The Trouble With Anti-Elitism

The other day, Jonah Goldberg was complaining about the left's alleged long history of anti-American sentiment:

The Nation ran a famous series then called "These United States," in which smug emissaries from East Coast cities chronicled the "backward" attitudes of what today would be called fly-over country. One correspondent proclaimed that in "backwoods" New York (i.e. outside the Big Apple): "Resistance to change is their most sacred principle." If that was their attitude to New York, it shouldn't surprise that they felt even worse about the South. One author explained that Dixie needed nothing less than an invasion of liberal "missionaries" so that the "light of civilization" might finally be glimpsed down there.

The trouble here, as Jon Chait points out, is that sometimes sneering condescension is warranted: "despairing about the political culture of the South in the 1920's, where disenfranchisement, lynching, and even slavery were routine practices, is a sign of insufficent patriotism? If that doesn't show the deficiencies of the right's style of patriotism, nothing does."

Now that's not to say that sneering condescension is always and everywhere a good thing. Even specifically on this point, it turned out in later decades that northern whites were a lot more interested in lecturing southern whites about the need to treat African-Americans better than they were in improving their own standards of conduct. But still, the real limits to the kind of sentiments Goldberg is complaining about mostly highlight the need for more self-scrutiny not, as he would seem to have it, more obliviousness to very real problems.