A cat may look at a King

If you research the vaguely populist notion that even the least among us may criticize our betters, youd find that the obscure 17th-century English aphorism A cat may look at a king, was later borrowed, in five-fingered Doris Goodwin or Joe Biden fashion, by 19th-century author Lewis Carroll. Carroll had copied the aphorism into his Alice in Wonderland fantasy novel. Acting on that same populist feline viewing royalty impulse, I hereby take my Fourth-Estate pen in hand to quarrel with esteemed author Thomas Frank. Frank has replaced Albert Hunt as the token-leftist columnist on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. Non-readers of the Journal will recognize Frank as the author of Whats the Matter with Kansas?, a 2004 political commentary in which he asserted that working-class cultural conservatives stupidly vote against their own self-interest when they embrace the party and political philosophy of the Elephant and not the Donkey. Frank borrowed the title question, with all the proper attribution (unusual by 21st-century literati fashion) from Kansan William Allen Whites 1896 essay of the same title. White had argued, among other things, that the then dominant populist demand for fewer white-shirted folks and more clodhoppers was the problem causing farm distress, business depression, and population out-migration, and not the solution. Kansans have a talent for incisive observation: it was Whites contemporary, a newspaper editrix and Republican activist named Mary Elizabeth Lease who famously recommended, in a time of falling grain prices, that farmers should raise less corn and more hell. Franks post-election Journal essay, titled Conservatism Isnt Finished, argues that the recent Donkey victory should not make liberals over-confident. He also argues that the culture wars have raged ever since 1968 because they help Republicans win elections and specifically ascribes to followers of the Elephant eagerness for a showdown between a folksy Middle America and a snobbish liberal elite. Frank is not a plagiarist but he certainly is a historical revisionist even I, an amateur historian, can easily document. Unlike Frank, who chooses to trace the culture wars back only 40 years to a time of tie-dyed bra burners and convention-crashers, I trace it back to the so-called Progressive Movement of the 1890s. That movement asserted, among other things, that it was the privilege and duty of the smarter and superior 10 percent of the population to govern the dumber and inferior 90 percent, a notion which on the global scale, was described by part-time Vermonter Rudyard Kipling as the white mans burden (1899) to civilize lesser beings: Your new-caught sullen peoples, half-devil and half-child around the world, with or without their consent, cooperation, or gratitude. Even though the Progressive Movement had Elephant origins (Wisconsin Republican Gov. Robert LaFollette was a founding father), it was solidly in Donkey-doctrine territory by the 1920s. Leftist writers such as Walter Lippmann, who identified himself and his intellectual peers as the civilized minority, explained their Progressive proposal to confine the role of public opinion in policy-making to strictly procedural questions reserving substantive decisions to an administrative elite (see Christopher Laschs The True and Only Heaven). As Lippmann would have it, public debate would not take place at all; decisions would be based on scientific standards of measurement alone, in the hands of an intellectual elite. The best argument for [real] democracy that the responsibilities of self-government would elicit unsuspected capacities in ordinary men and women had to be abandoned as another relic of the pre-industrial past, is the way Lasch explained the Progressive doctrine. Lippmanns comrade-in-arms, H.L. Mencken, held similar contempt for the booboisie. Lasch wrote that Mencken voiced the mockery and contempt for their neighbors, based on a conviction of their own superiority, that his readers also felt There was also New Deal insider and FDR confidant Thurman Arnold, of whom Lasch wrote: Arnold shared his contempt for democracy and his belief in the futility of public debate. Giving these early outlines of the culture wars an academic gloss were sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd, authors of Middletown in Transition, a 1929 study of Muncie, Ind.. The Lynds arrogantly concluded that liberal attitudes are correlated with intelligence. King Thomas knows the history of the culture wars far better than I. He simply chooses, for ideological reasons, not to recognize it. But I do. Meow. Retired archtect and liberal vs. conservative policy wonk Martin Harris safely observes Vermont politics from a distance at his new home in Tennessee.

Vote on this Story by clicking on the Icon


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment