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William Henry was a two time winner of the Pulitzer Prize (once for reporting, once for criticism) and served as Time Magazine's culture critic.  Apparently, he was a pretty standard issue left wing intellectual.  But modern American life gnawed away at him until he wrote this brief, cogent attack on the mindless egalitarianism that he saw destroying the nation.  In a nutshell:  elitism assumes equality of opportunity and then places emphasis on excellence and success while egalitarianism, instead,  emphasizes equality of results--success is no longer a good thing and excellence is suspect.  The egalitarian assumes that differences in performance are the result of insidious discriminatory factors rather than an inevitable outcome dictated by natural talents and tries to both handicap those who perform well and coddle those who perform poorly.

Harris does a creditable job of surveying the popular culture to marshall facts for his argument.  The sheer weight of the data he offers on topics like affirmative action, Afrocentrism, Women's studies, social promotion, etc., makes a pretty irrefutable case that America's cultural elites have ceased to be elitist and have abandoned themselves to a set of political standards based not on quality, but on a system of political entitlements.  Now, this is hardly a new argument.  Indeed it was one of Alexis de Tocqueville's chief concerns; that a nation that was so obsessed with equality would eventually abandon the idea of equality of opportunity in favor of the demand for equality of results.  No, it's not the novelty of the argument that makes this book noteworthy.  What makes the book fascinating is the hilarious psychodrama which unfolds as Mr. Henry adopts this conservative argument, while trying to justify himself to his liberal cohort.

Before he really gets going, Mr. Henry offers us his Left bona fides:

    I am fully aware that much of what I deplore as retrograde tribalism or wrongheaded moralism is
    regarded by large sectors of the population as progress.  I am also painfully conscious that taking
    the postures I do may condemn me to accommodating some pretty strange bedfellows--racists,
    male supremacists, patriotic zealots, reactionaries, religious exotics, and assorted other creeps.  I
    confess to being a white Ivy-educated male who is married and lives in the suburbs (in kind of a
    nice house, actually.)  Yet I am not a right-winger, and I hope I am not a nut.  I am still a registered
    Democrat, a recipient of awards for civil rights writing from the National Conference of Christians
    and Jews, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Unity in Media contest based at
    historically black Lincoln University.  I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU and a donor to
    abundant left-of-center social causes.  My boyhood heroes were Hubert Humphrey and Martin
    Luther King, Jr.  At a party in Washington some months ago I hurriedly crossed the room to avoid
    even being introduced to Pat Buchanan, and my wife and I have donated copiously to the electoral
    opponents of Jesse Helms.

No, seriously.  I didn't make this up.  I know it reads like some kind of Stalinist Show Trial self-denunciation or cocktail banter from a Tom Wolfe character, but the guy actually wrote all that.  And as the book goes along, we're treated to all kinds of tidbits about his black or gay friends and his deep sensitivities for the unfortunate, usually just before he sticks the shiv in some representative of a minority group.  It's a hoot.

But the end result is that, contrary to the title, while he presents a devastating attack on egalitarianism, he lacks the courage of his convictions and does not honestly defend the elitist values that he espouses.  He backs away from the logic of his own arguments and refuses to explore why the Elite Culture of which he is so fond is fundamentally a product of white Christian straight men.  He ignores the fact that the rise of egalitarianism and the pace of the attack on elitism have quickened in the seven or eight decades when the franchise and political power have been rapidly expanded to the very people whose work product he suggests does not measure up to traditional elite standards of excellence.  Watching the virtual self-hypnosis that he had to go through just to go out as far on a conservative limb as he did, it is no wonder that he could drag himself no further.  No wonder, but it is too bad.

Mr. Henry died shortly after the publication of this book, so we'll never know whether he eventually would have been able to face the full import of his own argument.  Instead, he leaves behind a very entertaining, though ultimately incomplete, polemic against the sorry state of American culture.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -READING GROUP GUIDE: (Random House)
    -The Affirmative Action and Diversity Project: A Web Page for Research
    -REVIEW:  IN DEFENSE OF ELITISM (Roger Kimball, New York Times Book Review)
     -REVIEW: In Defense of Elitism Learning the difference between art and Art.  (David Ribar, Nashville Scene)
    -REVIEW: (Steven Hayward, Reason)
    -REVIEW: In Defense of Elitism (Reed Woodhouse, Boston Book Review)

    -ESSAY : Dangerous Egalitarian Dreams (John Kekes, Autumn 2001, City Journal)
    -Black and right: Thomas Sowell talks about the arrogance of liberal elites and the loneliness of the black conservative (Ray Sawhill, Salon)
    -The N-word: Jefferson Community College teacher Ken Hardy wanted to teach a class on taboo words. He said one and lost his job (CHRIS COLIN, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Do we really want equality?  (Alan Ryan, The New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Sovereign Virtue The Theory and Practice of Equality, by Ronald Dworkin  Impractical Equality  (Richard A. Epstein, Reason)
    -ESSAY : Lessons: How to Ease the Burden of Homework for Families (RICHARD ROTHSTEIN, May 23, 2001, NY Times)
    -RESPONSE : Homework and Equity: The "Lessons" (Smarter Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America  by Richard J. Ellis (Andrew Hazlett, The Occassional)
    -SPECIAL ISSUE : Equality and Responsibility : Can egalitarians take the idea of personal responsibility seriously? A debate on John Roemer's "Equality and Responsibility."  (John E. Roemer, Boston Review)