16 February 2012
Those of us on the right sometimes charge liberals with “elitism” because—like Barack Obama—they disdain people who “cling to guns or religion,” or—like Thomas Frank—they think people in places like Kansas ought to share their liberal preoccupations with multiculturalism and economic status, instead of having the moral and religious concerns that they do.
This is the “condescending,” or “paternalistic,” form of elitism.
On the other hand, people on the left charge cultural conservatives like me with “elitism,” too.
I reject moral and cultural relativism and maintain that traditional value distinctions are based upon objectively existing standards. Therefore, according to me, some actions are right and others are wrong, some beliefs are true and others are false, and some works of art are beautiful and others are ugly—whether or not anyone agrees or knows the difference.
The standards by which things are to be objectively evaluated can be understood in various ways. Many conservatives will want to say they are determined by God. Personally, I believe they are grounded in human nature, understood in a non-reductive, normative way. Philosophically speaking, the view I favor is a form of eudaimonism—the idea that goodness and badness for human beings are ultimately referrable to human flourishing.
From the liberal-relativist perspective, this might be called the “upper-crust,” or “Tory,” form of elitism.
Now, if that were all there was to say on the subject, there wouldn’t be much reason to prefer one form of elitism over the other. So far, it sounds as though there are just two rival castes hurling insults at each other.
So, doesn’t that show the relativists are right, after all—de gustibus non disputandum est [one should not argue about tastes]? And—the liberals may add—you shouldn’t argue about moral values, either.
Well, no, it doesn’t.
Because human beings have a dual nature. We are not just material bodies. We are material bodies that have somehow acquired spirits.
The seventeenth-century English physician-author, Sir Thomas Browne, put it beautifully when he said that Man is “the Great Amphibium.”(1)
Just as amphibians are capable of living both in the water and in the air, so, too, do human beings live in the domain of matter and in that of mind (or soul, or spirit).
It is this fact about human nature—and it is an observable, empirical fact—that creates an objective standard of values for our species. Anything we do or say or feel that tends to elevate the spiritual side of our being is good, while anything that neglects or flouts or denigrates the domain of spirit is bad.
A wonderful illustration of this point is El Sistema, the system of exemplary music schools serving the poor that flourishes in Venezuela.
El Sistema is in the news these days because its most illustrious alumnus, Los Angeles Philharmonic music director, Gustavo Dudamel, is currently touring his homeland with his adopted orchestra.
I have written about El Sistema before, but briefly, it is a network of government-funded neighborhood schools that provide free musical instruments and lessons to more than 300,000 in villages and barrios all over the country. Discipline is strict, but children want to participate. The program is credited, not only with producing large numbers of talented musicians, but also with saving many thousands of young lives from the devastation of drugs, gangs, crime, and despair.
Most reports in the Western press on El Sistema appear embarrassed by the program’s emphasis on the canonical European repertoire of classical music. Liberal reporters like to stress that some local, Venezuelan music forms are also taught. However, for the most part, the actual content of the lessons is simply glossed over, in favor of social factors, such as camaraderie.
But I wonder if the aesthetic content of El Sistema‘s program is really so inessential as that. Let us conduct a thought experiment.
Instead of exposing poor Venezuelan children to the music of Bach and Handel and Mozart and Beethoven, let’s say another program, El Sistema Liberal, exposed them only to the music of Lady Gaga and M.I.A. and 50 Cent, or to their Venezuelan equivalents.
Would the salutary results be the same? I submit that they would not.
Why? Because a large part of the benefit that poor children accrue from experiences like those afforded to them by El Sistema is precisely the nourishment of a part of their souls that would otherwise run the risk of being famished.
So, the supposed Tory form of elitism is not really upper-crust at all.
Great art—defined as spiritually elevating art—is the patrimony of all mankind. The capacity to enjoy it and profit from it resides in all human beings, merely by virtue of their being human.
All that is required for its cultivation is a form of teaching that is dedicated to nourishing the higher aspects of children’s inborn natures—all children’s, everywhere. A form of education that is non-relativistic and non-patronizing.
El Sistema is all of these things.
It is neither “Tory” nor “upper-crust” to dedicate oneself to greatness, whether in music education, in the other arts, or in the curriculum generally, because every human spirit is naturally responsive to the good, the true, and the beautiful. Such responsiveness is a universal property of our amphibious species.
Advocacy on behalf of the noble and the uplifting is not elitist.
(1) In the Religio Medici (London, 1643).