the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2002 January 20


It is important to know where you are from. So says no lesser authority than the god Apollo, in the famous inscription at Delphi: gno:t‛i sauton, or “know thyself”. The Greeks, who were obsessively concerned with the cosmic hierarchy (placing them beneath the gods but above the barbarians) and the tragic consequences of hubris, generally took this to mean “know your place”, or “do not presume to rise above your station”. The oracle at Delphi spoke for Apollo. For whom did Apollo speak? Quite obviously, the dons. Only the dominion would use ignorance and superstition, particularly fear of the supernatural, to oppress the masses ― to get them, in fact, to oppress themselves. The dons were and are fearsome enough by themselves, but the trick of inventing gods with awesome powers and then ascribing to them the dominion’s own agenda made the dons nearly invincible. The toga-clad figure with the lyre? He’s the Man.

But even for those of us who defy the gods and presume to leave our appointed place in the hierarchy, a sense of origin is helpful. I will generally say (to the amusement of many) that I am from the Midwest; but I am aware in saying this that it is not particularly informative. It would be more useful to say that I was raised in the middle class in a university town in the United States. So, in origin, I am a well-educated bourgeois Yankee. And though I have evolved, the origin colors my thinking.

By class I am a burgher; we in the middle economic class are even more self-pitying than the poor, with nothing like the justification. We resent the rich, but we don’t really suffer in the slightest. And even the poor in the United States have a relatively-opulent standard of living, so it is hard to stomach the whining of the middle class. But whining there most definitely is.

By caste I am a brahmin; we in the upper cultural caste are haughty elitists who look down on the mass culture, preferring art-house cinema to Hollywood shoot-’em-ups, microbrews to Budweiser, erotica to pornography. Aside from such self-serving and self-gratifying distinctions, we can justifiably credit ourselves with some refinement of thinking. But there is also a distance that makes us unable to understand our less-educated fellow humans.

Passing through Oklahoma recently I saw a series of highway information signs that use a picture of a gushing oil derrick to indicate some sort of propitious, but not oil-related, discovery, like a town with several outlet stores or a contrived historical museum. I passed immediately through my snob’s disgust at the tourist racket, directly to my conservationist’s disgust at an oil well as a symbol of fortune. But this, if not snobbish, is at least culturally and geographically determined. In a place like Oklahoma, an oil well would surely have a different connotation, evoking the sort of life-transforming thunderbolt that occasionally strikes poor mountaineers who can barely keep their families fed. Striking oil equals striking gold equals striking it rich ― the American Dream, as we all know. It would be false to say that I have never dreamed of being rich; I have my moments of fantasy. At best I can say that I have never aspired to it, have never devoted my abilities (prodigious, needless to say) to the accumulation of wealth. That gives me the freedom to condescend to those for whom wealth is central to life. But this is an elitist sentiment, because for some, the desire for wealth is only a facet of the desire for economic security, and for those who have known hunger, that desire can be powerful, and it can certainly be excused.

It happens that I know no fewer than three women raised in patrician families on the east coast, all of whom I met while they were supporting themselves on minimal salaries working to better the world. One of them was an actual debutante, who metamorphosed into a radical leftist during her time in college. (Remember this fact. It will be cleverly alluded to in a moment.) These women of privilege have made a remarkable journey from their native culture of entitlement to a self-developed culture of obligation, not from noblesse oblige, but from simple compassion. In fact, it is the brahmin caste, to which they also belong, that would be the source of any noblesse oblige. As such, this derogatory description of motivation could be fairly attached to me.

The better educated a person is, the more liberal, as a rule. This does not, though, apply to the wealthy. The wealthy will always be well-educated; they can afford it. Such exposure will not often change their beliefs and attitudes, because the truth confirms that the system works ― for them. But when the poor and middle class learn more of the truth, they see the inequities and privileges that grid the world. Self-interest will then transform them. Of course, if compassion were universal, education would breed progressivism without fail. So that my aforementioned friends, or someone like Bob Kennedy or Jay Rockefeller (who is, after all, John D. Rockefeller IV), should champion the cause of those less fortunate, is not expected, but in fact quite hopeful, showing that we are not always bound to the self-interest of our economic station and kindred.

For me, the struggle has been with the elitism that comes with my education. Many of my fellows reject it outright; but I cannot make such a quick rejection. I know myself too well. I may be on some occasions ashamed of my elitism, but it is there, and I am not entirely convinced that it is wrong. It is, at least in part, a reflection of a very reasonable thought. Those who are better educated generally have a better understanding, and that makes them ― us ― better positioned to make decisions that affect ourselves and others. I cannot pretend to be excited about how the masses have made the decisions that affect themselves and me. “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” I wouldn’t want to identify myself with Mencken’s particular brand of cynicism and misanthropy, but he had a point. Democracy doesn’t work. There is nothing wrong with the idea, merely a constant problem with its execution. People cannot be trusted to manage their own affairs. It is not so much that they are selfish; ultimately all persons are. It is not that they are (or at least that they are inherently) stupid. It is that they are ignorant.

When I analyze the functioning of our, or any other, democracy, I conclude that the reason the people make the choices they do is because they do not clearly foresee the consequences of those choices. Their ignorance leaves them vulnerable to the manipulation of the dominion. Preposterous lies find receptive audiences, because they do not find skeptical audiences. The dons know what is in their own best interest; they skillfully convince the masses that they, too, have an interest in such policies.

This is a double trick. The dominion has entrenched conservatism, whose primary political meaning is opposition to change, which is very convenient for those who benefit from the status quo. Analyzing conservatism in the United States yields two main elements, economic conservatism and cultural conservatism. Economic conservatism is essentially the defense of capitalism. That poor people will vote for capitalists might be humorous if it were not so pathetic, and if it were not so devastating. This is accomplished partially by encouraging the belief that it is possible, under capitalism, for poor folks to become rich. So poor folks, desiring to be rich one day, support the system that allows only a few to be rich, and to hoard the resources that would otherwise provide relief to the poor.

But the success of economic conservatism is also accomplished partially through cultural conservatism. Capitalism and private property are a tradition in this country, and maintained in part by the ancient divine right to rule. The gods have sanctioned wealth. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods. Of course, the same divine-right argument that convinces poor people that an equitable distribution of resources is “wrong” keeps them down in other ways. The fathers of the church are the clerical arm of the dominion. (Liberation theology, it must be remembered, is essentially treated as a heresy.) The adherence to tradition is demanded by the gods. Once the common folk are convinced that they cannot question and challenge, they are enthralled to the authors of tradition. Sometimes this tradition and insistence on tradition is purposeful in itself, and sometimes it is just gratuitous, like sexual taboos against homosexuality, masturbation, and even nudity. The only reason for such a regime of prohibition is that it is just one more thing to believe without question. It is conditioning; if the masses will believe things that are senseless and even silly, they will believe anything, and that is just what the dominion wants.

Democracy, no; justice, sí. If the people can be trusted to govern justly, then they should be allowed to do so. If not, then they do not deserve to govern. Unfortunately, there has proven no better way of keeping power out of the hands of the dons. If the stewards created a dictatorship, there would be no guarantee that a steward would occupy it. And so we cannot engage in that political project, which would be the easier task. Instead, we must abolish the educational underclass. This is an enormous undertaking, the education of the world’s masses as though they, too, were brahmins, so that ultimately there is no distinction, so that we are a species of brahmins. Everyone must come to view intellectual discourse and debate as its own. Everyone must embrace the value of knowledge and information. Everyone must practice the art of critical thought. As a practitioner of critical thought I find myself in a small minority, and since that minority’s ways are, I do not hesitate to say, superior, I find myself in an elite. But I would gladly be a commoner, if only commoners were more of what they could be. I will gladly offer a hand up. I will not stoop to do it.


Original version


Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford