Obama, Santorum, and the Snobbery of the Left

Among the many things Rick Santorum has said recently that is raising hackles is that President Obama is a “snob” for saying everyone should go to college.  How uncouth of the ex-Senator with a working class background!  The Senator deserves a defense, however, though probably not on the grounds he had in mind.

First let’s brush aside the surface arguments on this issue, which are two: first, Obama can be seen as merely extending the commonplace utilitarian view that higher education is the gateway to higher incomes, as the surveys show that college graduates earn more than high school graduates by a substantial margin.  But this probably reflects selection bias, which means the income gap between college graduates and non-college graduates may diminish as more people who don’t really belong in college go to college nonetheless.   (And perhaps Obama is also trying to prop up an industry that is on the brink of collapse or at the very least wrenching change; i.e., he’s trying to forestall the collapse of what is being called the “higher education bubble.”)  There’s lots of learned argument on this point; I’ll recommend one of Charles Murray’s previous books,  Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.

The second argument is that Obama wants more people to go to college because colleges and universities tend to be indoctrination factories for making more Democrats.  This may be closer to what Santorum had in the back of his mind with the “snob” comment.  Like public employee unions, plumping for higher education merely expands the liberal base.  That’s perhaps true, but in my mind the biggest problem with so much of higher education today, especially in the humanities, is not its liberal bias but its obvious mediocrity.  It’s not clear to me that more college students will breed more liberals; it might just as well breed more apathetic slackers who aren’t absorbed with the postmodern professors’ fascination with Nietzsche’s will to power as found in 19th century English novels.  Maybe I’ll have to do a whole new Power Line series to explore this theme.

Instead, we should entertain the idea that in calling Obama a “snob,” Santorum has actually struck very close to the philosophical core of the contemporary Left.  And my witness for this case is a long ago article from the late John Adams Wettergreen titled, “Is Snobbery a Formal Value?  Considering Life at the End of Modernity,” published in the March 1973 issue of the Western Political Quarterly.  (Only available online if you have J-STOR access, unfortunately.)  This very theoretical article surveys the leading thinkers of the “New Left” at the time, including Marcuse, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and especially the French Hegelian, Alexandre Kojeve, whose own peculiar gloss on Hegel’s “end of history” became the basis of Francis Fukuyama’s blockbuster book The End of History and the Last Man.

It is a dense and difficult article that defies an adequate summary, but let’s try for a few highlights.  As you read this first excerpt, keep in the back of your mind Michelle Obama’s comment that she hoped bright college graduates wouldn’t go to work for grubby private-sector for-profit businesses, and Barack Obama’s comment that he regarded his one private sector experience as working “behind enemy lines”:

To use Kojeve’s words again, the realization that the United States (ca. 1958) may indeed have “already attained the final stage of Marxist ‘communism,’ seeing that, practically, all the members of a ‘classless society’ can from now on appropriate for themselves everything that seems good to them, without thereby working any more than their heart dictates” engenders resolute nausea in the New Left or its teachers. This nausea is caused by the realization that “the American way of life” may be the wave of the future. Thus, the resolution that it must not be. “The American way of life is not the life-style proper to the final State because it is too vulgar.”

So, just how does a fashionable new lefty, educated in the ahistorical and nihilistic premises of modern liberalism that make us into Nietzsche’s “last men” at the end of history, construct a philosophy to provide a basis of opposition to vulgar “Americanism”?  Wettergreen suggests that Left intellectuals in effect embrace a formal position that works out to snobbery in practice, even if they don’t recognize it explicitly.  It explains why so many liberals are impervious to the plain fact of their inegalitarian elitism (i.e., What’s The Matter With Kansas?).

Snobbery is hardly a new concept, of course.  Wettergreen reminds us of some of its literary origins and development:

The science of snobbery is not a new but only a neglected enterprise. In the middle of the last century, William Makepeace Thackeray founded snobology while at the same time acting as the editor of Punch. Thackeray, the author of the first novel without a hero, despised everything “vain glorious.” That is, he was a Hobbist (at least as much as, for example, Norman Mailer is today an existentialist). Now Thackeray’s Book of Snobs was intentionally anti-snobbist and so it seems that snobbery may have had some content, something worthy of opposition. What was it in snobbery that Thackeray opposed? In a perhaps too serious moment, he wrote: “As long as [newspapers publish a "society page"] how the deuce are people whose names are chronicled in it ever to believe themselves the equals of that cringing race which daily reads that abominable trash?” . . .

According to Thackeray, the footman who grovels before the royal footman is equally a snob with the royal footman (or the royalty itself) that expects such groveling. Today, when all footmen have disappeared, Thackeray’s understanding remains: anyone who thinks that he is superior (in a way that society ought to take notice of) is a snob. In the age when groveling is strictly taboo, in the classless society, only the expectation of groveling can produce a snob. Therefore, in modem times snobbery has progressed from the objective condition of the lower or lowest class to the merely subjective preference for an upper class. This late kind of snobbery, almost the reverse of original snobbery, is what Kojeve hopes will save man’s humanity.

Likewise, today’s leftists have so fully absorbed their own “betterness” over the rest of us that they can’t be bothered with a serious philosophical defense of it.  Santorum is right on the mark, even if he doesn’t know the full depths of why he is right.

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