Joel Kotkin uses the term “clerisy” to designate a new class of ideological “overlords. These are the people who tell us what we can and cannot think, what we can and cannot say, what we can and cannot believe. They merely want to control our minds.
Kotkin, a Democrat, has been decrying this rising social class for some time now.
He sees, more clearly than most, that an empowered clerisy is the enemy of free expression and the marketplace of ideas. A class that rejects all dissent and punishes deviants harshly is the enemy of democracy.
Kotkin defines our new ideological overlords:
The very term Clerisy first appeared in 1830 in the work of Samuel Coleridge to described the bearers society’s highest ideals: the intellectuals, pastors, scientists charged with transmitting their privileged knowledge them to the less enlightened orders.
The rise of today’s Clerisy stems from the growing power and influence of its three main constituent parts: the creative elite of media and entertainment, the academic community, and the high-level government bureaucracy.
The Clerisy operates on very different principles than its rival power brokers, the oligarchs of finance, technology or energy. The power of the knowledge elite does not stem primarily from money, but in persuading, instructing and regulating the rest of society. Like the British Clerisy or the old church-centered French First Estate, the contemporary Clerisy increasingly promotes a single increasingly parochial ideology and, when necessary, has the power to marginalize, or excommunicate, miscreants from the public sphere.
Obviously, this clerisy enforces ideological conformity on issues ranging from race to climate change to same-sex marriage to sexism. Disagree and you will find out what it feels like to live in an unfree society.
In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy—that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.
An alliance of upper level bureaucrats and cultural elites, the Clerisy, for for all their concerns about inequality, have thrived, unlike most Americans, in recent years. They also enjoy strong relations with the power structure in Washington, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street.
As the modern clerisy has seen its own power grow, even while the middle class shrinks, it has used its influence to enforce a prescribed set of acceptable ideas. On everything from gender and sexual preference to climate change, those who dissent from the official pieties risk punishment.
The clerisy wields its power because it controls most American thought centers . Like Michael Bloomberg, Kotkin is appalled at the groupthink that infests American universities and American media outlets.
Apparently, those who labor in such places have learned that ideological conformity can be used as a cudgel to beat down opposition. It represents an exercise of power.
The more absolute the power the more it is corrupt. As Lord Acton famously said:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The exercise of such power produces what Kotkin calls “ideological unanimity:”
The current atmosphere of ideological unanimity—in academia, the arts and much of the government bureaucracy—set the stage for the outrages of this commencement season, making painfully palpable the growing authoritarian spirit in so many of our leading institutions. They often see themselves as a liberating force in our society, but in their dislike of conflicting ideas and open debate, today’s Clerisy increasingly resembles the closed-minded dogmatists of the Medieval church.
In fairness the Medieval church allowed for more diversity of opinion. A church that contained both Aquinas and Bonaventure was more tolerant than an American university or an American newsroom today.
Ideological uniformity is a beast of a different color. It feels like a vestige of totalitarian governments, and thus, seems especially necessary when the thought leaders are promoting lies.
It is probably not an accident, as Kotkin points out, that the clerisy has greatly enhanced its power during the Obama administration.
If the free trade in ideas, as Justice Holmes said, is the best way to arrive at the truth, shutting down debate and dissent is all the more necessary for a government that has been trafficking in lies.
Where the Bush administration’s failures were widely reported and more widely denounced, our new clerisy has made it its mission to cover up the failures of the Obama administration. It has done everything in its power to blind us to the president’s incompetence and his inability to take responsibility for his mistakes.
The worse these mistakes, the more the clerisy feels obliged to enforce speech and thought codes.
After all, if no one thinks you have made a mistake is it still a mistake? According to the principles that inform the clerisy, thinking is what makes it so.
Similarly, these thinkers believe that reality is how you interpret it. If you are induced to see things differently, then things will be different. If the clerisy can police your language and your thought, it can, it believes, change the world.