Saturday, November 7, 2009

Reihan Salam is too young for this
're-inventing conservatism' gig

The fact that he co-authored a book with Ross Douthat -- with the ridiculously pretentious subtitle "How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" -- would easily suffice to make me skeptical of Reihan Salam's judgment, even if he were 45. That he is both (a) a Harvard grad, and (b) only 29, more or less seals the deal.

My prejudice against these Best And Brightest types is perhaps misunderstood. I do not automatically despise every young Ivy Leaguer. J.P. Freire graduated from Cornell, and he's a good guy. Helen Rittelmeyer graduated from Yale, and she's even better.

What I hate, however, is the disrespectful Best And Brightest tendency toward know-it-all-ism, as if high SAT scores and four years at a school where tuition is $40,000 a year entitles them to pole-vault past the dues-paying journeyman career stage and start lecturing everybody else.

The Internet facilitates such obnoxious precocity. Excuse me for resorting to the when-I-was-your-age argument, but before the Internet, not everyone had access to a national readership. Pixels are free, whereas publishing in print costs money and so, in the pre-digital age, it was a very rare thing for a callow parvenu or arriviste to gain access to the kind of punditry platform that National Review's blog affords Salam:
As regular readers, I'm a huge fan of Tim Lee and his concept of a bottom-up approach to understanding and improving society. And so I was struck by the final paragraph of Republican consultant Alex Castellanos's New York Times op-ed on the Republican revival . . .
You can read the whole thing, but what caught my eye was how Salam begins with the trademark know-it-all-ism of the Best And Brightest. Castellanos is even older than me and was working on big-time campaigns when Reihan Salam was still pooping in Pampers.

Pause to contemplate what's happening here. In a rare reversal of its usual policy, the New York Times gives a Republican a chance to explain how Republicans won an election -- and not merely won it, but did the Godzilla-through-Tokyo stomp to an 18-point landslide. In response, Reihan Salam feels compelled to piss in Castellanos's cornflakes with his snooty oblique criticism, to the effect that Castellanos has offered an imperfect interpretation of McDonnell's Virginia gubernatorial campaign.

It's a punk move, and betrays the ungodly arrogance that inevitably overtakes young people who've become accustomed to being petted and praised for how precociously clever they are.

Young people, especially the most promising young people, must be chastised and disciplined if ever they are to develop to their fullest potential. This puerile Douthatian know-it-all tendency toward omniscient punditry -- "I've got a Harvard diploma! I know everything!" -- must be rigorously suppressed.

Intelligence and wisdom are two different things. There are plenty of bright fools (and I may be one of them) just as there are those people of less stellar aptitude who, by patient toil and study, eventually eclipse the adolescent glory of the Best And Brightest in the same manner that Aesop's tortoise beat the hare.

Much as I love the hierarchy-flattening effects of the Internet -- affording a guy with a Blogspot platform the chance to whack David Brooks, who certainly needs whacking and needs it badly -- there are some hierarchies that we should hesitate to level. Chief among these is the deference that the young traditionally owe to their elders.

Remember that I am a father of six, including a 20-year-old daughter and two teenage boys.

Are my kids bright and promising? You betcha.

Do I let my kids get away with thinking that their youthful potential entitles them to special treatment and unmerited praise? Hell, no.

If I don't indulge my own kids in their (arguably hereditary) tendency to think they're God's gift to the world, why should I sit silent while Reihan Salam presumes to lecture Alex Castellanos?

Shut up and get me a cup of coffee. I got ties older than you, kid.


  1. Age is correlated with experience, but people do learn at different rates and have different personal histories. That having been said...

    From the biographical squibs I have seen of these two men (which may be incomplete), it appears neither have any history of involvement in humdrum party politics or in local government. Both are childless. Both appear to have been educated in the verbal liberal arts and give no evidence of academic instruction in statistics or sociology or economics, so a somewhat removed and intellectualized apprehension of their social world is likely to elude them as well. It would appear also that Mr. Douthat has spent nearly his entire working life in the word merchant sector, nearly his entire life a resident of metropolitan centers in the Boston-Washington corridor, and nearly his entire life in a social environment that ranges from salaried bourgeois to frankly patrician. There is nothing wrong with any discrete element of this. Most people are born into a given social stratum and stay there, most do not move around much, most do not change careers much, and only a small minority has anything to do with political life that involves actual labor. However, all of the elements of their history taken together do inhibit both an intellectual and a rough-and-ready apprehension of the dispositions of the electorate and of the concerns of the wage-earning stratum in particular.

    For all that, I think your criticism needs to be qualified. I have seen no indication that the political commentary of either man flows from aught but but some sort of conception of how the common life ought to be lived. I can think of several members of the commentariat who appear to be poseurs to one degree or another, or to be propagating opinions that flow from professional disappointments or a sort of psychological inner turmoil. Mr. Douthat can irritate by almost apologizing for what he advocates. There is no reason to think him a fraud, however.

  2. Not anonymous. Just faking to get past the javascript bugs.

    K~Bob said,

    100 years ago, Harvard and the other Ivy-league schools were special. Thanks to the internet, streaming video, the growth in the economy and population; and cheap, plentiful international travel deals, these schools only lead in *some* areas. And I don't mean in broad areas like "science" or "business." I mean narrow areas like "Mesopotamian Anthropology."

    Pick up any--ANY--college promo literature, and you'll find photos of "field studies" in foreign countries.

    Any technical specialty that involves computers and the web can be learned ON the web. In fact, no better place to learn about them exists. Sorry, MIT, but it's a fact.

    Thanks to smartphones, middle-schoolers who want to read translations of Cicero can do so anytime, and for free. The monopoly on "superior intellectual development" was destroyed years ago.

    Kids (including high-schoolers) can get a fantastic education in Community College, often with visits by leading thinkers and professors from top-ranked universities.

    Becoming intelligent has never been so affordable nor accessible. For those who were stuck in expensive, difficult-to-gain-admission, brownstone-and-ivy "Universities:" your degree is no longer an indicator of superior intellect, nor excuse for poor reasoning skills.

  3. Salam doesn't ever criticize Castellanos, as you said. In fact, he seems to be AGREEING with his assessment of a successful Republican election strategy; he uses that assessment to start a discussion on the fact that few elected Republicans seem to be acting on the principle of "bottom-up conservatism." You seem so focused on these guys' deplorable (in your view) pedigrees that you missed the actual point that Salam is making, one I would think you would agree with.

  4. Salam is a name dropping poser with no real world experience. He is nothing but a hot house flower who fancies himself a "moderate" because that is so "in" now in the age of Obama. He is a conservative because that makes him "unique" among Harvard grads but his liberalism leaks thru every now and then and you can see he really wants to find the liberal/moderate solution to every issue.

  5. just remember that if Salam was named Bob Smith and went to a big state school he would be a full blown liberal and not just a "moderate". He gets attention with his "minority Harvard grad conservative" mask on so he's just running with it. Just like Obama ... its a con because nothing in his life points to "conservative" ...