Hayes here produces erudition and insight with his hallmark fervor and tenacity that makes his work on MSNBC both so enjoyable as well as so intense. I often marvel at just how refreshing he is as a personality and an intellectual by way of his enthusiasm–he always manages to genuinely be the most passionate person in the room.
His analysis here not only of the recent failures of the pillar institutions of authority and progress in the United States is really only surpassed, to my mind, by his reflections on the core, painful reverberations that follow such failure in the trust of the citizenry. I’d comfortably hazard that his assessment of the kind of near-nihilistic ‘everything-is-broken-ism’ societal milieu will be terribly familiar to every reader.
One can already predict the hostile responses, both pat and substantive, that will surely follow Hayes’ critique of American meritocratic worship, but his conclusions and welcome suggestions are nuanced and deserve to be digested with openness and care. Meritocracy is still, I think Hayes believes, not only a great and admirable thing but the only conclusion of a modern society. His work here only concludes that in its current state it is not only untenable but hostile to any real civilized existence for our or any other society.
Meritocracy must be balanced by a believable sense of equality to begin with, and must be safeguarded by accountability of the most pristine order. To steal Hayes’ own metaphors, we might be well ensuring that the playing field is level, but too often some are sneaking in extra practice before the big game regardless, and the snowball effect inevitably comes to pass that the ‘winners’ can be counted upon to viciously make sure this continues to be the case. Hayes makes a stunningly effective case for the inevitability that also follows the meritocratic drive: it promotes cheating as much as anything else. Thus equality to begin with, thus safeguarding that is as wide-ranging as it is persistent.
The financial climate that looks to have a Wall Street all too eager to do it all again with the comfort of elite safety nets is all that needs to be said of a need for a new brand of accountability and consequence. A meritocracy is only truly such when those that fail are punished. Hayes’ work here recounts in a readable yet delving manner the price our country has paid for ignoring this problematic series of eruptions, and offers a way forward where we might navigate them more effectively. It might be only a first step, but it’s a hell of a good one.