MAN AND MANDARIN: McArdle’s new framework!


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.

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’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?

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...

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.
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.

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?”


  1. Luke Russert comes to mind.

  2. I don't get it. Who is McArdle talking about? She is very much part of the new mandarins she pretends to critique...she's the same age as Rachel Maddow.

    1. Let's see...Ezra Klein is younger, but went to an excellent public high school and then UCLA. Is that mandarin class? Josh Marshall is older than McArdle. Umm, I guess Matthew Yglesias would fit the bill.

      After attending top universities,I don't see where McArdle has ever worked outside of electronic journalism. Except for her job at a construction firm--of course, according to Wikipedia:

      Her father, Francis X. McArdle, was former managing director of the GCA (General Contractors Association of New York)[4] during the Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani administrations.

      And we are supposed to be hearing her call out the empty elitism of unnamed others? What?

    2. Don't forget this choice part: "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.) "

      Of course, and Harvard wasn't "anything of the kind" when Somerby went there, either.

  3. "We think her piece was quite worthwhile, though you do have to fight your way through passages like the one..."

    That's interesting, Bob. You know, I think I'm seeing a pattern emerging here. If a conservative writer presents shoddy work, you often find the piece nevertheless worthwhile; if a liberal writer does the same, it's a sign of creeping tribalism. Put another way, the conservative glass is half full...

  4. Well, what we about to get is another long screed about Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, and everybody younger, brighter, and more successful that Somerby whose got their own show on MSNBC.

    These, dear readers, are Somerby's new "mandarins" with their thumbs on the scales, and their heels on the necks of the working class.

    1. That was a good call.

    2. Chris Hayes' "lean forward" promo is a classic. The angst in trying to find just the right words to express his heartfelt concern for those without health insurance "by no fault of their own", is one part Coltrane striving to hit the perfect note in A Love Supreme, one part insincere TV preacher.

      Corporate safe liberalism without pesky class consciousness.

  5. TBogg, will take this column down tonight at Fire Dog Lake as may Charlie Pierce. That may be a little more instructive than this TDH.

  6. To those who can't see any merit in this post: Ok, so some of Bob’s crankiness is once again on display in this entry
    and Megan McCardle leans toward the conservative/libertarian side of the political spectrum. But I think McCardle’s central concern has merit or is at least worthy of consideration without any snark. We do seem to have a class of “mandarins” who dominate policy discussions who are mostly the product of a very special and narrow range of American life. Among other things close experience of working class life is almost entirely missing in these ranks and this is is a problem for progressives as much as it is for conservatives. Chris Hayes’s book mentions some similar themes. Why is it ok for him to note this and not ok for McCardle ?

    1. This TDH piece wasn't about Hayes, it was about McArdle. And McArdle pretends she is somehow different from those she criticizes and yet there is no observable difference in her background or outlook from those she is trying to marginalize by calling them "mandarins."

      McArdle's piece isn't titled "I Am a New Mandarin."

      (Jane Galt "leans" libertarian...I did have to smile, that's pretty funny.)

    2. Well as McCardle explicitly says she includes herself I don't think she's pretending to be all that different. I think she's emphasizing just how narrow a path these elites trod if even her history is off center. Also, as someone who has witnessed the cult of the MBA in corporate America this past generation, I think she's right about "stints in line jobs" too.
      I don't share her libertarianism but I think her comments about the mandarin class are valuable and the extremely confined nature of their experience and the huge value given to a fairly narrow range of skills are worthy of our concern. Don't you ?

    3. I think Megan McCardle is one of the most despicable pundits writing today. (She has a history, in case any of her admirers here cares to investigate it.) Whether or not she now and then may make a point that sounds reasonable in isolation from everything else she says, so what?

      It's beginning to feel like Mr. Somerby, who will never forgive any number of liberal commentators for what they said 10 or 15 years ago because they haven't grovelingly sought forgiveness, goes trawling for truly obnoxious conservative and libertarian commentators' occasional pronouncements that he feels he may be able to hold up for praise. How open-minded of him! Bull shit.

      This is NOT the way to construct a healthy civic discourse.

    4. "If McArdle is 'a truly stellar test-taker,' why is her B.A. just from Penn?"

      That's a mandarin joke. Got it?

  7. Wait! Wait! Wasn't McArdle the one that suggested that at the next school shooting husky boys should rush the shooter to get him to stop?

    Just sayin...

    1. That is the logical extension of McArdle's piece in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, which was painful to slog through.

      Those unfamiliar with Somerby's newly anointed savant should start with that piece. It will leave you wondering why anybody would hire that person to write anything, let alone a blog that should require some degree of skill in conciseness (if that is a word).

      Her point was that since there is no perfect solution to mass murder, we should do as close to nothing as possible (she does, however, favor a ban on high-capacity magazines) and train unarmed people to rush the next mass killer.

      But she used lord only knows how many words to say that at the very end of her piece as she lamented how mean her Facebook "friends" have been to her.

  8. Bob, really, truly, please. You are completely embarrassing yourself. Do you know nothing about Megan McCurdle? She is the epitome of all you profess to detest. Do a little research, so you can read this column of hers with a little intelligence. You seem just to have discovered McMegan. Jeesh. Your credibility really is on the line.

  9. Well, I think these comments prove Bob's main points. Instead of dealing with McArdle's ideas nearly everyone simply dismisses them on ad hominem grounds. McArdle often says silly things so this idea must be silly, too. But it's not and what she says needs to be taken seriously. The US is developing a much more rigid class structure and the good jobs (heck, most of the jobs these days) are going to those whose parents (and grandparents) had good jobs and who know the script(s). And those scripts are all about personality and connections and not much about ideas. Too bad; the US was once a country that could be admired. Not so much anymore.

    1. "The US is developing a much more rigid class structure and the good jobs (heck, most of the jobs these days) are going to those whose parents (and grandparents) had good jobs and who know the script(s)."

      And this is different from what point of U.S. history?

      Here's my beef with McArdle's "ideas."

      1. There is nothing original here. As noted earlier, James Fallows warned of an emerging elite celebrity-journalist class 20 years ago. And concerning Somerby's Cokie-Sam rant, Bill Moyers had been warning for at least 20 years the trend toward "horse race" coverage of politics rather than an examination of issues.

      2. McArdle's premise is that journalism has become an "elite" profession open only to a privileged few. Granted, journalism is like a Third World country where only a few make it big, while the vast majority starve. But journalism is no more "elite" than teaching. It is largely populated by young people working long, long hours for terrible pay who eventually give it up because they can't make a living at it.

      3. McArdle's post, like most of her stuff, is rambling, poorly written and poorly thought out. A mile wide and an inch deep, if you will. Call that ad hominem if you want, but that is a point even Someby concedes.

  10. I've been chewing on the Mandarin analogy for days now.

    Thanks, for blogging on it.

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