I had a discussion with a reader, in connection with a post on political correctness at Bruce Charlton’s blog, about whether our rulers actually believe what they say they believe. He was inclined to say that the whole current system is based on the denial of objective goods and essences, so it’s clear nothing can really better than anything else, and there must be some sort of clear-headed elite within the elite who recognize this whole PC liberalism thing as pure fiction inculcated as a sort of noble lie.
Here is my response (somewhat edited and rearranged):
I suppose the question is how elitish the elite gets. Not all that much, I’d say. “An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?” (“Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?”)
Certainly they aren’t as knowledgeable or self-aware as they used to be. There aren’t many Kojeves these days turning bureaucrat. The educated ruling class tends more and more to be narrow careerists who are sometimes extremely good in their specialty but lack general culture and so are childish outside it.
At a fundamental level they’re not all that reflective. The point of their theorizing—often quite explicitly—is to find reasons for holding and imposing the moral and social views they already view as patently correct.
So I think it’s a mistake to analyze the overall effect of what they stand for and say “well here’s what they must consciously believe since they’re smart people and must know what they’re really up to.” If smart people want to find ways to defer ultimate questions and avoid dealing with their own situation they’ll come up with something.
It seems to me that our secular elites actually do believe in PC and all the rest of it. Their faith is rather at odds with what they think reason tells them, which is one reason they’re inclined to hysteria about issues like genetic differences, but that’s their problem.
I attended Yale Law school, so I had opportunities for observation. It seemed clear that the professors there were genuine believers. They couldn’t help it. Everybody needs a religion, since in some way he has to believe in what he’s doing and in a justification for the position in the world that makes him who he is. And top law professors do believe in being top law professors.
I think it was Pascal who first pointed out that people can’t really be skeptics, because every action or choice not to act includes an understanding of the world in which we’re acting and a belief that the action makes sense in that world. As a result we inevitably believe that the world is thus and so and makes sense as such. People pose as relativists or nihilists to escape the need to explain and defend they beliefs. They don’t really believe there are no settled moral truths.
It’s true that on some level my professors and fellow students knew there was something incoherent about their position. That implicit consciousness tinged their outlook with a mixture of cynicism, fanaticism, and a general sense of “well this is what we do, and isn’t it wonderful that we’re us and we’re so much better than all those other people and what we do is right because we do it.” Cynicism is never absolute, though, at least not in the case of someone who has to stay focused and functional enough to be a successful careerist in the face of stiff competition. And the wonderfulness of the “us” plainly depended on the wonderfulness of their unquestionably-correct moral and social views.
One question would be who belongs to the clear-headed elite of the elite. I can’t think of anyone. Somebody like Samuel Beckett might have a clear idea what modernity meant but he wasn’t political. John Rawls struck me as a well-intentioned nerd who really did intend to do the right thing. Others like Ronald Dworkin basically seem to be self-centered ambitious men who want to be better than everyone else and wouldn’t ever give up whatever it is that supposedly makes them better and gives them the right to tell other people what to do.