Christopher Hayes on the Fall of the Meritocracy

Reading between the lines.
June 1 2012 11:40 PM

Clotted Cream

Christopher Hayes on America’s distrust of elites and the fall of the meritocracy.

(Continued from Page 1)

Most importantly, the rise of multiculturalism—particularly in that most fraught battleground of school admissions—has challenged our faith that any one set of standards might work for a country as pluralistic as ours. The establishment of affirmative action, for example, was an acknowledgment that the playing field required some artificial leveling—that a previous generation might just as well have accepted inequality as a tolerable status quo. The success of Obama was twofold: He was a product of the multicultural age and he offered “a testament to American institutions at their meritocratic best”—a reason to believe, again, that talent could solve for anything, even the supposed problem of diversity. His potential failure—and here, again, we tend to confuse fact with feeling—threatens to turn us cynical toward both.

Author Chris Hayes.
Author Christopher Hayes.

Photo by Sarah Shatz.

A different version of Twilight remains to be written, one that considers the necessity of the model minority to preserve meritocracy’s sense of fairness. All of this isn’t to say that meritocracy is some Matrix-like sham, just that it is a system that produces (and relies upon) exceptions which seem more universally relatable than they actually are. It works fine enough most of the time—but it is in those ugly slippages of theory and practice that entire political grievances, third parties, conspiracy theories and culture wars bloom.

So, per the title: What comes after meritocracy?

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Twilight doesn’t offer a manifesto. Hayes imagines two agents of change: the “institutionalist,” who remains faithful to the status quo and fears the “erosion” of ideals and authority, and the “insurrectionist,” who sees this chaos as an opportunity to rethink the foundations of the present, from our dead language to our limited scope of the possible. In a modest and unassuming way, Hayes offers himself as an example of how we might think our way out of these feedback loops. He sees the lure of both approaches—the pragmatism of the former, the radicalism of the latter. If the endgame of meritocracy is a culture that fetishizes achievement, credentials, and distinction—the “Cult of Smartness” that shuts down all debate—then it is the conversation and random affinities of strangers that might grow instructive.

His chapters are full of anecdotes, conversations with power-brokers and the powerless, attempts to bridge—on the page, as a model for the world—the “social distance” that distances the “airless boardroom” from the “terrified and desperate.” There is an urgency in his juxtapositions and free-play of ideas. It is eclectic, agnostic, much like the program he hosts on MSNBC (which, in its post-Keith Olbermann iteration, has to be the most earnest network in the history of television). He comes across as an excitably inquisitive host, someone who selects his guests out of an affection for collision and conversation rather than ideological conformity. It gives off the effect of being above party politics (though Hayes is an avowed liberal). Anyone who moves freely between Karen Ho’s fantastic ethnography of the Wall Street, Liquidated, and Jose Canseco’s steroid age tell-all Juiced—as Hayes does in Twilight—is an open-minded reader.

Twilight is at its most effective as a restless brew of data and feeling. The most ambitious kinds of social criticism often feel like epic games of pattern recognition: You acquire some suspicion about how the world actually works and then set about finding examples to shade in the outline. In this way, they are no different than conspiracy theories. In both cases, the inner workings of society fail our basic expectations of how things are supposed to be. Everything seems predetermined. Even those in charge are revealed to be middle-managers at the mercy of an invisible hand.

There is ultimately no supervillain at the controls of Twilight, no symbols encoded in the dollar bill. Instead, its greatest ambition is to merely draw attention to the logic that structures our lives, the intellectual rationale offered us for ironic detachment or resignation. A contest in which everyone but the spectators have agreed to play with rigged rules, and you feel crazy for ever believing it might have been otherwise.

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Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes. Crown.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.

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