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Twilight with a Different Kind of Vampires

If your weekday responsibilities have you conditioned so you can no longer sleep-in on the weekends, then you might occasionally catch MSNBC’s early morning political/news chat fest “Up with Chris Hayes.”  It’s the show where all of the guests have giant orange coffee mugs and in the center of the table there is a mountain of breakfast pastries no one ever eats.  I want to eat those pastries.

But that’s not the point.  The point is Chris Hayes has written a book titled Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.  In it he examines the ideal of the American meritocratic system:  that the most talented among us, regardless of race, class, gender, etc., can become wildly successful in America if we put forth enough effort (a notion typified by the ascendance of individuals like Barak Obama, Lloyd Blankfein,and Condoleezza Rice).  Hayes argues that we have strayed far from that ideal because the current class of elites has pulled the social ladder up behind them – making the notion of merit inherently skewed because the playing field is now so scandalously unlevel.

As a prime example, Hayes (in a subtle backdoor-brag) opens with a description of the top-ranked public high school he attended in New York City.  When he was there, the student body wasn’t exactly representative of the racial and economic makeup of the city, but it was a  far closer approximation than what can be found today.  Then black and Latino students comprised about 20 % of the student population, but today it is down to 4% (NYC is more than 50% black and Latino).  Admission was, and is, based solely on the results of a standardized test, i.e. meritocratic – so what’s with the change?  The difference, Hayes asserts, is that elite parents are pouring millions of dollars into the burgeoning test prep industry, effectively collapsing the notion of merit-based admission.  Since attending this high school essentially assures entrance into a top college, which then almost always equates to a  comfortable, elite future – one can see how the system might be viewed as unfairly self-perpetuating.

Much of the rest of the book details the failures of elite institutions (Congress, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church) and their unwillingness to take responsibility for their actions.  Many of the topics he discusses are contentious, particularly in this politically charged era.  But if nothing else, an interesting notion to be considered in Hayes’s work is that the country’s divisions aren’t really between right and left, as we are often led to believe, rather the real division is between the top and and everyone else.  – Ransom Jabara, Reference

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