Seeking the Roots of the Myth of the Howling Mob

James Taranto’s “Best of the Web Today” column in the WSJ‘s online version is a well written roundup of current events, with healthy dollops of humor. Yesterday’s edition offers an interesting consideration of the attitudes of the soi-disant elite/ruling class, and why they’re up in arms about the rest of us, a phenomenon I’ve talked about before.  That he manages to bring Roger Scruton into the discussion is a bonus.

The attitude in question is a mix of condescension and contempt:

In part it is the snobbery of the cognitive elite, exemplified by a recent New York Times Web column by Timothy Egan called “Building a Nation of Know-Nothings”–or by the viciousness directed at Sarah Palin, whose folksy demeanor and state-college background seem terribly déclassé not just to liberals but to a good number of conservatives in places like New York City.In more cerebral moments, the elitists of the left invoke a kind of Marxism Lite to explain away opinions and values that run counter to their own. Thus Barack Obama’s notorious remark to the effect that economic deprivation embitters the proles, so that they cling to guns and religion.

I’ve described this as a sort of “liberal person’s burden,” where out of some sense of noblesse oblige, the people under discussion decide that, being better than the rest of us, they need to run our lives as much as possible, and that furthermore, the great unwashed should be grateful when they decide we should have more of what we earn, as if it were their rightful decision to make. It’s a scorn for those of us who attend state colleges (or none at all), for those of us who aren’t terribly interested in running someone else’s life, but in turn prefer to tend our own gardens without interference.

Scruton has a term for it as well, which Taranto uses: oikophobia, a fear of the common. Scruton shortens oikophobes to “oiks”:

The oik repudiates national loyalties and defines his goals and ideals against the nation, promoting transnational institutions over national governments, accepting and endorsing laws that are imposed on us from on high […]and defining his political vision in terms of universal values that have been purified of all reference to the particular attachments of a real historical community.

The oik is, in his own eyes, a defender of enlightened universalism against local chauvinism.

Scruton was talking about European elites, but Taranto considers their American cousins:

[O]ur oiks masquerade as–and may even believe themselves to be–superpatriots, more loyal to American principles than the vast majority of Americans, whom they denounce as “un-American” for feeling an attachment to their actual country as opposed to a collection of abstractions.

Once more, we see the unattainably perfect being used as the enemy of the good; we see American exceptionalism being embraced only as a stick with which to beat Americans. The motivation for this may be what Pascal Bruckner calls “the Tyranny of Guilt,” or it may simply be a level of narcissism that pushes the oik to set himself apart from his countrymen, or it may be any number of other reasons.

But one of the aspects of narcissism is that it’s a reaction to feelings of inadequacy — like Spenser’s House of Pride, the elaborate edifice of moral superiority conceals the shameful dungeons beneath. And when the narcissist’s inner emptiness is exposed, what results is often rage and assault. This is what we see in the continual play of the race card, in the constant cries of bigotry as a means of thwarting discussion, and in the determination that opponents are stupid or venal. The narcissist finds it only fit that he or another of his elect should rule the rest, and they rage at any who would dare to oppose it.

This is what must be overcome if we wish to be free.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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6 Responses to Seeking the Roots of the Myth of the Howling Mob

  1. Speaking as a non-elite liberal, I think the argument offered here is much more a caricature than what it proposes to criticize. It’s not that liberals necessarily think they know better than everyone else (although some no doubt believe that), it’s that they know what they know: that income disparity is at an historic and dangerous high, that politicians (“conservative” ones most especially) are bought and paid for, that corporations and the rich (“conservative”) elites who run them are not answerable for their excess or their crimes.

    And the problem with Sarah Palin and the demagogic class that has spread like black mold around her? It’s not the state college she went to, for heaven’s sake. It’s her demonstrable and belligerent ignorance, her empirically violent rhetoric, her shabby record of self-aggrandizing, self-serving, self-enriching celebrity.

    Finally, when it comes to the rhetoric that is employed in this ideological divide, conservatives seem to have a notion that only they are allowed to be indignant. Any dissenting view is a priori wrong and ought not to be repeated — and certainly not promoted by way of discontent about a world in which the rich (aka the “conservative” elite) are in possession of just about everything, but it’s still somehow never ever enough, the public weal be damned. (How this concern for the common good — Frye’s “primary concerns” — not to mention concern for the poor and the disadvantaged translates into “narcissism” escapes me.) Why is big government a problem but big business is not? Why are welfare cheats denounced so readily as enemies of the state but politicians in the pay of corporate interests are not? Which do you think is more subversive of the public good and a greater drain on the public purse?

    Tomorrow I’ll be posting on an interesting article, “Conservatives and ‘Limited Government'”, which provides a much-needed corrective to the traditional conservative-libertarian worldview.

    • profmondo says:

      This is both brief and incomplete, as I have to leave for a gig in a couple of minutes. But I would argue that income disparity is overrated, as income is not a zero-sum pie. Meanwhile, I don’t see Palin’s rhetoric as any more violent or indgnant than say, this stuff. As for her supposed mouthbreathing yokeldom, I haven’t seen Joe Biden on Jeopardy lately, and he’s a plagiarist on top of it. Yet somehow he gets a comparatively free pass. And for self-aggrandizement, it’s hard to imagine topping a man who wrote two autobiographies before he was 50 and announced that his administration would lower the seas.

      If we take a look at the wealthiest folks in government, you’ll be surprised at how many of them have a D after their name (It’s a majority.) The Obama administration is basically a wholly-owned subsidiary of Goldman Sachs, and what we see from both D’s and R’s is crony capitalism. And the bigest companies aren’t going to have much of a problem with more governmental interference. That stuff does, however, raise barriers to entry for the little guys out there. And which side seeks more intervention?

      As for the business of narcissism, doubtless there are people of good will on both sides who genuinely seek the best for others (the Major and I, for example). But they aren’t the ones who are eagerly smearing anyone who doubts their inherent fitness for philosopher-kingship. The narcissists are, and you can see it in their foot-stamping rage when they’re challenged.

      I look forward to reading TEI tomorrow.

  2. majormaddog says:

    Good back and forth Gents. I’m afraid my comment isn’t quite at that level, but the post did bring a couple of things to mind.

    1) You use a variation of the line I’ve seen being used by conservatives
    lately (including our own Mr. Z from FB – “American exceptionalism being
    embraced only as a stick with which to beat Americans.” I’m wondering if
    this is a recent addition to the right wing talking points so that it’s
    starting to trickle down (because you cons love that theory) out into the
    right-roots. And I’m being only partly snarky; I actually do wonder whether
    there is a trickle down effect on lines like that.

    2) So I’m trying to figure out how to describe this bit of nonsense – “[O]ur
    oiks masquerade as-and may even believe themselves to be-superpatriots, more
    loyal to American principles than the vast majority of Americans, whom they
    denounce as “un-American” for feeling an attachment to their actual country
    as opposed to a collection of abstractions.” Maybe you can help me out.
    The article’s about the elite, but pretty clearly aimed at Dems or
    Progressives or Liberals – you guys tend to lump those all together. And so
    here this quote is saying that we, on this side, call folx on the other
    side, “un-American.” Now, here’s where I’m trying to figure out the fallacy
    involved. Because I follow most of the liberal or progressive print pundits
    pretty closely and they just don’t do that. I also follow the statements of
    Democratic elected officials. Likewise. Yet, I’ve lived through the last
    10 years where that accusation does ring true for mainstream commentators and elected politicians on the Right – see Sharron Angle saying Harry
    Reid is trying to ruin the country. See numerous folx saying the same thing
    about Obama – he is INTENTIONALLY ruining the country. Oh, and don’t
    forget the host of Republicans saying about all Democrats who voted “against the troops” circa 2003-2006 that they weren’t being patriotic. So on the one hand, maybe there are prominent commentators on the Left or Democratic elected officials who make such statements, but how does that impute to all of us innocent liberals and progressives over here. Surely that’s one of the fallacies that I’m not able to put my finger on. Doesn’t seem exactly like straw man, but you’re the Professor.
    Likewise, there’s surely irony in the fact that my side is being accused of
    something that is more prevalent on the Right (compare prominent
    commentators and elected officials, and I don’t want to hear any of that
    “both sides do it” when it’s 3 Dems and 73 GOP), but is there also a logical
    fallacy? I wonder.

    See this link and excerpt for support of my proposition that it’s happening
    on the Right, but not so much on the left.

    Messrs Martin and Smith don’t explicitly say this, but one gets the feeling,
    reading their article, that they think the transition to this battle over
    “what it means to be an American”, in an economic sense, will calm some of
    the irrational frenzy of the old right-left culture wars over sexual
    identity, evolution, and so forth. If so, I would like to firmly disabuse
    them of that notion. Let’s put it this way: I support the Affordable Care
    Act, known to the right as ObamaCare. I do not react well to being told that
    my position on this issue does not comport with “the purpose and meaning of
    America”. I see not a shred of evidence for such a claim. In fact, I believe
    that my support for universal health insurance, like my support for
    universal education, is rooted in the greatest traditions of American
    history and political thought. No doubt Messrs Wehner and Lowry feel the
    same about their positions on universal health insurance. The difference is
    that I’m not going to accuse them of betraying “the purpose and meaning of
    America.” I am not trying to turn a dispute over what government should do
    to improve America’s social and economic fairness and well-being into a
    shouting match over who is or isn’t a real American.

    • profmondo says:


      As for your number 1, Mr. Z was actually quoting my comment directly above that one. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a talking point so much as I would a meme — we’re not that disciplined. I think it came out of the whole “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism” thing we saw under the previous occupants, an expression that seems to have fallen out of favor more recently. (By the way, for extra credit, identify the problem with this syllogism: Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Treason is the highest form of dissent. Ergo, treason is the highest form of patriotism.) Ace has pointed it out in the past, but really I think it goes back to Burke via Scruton, and the observation that I’ve discussed here that “It is the burden of the so-called progressives to demonstrate what they would have us progressing toward, and how it can coexist with people no more or less noble than they actually are.”

      For number two, I’m interested in your claim that “I believe
      that my support for universal health insurance, like my support for
      universal education, is rooted in the greatest traditions of American
      history and political thought.” I’ve previously presented some quotes from Madison that seem to work against that being federal business. Again, you’re asserting positive rights in a nation whose founding documents are built on negative rights. How do you reconcile that? Further, I would argue that what you call “social and economic fairness” is in fact social and economic egalitarianism, which is a different thing altogether, particularly as you tend to define it terms of equality of result, which is not the same thing as equality of opportunity. See Hayek for more on that one.

      I’ve already acknowledged that there are people of good will on both sides in the whole left-right business. So in that sense, I would concur that there is a false generalization to be made. But by the same token, I’m not Glenn Beck or Fox News, yet I’m informed on numerous occasions (present company excepted) that I have to take responsibility for him. Fine, but play it both ways.

  3. mac says:

    There are no people of good will on the left. All they are is a group of thieves who vary slightly in their avarice and venality. Their intense effort to provide their favored causes with tax dollars extorted from me is disgustingly contemptible. Here’s a suggestion for the libs: if they want to be charitable to some favored lib cause, THEY SHOULD USE THEIR OWN DAMNED MONEY AND KEEP THEIR THIEVING HANDS OUT OF MY POCKETS!

    It’s mind-boggling how the Bush deficits were so fanatically attacked from the left yet the Obama deficits, greater by approximately 400%, draw such silence from the sinister side of the aisle? It’s Clinton all over again: “he may be an S.O.B., but he’s OUR S.O.B. and we’re behind him 100%!” Right.

    After all the criminal behavior I’ve seen from the Democrat party, it isn’t humanly possible for me to despise the looting leftist scum more than I do. They’ve made it impossible to misinterpret their hate for my gender, my race, my sexual orientation and my political philosophy. That’s their right. In return, I refuse to hire them or do business with them. That’s MY right, and I exercise it to the fullest extent possible. Moreover, I’m now at the point where I refuse to even be polite to them. They’ve got some serious payback coming and I’m really looking forward to seeing them get everything they deserve.

    I hope the lot of them are on suicide watch after the November elections.

  4. profmondo says:

    Mac, I understand your anger, and I too weary of seeing what I stand for and what I am otherized and demonized. But if Anne Frank could believe that people remained basically good, I dare not do less. However, I believe that even basically good people are flawed, and it’s that distrust of their flaws (which is part of my understanding of reality) that puts me where I am.

    I’ll probably vote against the same folks you will, but I’m not going to do it out of vengeance. I’ll do it because I think it’s the best thing for the country I love.

    I’m glad you stopped by. Don’t be a stranger!

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