What I’m reading Right Now: In Defense of Elitism by William A Henry III
(Anchor Books, 1994)
Why I’m reading it:
An essayist writing in The New Criterion mentioned the book. Long ago I decided that I am not an egalitarian; some people are just better at things than others. I have also long believed that Western culture is superior, not just because it is the culture I belong to, but because of its massive output of science, art, literature and music as well as political liberty. Henry argues for the benefits of recognizing and fostering excellence, rather than celebrating mediocrity.
He does not explicitly define egalitarianism, but I think this suffices well: (p. 12) "we have foolishly embraced the unexamined notions that everyone is pretty much alike (and worse, should be), that the common man is always right, that he needs no interpreters or intermediaries to guide his thinking, that a good and just society should be far more concerned with succoring its losers than with honoring and encouraging its winners to achieve more an thereby benefit everyone."
What I think of it:
It is not quite what I expected – Henry is an unabashed liberal. However he is an honest one, and I think that if we had gotten the chance to meet, (he reposed in 1994. May he rest in peace.) we could have gotten on very well, first of all by being honest and forthright about our starting assumptions. The first chapter alone contains several swipes at the idea of religion. He hasn’t singled out Christianity, instead he criticizes general religiousness. At the same time, he pulls no punches in his criticism of political correctness, or ‘special pleading’; of revisionist history, and the growing blight of entitlement without regard to actual performance or contribution.
Will I finish it?
Yes. His writing style makes for quick reading. Although the subject matter and his examples from the (then-current) headlines may leave one heavy-hearted, his style is more newspaper than ponderous scholarship.
Would I recommend it?
Yes. It is refreshing and encouraging to hear someone who is not on the political Right (where I am) argue against the dangerous path that post-modern liberalism has set itself upon. Henry’s criticisms are just as timely in 2016.
Gimme a quote:
The whole book so far is quotable, but copyright forbids. Here are a few, italics for emphasis mine.
(p. 25) – Henry is discussing the supposed egalitarianism of ‘60s campus radicals: “Indeed the dirty little secret of sixties radicalism - I know, I was there - was that many of its most aggressive proponents were those who felt the deepest elitist yearnings. Their avarice was transmuted into leftist rage by the fear that they might not prevail, that in a fiercely meritocratic contest they might not qualify for the house with the white picket fence and the Beamer in the three-car garage. To them, society was unjust if it would not give them what they wanted. Their very definition of fairness, while shouted to the skies in egalitarian terms, was the result of thwarted or imperiled elitist ambition.”
(p. 54) Here, he quotes Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: “Let us by all means teach black history, African history, women’s history, Hispanic history, Asian history. But let us teach them as history, not as filiopietistic commemoration. The purpose of history is to promote not group self-esteem, but understanding of the world and the past, dispassionate analysis, judgement and perspective, respect for divergent cultures and traditions, and unflinching protection for those unifying ideas of tolerance, democracy, and human rights that make free historical inquiry possible.”