The Tailors of Tooley Street: Reflections on the Ivory Tower and Reality

We may be learning that those who claim to speak of the people, by the people, and for the people, may not really know the people.

“Thy neck is a tower of ivory” (Song of Solomon 4:7). In so saying, the Old Testament reminds one that standards of beauty do change. To call a long white neck swan-like is a commonplace, and the Arabic equivalent is fawn-like. Even Marge in “The Simpsons” cartoons is said to have a neck like a swan. But a neck like a tower of ivory seems unique to Solomon’s song though long before the Litany of Loretto, it became a symbol for the Virgin Mary.

In a poem of 1837, Charles Augustine Saint-Beuve made “tour d’ivoire” what it more usually has come to mean: a world view, usually academic, detached from practical life—rather what now is often called a social “bubble.” He saw the writer Alfred de Vigny gazing at the world through a utopian gauze, far unlike the social consciousness of Victor Hugo. How the term became so popularized is something of an enigma, and the Columbia University philosopher Irwin Edman “had not the slightest idea where the label came from.” It has been suggested that the towers of All Souls College in Oxford inspired the term. That antedates by centuries the “Ivory Tower” in Princeton University, so nicknamed because its benefactor, William Cooper Procter, had made a fortune in Ivory soap.

We heard and read much commentary from ivory towers during the presidential campaign of 2016, some of it from academicians, and most of it from journalists, television commentators and pollsters for whom the imperium of reality is a form of colonial oppression. One self-styled conservative faculty member at Columbia University confidently predicted : “After Trump gets wiped out this November, the passions will cool. Unlike some past elections, this election won’t be close enough for anyone to argue that the opposition stole the election.”

Another contributor to a leading conservative journal added shortly before the voting began: “No one outside Trump’s evaporating base of diehards seems to think nominating a buffoon was an especially good idea. Yet there he stands, setting conservative politics back a decade every time his tongue makes it past his teeth.”

Their bewildered surprise on election night showed how locked and lofty their towers are, and how quickly perception withers in the groves of Academe. The object of their indignation and scorn, of course, was the billionaire candidate, who is the sort they might solicit for donations to the endowments and fellowships off which many of them live, but who would not be welcome at any of their Chablis and Brie symposia which they are deluded enough to think make a difference in the world. Various professors and journalists published “Never Trump” proclamations which made some cogent points for anyone interested in substance, but which were impassioned beyond reason and conspicuous for a kind of snobbery peculiar to arrivistes.

The veneer quickly shattered when they lapsed into middle school name-calling. Many of these were not liberal in politics, as the term now is used. A considerable number would call themselves social conservatives, and might even think of themselves as strong Catholic apologists. They were not satisfied to state their objections to Mr. Trump’s contentions and avowals, for they resented with unedifying condescension that he was not the sort who belonged in their circle and was stubbornly insolvent in their abstract alchemy. He was “manifestly unfit to be president of the United States” and gave offense with his “vulgarity, oafishness, and shocking ignorance.” He speaks with a “funky outer-borough accent.’’ As though these writers had a copyright on the tradition of culture, they complained: “Donald Trump is a menace to American conservatism who would take the work of generations and trample it underfoot in behalf of a populism as heedless and crude as the Donald himself.”

The palpable disdain from the Ivory Tower was not because reality has a bad taste but because it is in bad taste. Many of the same voices were relatively mute during the past eight years of our nation’s moral disintegration, possibly out of reluctance to lose status on campuses which have become ethical wastelands.

Before the election, which they assumed would bury conservatism in a landslide, the hyperventilating professors, journalists, and clerics, were preparing to preen that they had been prophets. When the polls closed, they suddenly learned to their dismay that humanity consists of humans, the cipher for whom was “uneducated white males” who had not matriculated in the shade of the Ivory Tower. It is not beyond some of them to shy from the fact that they bet on the wrong horse. Now there is some chagrin that the winning horse has left them at the gate. This brings to mind the incident in 1914 when none of the three white cassocks fit the small and bent figure of the newly elected Pope Benedict XV. The papal haberdasher was hastily summoned to make adjustments. When he told the Holy Father that he knew he would be elected, Benedict said, “Gammarelli, if you knew, why didn’t you make me a cassock that fit?”

Some years ago, this writer crossed the Mexican border as a tourist with Judge Robert Bork and Phyllis Schlafly. It was an improbable scene, especially as we were on a brief mission to Tijuana which is not the highest attainment of Western civilization. The judge did not live to see this election, and one does not presume to conjecture what he would have made of it, but it is certain that those who denied him a place in the Supreme Court would not be able to do so in the newly forming government. In March of 2016, Mr. Trump assured Mrs. Schlafly that he would not let her down in the matter of judicial appointments. During the raucous presidential campaign, he interrupted his schedule in September to attend her funeral in Missouri where he repeated his promise. While one does not naively place trust in princes, or presidents for that matter, this was a gracious act, and not that of a “buffoon” who is “a menace to American conservatism.”

We may be learning that those who claim to speak of the people, by the people, and for the people, may not really know the people. In 1827, when George Canning was prime minister, several tailors who kept their shops in London on Tooley Street, were exercised about some tax grievances affecting their businesses. Some say they were just three, others five or so. Nonetheless, they grandly began their petition to the Privy Council: “We, the people of England.”

Today the Tailors of Tooley Street are those who are so confined to their academic towers, editorial offices, think tanks, foundations and blogs, that they overestimate themselves when they publish “Open Letters,” “Declarations,” and “Appeals” to mankind. The problem is this: they have been talking so long to each other, listening to the same lectures and attending the same conferences with the same people, insulated by funding from intersecting foundations, that they think they are the people.

Their pantomime of democracy is paying a price for that now, as symbolized by the recent decision of The New York Times to abandon eight floors of its headquarters building. But it is a problem worse among those who have been respected advocates of a classical culture which is the matrix of reason by which hypotheses may attain conclusions in sciences material and moral. Voters have given that culture one more chance to explain itself, despite the naysayers whose obscurantism and risibly inflated sense of themselves almost surrendered the recent election. That culture has its highest expression in Catholicism which, when true to itself, does not abandon reason for sentiment, does not confuse pomposity with prophecy, and guards the gates against the Vandals of life itself.

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About Fr. George William Rutler 4 Articles
Father George William Rutler, a parish priest in Manhattan, is a popular preacher and writer known internationally for his many TV programs on EWTN. He is the author of nineteen books, and he holds degrees from Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, the Angelicum in Rome, and Oxford.