William A. Henry

In Defense of Elitism

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In Defense of Elitism Summary

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In Defense of Elitism is a 1994 polemic by Pulitzer Prize-winning arts critic William A. Henry III. It argues that the political culture of the United States has abandoned the pursuit of equality of opportunity (which Henry dubs “elitism”) in favor of pursuing equality of outcome (called “egalitarianism” in Henry’s account). He suggests that as a result, Americans have become unwilling or unable to recognize the superiority of some individual achievements over others, of “intelligence” over “stupidity,” and of some cultures over others. He asks for a restoration of the balance between elitism and egalitarianism: “The positive side of egalitarianism, the will to tolerance, [must be] coupled with the positive side of elitism, the intellectual suppleness to tolerate and accept diverse elements in society while holding firmly to one’s own values.” The book has proved both popular and divisive. Some readers have praised the book for its willingness to “debunk” (Publishers’ Weekly) liberal pieties, while others have been troubled by its selective examples, faulty reasoning, and incendiary language.

Henry introduces the book by setting out his liberal credentials, in order to distinguish himself from writers who make similar arguments for reactionary ends: “I am fully aware that much of what I deplore as retrograde tribalism or wrongheaded moralism is regarded by large sectors of the population as progress. I am also painfully conscious that taking the postures I do may condemn me to accommodating some pretty strange bedfellows—racists, male supremacists, patriotic zealots, reactionaries, religious exotics, and assorted other creeps. I confess to being a white Ivy-educated male who is married and lives in the suburbs (in kind of a nice house, actually). Yet, I am not a right-winger, and I hope I am not a nut. I am still a registered Democrat.”

From here, Henry introduces his argument that programs introduced to address social inequalities—such as affirmative action programs—have gradually been allowed to become ends in themselves, rather than a means to the end of superior achievement. He suggests that affirmative action has become a permanent advantage to its beneficiaries, rather than a temporary measure designed to pull down the barriers that once existed to achievement by minority groups. As such, Henry argues, affirmative action has become an “entitlement,” removing incentives for individual members of minority groups to excel in their fields.

Henry goes on to argue that a similar dynamic has played out at the level of the culture at large, through the growing emphasis on multiculturalism. He concedes that it is important and worthwhile to recognize the contributions of different cultural groups to American culture as a whole. However, he deplores what he sees as elaborate, illogical defenses of cultures which do not make an “equal” contribution to the national culture—that is, minority cultures.

Henry offers a survey of American political history, seeking to analyze the origins of the decline he identifies. He suggests that contrary to popular conception, America’s political system has always been intrinsically an “elitist” one. He points to the historic failure of populist Presidential candidates. He argues that America’s elected officials have been “by and large unrepresentative of the norm by virtue of superior talent, intellect, and drive.” He describes the President as a “living symbol of meritocracy.” Against this tradition, Henry sees an alarming rise in government by town hall meeting, and an emphasis on collective decision-making that leaves citizens with “no-one to hold responsible.”

Henry subjects the history of American education to a similar analysis, arguing that broadening access to higher education has been “a mistake—one based on a giant lie.” Where once universities existed to maximize the potential of the elite, now, Henry argues, they exist to rubber-stamp the existing privilege of “people who are already winners—people with enough brains and drive that they would do well…under almost any circumstances.” A degree is a “reward simply for having shown up.”

Henry finds further evidence for the “dumbing of America” in the media. He argues that the contemporary media shower praise on “undistinguished” celebrities while treating “science and reason” as optional. He is especially scathing about the effects of “egalitarianism” in the arts: “by honoring quilt weavers and opera companies, folk festivals and Shakespeare festivals out of the same pot, the Endowment for the Arts effectively implied that these are comparable activities, of equivalent merit, and that the only choice to be made between them is one of personal taste and preference.”

Finally, Henry suggests his remedy, stressing that what he proposes is not radically new, but a return to the old: “To speak in defense of elitism is not to tilt the balance of national life, but to seek to restore it.” He argues that a renewed emphasis on equality of opportunity and on individual responsibility can restore the greatness of the American tradition at a time “when the world is rushing toward us and our ways.”