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The Elite as a Tribe

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

It’s not often that I cite a MSM piece for it’s balance and thoughtfulness but I will recommend this one, from Alec MacGillis of MSNBC:

Academic elites fill Obama’s roster

All told, of Obama’s top 35 appointments so far, 22 have degrees from an Ivy League school, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago or one of the top British universities. For the other slots, the president-elect made do with graduates of Georgetown and the Universities of Michigan, Virginia and North Carolina.

While Obama’s picks have been lauded for their ethnic and ideological mix, they lack diversity in one regard: They are almost exclusively products of the nation’s elite institutions and generally share a more intellectual outlook than is often the norm in government. Their erudition has already begun to set a new tone in the capital, cheering Obama’s supporters and serving as a clarion call to other academics. Yale law professor Dan Kahan said several of his colleagues are for the first time considering leaving their perches for Washington.

“You know how Obama always said, ‘This is our moment; this is our time?’ ” Kahan said. “Well, academics and smart people think, ‘Hey, when he says this is our time, he’s talking about us.'”

Indeed. The Obamas may be moreso part of the bipartisan elite than were the Clintons whom academia overwhelmingly cheered, as Bill Clinton never could ( as Alec MacGillis duly notes) shed his ties to the Southern, good ol’ boy, wheeler-dealers of the courthouse clique. To an extent, Clinton reveled in winking at the corruption of his hambone cronies in wry TV soundbites. President-elect Obama is in far less of a hurry to bring Chicago’s more colorful political personalities to Washington and probably will not do so for several years until after Federal trials of Tony Rezko and investigations into city hall and the governor’s mansion and likely Federal trial of Governor Rod Blagojevich (D-IL) in Illinois have run their course.

I’m not unhappy with Obama’s appointments, finding them so far to be well qualified and I’ll offer high praise for Obama’s selection of General Jones and Secretary Gates. The Small Wars/COIN bloggers are jumping for joy and the national security bloggers, along with the conservative political bloggers, should be pleased; the next Defense Secretary or Secretary of State might easily have been Anthony Lake. It’s a more conservative national security group than any time during the Clinton administration. Count your blessings folks.

What strikes me as amusing though is the entirely visceral, euphorically emotive and almost tribal “he’s one of us” support from the elite for the President-elect. Reactions that run against the supposedly cerebral and “reality based” pretensions of empiricism and skepticism for which they make a claim but seldom practice because most of them are highly-trained, vertical thinking, experts. When you are accomplished within a domain and have built a reputation by operating within its’ often complex (to laymen) rule-sets, the price is often an acquired blindness that prevents you from challenging the cherished shibboleths of the group.  To look across domains and question fundamental premises in horizontal thinking fashion is to be the bull in the china shop. Or the skunk at the garden party. Or both.

Thorstein Veblen, who saw primitivism re-enacted in advanced capitalist societies would have understood this very well. So would Thomas Kuhn. The Bush administration, with its CEO-ex-jock mentality, was accurately criticized for it’s arrogant insularity and dismissal of critics and contrary evidence. I don’t know about you but I’ve been around an awful lot of very smart academics, including relatives and while their cognitive prowess is admirable, the unwillingness of many of them to reconsider assumptions in light of evidence ( or even notice that they need to do so) can be every bit as stubborn as that of a Wall Street “master of the universe”.

It’s great that Obama is appointing brilliant academics to high posts. Just throw some divergent, unorthodox, thinkers into the mix to keep them honest.

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