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E-Pluribus | December 2, 2021
What meritocracy does for liberal democracy, some college donors say 'free speech or else', and what a Jack-less future for Twitter is likely to look like.
A round up of the latest and best writing and musings on the rise of illiberalism in the public discourse:
Adrian Wooldridge: The War on Meritocracy
For all the inequity and unfairness remaining in the world, the trajectory in recent centuries has been bending towards opportunity for all. Adrian Wooldridge argues at Persuasion that the decline of class distinctions and inherited positions and titles and the rise of meritocracy has been a boon to liberal democracy and that efforts to undermine meritocratic principles, for all their imperfections, will do more harm than good.
The pre-modern world was founded on the basis of the very opposite assumptions from meritocracy: lineage rather than achievement and willing subordination rather than ambition. Society was ruled by hereditary landowners (headed by the monarch) who seized their positions by fighting and pillaging and then justified them by a combination of God’s will and ancient tradition. Civilization was conceived of as a hierarchy in which people occupied their God-given positions. Ambition and self-promotion were feared. “Take but degree away, untune that string”, Ulysses says in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, “And, hark, what discord follows!” People were primarily judged not on the basis of their individual abilities but on the basis of their relationship with family and land. British aristocrats still come with place names attached: the higher the rank the bigger the place.
The meritocratic idea was a revolutionary assault on all of these assumptions — the dynamite which blew up the old world and created the material for the construction of the new one. It changed the tenor of the elite by reforming the way that society allocates the top jobs. It transformed education by emphasizing the preciousness of raw academic ability. It did all this by redefining the elemental force that determines social structures. “When there is no more hereditary wealth, privilege class, or prerogatives of birth,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “it becomes clear that the chief source of disparity between the fortunes of men lies in the mind.”
The meritocratic idea was at the heart of the four great revolutions that created the modern world. The most fundamental of these was the industrial revolution which transformed the material basis of civilization and unleashed the energies of self-made men. This was reinforced by a succession of political revolutions. The French Revolution was dedicated to the principle of the “career open to talents”. Feudal privileges were abolished; the purchase of jobs was prohibited; elite schools were strengthened. The footsoldiers who marched across Europe were all encouraged to think that they had a “field marshal’s baton” in their knapsacks. The American Revolution was driven by a vision of equality of opportunity and fair competition. Thomas Jefferson talked of replacing the “artificial aristocracy” of land with the “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents”. David Ramsay, a South Carolina historian and politician, celebrated the second anniversary of American independence by arguing that America was a unique nation in human history because “all offices lie open to men of merit, of whatever rank or condition.”
Read it all.
Douglas Belkin: Alumni Withhold Donations, Demand Colleges Enforce Free Speech
Money talks, and the threat of losing it does as well. Douglas Belkin writes at the Wall Street Journal that some college alumni donors are using the threat of withheld donations to prompt changes at their alma maters because of what they see as ideological discrimination.
Many of the groups are driven by politically moderate or conservative men who graduated from college in the late 1960s and 1970s, according to interviews with several of the group leaders. They believe progressive groupthink has taken over college campuses, and are urging schools to protect free speech and encourage a diverse set of views. In some cases, alumni are withholding donations to pressure schools to take them seriously.
The alumni pushback comes as colleges and universities grapple with demands by students, faculty and alumni to battle racism, which many see as a systemic and defining feature of American life. Universities around the country have fired or demoted politically outspoken professors on the right and disinvited conservative speakers who criticize things like the push toward diversity, equity and inclusion.
In response, some conservative organizations have created “watch lists” for liberal professors, whom they accuse of favoring their own viewpoints rather than encouraging debate.
Read the whole thing.
Mike Solana: Twitter Is About to Get Way Worse
The idea that Jack Dorsey’s (just “Jack” to most Twitter users) exit from the company he co-founded is a bad thing might seem counterintuitive based on the love-hate (ok, mostly hate) relationship he had with fellow Tweeters. But Mike Solana makes the case at Bari Weiss’s Substack that, for all his faults, Jack tried to maintain Twitter’s wild-west open exchange of ideas that has come under attack in so much of social media, and he will be (eventually) missed.
Under Jack’s direction, Twitter has been working on a decentralized social media protocol called Bluesky. In other words, by leveraging blockchain, his intention is to build a platform with no boss. The project is still in its research phase, and there’s a lot about it we don’t know, but it seems the protocol would in practice naturally build a kind of censor-proof social media backbone on top of which applications like Twitter would sit. In this way, Twitter might be reduced to a single lens through which you engage with the social internet. It would no longer be the social internet. Twitter could revoke its single lens from you, for failing to follow some ridiculous new speech code, for example. But in a world of Bluesky you couldn’t be erased for the infraction.
Twitter, the purest distillation of our social internet, changed the way we think and opened us to all manner of new concerning social possibilities. But it also hugely contributed to the destruction of our pre-existing hegemonic media Death Star. Cultural outcasts often complain about censorship on the app, but the legacy of Twitter under Dorsey is far more a legacy of empowering heretical voices—voices that could not have existed in a socially meaningful way even 20 years ago—than it is a legacy of silence. (Let’s be real: I am writing this piece for a newsletter founded by a former New York Times editor who, in a pre-Twitter universe, would have been shoved out of The Times and never heard from again.)
Twitter liberated information. It empowered the counter-voice. Then, most importantly, it gave our stagnant cultural overseers an outlet to simply tell us, honestly, who they are and what they believe, which was, of course, sufficiently horrifying to free us all from the notion they should retain their position of cultural dominance.
Read it all here.
In regards to Mike Solana’s Jack Dorsey take above, Solana has the support of at least former congressman Justin Amash:
And speaking of Jack Dorsey’s exit from Twitter, Dorsey’s replacement, new Twitter CEO Parag Agrawal, is raising some eyebrows already:
Have the woke come for interracial adoption? Rebecca Carroll (click through for whole thread) is the author of Surviving the White Gaze:
Finally, Peter Boghossian takes on “Critical Race Theory”: