Ross Douthat and Sacred Cow No. 1

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Ross Douthat, the token conservative at The New York Times, does have a talent on occasion for taking on the sacred cows of the Left, and no bovine has more divinity on the port side of our politics than the prestigious Ivy League schools that serve as the “seminaries” for admission into the seats of power in our society  dominated by the Left.



The intermarriage of elite collegians is only one of these mechanisms — but it’s an enormously important one. The outraged reaction to her comments notwithstanding, Patton wasn’t telling Princetonians anything they didn’t already understand. Of course Ivy League schools double as dating services. Of course members of elites — yes, gender egalitarians, the males as well as the females — have strong incentives to marry one another, or at the very least find a spouse from within the wider meritocratic circle. What better way to double down on our pre-existing advantages? What better way to minimize, in our descendants, the chances of the dread phenomenon known as “regression to the mean”?       

That this “assortative mating,” in which the best-educated Americans increasingly marry one another, also ends up perpetuating existing inequalities seems blindingly obvious, which is no doubt why it’s considered embarrassing and reactionary to talk about it too overtly. We all know what we’re supposed to do — our mothers don’t have to come out and say it!       

Why, it would be like telling elite collegians that they should all move to similar cities and neighborhoods, surround themselves with their kinds of people and gradually price everybody else out of the places where social capital is built, influence exerted and great careers made. No need — that’s what we’re already doing! (What Richard Florida called “the mass relocation of highly skilled, highly educated and highly paid Americans to a relatively small number of metropolitan regions, and a corresponding exodus of the traditional lower and middle classes from these same places” is one of the striking social facts of the modern meritocratic era.) We don’t need well-meaning parents lecturing us about the advantages of elite self-segregation, and giving the game away to everybody else. …       

Or it would be like telling admissions offices at elite schools that they should seek a form of student-body “diversity” that’s mostly cosmetic, designed to flatter multicultural sensibilities without threatening existing hierarchies all that much. They don’t need to be told — that’s how the system already works! The “holistic” approach to admissions, which privileges résumé-padding and extracurriculars over raw test scores or G.P.A.’s, has two major consequences: It enforces what looks suspiciously like de facto discrimination against Asian applicants with high SAT scores, while disadvantaging talented kids — often white and working class and geographically dispersed — who don’t grow up in elite enclaves with parents and friends who understand the system. The result is an upper class that looks superficially like America, but mostly reproduces the previous generation’s elite.       

But don’t come out and say it! Next people will start wondering why the names in the U.S. News rankings change so little from decade to decade. Or why the American population gets bigger and bigger, but our richest universities admit the same size classes every year, Or why in a country of 300 million people and countless universities, we can’t seem to elect a president or nominate a Supreme Court justice who doesn’t have a Harvard or Yale degree.

Go here to read the rest.  This shot at the faux egalitarianism of the Left produced some angry, albeit unitentionally humorous, responses in the comboxes.  I cherish this one since it represents the view that I think many Leftists have of themselves:

Frankly, I don’t understand what the author wants. Does he WANT a regression toward the mean? Should a summa cum laude Harvard graduate feel socially obliged to fall in love with, marry, and have children with a high school dropout to raise the dropout’s chances of improving his progeny’s status? This is not to say that some Harvardians have not turned out to be bums, and some dropouts have turned out to be wildly successful, but these are the exceptions.

Obviously, I am being facetious as to the author’s intentions. But isn’t it more efficient to impeccably educate a small group of preternaturally intelligent and talented people, inundating them with social consciousness so that they go into the areas of the country where the education gap is truly atrocious and improve the educational systems, infrastructures, and governance therein? We DESPERATELY have to raise the status of the underprivileged in America, but in order for this to have any meaningful success, it has to arise organically– presumably from the efforts of intelligent, pragmatic reformers, who the Ivy League is attempting to turn out.

Last time I checked, the informal motto of Princeton University, the school you so vilify as an Illuminati-level coven for the 1%, is “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” It’s not “Princeton to marry a Princetonian and get a job at Goldman Sachs and gentrify a Brooklyn neighborhood to force out the poor people and cackle with malicious glee.”

Liberals as missionaries to the great unwashed (us).  That brings to mind my favorite quote from CS Lewis:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

More to explorer

Ignorance, Sheer Ignorance

  The Left is becoming a stronghold of ignorant yahoos:   Just outside downtown Dunn, N.C., a historic antebellum-style house honors Maj.

Fifty Years

Hattip to commenter Dale Price.  My motto has always been:  “Slay all the Lunies, and let God sort ’em out!”

Deep State? What Deep State?

Surprise!:     Who would have thought that, this deep into the Russia collusion probe, we’d be learning about yet another dossier


  1. I guess you can say Douthat is conservative in comparison to the New York Times. But in the abstract, he is no conservative. In fact, I don’t think he even considers himself one.

  2. I don’t read Douthat religiously, but he always struck me as conservative, though perhaps my tent is larger than Greg’s.

  3. I think one of the biggest problems with conservatism these days is that lots of conservatives seem more interested in deciding who is not really a conservative than they are in the particular ideas expressed.

    I have not gone to the NY Times to read the whole column, but Mr. Douthat expressed what I think are some very important observations about the Ivy League and its influence on National Politics, particularly politics of the left. Ultimately it is a good old fashioned American Paternalism. On the left that is expressed as progressivism.. on the right as neo-conservatism.

  4. Greg– on what grounds do you make this claim?

    Douthat is, in my mind, the preeminent conservative Catholic public intellectual.

  5. Douthat is an ultracon by NYT standards, he’s not a free-market purist but that’s not really the only (or main) thing that separates Left from Right

    contrast with David Brooks whose definition of conservatism as vague Burkean caution just gets him grief from both liberals and conservatives, as it should

  6. “Greg– on what grounds do you make this claim?

    Douthat is, in my mind, the preeminent conservative Catholic public intellectual.”

    JL, for starters, read Douthat’s book Bad Religion. In it, you will find some of the grossest misrepresentations of Catholic social teaching one will ever read. His smearing of Michael Novak is a poster child for cheap shots. He uses the tired “Jesus who rails against the rich” line as a club to beat free market capitalism with. Now I am not saying Micharl Novak is above criticism, but Douthat shows he is not above misrepresenting him, unfortunately. Douthat’s claim about Novak being naive about how wealth is created can be proven wrong with a little research into what Novak actually says. and that’s not all.

    If Douthat is a “preeminent Catholic intellectual” the term “Catholic intellectual has no meaning.

  7. What got me was “preternaturally intelligent.” I’ll maybe accept that kind of junk from kids at MIT. There are some people at MIT who are truly scary-smart. But a bunch of alumnal kids at Princeton? Seriously?

    This is just like those kids at Harvard who were caught cheating on an open book test, and then tried to explain how it was okay because they were so darned smart they had never learned to work or think for themselves. If they’d really been half as smart as they thought they were, they’d have scorned to look for help from anyone, much less cheated outright in such an embarrassingly stupid way. They were apparently somewhere in the low percentiles, really, but they’d been told that they were intelligent and actually believed it.

  8. I am reminded of the “Oxford manner,” which A E Houseman once defined as “an infinite superiority that we are much too well-bred to show, but which is, nevertheless, apparent.” One recalls that he produced a scholalry edition of Juvenal

  9. Suburbanbanshee,

    I’m curious about your distinguishing between MIT and Princeton. Do you really think all Princeton students are “legacy admits” and none are there on their merits? Similarly, everyone at MIT is “scary smart” and no one got in on bloodlines? Interesting, but not a very accurate representation of the students at these kinds of schools.

  10. Last time I checked, the informal motto of Princeton University, the school you so vilify as an Illuminati-level coven for the 1%, is “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” It’s not “Princeton to marry a Princetonian and get a job at Goldman Sachs and gentrify a Brooklyn neighborhood to force out the poor people and cackle with malicious glee.

    There is a reason it is the informal motto: The reality is usually the latter, not the former.

  11. c matt, I think many Princeton grads in government (as well as other Ivy League Alums) do believe they are serving the nation.. they just believe that they serve the nation best by telling it what to do.

  12. “JL, for starters, read Douthat’s book Bad Religion.”

    I have. Fantastic book.

    “In it, you will find some of the grossest misrepresentations of Catholic social teaching one will ever read.”

    That might be one of the grossest exaggerations I’ve ever read.

    If Douthat is a “preeminent Catholic intellectual” the term “Catholic intellectual has no meaning.

    I said public intellectual. I’d say the most preeminent Catholic intellectual is Alasdair MacIntyre, but he certainly isn’t a public intellectual. I’d say a public intellectual is one who writes in an accessible, non-esoteric manner and has a wide readership that spans many demographic groupings.

  13. JL, as one of the probably few others who frequent this site and who actually has read anything from MacIntyre, much less know who he is, I confess to a certain amount of skepticism to the manner in which you exalt him here and previously. Your blog (no longer linked in your ID) did cover your immediate fascination with him after first reading him, similar to what I experienced after reading After Virtue around 1999 (first attempt in 1995 I stopped at chapter 6 to let my brain mature some more). MacIntyre was, in that book, masterful at the dismantling of the Enlightenment and post-modern philosophy…but I found his proposal at the “alternative” strained. When I complained of this to my mentor, he recommended at the time Josef Pieper’s The Four Cardinal Virtues. If MacIntyre’s subsequent work remedies his earlier issues in communicating a positive alternative to the morass that modernist philosophies otherwise present, I applaud that development though I’ll certainly admit to ignorance of it. My next reading goal is Ronald Knox’s translation of the Bible, and I’m not as voracious a reader as I once was.

    My problem with MacIntyre was his flat dismissal of rights as the same belief as of unicorns and witches, as his argument generally went. It was something I used rather well to battle the liberals as an undergrad (I effectively silenced all debate on animal and water rights, such that the professor even asked if anyone was going to address my claim referencing MacIntyre) but it always felt “wrong”.

    I understand that MacIntyre’s main point (I’m doing this from memory and not pulling the book from the shelf) was the manner in which Locke and the rest articulated the existence of rights…but I think he threw the baby out with the bathwater. Would anyone today seriously argue that rights (specifically, the right to life) don’t exist? Especially from a Catholic intellectual perspective? I’d expect that MacIntyre (can’t prove this, but suspect it) would agree with the idea of a “right to life”, though he may disagree with the manner by which other pro-lifers came to this conclusion. If I’m wrong, and if he’d actually maintain that “belief in rights is one and the same as belief in witches and unicorns” even when it comes to issues pertaining to abortion, I’d find his philosophy inadequate of his professed theology. As much as I admire what I know of MacIntyre, I hope for the former over the latter.

    Maybe you could offer a quick summary of why you think MacIntyre is the most preeminent of Catholic intellectuals, albeit inaccessible to the rest of the masses. That might assist the rest of the folks here.

    And then, beyond dismissing Greg’s dismissal, maybe you could offer a substantiated argument in favor of Douthat’s writings being consonant with Catholic social teaching. What’s more, you might actually address his claims regarding Douthat and Novak. I, myself, say that as someone who’s not read Bad Religion but have heard realtively good things about it. I might be more inclined to support your defense of Douthat as a public Catholic intellectual then. Maybe this take this as an opportunity to educate rather than make some intellectual-but-bullying proclamation.

    Else, this is just another unproductive combox argument.

  14. What would an argument in favour of Robinson Crusoe’s “right to life” look like?

    MacIntyre is simply insisting, like a good Aristotelian, that “it was only within a particular type of political and social order that rationally practical and moral concepts could be socially embodied.” He explains that “Aristotle’s presupposed social context is one in which evaluation is primarily in terms of the achievement of the ends of activity… The individual envisaged by Aristotle engages in practical reasoning not just qua individual, but qua citizen, of a polis.”

    To take an analogy, a physiologist may wish to focus his attention on the eye, or even on the ciliary muscle, but this always presupposes the eye’s function in the living body and so it is with the individual and the polis. The French Revolutionaries got it right, when they produced a “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”

  15. I’ve generally understood the fruits of the French Revolution to have been of the mass-murder of tens of thousands, including many in the Church. I’m somewhat confused as to how the French Revolutionaries “got it right” with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen when they started beheading Catholics within a few short years. Something about “you shall know them by their fruits” comes to mind…

    I’ll confess to a certain amount of ignorance of France’s understanding of natural rights, but from what I understand of the interplay of subsidiarity and solidarity from the Catholic social teaching, this is more consistent (though not endorsing) with America’s Declaration of Independence & Bill of Rights than with France’s Declaration. From my readings of the encyclicals pertaining to Catholic social teaching, the preference is going to be on the individual, but not at the expense of the community…but in France’s understanding (again, I may be mistaken), an individual submits to the State first. While it’s a mistake to read, say, the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution as an explicit statement of a Catholic understanding of subsidiarity, I don’t see where the French system has a counterpart.

    At the least, the French understand a more egalitarian perspective that appears to prohibit any understanding of hierarchy, which may psychologically put it at odds with the Catholic Church. At the least…

    Perhaps my understanding of the French Revolution and the supporting rationales for it is mistaken, and that it was corrupted in execution (pardon the pun)…similar to how socialism/communism/collectivism as a political/philosophical system hasn’t actually been refuted by the failures observed in history in Russia, China, etc…more so, it just wasn’t ever properly implemented in those countries so we really should have another go at it…

    But, if I have this all wrong, my apologies to any experts as my degrees were in physics and biology, not in philosophy and political science.

  16. As its title suggests, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen [Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen] places its enumeration of “natural rights” firmly in a social and political context, as the field of their exercise. That was my comparison with MacIntyre. It also gives them a theological grounding: “the National Assembly recognizes and proclaims, in the presence and under the auspices of the Supreme Being, the following rights of man and of the citizen.”

    I was not thinking of its particular provisions, but a number of them show clear Catholic influence, especially of the Salamanca school: “The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation,” “Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes,” “Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.” It reflects the thinking of theologians, like Suarez and his successors, rather than the more absolutist Gallican approach, exemplified by, say, Bossuet.

  17. A parent’s authority over his children proceeds from God and not the nation. God establishes its rules and boundaries, and no nation may remove it, though it can illicitly interfere with its exercise. Any rights theory that fails to understand that governments exist to serve God and his individual creatures is mistaken.

  18. “If the state is confused with civil society, and if its specific end is laid down as the security and protection of property and personal freedom, then the interest of the individuals as such becomes the ultimate end of their association, and it follows that membership of the state is something optional. But the state’s relation to the individual is quite different from this. Since the state is mind objectified, it is only as one of its members that the individual himself has objectivity, genuine individuality, and an ethical life. Unification pure and simple is the true content and aim of the individual, and the individual’s destiny is the living of a universal life. His further particular satisfaction, activity and mode of conduct have this substantive and universally valid life as their starting point and their result.” G W Hegel, “Philosophy of Right” 258

  19. Hegal was both plenty smart and plenty wrong. The individual precedes the state and has the ability and responsibility to lead an ethical life with or without the state’s existence or his membership in it. It is Hegal who confused civil society with the state. A case can be made that man cannot be understood outside the context of society; but such a case cannot be made, at least convincingly, regarding man’s relationship to the state. The state exists to serve its citizens, not the other way around. There is a reason the Fascists liked Hegal.

  20. The Catholic political philosopher, Yves Simon, did much to rehabilitate what was true in Hegel after WWII.

    Hence his insistence that in this state [of abstraction i.e. considered as an individual], man is “no longer unequivocally real.” To clarify, Simon then adds: “Human communities are the highest attainment of nature for they are virtually unlimited with regard to diversity of perfections, and are virtually immortal.” He is talking, not about what God has in mind for us in eternal life, but what, in this world, is the purpose of the “highest of the practical sciences,” as Aristotle called politics.

    “Beyond the satisfaction of individual needs, the association of men serves a good unique in plenitude and duration, the common good of the human community,” and “The highest activity/being in the natural order is free arrangement of men about what is good brought together in an actual polity where it is no longer a mere abstraction. This is, as it were, the inner-worldly purpose of our being on this earth.”

    Like his fellow-Thomist, Jacques Maritain, Simon insisted that the cardinal error of the Enlightenment was ther belief that that the nature of the human person can be adequately described without mention of social relationships. They believed a person’s relations with others, even if important, are not essential and describe nothing that is, strictly speaking, necessary to one’s being what one is. On the contrary, man without the polis is like the honey bee without the hive.

  21. John by any other name, thanks for the comment.

    I dismissed Greg’s claim that Douthat grossly misrepresents Catholic social teaching because it is unsubstantiated. It’s not my job to prove that Jesus didn’t marry Mary Magadelene and father children, it’s up to Dan Brown to actually provide an argument that isn’t historically bunk and codswallop. Similarly, if Greg thinks Douthat violates Catholic social teaching, I’d like him to explain how. Otherwise, it comes across as conjecture borne not out of reason, but the fact that Douthat offended his partisan, ideological sentiments…which, of course, is a bastardized strain of American Catholicism that Douthat explicates superbly.

    My case for Douthat being the preeminent Catholic conservative political intellectual is derived from my understanding of the term, as I shared above. He writes, at times explicitly, at others implicitly, about conservative and Catholic things. He writes in a manner that is accessible to non-academics. He writes in a venue that is read by a large group that cuts across demographic groupings. He doesn’t hole up in an ivory tower, but engages popular culture from an unapologetically Catholic perspective. (watch him politely dismantle Bill Maher:

    So two possible debates. My idea of the definition of conservative Catholic public intellectual is acceptable, but other people match these criteria more comprehensively than Douthat, in which case I’d like to hear who they are. Or, my definition is off and should be amended before we proceed with identifying who fits the bill.

    Regarding MacIntyre, I will say that I cited him in this instance simply to draw a distinction between academic intellectuals and public intellectuals. Given the criteria I’ve listed above, Alasdair MacIntyre is certainly not a public intellectual.

    But yes, I am admittedly rather taken by his ideas. Your own experience of first encountering After Virtue certainly has parallels to my own. I’m a young 20 something fresh out of undergrad, and I certainly have a lot more to read and engage. So it’s certainly a possibility that I’ll become disenchanted with him at some point. But I think he’s helped steer me toward a rich Catholic tradition that includes the likes of GKC, James V. Schall, and Deneen, so I don’t think I’ll exhaust it anytime soon.

    Until that does or doesn’t happen, I love MacIntyre’s thought for all the reasons you did. From a NL perspective, he thoroughly dismantles Enlightenment philosophy and the whole modern project. For a young Catholic who was becoming increasingly aware of the tensions between my faith and the philosophical foundations of my country, MacIntyre provided an invaluable framework of analysis. I don’t think MacIntyre’s alleged inability to provide a pragmatic alternative is really a detriment to his thought–more so a testament to the pervasiveness of modernity’s rejection of Thomistic natural law and teleology. Regarding his dismissal of natural rights, I think he’s moreso rejecting the Lockesian concept of natural rights that is detached from an accurate understanding of natural law. The Church has certainly adapted the language of natural rights, but it’s unintelligible, and indeed a “moral fiction,” if divorced from NL and arrived at through some fanciful, abstract conception of “the state of nature.” Here are some essays I’ve written on this subject:

    I hope that helps explain my admiration for MacIntyre!

  22. JL

    Yes, MacIntyre is certainly rejecting the Lockesian concept of natural rights, but he is also rejecting a lot of the “Natural Law” theorising of the Neo-Thomists, which was based on their notion of “natura pura.” What Laberthonnière called “a false theological notion of some state of pure nature and therefore imagined the state could be self-sufficient in the sense that it could be properly independent of any specifically Christian sense of justice.”

    That debate started in France, about a hundred years ago, with Maurice Blondel. Cardinal Henri de Lubac recognised this, when he said, “We must admit that the main impulse for this return came from a philosopher, Maurice Blondel. His thinking was not primarily exercised in the areas proper to the professional theologians, nor did it base itself on a renewed history of tradition. Still, he is the one who launched the decisive attack on the dualist theory that was destroying Christian thought. Time after time he demonstrated the deficiencies of the thesis of the “extrinsicist” school, which recognized “no other link between nature and the supernatural than an ideal juxtaposition of elements which…were impenetrable to each other, and which were brought together by our intellectual obedience, so that the supernatural can subsist only if it remains extrinsic to the natural and if it is proposed from without as something important only in so far as it is a supernature…”

    What de Lubac denied in his controversy with Neo-Scholasticism was the claim that the natural and the supernatural have utterly separate ends in and of themselves. He spelled this out in two of the most important theological works of the last century, his 1946 work, « Surnaturel » , but then, more decisively, in his 1965 book, « Le Mystère du Surnaturel »

    Jacques Maritain is excellent on this, nowhere more so than when he says that “the knowledge of human actions and of the good conduct of the human State in particular can exist as an integral science, as a complete body of doctrine, only if related to the ultimate end of the human being . . . the rule of conduct governing individual and social life cannot therefore leave the supernatural order out of account”

    A lot of pseudo-Catholics are still peddling this “dualist theory that was destroying Christian thought.”

  23. JL,

    On pg. 178 of Bad Religion, he says, “A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich…” Aside, from the fact that most “Reaganite” conservatives were not rich by any means, he portrays Jesus as someone who rails against wealthy people for simply being wealthy. His chapter on wealth is shot through with this implication.

    On pg. 207, Douthat says, “This is where the union of God and Mammon goes astray, ultimately, it succumbs to a naivete about how riches are accumulated and the dark pull that money can exert over the human heart.”

    In his exchange with Michael Sean Winters, he confirms he was talking about Novak in the above-cited quote:

    “Indeed, I would have thought it obvious to even the least diligent reviewer that one of the major reasons I included Novak’s views in that chapter was to cite his frequent overenthusiasm for capitalism as an example of the way that prosperity theology has influenced more mainstream Christian thought for the worse—by encouraging “a naïveté about how riches are often accumulated and about the dark pull that money can exert over the human heart,” as I put it in one of the many, many critical passages that follow my quotations from Novak’s work.”

    If Douthat had made even a modicum of a diligent effort into learning exactly how “naive” or “overenthusiastic” Novak is about capitalism, he would have came across this from the very same Michael Novak:

    “Both on the international and on the national level, problems of poverty will not disappear under capitalism. But they will certainly be more extensively diminished than under the two existing alternatives, socialism and the traditional Third World society. The combination of democracy and capitalism will not bring about heaven on earth. But it will do more to free the poor from poverty and tyranny, and to release their creativity, than any known alternative. To put it another way, the combination of democracy and capitalism is a poor system. But all the others are worse. This is hardly a ringing endorsement. But the real world is no utopia, and utopias have had a very bloody history in this century. (Capitalism Rightly Understood: The View of Christian Humanism Faith and Reason Winter 1991)” (

    If anyone is overenthsiastic about anything it is Ross Douthat’s desire to caricature Michael Novak.

    And that’s so New York Times, not to mention downright unChristian.

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