Junior oligarchs in America: the Samantha Power case

My last post talked about some ways that power seeps into American intellectual life. It’s a complicated process, with lots of moving parts. But (I argued) it’s unwise to ignore any of those parts, even the ones that look like decorative frills. Ballet companies and English departments are remote from the world of policy think tanks and political candidacies– but funding the ones helps the others function effectively, by creating new spheres of influence and new sympathies in once-critical audiences.

Now I want to consider another example, which has more to say about the receivers of culture patronage. It’s the case of Samantha Power, currently US ambassador to the United Nations and the subject of a lengthy, fascinating New Yorker profile. It’s a case worth thinking about because Power so perfectly embodies the top echelons of American intellectual life. She has two Ivy League degrees, from Yale and Harvard, and she’s a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; she writes a lot, three books over the last decade, one a Pulitzer Prize winner, plus a stream of articles and occasional pieces; her husband Cass Sunstein belongs to the same world– he’s an ultra-prominent Harvard Law School professor.

So Power gives us one glimpse into American intellectual life at the center, where it has the greatest potential leverage. As you’ve probably noticed, it’s twenty-seven years and counting since we had a president without at least one degree from either Harvard or Yale; like Samantha Power, George W. Bush has two.

Of course the New Yorker article has lots to say about Power’s intellectual gifts and her capacity for nonstop hard work, but it also says lots about her personal charm; she’s tall, athletic, dresses well, and apparently enjoys the galvanic effect she has on many people she meets. Sure, all these details are there partly because of journalistic sexism (it’s hard to imagine Cass Sunstein getting quite the same appearance report card), but I don’t think that’s the whole story — charm takes multiple forms, and it seems to be a real component of intellectual life at the level Power inhabits. After all, most private universities in the US select for personal qualities as well as for grades and test scores; and as the most selective of the bunch, the Ivies can put extra weight on that side of the application process.

Certainly Power’s charm isn’t just a matter of good looks and athleticism. It also includes a warm, healthy, happy home life. The profile describes at length her attachments to her parents and her story-book wedding; and it describes her husband and kids watching from the gallery as she undergoes her pre-confirmation Senate grilling. Her family’s warm support is a part of what she’s giving us.

Reading all this reminded me of two brief observations about this top-echelon world that I recently encountered– both of them from outsiders, both off-hand remarks, yet both sharp enough that they’ve stayed with me.   One’s from an anonymous blog commenter, apparently a non-Harvard philosophy graduate student or youngish professor (all he tells us is his gender), describing a chance encounter with some apparently Harvard-connected young scholars– whom he sums up as “these happy, wholesome, self-confident, new-vanguard, shiny people from great schools going great places together.”

The other observation comes from the science journalist Daniel Bergner, toward the end of his wonderful book about current research on women’s sexuality.  The research he describes includes some pretty out-there experiments, testing physiological responses to porn images, for instance, and it generates some out-there conclusions, for instance, that women by nature are just as non-monogamous, sexual, and potentially crazy as men. Toward the end of his inquiries, Bergner realizes that the scientists he’s been tracking tend to work at non-top-echelon institutions; and finally he asks one of them “why I never found myself phoning the psychology departments of Harvard or Yale or Princeton, why I never spent time with their professors, why so few of America’s most elite universities devoted any attention to her field.”  The researcher replies that the Ivies just don’t do this kind of thing. Exploring sex in these ways is too weird, too potentially upsetting; it may contribute to happier homes, but it’s just as likely to blow up the whole concept.

All this to say, it’s not just Samantha Power. A certain vision of American-style middle-of-the-road happiness, health, and flourishing seems built into the intellectual world around her. A starker version of that commitment also comes out at the confirmation hearings, when senators ask about some of her early writings, in which she’d occasionally dissed the US. Of course she vigorously backtracked, calling America “the greatest country on earth” and “the most powerful country in the history of the world. Also, the most inspirational;” and she emphasizes that she “would never apologize for America.” The senators are impressed, and Power is confirmed.

Like any political encounter, Power’s confirmation hearing lends itself to multiple interpretations. We can read it as an ambitious political actor doing what’s necessary to reach a position of authority, where she can do some good.  Or we can read it as a textbook demonstration of how the real boundaries on American political discourse get set– namely, by those holding the real political cards, not by Harvard professors.

Or we can conclude that Power’s walk-back expresses beliefs she actually holds. Probably back home in Cambridge she wouldn’t use quite this Red State rhetoric. But the policies she’s advocated throughout her career– first as an intellectual, now as a participant– presuppose more or less this stance: from the outset, she’s endorsed American military intervention in troubled societies, on the assumption that it’s an inspirational force for good. That faith apparently remains unshaken by the disastrous results of our interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya– the last a project that Power herself helped design and continues to endorse.

My point is, we don’t need to look for a George Soros or a Koch brother pulling the strings in cases like this. Samantha Power shows us the deeper micro-processes in American intellectual life, processes that attach brilliant young people– “happy, wholesome, self-confident, new-vanguard, shiny people”–to the twenty-first-century American project.