'A Shell Game of Oppression': Readers Critique the Cult of Smartness

We asked readers to weigh in on Chris Hayes' new book about how elites are failing America. Here's what some of them had to say.letter full flickr linda cronin.png

Linda Cronin / Flickr

After reviewing Twilight of the Elites by Chris Hayes, I solicited reader emails on meritocracy, the ruling class, and related subjects. The responses serve as a reminder that most Americans have views and opinions far less predictable than you'd expect from following debates in the media. And they included a couple of riveting personal stories.

Beth offered a radical critique of American values:

The root of this entire thing is the metric of worth. The metric of worth changes as culture changes and it should be done away with altogether, but it's too radical. Instead of acknowledging the huge spectrum of people and creating a dignified place for everyone, we have created a Gladiator Arena where the deserving win and the flawed lose. This is the basis of America. 

We stole this land. But that's okay because the vision of the United States was so much more important and better than what the indigenous people were doing with it. Thomas Jefferson wrote all that bullshit about all men being created equal while being a slaveholder.
We accept and reinforce constantly that well, some people are just better, just worth more than other people. And we move this concept from one thing to another. Ok, you can't say that whites are superior to blacks, how about straight is better than gay? No? No good? How about smart people! Any color or sexual orientation can be smart! Even girls can be smart! Let's do that one.

Only let's redefine smart to mean successful. It's a shell game of oppression.

She adds:

People need to stop talking about the elite. They do it because it's too unpleasant to talk about and examine the poor and disenfranchised. Break down all media content into how much is about rich people. Almost all of it. We don't even see the poor. Even this stupid book which is trying to deal with social justice issues is focused on the rich. It's a pipe dream problem. What ever are we going to do about the cult of smartness? Well, what ever are we going to do with people working so much that they can't raise their kids and the schools alienate the kids, and they eat really crappy food and someone is in jail for pot and someone else came back from a war incredibly messed up and they have tons of debt and of course someone then gets addicted to drugs because who wants THAT reality. There are more of those kind of people or close to it than there are people who graduate from Yale.

Says Bob:

I have mentored sexually abused children since 1994 and I started a program to
help drug-addicted mothers regain the custody of their children and worked
within the court system to do so. I found very very limited help and support
because selfish people are found in abundance and unselfish people are in the
tiniest of minorities.

When I was 23 this problem bothered me to the exclusion of all problems. One day
I realized what caused it. It was the self, the ego. But I had no solution! No
one did in all the books I read with the exception of one, the Bible.

Yes, the problem is the heart.

 Mary suggests better attuning ourselves to excellence:

There are so very many excellent people in this world without degrees from any college or university, and some without a high school diploma. They can think as clearly as anyone, make good decisions and judgments, and can live very productive, useful lives. Perhaps what is needed is a thorough study of excellence and how that translates in how we live our lives. A pile of "accomplishments" does not mean that a person has lived a valuable life nor that they have been ethical. Note the number of CEOs who have only profit to show for their "excellence" or the university educated person who goes on to live a selfish, shallow life lacking in integrity and with an aim to keeping him or herself in riches.

While not a fan of the super rich, I would be considered very wealthy by some and yet I do not think that should be taken from me when I have worked hard, saved and sacrificed for this lifestyle and the money I have been able to accumulate. Taking the money from the wealthy does not guarantee that it will be used wisely or well for the good of others. As of now we have a very flawed system in place to use these confiscated funds properly. However, I can see that without the degree from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, those who are just as smart are at a disadvantage. But that is only because of the false supposition that these schools and the degrees they confer also confer the superiority needed to lead us out of our woes.

But please don't misunderstand. I do believe the wealthy should contribute as much as they possibly can once they have acquired their needs and to some degree, their desires. And that calls for excellence on their part, the excellence of a good, kind, loving human being who sees themselves as one with others. Meritocracy, like democracy, capitalism or any other system is just that, a system, devoid of any judgement other the one used in the rule of law. Only the qualities of kindness, compassion, love, and a striving for excellence will lead us to be a more fair and just society. It is not something that can be given to us from the persons on high, the government or any other powerful authority.

John is a pessimist:

When and only when we view our species as just another insignificant life form subject to extinction by the whims of nature do we gain an appreciation for how utterly meaningless our human existence is. It begins to put human emotion and human ethics into perspective. They lie on top of the garbage pile of things in which we humans wallow. Once we realize that our existence could be extinguished tomorrow, that we are each and collectively worth little more than insects, we can conduct ourselves in the humble way necessary for equality to be achieved.

I, for one, ascribe to a cynical view of human nature. Hobbes said that man's natural state was basically civil war. Ayn Rand, centuries later, most eloquently stated what we had known all along: self-improvement is what we should strive for, because the rest will fall into place. Not an earth-shattering concept by any means, but good in that it dispenses with the notion that interaction between humans should be governed by grand human constructs like our own ineffective political bureaucracy or the idiosyncrasies of case law. Focus on the self is paramount. While Objectivism has intrinsic flaws, none are so debilitating as to trash its central philosophy of the self. When we stop worrying about the how to game the system and start worrying about our own pathetic accomplishments, then and only then can we rise above these miserable elitist human constructs and achieve BOTH equality AND a society based on the beautiful idea that merit must, should and ought to be rewarded.

TJ says that progressive taxation is a critical part of the solution:

Technology and globalization are responsible for much of the increasing disparity in incomes. There really isn't a policy that can "solve" that problem. But a more progressive tax system can mitigate it and can also fund things like infrastructure which will help alleviate some of the pain for the working class. A sense that our government "gets it" and is working to bring Americans closer together should help close the gap between the elites and the rest of us.

Says Maria, who is conflicted about her parenting:

My husband and I both have advanced degrees and we sent my daughter to a prestigious prep school and now she is headed to an Ivy League school. So the elite perpetuate the elite. At the same time, my husband and I came from blue-collar families and were the first to go to college. So we joined the "elites" by virtue of educational opportunities. I don't really know if it is possible for kids with backgrounds like my husband's and mine to move into the elite in today's world the way that we were able to in the past. The period when we were a meritocracy was actually brief and we are back to where things have always been. The elites make sure their offspring get into top schools by hook and by crook. While the parents may have been brilliant, we have a bit of regression towards the mean here and the offspring of the elites are not as bright and talented but take their place in society anyway. You have this happen for several generations and you have today's dilemma and for time immemorial. (And, yes, as a parent I do worry that I am pushing my child beyond her capabilities -- but then my child is brilliant -- right??

However, I do think this is temporary. The current crop is "elites" is highly skewed to white males. Yet, the academic achievement of women has been outstripping men for years. So what will happen when you have several generations where the women have higher levels of education than men? As a society, we have yet to feel the impact since these generations are still younger. What about the big demographic changes such as the rise of the Hispanic community? The reality is that the battle for control of our society and our institutions is already beginning (see the Tea Party and current GOP). I don't think that we need to do anything to resolve this problem -- it will be resolved over time by the changes are just now roiling this country. What troubles me is what do we do in the interim? With all the folks who are hurting out there? And folks who feel that they no future and no say in what is happening to this country? If it were up to me, I'd say that we need to bring back the Great Society but we will have to wait for the Millenials to take over for that to happen. 

J.P. shared his story, one that shows how small setbacks can accumulate and make it very difficult for someone to break into the middle class:

I am a victim of rural and generational poverty, and at age 40 I have just now landed on the ladder of a professional federal position that will hopefully get me to a middle-class income within the next few years. Unfortunately my entire 30s were plagued with the hardships that are poverty. I was in college getting the degree that I should have gotten after high school, maybe instead of joining the Coast Guard. But I did enjoy my six years in the Coast Guard and it got me off the farm and away from my family which was living in poverty at the time. I was working on getting my degree, and even though I got the GI Bill for education, that money was only enough to supplement the pay I made while working at the Post Office part time. I took out student loans to pay for the tuition. (Today's GI Bill has been revamped and covers all tuition costs for even online universities and gives a $600 monthly stipend to help with living expenses.)
While in college I utilized some of the credit on my credit cards, which had very high limits since I had a decent financial life in my 20s and had established credit. At that time I had never been late on any payment ever and had never bounced a check; I had perfect credit. The old truck I was driving broke down, and I didn't have the time or money to repair it as all my time was spent going to classes and working nights at the post office. I had lent my sister, still living poor with my folks, a car that I had, which I had to take back for my own transportation. Mom was a little upset about this, but I was stuck.
The truck was sitting in front of my apartment and I needed to get rid of it so as not to get fined. I posted it for sale in Autotrader and, to make a long story short, was one of the first victims of the now well-known Nigerian check cashing scam. Basically I received a counterfeit cashier's check and when I handed it to the teller at my bank, she processed it. Turns out it was my responsibility to know if the cashier's check was counterfeit, which I later learned I could verify by calling the issuing bank. Although the teller should have had some responsibility, or the system should have been able to catch such a thing, I was the one hit. (Incidentally I called an attorney through the Akron Bar Association who informed me that the law doesn't protect stupidity!)
I was immediately reported to Check Systems -- a tool to oppress the poor! The other bank I had an account at notified me that I needed to get the money out of my account so they could close it because they won't do business with me. I had no infractions with this bank. Now all bills had to be paid via money orders I had to purchase.
Next all my credit cards, with which I had a sterling credit rating, immediately raised my interest rates from around 10 percent to over 20 percent with one at 29 percebt! I was carrying a higher balance than I would have otherwise because I was in school and figured I would worry about the card debt after graduating and getting a good paying job with my college degree. However, my minimum monthly payments, which I was barely managing, all doubled, causing me to be unable to even pay the outrageous minimum monthly payments. I defaulted on every card and did not answer my telephone for the next year.
There was no time to lick my wounds because I had to finish my degree. The postal service did not allow me to adjust my work schedule to go to classes so it was a continual battle, but I finally finished school, and graduated in May 2007. By this time I was getting so run down physically that the doctor asked that I not be scheduled over 40 hours per week. The postal service refused to honor the request and for a while I suffered. Then on Christmas Eve 2007, my mother died leaving behind my dad, me, and six siblings. I was told I could only be granted three days of bereavement leave, which meant I had to be back at work that Monday. It was at this point I decided to just quit, as my whole world just fell apart.
I was able to collect unemployment since I had record of the doctor's hour-restriction request, and the Postal Service's written refusal to honor it. But unfortunately I was not aware that the economy tanked so was shocked to learn I couldn't find a job. I ended up on unemployment for a year and a half. The credit-card companies by this time began filing lawsuits against me, so I decided to file bankruptcy. I didn't have the money to pay the attorney so I closed out my retirement account. That gave me money for the bankruptcy and a little bit of money to supplement my unemployment checks. Towards the end of 2009 the postal service began to contest my unemployment, which first caused me to have to manually verify my status each month, and then it began delaying my payments. In September of that year I received a call back from the IRS from an employment application I submitted. It was the only response I got from the hundreds of resumes I sent out.
I accepted the $32,000 per year office administration job, since by this time I had not received an unemployment check for an entire month due to the postal service fighting it. I didn't feel I had any other choice but to take this job. Unfortunately gas prices had skyrocketed and the IRS office was 45 minutes from my apartment. I wasn't being paid enough to relocate so I commuted in my 1997 Ford Ranger. I filed my taxes for 2008 and shortly after got a notice from the IRS that I owed $2500 due to withdrawing my retirement account. There were a few conditions where one could draw on a retirement account without penalty, but collecting unemployment, filing bankruptcy and using the money to live on, wasn't one of them.
I ended up getting on a payment plan of $50 per month, even though I was making the same thing with the IRS that I made on unemployment, except now I paid $50 per week or $200 per month on gas to get to the job. I was literally worse off financially with my new found college degree and IRS job! Things got worse when during this time the oil pump on my truck went out and cost me $900 to repair. I was able to borrow half of the money, and used most of a paycheck to cover the rest.
I was able to leave the IRS after a year and a half and started with another federal agency in the same area. This job has recognized my degree and put me on a career later that will finally get me to almost $60,000 per year. I have been on forbearance of my college loans since graduating 5 years ago and have accumulated $10,000 in interest over that time bring my college loan debt to $50,000. I don't know if I will be making enough money to pay on these loans this year, but hopefully will by next year.

Finally, Humberto offers some perspective from abroad:

For 28 years I worked in a company which in my country (Venezuela) represented meritocracy. This was Pdvsa, a company formed by the merging of the people and organizations originally belonging to the various international oil companies which for 60 years, until the amicable nationalization of 1975, operated Venezuela's oil industry. People in it were largely successful in running the industry in a rational, highly profitable, orderly, ethically transparent manner despite political and other pressures from our very non meritocratic environment. People in it cultivated a kind of corporate tribal culture which values they took pride in upholding and applying. It wasn't perfect, there were mistakes and occasional failures, but on the whole it was a pretty decent organization in the way it ran its business and served its shareholder, the Venezuelan State. Salaries were good for Venezuelan standards but nothing like the obscene remunerations that top executives in the financial world grant themselves in the US. People took their environmental responsibilities seriously and were amazed when, visiting other countries, they saw how corporations (and governments) sometimes gamed their way out of their responsibility in the pursuit of greater gain.

For many years I was a lawyer in this organization, with inside access to how things were run, and can tell you with absolute assurance that during my employment there I never had to do anything shameful or unethical or countenance other people doing so.

In time, the corrupt political system (a democracy of sorts) that governed Venezuela fell under the weight of its many vices and brought us the monstrous regime that rules over us today. As it fell, it brought down with it the Pdvsa I had worked in and replaced it with a Sham corporation, an arm of the political movement which supports the regime but which, having destroyed the meritocracy once running it, has completely mismanaged and destroyed what once was an exemplary corporation, and filled it with all sort of corrupt so called 'popular' managers and ideological poseurs. It is no longer a meritocracy. People once part of the meritocracy were dismissed from their jobs massively as the result of a strike occurring in 2002. They are now spread all over the world, in Canada working to help produce the oil tar sands, in Colombia where oil production has gone from 300k barrels per day to close to a million at the end of this year, in the Middle East, in the North Sea and of course in the US. Others have lost not only their careers but their very livelihood, for the regime bars any of them from working in any company which does business with the government. Many lives were destroyed, others had to learn to live the life of the exile and outcast.Fortunately this was not my case, I retired from Pdvsa one year before the whole thing toppled over.

I write to you to try and convey the idea that meritocracies, even if uncharismatic and fallible, are often much better than other kinds of ideologically inspired systems. They can make mistakes because all human endeavors ultimately are destined to fail some way or another and can be abused. Meritocracies are no exception but they offer a better alternative to almost any other form of organization I've ever known about. If they are abused or made to serve ignoble ends there is always a chance of improving and sanitizing them to do the right thing. They can achieve miracles but sometimes they can make very big mistakes. It is precisely the role of a well run government to regulate and monitor their operation to ensure that if this happens, their mistakes can be corrected as far as it is possible to do so in a rational way.

I now work as consultant in an international private firm, it is highly reputable and well run, but it comes nowhere near to having the kind of pristine meritocratic culture I used to know where I worked before.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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