Who would have thought that the elite ranks are so full of scaredy-cats? These are the smartest people in the country, the most competent and astute. They’ve risen to become tenured professors, award-winning entertainers, top administrators and officials, board members and chief executives, beating hundreds and thousands of competitors for plum slots ever since high school. They’ve got to be tough and talented to have made it this far. For every college dean there are many, many more who wanted to become one but didn’t get there, and for every actor nominated for one of the prestigious awards there are many, many more who’ll never earn any recognition. The same goes for the professional fields, government, science, and medicine.
That’s what you must acknowledge when any distinguished figure appears on camera or at the microphone—not just what he says, but the long and arduous process that got him there. It’s invisible to us, but indelibly written in his head. He appears now a person of privilege, but he’s worked mighty hard to obtain it. He runs a top business or a prestigious school, has written popular books, enjoys celebrity and draws large audiences, but the way to those heights took pluck and smarts and commitment. He has authority, yes, but it didn’t come easy. He can handle adversity and do the right thing; he’s trained hard for it.
But where is he at the present time? Where are all of them now, in this time of conflict which calls for their savvy and integrity and courage?
Here is a story by Heather Mac Donald of a renowned teacher at the Manhattan School of Music accused of racism and homophobia. The teacher has supported minority musicians for years, and she’s mounted performances of works by women and non-white composers. Nothing in her past suggests hostile attitudes. But in a Zoom call with students in June 2020, one of them challenged her for having produced, several years earlier, Franz Lehar’s The Land of Smiles, which, according to the student, portrays Asians in a demeaning fashion. The challenge came out of nowhere (Mac Donald wonders if the interrogator, who remained anonymous, was a “plant”), the accusation was irrelevant to the discussion, and the teacher dropped it and moved on. (See here for another account of the story, in which the teacher actually cuts the student off.)
The agitator, of course, didn’t let it go, and soon after a petition against the teacher circulated and gathered more than 1,800 signatures. The petition added charges of homophobia and “body shaming” as well. The administration acted quickly. The teacher, a white woman, was fired, and a black male replaced her.
Such a fate has become so common in our cancel-happy society that it doesn’t astonish us any longer. What does astonish us, however—or at least it should—is the response of others at the school. Mac Donald puts it this way: “Vaughn’s colleagues, cowering from the mob, let her twist in the wind. Almost none came to her defense.” Mac Donald does quote two people who spoke up for her, one a former student who is now with the Metropolitan Opera, the other someone who worked with her in the School’s Opera Lab in the early 2010s, but that’s it. Otherwise, silence. None of her active colleagues in 2020 protested, and the administration didn’t bother to investigate the charges. (Mac Donald finds no evidence that college officials asked former students about the behavior of the teacher.)
How is it that the faculty said nothing and that administrators acted so precipitously to satisfy the angry kids? How could they ignore what was happening? The personal component alone can only make you shake your head. It forced them to sit and watch the persecution of someone with whom they’d worked for many years, whom they’d passed in the halls 500 times, and with whom they had dined and collaborated. No anger at what they had to witness, no indignation, no personal outrage?
Also, however, there is the professional side. We had a critical opinion put forward about an operetta from the early-20th century, and it was the duty of the experts to judge its merits. Before any action was taken against the teacher, a scholarly appraisal was necessary, and after that a pedagogical inquiry to address how that musical composition ought to be remembered and taught should it be found guilty. As the stewards of tradition, the other teachers should have weighed in simply as a matter of professional responsibility. Again, remember the course of their careers. They have gotten to where they are by demonstrating their superior knowledge and know-how. They know the tradition better than anybody. So, speak up! They’re the mentors, people who’ve earned the right to be in charge, whose expertise is precisely what the kids’ parents are paying them to exercise. Where, when, and why have they become so afraid?
It makes no sense, not in any normal modern society where a high rank is supposed to signify high learning, ability, and discernment. But we aren’t a normal society, and the timid reticence of the elite whenever a charge of political incorrectness is launched is one of the sure signs of abnormality. This is a world turned upside down, seized and ruined with the compliance of those who are obligated to keep it right side up. As I said, it happens so often that it has become hard to grasp at this point just how far things have deteriorated. The college president who rushes to apologize for imaginary crimes, the CEOs who pour money into the coffers of Black Lives Matter leaders who despise the very system that the business heads otherwise uphold, the famous actor who turns his own (putatively) insensitive remark into a public drama of penitence . . . fear has turned them into timorous tacticians. Where is the confidence that naturally follows from accomplishment? Where is the surety of those who have such a record of success behind them and who believe they know better than the lower orders?
They’re nervous, very nervous—and they’re willing to violate the norms of their own workplaces and fields and personal ethics when the pressure comes, or at least to retire in fear as others commit those violations. One wonders if there is something about the ladder of achievement in 21st century America that robs individuals of integrity the higher they go. They have more to lose, obviously, having gained so much, and the cancel mobs can be intimidating, to be sure. But one suspects more at work in the abject concession of the elite to political correctness events as they unfold and take victims.
Too many people who recognize the illiberalism act too swiftly in order to show their goodness, stay out of the crosshairs, and mutter not even a whisper of doubt about the allegations for it to come down merely to self-protection.
We know that’s the case because recent history shows that sometimes the best course of self-protection is to fight, to resist, to go on the offensive, get loud and confrontational. But that’s a rare option for the elite; they just don’t want to go there. They don’t want conflict, not even when they have all the ammunition they need to win, as is the case when music teachers face barely educated students who object to composers with whom they have barely any familiarity. The mentors possess the knowledge and the competence to do battle; they just don’t have the stomach for it.
A society whose leaders are so easily cowed is heading toward a dark fate. To watch our prestigious academic chiefs bow down to a pack of irate 20-year-olds is to feel the American spirit drain away. To observe an eminence in the world of sports lose all his mojo and beg forgiveness for a lapse most of us chalk up to the ordinary sins of ordinary people is to suspect that an ethos of cultural suicide has taken hold. The highly credentialed members of our society boast of their worldliness and tolerance and enlightenment, but there is now more freedom of speech and diversity of thought in an automotive repair shop than there is in the faculty lounge. Never has there been more insecurity among the smart set, never more caution in the boardroom. Our high-achievers make the (supposedly) conformist 1950s look like a loose and free-wheeling Bohemia.
If it seems the upper crust has only grown more contemptuous of everyone else, we might attribute that to a defense mechanism. They despise the low-achievers because they are no longer sure of themselves. Achievement hasn’t made them more comfortable, and it hasn’t brought them more freedom. Nor has it convinced them that they’ve fought any good fights save for those career competitions in years past. They know they’re weak, and that’s hard for a superior person to accept. Despising Donald Trump and his fans made them feel better. Trump is out, but they still have January 6, and people who resist the vaccine, and who push the audits, and don’t like masks . . . Don’t assume that the elites want these benighted Americans to go away. They serve an essential function: to shore up the elites’ high, yet increasingly threatened, opinion of themselves.