are every instant felt and are within the reach of all; the noblest hearts are not insensible to them, and the most vulgar souls exult in them. The passion that equality creates must therefore be at once strong and general. Men cannot enjoy political liberty unpurchased by some sacrifices, and they never obtain it without great exertions. But the pleasures of equality are self-proffered; each of the petty incidents of life seems to occasion them, and in order to taste them, nothing is required but to live."
"I think that democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves, they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery. They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism, but they will not endure aristocracy."
"This is true at all times, and especially in our own day. All men and all powers seeking to cope with this irresistible passion will be overthrown and destroyed by it. In our age freedom cannot be established without it, and despotism itself cannot reign without its support.”
In Defense of Elitism is a thoughtful and engaging reflection on what may be the inevitable development of democratic egalitarianism.
I mention economic because there is general comfort with those who succeed in music, entertainment, art, athletics, literature and even ideas. We rarely begrudge their success or somehow believe it was ill-gotten or at the expense of others. But when it comes to economic success, it is altogether different. Society in general seems to be enraged despite the overwhelming evidence that the competition to succeed economically is by and large no different than other walks of life. I find it very interesting how people praise the lottery winner in virtually every way but will find all manner of illegitimacy in wealth acquired through business endeavors. Perhaps it is because it is so much easier to recognize the elite in these other areas - we know when we see superior talent on stage or on the court. Henry's book will help you think much deeper in this area.
My only complaint about the book and it is perhaps a big one, is that Henry doesn't direct the reader to the mountain of other work and evidence that supports his claims. There is a wealth of information out there on this subject. So the book is largely narrative (as is this review, but I encourage you to use your search engine). If you come to reading it with a predisposition that supports his views you will like it, if you come with a view in opposition, Henry will likely not change your mind. But do your own research this book provokes.
Talent, drive, willingness to work very hard and take risk are attributes that simply are not uniformly distributed among people. And environment will not change that fact very much. And we all benefit from the successful. All these facts are contentious and may be hard to accept. The facts are neither good nor bad, they just are.
For a more libertarian view on the vanities of egalitarianism read Murray Rothbards essays in "Egalitarianism, a Revolt against Nature".
The one point that I remember disagreeing with William A Henry on was his support of establishing equality of opportunity. I believe in equality in terms of the law being applied as equally as possible, but equality of opportunity seems a dangerous slippery slope to advocate. Sure I want everyone to have opportunities and succeed, but when we as a society try to level the playing field for one little thing in order to try to create more equal opportunity, how do we know when to stop? It becomes a heap problem in philosophical terms: when does another grain of the sands of egalitarianism become a heap that really marks the promotion of equality of outcomes? I don't think Wiiliam a Henry argued against this danger. Yet he does argue strongly against egalitarianism and the resulting sickness of obsessing over equality of outcomes in all walks of life from workplace salaries and hiring practices to education and sports.