The Problem is Power

Matt Yglesias has a defense of Obama foreign policy on the Iran deal and an implicit defense of the perspective, if not the messaging strategy, of the more dovish members of the Obama administration such as Ben Rhodes.

I basically support the broader goal of pessimistic disengagement from the Middle East and reductions in military adventurism abroad, and I think the Iran deal is at any rate a good deal better than what we’ve been up to in Libya, Syria, and Iraq over the last eight years. (As Steve Sailer has pointed out, Obama’s early life probably prepared him quite well for engagement with non-Arab Muslims, but the Arab world is a different story.) But there’s a meta-point about the commonality between Yglesias and Rhodes.

Basically, these are both liberal, wellconnected, elitely educated New York City Jews (Yglesias lived in Greenwich Village and went to Dalton and then Harvard, Rhodes lived in the Upper East Side and went to Collegiate and then NYU) of roughly the same age (Yglesias is just about 35, Rhodes is 38), who came to prominence and influence after 9/11 as disruptions to the technology and economic model of journalism on the one hand, and to the influence and authority of the political and foreign policy establishment on the other, opened up a vacuum into which young, smart, ambitious people could move. In their own way, they remind me a lot of the young, smart, ambitious people I knew from TFA who started KIPP schools and similar organizations or rose up to control of school districts, and indeed Yglesias has long expressed sympathy for educational reform, charters, and TFA even when his liberal readership disagreed.

I only had the chance to observe the last group– the education reformers- up close, and so my impressions of the Voxite journalism disruptors and the Rhodesite foreign policy doves are based in part on analogy. But I’ll say this.

It’s not that they’re not smart, or hard working, or talented. To a man (they were all men in the early years) the guys who started KIPP schools were all much better teachers than I was, especially out of the gate, as were many but not all of the TFAers who rose up in various non-profits and school district roles. But while I sometimes felt a pang of envy for their talents and accomplishments, I rarely felt the sense of deep admiration that my most veteran teaching colleagues or even one or two of my education professors in graduate school inspired. The people who rose most quickly and became most prominent were those who understood, anticipated, and articulated the spirit of the times. Those are useful things, but they are not what sustains schools or neighborhoods or professions for the long haul.

More than that, a cohort who sees its central role as unseating the lazy old dinosaurs of ed schools and school districts, of newspapers and magazines, of think tanks and ministries of defense, is in some ways particularly ill-suited to rule with restraint once it comes to power. It sees itself as a revolutionary entity (in spite of many of its members, like Yglesias and Rhodes, being groomed for influence from an early age), and so it has an innate temptation to encourage permanent revolution. It sees its success as a triumph of idealism over cynicism, and so it is eager to grasp at even the most impossible ideals, and to see failure to reach those ideals as evidence of cartelism, chicanery, and selfishness rather than resignation to the realities of the world. Even when its critique of those it bested and usurped was perceptive and largely correct, it will not relent from trampling on their bodies lest they stand up again, or from looking for other pieties to unseat.

The problem is almost never personnel, almost never that the people in control are not smart or well-meaning enough. The problem is power, and the absence of forces- institutional, intellectual, or economic- to counteract it.

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