Cities on Hills in Ruins

Written during a weeklong visit to Montreal, late August 2013

As a visitor in Canada with just momentary exposure to contemporary politics there, it is disheartening to find that the ethos of elite neoconservatism that has strangled the United States seems to also have been true north of border.

Two recent pieces on highlight the extent to which the Harper government has engaged in exclusionary and elitist policies. The first is through immigrant policymaking couched in pecuniary instead of more humanistic–or dare I say moralistic–terms, while the other is through methods of militarizing Canada’s college campuses, which would extend the military-industrial complex further into the reaches of liberal arts academia that used to be free from its long tentacles. Both efforts bear trademarks of the Western Neo-Con: made in vague terms, nominally if at all divulged, and with no impact analysis beyond exclusionary and typically inflammatory rhetoric. And, as true as it is in the United States, the policies are extensively covered, regurgitated, and reinforced by the corporate media chamber.

Hopes for an ideological turnaround as soon as the next election are probably unrealistic in either Canada or the United States. Rampant, unabashed capitalism has burrowed deep into the Anglo-European conservative tradition, and the West still operates under a tangled mesh of ideals it flirts with as truths, giving rise to justifications on human and social realities based on unprovable premises and mistaken assumptions of superiority. Such lessons are difficult to extricate from because they are deeply ingrained in the Western model of education, which itself is steeped in the ruthless pursuit of the ideal City on the Hill–a Platonic conceptualization intrinsically exclusive, hierarchical, and anti-democratic. The West will not change until it divorces its educational rubric from necessary Platonic rumination.

Striving to become their own philosopher-kings, the Western intelligentsia remains as aloof and self-perceptibly elevated from the society it purports to analyze. Such gatekeepers of information and resources–which in turn allows the gatekeeping of political power–often themselves exist in or have emerged from a screening process that had picked them out from the masses, in ways often very selective, and after laborious hours dedicated to professional validation. The educated elite then come to pride themselves out of such badges of success. Such symbols–the meticulously collected B.A.’s or M.Sc’s or J.D.’s or M.B.A.’s or Ph.D.’s after one’s name–are themselves socially engineered instruments of hierarchization, exercised through a process that excludes mass segments of the population from knowledge that should otherwise objective and universally accessible.

It is true that universities in the liberal model can be a force for egalitarianism and communitarianism. However the screening process for artificially construed distinctions in selectivity between institutions that otherwise have the same claim to truth–which should be the foundation of any academic endeavor–has led to the condensation of ideas and information, suppressing opposition, leading to the production of a self-selected, unabashed, ‘meritocratically successful’ few, whose consumers, their readers, their voters, their listeners, are not the masses for whom they claim to speak but rather those who tend to be of the like-minded sort: their similarly educated peers.

The gatekeepers of academia are produced from the same institutions as the gatekeepers of media, government, and business. The institutions themselves are factories of hardened meritocratic categorization. Students are commodified through grades and hierarchized accordingly.Those with the highest marks are given the plushest jobs and in turn the plushest salaries, while those down the rigid ladder still, overall, do much better than those who never were meritocratized–who could never, for example, afford without the brunt of lifelong student loans–through such institutions to begin with.

This self-ostracized minority–for one doesn’t simply stumble into institutions like the New York Times, the Brookings Institute, or universities like McGill–then emerges from their self-reinforced caves out into the world and realize what they had learned had been incomplete all along, that in fact out there, in the real world, it is entirely fine to subsist and live as an ‘everyday person’–a favored term, whatever that means. (The policy language itself as alluded to in the worthwhile read by Douglas and Yao Yao, which pits ‘economic class’ against ‘family class’ immigrants in preference, assuming the premise of hierarchy, as if having more children was automatically antithetical to economic success). The self-ostracized minority of elites and intellectuals, residing in their caves atop mountains of little intellectual diversity and hoarded endowments, peer at the masses below through stained glass windows, in the seconds spent away from books and journal articles (which themselves are compiled from written history produced by self-ostracized minorities of elites and intellectuals centuries of generations prior). Soon they think about how awful it must be to be down there. Many of them forget it was their norm prior to entering the gated compounds of the campus. And so they return, four or seven or twelve or more years later, finding the collective minute differences that have accumulated in the years since their self-ostracization uncomfortable, and consciously or not move, literally, intellectually and socially, back to gated communities of like-minded self-ostracized minority of meritocratic success stories, beginning to wonder whether such successes–within the parameters of capitalist, consumerist definitions–were perhaps, maybe, innate all along, whether through aptitude or luck. Because they hailed from similar meritocratic factories of learning, such gatekeepers tend to apply the same metrics, methods, and rules of meritocracy onto the gates they have succeeded to keep, whether in government or business or the media or academia, and the same perceived necessities of hierarchy and curved compensation they had carried over from university.

Such jewel-encrusted cages of steel (purchased on credit), such caves made of cities and universities on hills, may have been once but are no longer necessary. Not when the premise behind cost of education through history–its basis on availability and scarcity, with which any capitalist would agree–has been blown open by anyone with access to Wikipedia, torrents, iTunes University and Reddit, or practically anyone with a smartphone or a nearby library and enough time. (One wonders where literacy levels would be if much fewer people, or altogether no one, would have to be self-alienated into laboring two shifts of eight hours apiece for, say, elite-educated corporate fast food overlords, few of whom actually deign to touch their own products, just to survive).

We see the conversation continue to unfold today as the newly minted gatekeepers enter their jobs and existing ones continue to stand sentry against any rabble of unvetted intruders–against questioning the militarization of college campuses, as if it was necessary to decimate what remains of academia that is non-corporate, and against ‘family-class’ immigrants, as if it was necessary to implore that the solution to scarce resources was to have less children over and instead of less consumerism and more sustainability (see: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom). And the Harper government is very much complicit in enshrining and increasing the largesse of the gatekeepers who hold such keys to power.

Popular movements such as Occupy, the student protests, and have only scratched the surface of elitist entrenchment in their respective societies. Despite the uncertainties of the aftermath of the recent financial ‘collapse’–the paradox between high employment and record corporate profits is pretty simple if you think about it, those jobs are being trickled-down to cheaper, more oppressive states overseas–we now know the gatekeepers remain alive and well-fed. PRISM and the NSA revelations have simply confirmed that the revolving doors of ethics and information between the elite-run, ever-voracious, militaristic states and markets of Corporate North America are spinning faster than previously imagined.

Mr. Smith strikes again

In today’s New York Times Greg Smith, a Goldman Sachs executive, publicly submits his resignation citing, among many other scathing reasons, the decline of the once morally sound corporate culture. This article is already receiving a volley of follow up publications from the skeptical to the satirical. And why shouldn’t it? It endeavors to critique the failings of today’s society, something we don’t take kindly to: criticism.

What makes this op-ed of such paramount importance is not what it says about one company, but the light it will inevitably shine on our society in the backlash that will undoubtedly follow. Like a childish tit-for-tat, I expect we will see media polarization of good vs. evil when it comes to talking about Mr. Smith. And the very process by which this “conversation” will unfold is the chilly reality of the world in which we live, and the qualities to which, by inference, we can reasonably assume Smith’s piece spoke.

I have in mind a few scenarios. First, following the negative publicity bound to be endured, Goldman Sachs (and others in comparable positions) will begin by discrediting Smith’s character. Either we can expect to hear that he was set to be let go, and in a clever attempt to capitalize on first-mover advantage, Smith tried to preemptively combat personal shortcomings by focusing blame on the company; or, that this was a childish attack by a disgruntled employee. Second, Goldman Sachs may refuse to acknowledge the attack, thus undermining Smith’s importance entirely, and proactively establish positive-spun PR campaigns to subconsciously reestablish a good image.

None of this seems revolutionary. But this is precisely why it is so important. We have accepted, either consciously or subconsciously, the way in which business, media, and society at large operates. It is indicative of the larger epidemic occurring these days: the acceptance, indeed encouragement, of the lowest (moral) common denominator. The transition from qualitative to quantitative analytics has allowed us to gauge success numerically, as detached from values (aside from monetary ones, that is).

Like the political to-and-fro of recent name-calling with respect to Rush Limbaugh’s controversy, we no longer address situations from the perspective of open and informed debate. Rather, issues are painted in such stark black and white contrast that there is no room for critique, only attacks. The further down this road we allow ourselves to travel, the less likely we are to advance.

Like Edgar Allen Poe’s pendulum swinging from extreme sides, the mechanics of today’s society prohibits anything in the middle from trying to stop polarization on pain of death. I eagerly await the reciprocation of Smith’s piece. Hopefully, I’ll be proved wrong and some fruitful discourse will take place. More likely though, the camps are already divided and trenches dug. I can’t help derive some satisfaction out of the fact that the devision factor on this particular issue, however, comes from a Mr. Smith. Moral philosopher, economist, polemicist. Can it merely be a coincidence?