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August 20, 2004

Social Conservatism, Elitism & The Natural Aristocracy

There has been a lot of blabber about the concept of aristocracy that has somehow filtered its way into the mind of Phil Agre, and thus into this corner of my worldview (and the blogosphere). We're going to have a problem here.

Agre begins:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.

Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and
civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality
and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the
modern world.

As it happens, I have fortunately stumbled, by way of Hispanicpundit whom I now thank, onto the work of Russell Kirk, a heretofore unknown progenitor of Conservative Thought. And while the very idea appears oxymoronic to the liberal flacks who dot the landscape with their yelps and insults, there are certain consistent principles which there abide. Yet it is true that having personified so much of Conservatism itself in the undeserving bodies of Barry Goldwater, George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Trent Lott and indeed in much of what goes by the name of Republican these days, a very large host of Americans are misled and confused. It is only natural that pinko rats take advantage of this confusion. It is only appropriate that we on the Right seek guidance from history.

But since I am a writer all too familiar with my own nomenclature, this opportunity allows me to dig up a few terms that I think contemporaries will find more familiar, which is why I allude to the Matrix, elitism and social conservatives. To wit:

I am not a social conservative. I am an elitist. If the Merovingian were not a corrupted ghoul, I think I'd very much enjoy hanging out with him. He is powerful, intelligent, erudite and arrogant. Excellent qualities for a member of the ruling class. Unfortunately, he wasn't wise enough to ally with a circle of equals, and instead hired leagues of flunkies and goons. Thus it was inevitable that he would be defeated by a group of bounders of extraordinary caliber.

A social conservative would insist that a certain set of inflexible values be ascribed to in order to dine with the Merovingian. An elitest would devise a serious of tests. Social conservatives value loyalty and obedience. Elitists demand performance and competition.

I leave you with Thomas Jefferson:

I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. Formerly, bodily powers gave place among the aristoi [aristocrats]. But since the invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death, bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness, and other accomplishments, has become but an auxiliary ground for distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy, founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature, for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed, it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendency.I think the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi [pseudoaristocrats], of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the really good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them, but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society.

This is the aristocracy of which Kirk speaks. Now you know.

Posted by mbowen at August 20, 2004 04:07 PM

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Social Conservatism, Elitism, Natural Aristocracy from Booker Rising
Cobb responds to a critic who argues that conservatism "is the domination of society by an aristocracy," and is thus incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization because it promotes "inequality and prejudice." Thus, the critic charges, i... [Read More]

Tracked on August 21, 2004 01:49 AM


So...Given what Jefferson says, and your own defintion of yourself as a elitist, will you support Bush (an artificial aristocrat) or Kerry (a more natural aristocrat)?

Posted by: Kamau at August 20, 2004 11:57 AM

I have no good reasons to support Kerry and I find him just as incapable of uniting the hearts and minds of Americans as GWBush. As of this moment I am not undecided but decidedly abstaining. So I will have any president those not as discerning as I will elect, but I will hold him to my standards whether or not he is a Republican. Furthermore I will continue to work within and outside of the party apparatus to hew more people to the small set of ideas that make sense for our nation.

Posted by: Cobb at August 20, 2004 12:09 PM

As the Irishman said: "Goddam all Gentlemen".

Natural Aristocrats? I think Jefferson was smoking some of his Hemp when he wrote that. I wonder what he would have made of such men as Hitler, Lenin, Stalin or Mao?

Perhaps that's not what TJ had in mind, but I don't think anyone could deny that those men had some talent. (We'll leave the virtue arguement alone for a minute).

Who's the Merovingian? Clovis?

Posted by: Eric Blair at August 20, 2004 01:07 PM

I didn't think the Merovingian was an aristocrat, but rather a gatekeeper. He was certainly imbued with a degree of power (as demonstrated by the orgasm he effected upon the woman), yet it's implied he sold out to achieve his position. Oddly enough, he seems more the conservative than an elitist -- as outlined by Kirk.

I concur that 'elitism' rewards performance in competition as judged by your peers. Meanwhile, anthropology reinforces Jefferson's view that the 'standards' -- as they are -- for excellence are not only evolving over time but becoming more diversified in the process. It begs the question as to whether a diverse culture such as ours can first arrive at standards for an elite, then benefit from their rule. A ruling class -- regardless of its parameters for admission -- might very well prove inefficient (if not problematic) as ultimately hindered by monolithic thought and action.

Posted by: MIB at August 20, 2004 01:19 PM

Gives me an opportunity to pull out my copy of THE CONSERVATIVE MIND. In the foreword:

...the conservative abhors all forms of ideology. An abstract rigourous set of political dogmata: that is ideology, a 'political religion,' promising the Terrerstial Paradise to the faithful; and ordinarily that paradise is to be taken by storm. Such a prioridesigns for perfecting human nature and society are anathema to the conservative, who knows them for the tools and the weapons of coffeehouse fanatics.
For the conservative, custom, convention, constitution, and prescription are the sources of a tolerable civil social order. Men not being angels, a terrestial paradise cannot be contrived by metaphysical enthusiasts; yet an earthly hell can be arranged readily enough by ideologues of one stamp or another. (Kirk, pp. xv-xvi)

American custom is tainted by white supremacy. In fact I would go a step further. American custom IS white supremacy. This is why you can't just not be racist, you have to teach anti-racism...the default IS the custom.

Yet another reason why I make a distinction between conservative blacks and black conservatives.

Posted by: Lester Spence at August 20, 2004 02:33 PM

"pinko rats?" yowsa, cobb. i see you've taken the sheathe off your M16-13Z. well, not lookin to get in your crosshairs, but i don't get why you ally yourself with such fightin-words uneccessarily?

Harsh, m'man. those are pretty fancy words from that slave-ownin ex-president, but i'm not sure that's quite what he was getting at. you sound like a person who just belives in a meritocracy. what is that, a meritocracist? pardon me if i'm making up words here.

anyway, point is, "elitist" has this smell of wanting to wrest democracy from the masses and put it the safe, wise hands of those who've somehow "earned it." y'know, that whole your "betters" know what's good for you kind of vibe. i'm pretty sure that's not how you meant it, but man, you look like you wanna be startin somethin.

Posted by: memer at August 21, 2004 04:21 PM


I don't think Cobb is joking or exaggerating.

Posted by: P6 at August 21, 2004 04:38 PM

What I think people fail to understand here is that consumer power is just about all the power the masses get. And in America's environment, which is predisposed to meritocracy, the masses exhibit about as much leadership skills as are required of them, which is some but not much. Beyond that, there's nothing else to expect. The masses are not going to rise up and do anything, except perhaps go to the movies.

Whether or not Jefferson is a sterling example of anything, he recognized that in the realm of political thought one should be predisposed to meritocracy - what he calls the natural aristocracy, rather than inbreeding. I can only suggest a reading of Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver to get the gist of 'natural philosophy' to understand the context of Jefferson's use of the word 'natural'. And if you could do me the favor of not bulging your eyeballs when analyzing the specifics of what he says in this paragraph, in view of your interpretation of the meaning his entire slaveholding life, I would appreciate it greatly.

There is no democracy to wrest from the masses because the masses are not creating democracy. They are simply participating in a democratic process on an occasional basis. What's voter turnout in your zipcode? It's the difference between those of us here in the blogosphere actively hashing out political philosophy and those at the multiplex watching 'Alien vs Predator'. The difference is the same now as it was in Jefferson's time - certain of us are talented and motivated, most of us are not.

But the distinction I am making here is not between the elites and the masses, and I'm rather surpised at the raised eyebrows considering how long my byline has said 'uppity'; but the differences between the elites. And although I am at somewhat of a disadvantage at pointing out the leader of the social conservatives, I'd imagine that Pat Robertson would suffice. Understand that I cannot abide Pat Robertson's influence over the Republican Party, and I think him to be totally incompatible with the Old School. I'd have the Old School Black Republicans duke it out with Robertson.

Now here is an ideal time to show how conservative blacks like me would use Kirk's reasoning, as Spence graciously provides, to spit in the eye of Robertson and the pinkos. We believe in mastery, but not master plans.

I will be so bold as to suggest that there is no way to get the masses off their asses without sufficient quantities of empty promises. Religious fundamentalism is the most dangerous one of our times.

Posted by: cobb at August 21, 2004 05:37 PM

I would say that we already have a ruling class. We just don't call them that because the ways and means of attaining their standing remains relatively open in American society. But I don't think there is any question that the difference and the distance between studying poli-sci at the State U, and Law Review at Georgetown amounts to a class barrier with regard to the career and power prospects of the two students.

I further think that this process is already ratified by the public and not likely to come under attack any time soon. Obviously we can get political majorities ratcheted up to decapitate Affirmative Action on the grounds of it mucking with our marvelous meritocracy.

Posted by: cobb at August 21, 2004 05:42 PM