In Defense of Elitism. By William A. Henry III. Doubleday, 212 pages. $20.
September 29, 1994        

A reviewer addicted to cheap irony would undoubtedly cackle over the appearance of a new book sternly deploring massification, vulgarization, ersatz egalitarianism and the overall debasement of American culture, authored by a columnist for “Time”, which has probably debased American culture as much as any thing except television and the advertising industry. Fortunately, the present reviewer is not addicted to cheap irony.

William A. Henry III won a Pulitzer Prize as a “Boston Globe” television critic arid later was a cultural critic for “Time”. He won an Emmy for a film documentary, and wrote a book on the 1984 presidential election and a biography of Jackie Gleason. Henry died, at the age of 44, while this book was in press.

Like several other recent books, “In Defense of Elitism” reads the riot act to the multiculturalist left and other proponents of “identity politics” — minorities, feminists, homosexuals, the disabled — as well as to organized labor and welfare recipients. All these groups and their advocates, Henry charges, have sought to discredit the traditional American ethic of competition, discipline, self-reliance and pride in individual achievement and to substitute a squishy egalitarian communalism, in which no one is ever blamed, of fended or rejected. As a result, resentment is rampant nowadays, euphemism ubiquitous, ambition suspect, excellence endangered. Henry aims to help “restore the balance of our national life,” to vindicate “the legitimacy of American dreams and ideals,” to vanquish contemporary cant with humane common sense.

Regrettably, he also promulgates along the way a certain amount of common nonsense. Robert Frost acknowledged wryly that before setting forth in pursuit of truth, he needed to be firmly “mounted on my prejudices.” Henry, too, sits tall in the saddle. There are a good many arguments in “In Defense of Elitism,” and they are usually at least plausible; but there are also plenty of mere pronouncements, which are frequently asinine.

For example: “Egalitarians argue that talent is distributed absolutely evenly along class and educational lines.” No one has ever believed — much less argued — any such thing. Americans “persist in demanding that everyone finish even. We define it as an injustice when they don’t.” On the contrary, for most of this century, economic in equality has been greater in the United States than in the rest of the industrialized world — and was in creased during the Reagan years. “Democrats have delighted not merely in taxing the affluent, but in baiting them and ... suggesting that the gains of the rich are somehow ill- gotten.” Poppycock. Democratic politicians have truckled to the rich almost as enthusiastically as Republican ones, and share nearly equal responsibility for the savagely inegalitarian tax cuts of 1981. “It is the nature of human society to be stratified” because “intelligence by and large determines economic success.” Statistically, income level correlates most closely not with intelligence, or even with schooling, but with the income level of one’s parents. In these, Henry’s worst moments, his smugness, glibness and obtuseness make him sound like George Will crossed with Archie Bunker.

In his better moments, though, he raises some weighty questions. Hasn’t individualism, on the whole, served American society well? Isn’t it peacefully but inexorably transforming the rest of the world, “cultural diversity” notwithstanding? And aren’t competition, risk, accountability, inequality, even failure, all integral to individualism and essential to any life worth living?

Henry poses these questions forcefully and eloquently, though not always carefully. “Elitism” and “equality” are tricky words. Perhaps some people foolishly believe that “elitism” means fretting about MTV or preferring Henry James to Judith Krantz. More to the point, it means that corporations and financial institutions exercise vastly disproportionate power over public policy. Perhaps some people believe that equality requires a strictly proportional number of doctors, lawyers and poets from every ethnic group. More to the point, it requires addressing the huge disparity in medical and educational dollars spent on fortunate and unfortunate children. Henry has no trouble knocking down straw opponents; rather more difficulty identifying substantial ones.

What redeems “In Defense of Elitism” is Henry’s admirably grouchy, uninhibited voice. “Every bit of plain speaking offends some one these days,” he gripes. True, but plain speaking also delights. And when employed not mean-spiritedly (cf. Commentary and the New Criterion passim) but magnanimously, it illuminates, as in Henry’s central formulation:

“Any system that holds the downtrodden wholly responsible for their sorrowful fate is plainly defective. So, equally, is an system that does not demand of people that they make the most they can of their circumstances. In the delicate calibration of elitist toughness and egalitarian compassion, however, elitism ought to win out.”

You could argue with this guy. Which makes it all the sadder that he won’t be around to argue with any more.