Part 1—Exploring a new elite: Especially for liberals, reading Megan McArdle may involve paying a price.
Last week, McArdle wrote a very worthwhile piece for the Daily Beast. She discussed the new class of journalists, scholars and bureaucrats who increasingly define the way we all think.
McArdle compared this new elite to the imperial bureaucracy, the mandarins, who once governed imperial China. At one point, she said she was talking about “the Mandarinization of America.”
We think her piece was quite worthwhile, though you do have to fight your way through passages like the one which follows, passages in which McArdle ruminates about herself:
MCARDLE (2/21/13): [T]he people entering journalism, or finance, or consulting, or any other "elite" profession, are increasingly the children of the children of those who rocketed to prosperity through the postwar education system. A window that opened is closing. The mandarins are pulling away from the rest of America.We’ll admit it. As we read that highlighted passage, we asked ourselves an obvious question: If McArdle is “a truly stellar test-taker,” why is her B.A. just from Penn?
I include myself in this group. Though I completely lacked the focused ambition of the young journalists I meet today, I am a truly stellar test-taker, from a family of stellar test-takers. I have a B.A. from Penn and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago, credentials that I am well aware give me an entree that other people don't have. Nor do I think that these are bad things to have. Verbal fluency, fast reading, and a good memory are excellent qualities—in a writer.
But they are not the only qualities worth having, and the things that mandarins know are not the only things worth knowing.
We don’t recommend that way of thinking, but McArdle’s lavish self-praise demands it. At any rate, we’re advising you not to abandon this piece when you encounter such passages.
McArdle praises her own test-taking skill, which she admits is stellar. She praises her own verbal fluency, along with her rapid reading and her marvelous memory. But in that same passage, she makes a very good observation:
These qualities can be highly useful. On their own, though, they just aren’t enough.
Horrible people can have those qualities. A person who has verbal fluency may be extremely limited—and many such people may be found within our modern-day mandarin class.
For years, we’ve looked for ways to call attention to this problem—to the astounding shortcomings of our press corps elite. We’ve sometimes called them Antoinettes. We’ve asked if they might be space invaders or some form of cyborg.
Can they be human, we’ve often asked. In her piece, McArdle offers a new lens through which we might view this new class—she compares them to Chinese imperial bureaucrats. And having proposed this unflattering framework, she offers this punishing observation about this young, rising class:
MCARDLE: What's remarkable is that this is coming from me. It's not like I came up on the mean streets of Camden, or come from a long line of dockworkers. Both my grandfathers were small-business owners. My father and most of his siblings have spent at least some time as professors. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and went through middle and high school at what is now the most expensive private school in New York City. (I should note that it wasn't anything of the kind when I went there. But still.) My experience of working-class life consists of some relatives, a few summer jobs, a stint in the secretarial pool at a nonprofit, three years with a firm that had a substantial cable-installation practice, and one year in a construction trailer at Ground Zero...McArdle isn’t a grey beard. According to the leading authority on her life, she turned 40 only last month. Beyond that, she tilts toward the right side of the aisle, having moved, more than a decade ago, from liberal to libertarian.
And yet, this is apparently considerably more experience than many of my fellow journalists have, especially the younger ones. The road to a job as a public intellectual now increasingly runs through a few elite schools, often followed by a series of very-low-paid internships that have to be subsidized by well-heeled parents, or at least a free bedroom in a major city. The fact that I have a somewhat meandering work and school history, and didn't become a journalist until I was 30, gives me some insight (she said, modestly) that is hard to get if you’re on a laser-focused track that shoots you out of third grade and straight toward a career where you write and think for a living. Almost none of the kids I meet in Washington these days even had boring menial high-school jobs working in a drugstore or waiting tables; they were doing “enriching” internships or academic programs. And thus the separation of the mandarin class grows ever more complete.
But when she describes these new mandarins, McArdle describes a younger class of journalists—“kids” who emerged from a few elite schools as part of “a laser-focused track that shoots you out of third grade and straight toward a career where you write and think for a living.” According to McArdle (see first passage quoted above), these “young journalists” feature a “focused ambition” that she herself lacks.
For many reasons, it can be hard to spot the shortcomings of these young climbers. You see our new mandarins on the TV machine thingy, where they try, with the help of staff, to help you learn to adore them more fully. You see their written work in our major publications. Because of the way celebrity works, it may be hard to observe their substantial limitations, especially since they possess a degree of “verbal fluency” with which you can be misdirected.
We think McArdle has offered a worthwhile new lens through which we can examine this important new class. In our view, liberals and progressives were profoundly betrayed by the last generation of mandarins—and yet, we liberals have been almost completely unable to observe this obvious fact or to give it voice in the public square.
How will the new generation pan out? For the rest of the week, we’ll use McArdle’s worthwhile text as a framework for asking that question.
In our view, no liberal or progressive worth his or her salt should trust this exalted new mandarin class. Are they man or mandarin? More to the point, and abandoning sex-specific language, are these new mandarins fully and helpfully human?
Are they full-blooded men and women—or are they mandarins only? We’ll be asking such questions all week. McArdle provides a good text.
Tomorrow: Are these new mandarins “smart?”