The End of Meritocracy?

The Today show has hired Jenna Bush Hager to do a monthly feature story on education. This seemingly innocuous announcement prompted one of the sillier recent outbursts of liberal hand-wringing. The New York Times’s Opinionator blog collected some of the left-wing commentary under the title “There Goes the Meritocracy.” If irony was intended it was too subtle for me to pick up.
Rather, the Times seems to take seriously various liberal commentators’ claims that NBC’s hiring of Ms. Hager, the author of two best-selling books for children, has some baleful significance: it’s a sign that our nation is in its “late empire” phase, with “white Russians” dominating our political and media classes, and a symptom of our “national disease.” Above all, the fact that NBC hired Ms. Hager indicates that our “great meritocracy” is a fraud.
If Ms. Hager had been hired to perform neurosurgery, this hand-wringing about “meritocracy” might have some force. But doing a once-a-month feature on a soft-news TV show? Good Lord, get a grip!
The old sock-puppet Glenn Greenwald, who apparently is still around, uses Hager’s new job as the occasion for a broadside against the political and media industries:

They should convene a panel for the next “Meet the Press” with Jenna Bush Hager, Luke Russert, Liz Cheney, Megan McCain and Jonah Goldberg, and they should have Chris Wallace moderate it. They can all bash affirmative action and talk about how vitally important it is that the U.S. remain a Great Meritocracy because it’s really unfair for anything other than merit to determine position and employment. They can interview Lisa Murkowski, Evan Bayh, Jeb Bush, Bob Casey, Mark Pryor, Jay Rockefeller, Dan Lipinksi, and Harold Ford, Jr. about personal responsibility and the virtues of self-sufficiency.

That’s almost clever, except that if you’re going to list politicians who have no apparent claim on office other than their names, it is ludicrous to omit Ted, Joe and Patrick Kennedy. But what, really, is the point? It’s true that there are quite a few politicians who are the sons or daughters of politicians, but so what? That is true of most occupations. My father was a lawyer; I’m a lawyer. It happens a lot. I’ve seen no data suggesting that it is more common in politics (or journalism) than anywhere else. And politics is relentlessly competitive; even the worst candidates, like Joseph and Patrick Kennedy, take office only if most voters vote for them.
Two of the liberals quoted in the Times story somehow bring the conversation around to Sonia Sotomayer. It still isn’t clear to me how she relates to Jenna Hager. Seemingly the idea is that because she came from an undistinguished background, we conservatives were obligated to support her nomination. Sure: just like liberals backed Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito, right?
The TImes gives the last word to the ever-hysterical Andrew Sullivan, who attacks the “nepotism” of Hager’s hiring as symptomatic of our “late empire” status. I’m sure grand theories have been hung on a more slender thread, but I can’t think when offhand.
Actually, though, it isn’t nepotism. Neither President Bush nor any other of Jenna’s relatives works for NBC News, and I think it’s a safe bet that nearly all of the relevant people at the Today show and NBC detest Jenna’s father.
I haven’t read Sullivan for a long time, but the snippet quoted by the Times reminds me how unintentionally entertaining he can be: because NBC is hiring Jenna Hager–hey, he drew the connection, I didn’t–he claims that the United States is on the verge of becoming “17th century Spain.” Oh, sure. We understand, Andrew. We think you’re sane, really we do.
So: do we have a meritocracy? Of course we do. If you doubt that, apply to medical school. Or try to rise in a sales organization without, you know, making sales. Is our meritocracy imperfect? Of course. Like every other human institution. Is Russia’s meritocracy perfect? France’s? Cuba’s?
Is it a good thing to have a father who is President? Of course. Do you suppose Malia Obama will have some good opportunities one of these days? (As, by the way, her mother has already.) On the other hand, does having a President for a father guarantee success in life? Amazingly enough, in our great meritocracy it doesn’t.
Our republic has survived many ups and downs. I predict, confidently, that it will survive Jenna Hager’s monthly reports on education issues.

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