Yale Law professor Amy Chua cruised to wide attention several years ago for a supposedly satirical book about shaping her kids into child prodigies with brutal hazing. She recently wrote another book about the dangers of tribalism, arguing that American democracy was fraying due to people developing stronger attachments to various group identities than they have to the national one. Both books were of the dubious, vaguely insipid sort that the Aspen Ideas crowd is expected to crank out every now and then. But there is one group in the United States that displays the near-absolute loyalty to insiders that motivates Chua's critique of tribalism — the American aristocracy of which she is a very prominent member.
Her defense of President Trump's Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is an extraordinarily telling demonstration of the corruption of that aristocracy, and the damage it inflicts on both the nation and its own members.
Chua — though she is supposedly a liberal Democrat — initially served as a glowing character witness for Kavanaugh as part of the conservative propaganda rollout. She wrote in The Wall Street Journal that "his role as a mentor for young lawyers, particularly women," was evidence of his unimpeachable integrity and honor. It was of a piece with his initial testimony, during which the girls basketball team he coaches sat behind him.
These stories about Kavanaugh and young women got a much darker cast when Christine Blasey Ford told The Washington Post that he had sexually assaulted her when he was 17 and she was 15. It seemed as though his media defenders might have known something like that would have come up. Still, perhaps it was just a coincidence — maybe he had changed since he was 17, and he really did just like being a mentor.
But on Thursday, The Guardian reported, based on multiple sources, that Chua herself had informed Yale Law students that it was "not an accident" Kavanaugh tended to select female law clerks who "looked like models" and she offered them beauty tips to land clerkships with him. (Yale is investigating, and Chua has denied the report.)
Here we have a guy who is credibly accused of sexual assault, loves to coach young female athletes, and reportedly hires only beautiful women to clerk for him. It doesn't exactly stretch credulity to conclude that he is, at the very minimum, not someone you would leave your daughter around. But shockingly, that is exactly what Chua was preparing to do before he was nominated, by her own admission, in the form of a judicial clerkship.
As Zach Carter argues, the American aristocracy works by automatically bolstering the success and power of people who went to the right schools (most notably Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) and know the right people (generally any of those schools' alumni in positions of power) and by automatically protecting them from consequences from wrongdoing. Its "highest pleasure is the knowledge shared among its members that they live above democratic accountability, that their words and deeds are not constrained by the broader political community the way the words and deeds of mere citizens can be," he writes.
Concretely, this means that in the pinch, elites like Chua will swear up and down that one of someone's gravest moral failings is in fact one of his greatest strengths, with the implicit promise that he will continue to be a source of favors and patronage for her. The benefit for aristocrats is the knowledge that — contrary to Chua's book about raising genius children by forcing them to work like indentured servants — power and success will be handed to them on a silver platter. Thus her ridiculous defense of Kavanaugh: She serves as a duplicitous character witness and he gives her daughter a clerkship.
But that benefit comes at a price. People victimized by unaccountable, predatory elites are often outsiders, but not always. A bad fraternity, for instance, creates a culture of aristocratic impunity by forcing each new set of recruits to go through hazing rituals, just like the English boarding schools of old. Chua's daughter no doubt would have gotten valuable career connections at a Kavanaugh clerkship that would have paid off handsomely in the long run. But, if The Guardian report is true, she would also have to serve as eye candy for a creepy old man. A huge power differential coupled to zero accountability means that even rising aristocrats have to prostrate themselves before their superiors and indulge their worst impulses.
Aristocracy means corruption, deception, and moral rot. It is nowhere worse than in America's most elite universities.