Let us now praise the most reviled group of people in America: so-called “elites.” And how about a round of applause for the hated “mainstream media” as well.
If you listen to Donald Trump, or even if you paid attention to Bernie Sanders during the primary season, you might think all the nation’s problems can be blamed on two pointy-headed cabals. The “elites” who rigged the system to benefit themselves; and the puppy-dog “mainstream media” or “MSM,” also known as the “corporate media,” who were complicit.
First, the elites: Who are they, anyway? I’ve always tried to avoid using the term because it is so imprecise as to be virtually meaningless. If it means those with exceptional wealth, power or influence, then surely a billionaire such as Trump and a U.S. senator such as Sanders would qualify as members. I suppose their supporters might see them as traitors to their class.
Often the word “elites” is used to mean “experts,” as in “foreign policy elites have made a tragic mess of the Middle East” or “economic policy elites have given away the store in lopsided free-trade agreements.” Let’s assume that both these propositions are true. It is a matter of historical fact that the architects of the Iraq War – the single biggest U.S. foreign policy blunder in my lifetime – and the authors of NAFTA and other free-trade pacts were, indeed, recognized experts in their fields.
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But what makes anyone think the Middle East would be less bloody, or the Islamic State less of a terrorist threat, if U.S. policy had been run by people who had no expertise – who knew nothing about the region’s history, religious schisms or ethnic divides? Or that a better Trans-Pacific Partnership pact could be negotiated by someone wholly unfamiliar with the arcane minutiae of international trade agreements?
Ignorance is not a virtue. Knowledge is not a vice. Pointy-heads who spend years gaining expertise in a given field may make mistakes, but the remedy is to replace them with pointy-heads with different views — not with know-nothings who try to navigate treacherous terrain on instinct alone. (See: Trump’s policy positions on, well, anything.)
As for the much-disparaged media, I get emails every day from people who demand to know why we in the “MSM” or “corporate media” are covering up some scandal. The emails then go on to describe said scandal at great length and in microscopic detail, often quoting stories from The Washington Post, The New York Times, NBC News or other leading media outlets. I often write back that if we’re trying to cover up the outrage in question, we’re obviously doing a lousy job.
There is such a thing as the truth, just as there is such a thing as valuable expertise. Even if it’s “elite” and “mainstream” to say so.
Reach Eugene Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.