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April 15, 2009

Financial frauds-6: The danger of having an oligarchy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In a provocative article, Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Chris Hedges warns that those people who have elite educations often make the biggest blunders because they have been trained to think highly of themselves, and thus become less reflective and more overconfident.

These institutions [i.e., elite prep schools and universities], no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard. Bush was, like the rest of his caste, propelled forward by his money and his connections. That is the real purpose of these well-endowed schools -- to perpetuate their own.

Barack Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege and comfort and entitlement. They are endowed with an unbridled self-confidence and blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured and empowered them.

These elites, and the corporate system they serve, have ruined the country. These elite cannot solve our problems. They have been trained to find "solutions," such as the trillion-dollar bailout of banks and financial firms, that sustain the system. They will feed the beast until it dies. Don't expect them to save us. They don't know how. And when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes, and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, they will be exposed as being as helpless, and as stupid, as the rest of us.

Hedges is perhaps too pessimistic, sweeping, and apocalyptic. At least I hope so, as otherwise we are done for. There are genuinely clever people who go to these elite schools. They are not the problem. The problems are those who suffer from what William Deresiewicz, a professor of English at Yale, called 'entitled mediocrity'. i.e., people who see themselves as smart merely because of their background and privileged opportunities and not out of any personal achievement. He takes elite universities to task for having lost sight of their mission and becoming instead essentially narrowly focused trade schools, although the trades students are being prepared for are the professions.

When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students.

Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage.

Among the elites there is also a clannishness, a willingness to shield their own from the barbarians at the gate, i.e. ordinary people. You can see it in the way that the Obama administration is seeking to avoid taking any action against those members of the Bush administration that have been involved in the most outrageous acts of criminality and violations of the constitution, such as torture, war crimes, warrantless wiretapping and the like. The Obama administration is trying to impose even greater secrecy than Bush did and fighting the efforts of those who want openness and investigations of wrongdoers. Such acts (lawlessness and the closing of ranks to cover them up) are the signs of an oligarchy.

It used to be the case that Americans would laugh at the 'banana republics' of South America as countries where ruling elites would violate laws with impunity, confident that even their supposed political opponents would protect them because of their common class interests. And yet, on April 7, Peru became the first country to convict a former democratically elected head of state for ordering killings and kidnappings by his security forces. Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

We could learn something from the so-called banana republics.

POST SCRIPT: Why I don't watch TV news

It looks like TV news is as almost as pathetic in England as it is here.

(Thanks to Earth-bound Misfit.)

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Comments

I had to leave Case (transferred to the University of Kentucky) after my first semester due to financial reasons. I can tell you that this whole "elite, rich kid club" definitely exists. People at Case liked to go on and on about recruiting minorities, but truthfully, there were few lower class people and NO resources for them. Different things told me every single day that I was not welcome. No one wanted their orderly, quiet, naive, little bubble intruded upon.
I actually had one professor tell me how "brave" I was for admitting I was from a poor county in Kentucky - like it was a crime. I guess he was right.
I left Case feeling pretty bitter toward all of the naive rich students I met. I had to have a job, I had better grades than many, and I worked my butt off at my research position, but I had to leave, not the spoiled, rich ones.
If some of your blogs had existed a year ago I might have come to terms with my college troubles much sooner. It would have been nice to know that I didn't really do anything wrong except be born poor.
Of course, this is a simplified version of the story, and Case may not be as bad as the Ivy's, but I still feel this blog and the articles you linked to are somehow relevant to me. I'm not sure what I'm getting at... I guess I just wanted to thank you for your honesty. I'm glad to know that some people are actually aware of things like this. Knowing that professors like you exist makes me look back at Case a little more favorably.

Posted by R on April 15, 2009 09:20 PM

Hmm, this is actually a really great point, Mano. I really believe that one of the best attributes you can have is to be humble. When you're not full of yourself, you learn more and even prosper more, because there's always knowledge to be learning. You also make less mistakes, too!

Neat write up, keep up the awesome posts, Mano!
- Stefani, Teeth Whitening Consultant

Posted by Stefani Myers on April 29, 2009 05:13 PM

I have to agree with Stefani. Great post Mano.
============
Mike - the jamorama consultant.

Posted by Mike Crabe on September 4, 2009 05:35 PM

Mano, majority of your posts really useful for all our students here in India Teeth Whitening school. So please keep up the same way, so we could frequently check your journal for new thoughts.

Kind Regards,
Jessica

Posted by Jessica Stevens on December 17, 2009 01:43 PM

Your article REALLY resonates well with me!

It's so unfair how the "elite" seem to have so many advantages over the "non-elites"!

Look at how some of the financial institutions that were bailed out with taxpayer's money are now giving those huge bonuses to their executives!

"Feed The Beast" indeed!!!

Yes, no matter how hard Obama tries to be "just one of us", he is an example of an elitist.

Thank you for speaking out,

Bobby

CEO, Subliminal Message Software Inc.

Posted by Bobby on February 25, 2010 07:55 PM

Wow, thank you very much. This post was a real eye opener for me. Keep up the effort, the world needs more people just like you Mano.

John Makes Rap Beats Online. xD

Posted by Dr. Beat Maker on March 30, 2010 02:48 PM

I have to agree with Stefani.It is a wise comment.

Posted by daniel on July 1, 2010 04:20 AM