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The “Establishment” in perspective: notes for a 50th anniversary reunion at Harvard

My feelings about my alma mater are bitter sweet. It was not and is not an unqualified force for good in our country. But then again no human institution ever is.

The “Establishment” in perspective: notes for a 50th anniversary reunion at Harvard

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

 

Establishment as a concept has gotten a lot of use and abuse in the 2016 presidential election campaign. From the start of his race in the Republican primaries, Donald Trump denounced the political Establishment as a bunch of stuffed shirts, elitists who are out of touch with the voting public. They are looking after their own interests at home and abroad, let the public be damned, he said. The line-up of mealy-mouthed opponents he faced in debates, starting with Jeb Bush, served as exemplary targets of the longstanding indignation against the powers-that-be of not only Tea Party loyalists but of the majority of rank-in-file party members, which is why Donald did so well at the Convention. There are those who are betting that the populist wave Donald is riding will pick up traditional core Democrats in the blue collar segment of the electorate, as Ronald Reagan did in his run for the presidency. Or will Hillary Clinton, who has embraced the Establishment values and solicited its support in both parties, carry the day, as her present 6% lead in the polls suggests? Time will tell.

Given its top of mind position today, Establishment was a key word in my notes for a class yearbook that will be part of the 50th anniversary reunion celebrations of my Harvard College Class of 1967 next May. The second key word was Veritas, Harvard’s one word institutional mission statement that was cited proudly at so many of our undergraduate gatherings.

I offer these observations to the general public, because the Establishment mindset I am talking about has roots that go well beyond Harvard, well beyond the Ivy League, to the prestige private and public universities across the USA. Meanwhile, the relevance of Veritas today is particularly keen given the way the presidential candidates of both parties have been accusing one another of being out-and-out liars and have intentionally misrepresented the policy positions of one another.

 

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I do not suppose I am alone in admitting that precisely the Establishment status of the institution was an important factor in my being drawn to Harvard, alongside its very demanding admission requirements which made that admission letter a kind of personal validation that we were persons of great promise.

How could it be otherwise? The Kennedy presidency showcased not only an alumnus in the Oval Office but a whole constellation of the “Best and Brightest” who took degrees in Cambridge, taught there, even occupied deanships there. The glitter, the belief that a meritocracy had assumed its rightful place in democratic, lowbrow America, was inescapable. The best from our midst was now running the country. The future would be ours to inherit.

 Of course, Camelot came to an abrupt halt two months into our freshman year with the assassination of JFK on November 22, 1963.  And in our sorrow, I do not think many of us initially paid attention to what our Best and Brightest were doing under Kennedy, and then under LBJ, whom they stayed on to serve, that would cast a pall over our whole generation by setting up and prosecuting the horrific war in Vietnam.

The fraudulent justifications for the Tonkin Gulf resolution that gave us full war were set out by Harvard men who surely knew better and who willingly sacrificed Veritas. Was it a sacrifice at the altar of personal loyalty to a President or to the principle that the end justifies the means in serving their country?  Neither explanation does credit to our university.  Neither is significantly different from the lies and prevarication regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction presented to the world by our intelligence services and Departments of State and Defense officers who happened not to be Harvard alumni in the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

It is often assumed that an Establishment is the status quo, meaning a vigorous defender of received values which opposes change in any direction. At least in my youth I thought there was solidity there upon which you could build your career, your life.  I and, hopefully, you also now know better. 

Notwithstanding its liberal image in the country at large, the Harvard of my undergraduate years surely had a lot of residual conservatism of the Eisenhower period about it. On the issue that shaped the lives of so many of us back then, the Vietnam War, Harvard as an institution was on the retrograde side of the barricades. Nathan Pusey was no Kingman Brewster, and we were left in the dust by political movements that bubbled up and defined our age coming from San Francisco and from public universities.

But this conservatism of my Harvard was otherwise in conflict with the newly launched social engineering concepts of the admissions committee based on the guiding principle of cooptation. Jews were still a relatively new acquisition, while during our undergraduate years the outreach to Blacks was just getting under way.  Women, Asians, all would follow in due course at the College over the coming decades.

Cooptation of the outlying majority (women) and minorities (people of color) came in spurts. Like so much social engineering, it was in a great hurry and the principle of meritocracy, applied initially, yielded to the overriding principle of inclusiveness. In that sense, one can draw a straight line from the 1960s to our presidential elections in the 21st century when voting for a black or for a woman has come to outweigh merit.  More generally, those social engineering experiments at Harvard of my day have led to the overthrow of traditional Judeo-Christian values in a headlong rush towards globalization and Davos culture. Like it or hate it, Harvard was out front in shaping the Political Correctness of today.

With the insights from my study of Russia, I now understand the American Establishment with Harvard in front ranks as a North American variant of what the Russians call an Intelligentsia, meaning the vanguard of progressive humanity which is enlightened, educated and leads the popular masses forward.  Is this democracy in action? Not at all, because the fundamental implicit principle is elitism and the certitude that this elite knows best what is good for the country. The people are lazy, uninformed, absorbed in consumerism and lacking in patriotism, to mention just a few of their deficiencies which militate against their views informing government policies, as some well-known political scientists who earned their Ph.D.’s at Harvard have unabashedly explained.

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My feelings about my alma mater are bitter sweet. It was not and is not an unqualified force for good in our country. But then again no human institution ever is.

Are anti-intellectual populists with a distinctively lowbrow prejudice a great improvement on highbrow mandarins who are contemptuous of the people?

These are questions which have no definitive answer. I can only suggest that this time around, on 8 November when Americans go to the polls, I will be putting my money on the lowbrow populist who just happens to be calling for an accommodating foreign policy that can bring us four years of peace, whereas the Establishment champion and her covey of Neocon advisers is spoiling for a fight with Russia and China that may result in the end of civilization as we know it.

 

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2016

 

 

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  1. Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord. His most recent book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.

Commentaires

  • This blog post made me reminiscent of http://www.city-journal.org/html/how-my-friends-and-i-wrecked-pomona-college-14331.html
    by Harry Stein.

    Its conclusion was:

    “Remember our senior year,” asks Loewen, “when Nixon bombed Cambodia and it was like there was no greater event in the history of mankind? And the faculty voted to close down all the campuses?” I remember. In fact, a group of us occupied the ROTC building and, in what we thought of as a delightful irony, spent the whole night playing Risk, the game of world conquest. “Well,” continues Loewen, “there’s something that has really stuck with me. There was a young philosophy professor at Scripps—he later moved to Claremont Graduate School—named Harry Neumann, who I heard was still holding class that day. He was jeopardizing his whole career doing this, taking the risk of being denied tenure, so a couple of us headed over there. It was a seminar on Nietzsche, and in addition to its nine or ten students, there were 40 or 50 others hanging around the walls of this little room. What he was discussing was indecipherable to me, but finally he looked up, acknowledging that all these other people were around. And he said: ‘At the faculty meeting yesterday, somebody asked me when, if ever, I would close the university. And I told him: When all the answers to all the important questions have been found, then it would be appropriate to close the university. And for all the people who have all the answers to all the important questions, the university is already closed.’ ”

  • "Are anti-intellectual populists with a distinctively lowbrow prejudice a great improvement on highbrow mandarins who are contemptuous of the people?

    These are questions which have no definitive answer."

    I dare think I have an answer. Due to human nature's limitless will-to-power, and their perceiving themselves as the centre of universe (after all "universe" is to every one of them what their own mind conceives as the totality of reality), justice and fairness crop up only in the lapses between a kind of dominion and the next, usually obverse in nature, one.
    No-one, and no system made of humans, aims to equilibrium and fairness, but fairness and justice can be the fruit of equilibrium of forces in the struggle between different groups of humans, systems, institutions.

    "Democracy" is government in the time when competing absolutist forces can't prevail over one another.
    This is not the state of the USA in our day, as a cursory press and "think-tank" review shows.
    They all agree on every significant question. This is the actual meaning of "dictatorship", and it is not that important if it be a plutocracy or aristocracy instead of monarchy. In either case, it is something I will never stop failing to be comfortable with, and respectful of.

  • If two deers are being chased by a lion, and one can run faster than the other, which one will survive? A little reflection will show [1] that their strengths is just one of the relevant factors: perhaps the faster one sinks in a swamp, or knocks itself against a rock, or is struck by lightning, or something. "Survival of the fittest" -- but the law, even if quite clean and simple, is of not much "practical use".

    Its like that with the issues you raise. I am against the idea of democracy following first principles (the principles being the ones you mention). But, in fact, for any given case, a democratic "king" can easily, and simply, be better than a non-democratic king. Why, because how the king came to the throne is just one of the relevant factors, and probably an insignificant factor at that. Their own worldview, and the worldviews of their advisers, their characters (and intelligence), the configuration of political forces inside the state and outside, and many other things are as relevant.

    Idealism (here, "elitism vs populism") simplifies things too much. In any given case, why should one have to take a stand? Why should you not choose on the basis of the details, and let the principles remain just a useful classification tool?


    [1] But I learnt it from Douglas Dewar!

    ---
    @mish: I liked your second comment.

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