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April 21, 2008

Mickey Kaus: Snobs Like Us

Kaus has an interesting take on Obama's "Vulgar Marxism:"

Help! I'm A Snob Like Obama! Greg Mitchell ridicules Bill Kristol for insinuating that Barack Obama was a Marxist for saying that residents of economically depressed small towns "cling to guns or religion ... as a way to explain their [economic] frustrations." But of course it was a Marxist thing to say, wasn't it? If Democrats had delivered on the economy, Obama suggests, all those GOP cultural "wedge" issues would lose traction. This idea--that the economy trumps culture--isn't new. It's "materialism." The economic "base," Marxists would argue, determines the cultural "superstructure." If the economy changes (i.e. if small town Pennsylvanians get well-paying jobs) then the superstructure will change (Pennsylvanians will feel less intensely about their religion).

Actually this isn't simply Marxism--it's what, when I was in college at least, was called Vulgar Marxism. More sophisticated Marxists hypothesized various ways the cultural "superstructure" could interact with the economy or take on a life of its own. Less supple Marxists (Engels, if I remember) hew to the crude base/superstructure idea--with feudalism you get feudal beliefs, which give way to bourgeois beliefs once capitalism takes over.

I've sniped at Obama for the condescension implicit in his argument that Pennsylvanians will stop their 'clinging' once Democrats like him start delivering jobs from Washington. But this condescension is inherent in any Vulgar Marxist explanation, isn't it?

Kaus goes on to worry that he too is however a snob or a Vulgar Marxist as he does believe that economic progress and achievement displaces a faith in God.


First of all I think Kaus is simply wrong in believing that money displaces faith -- mostly. If one views the religious impulse more broadly -- as a stirring in someone to seek and find transcendence and a higher moral purpose to living -- it's seems obvious to me that there is very little correlation, positive or negative, between the urge for transcendence and income level. Whether Kaus buys it or not, most of the trust-fund kids banging their pots in the street are also seeking transcendence; they've just been conditioned to believe God is bad and doesn't exist so their chanting and psalms are all about global warming or Abu Jamal Mumia. Their lack of want hasn't displaced the religious urge; if anything, it has strengthened it, as they seek to fill their rather comfortable and easy lives with something approaching striving for a goal larger than themselves.

Whether that's due a genuine echo of God in the souls of most people, or a disposition towards the transcendent in many people regardless of education, class, income, or other such factors is irrelevant, I think, to the basic point. Whyever (is that a word? should be) it's happening, it is in fact happening, and the basic notion that "rich folks ain't got no need of God or the Kingdom of Heaven" seems just wrong on a basic empirical level. The trust-fund class may consider traditional notions of God and morality to be gauche and passe and all that, but they still have all of the religious urges of, say, small town Pennsylvanians. It's just that instead of clinging to religion they cling to Che posters and giant paper machier puppets of Ariel Sharon sodomizing George Bush.

There's an old joke that ends with the punchline, "This isn't just about the hunting anymore, is it?" There's so much energy and psychic investment in Marxist Utopianism in such people that one has to question whether this is just about the politics anymore, or something greater, something more elemental, something metaphysical.

Second, it's an odd conceit of the Yuppie class (and I hope I am not offending Kaus by branding him so) that social/cultural issues matter to the lower and middle classes, whereas the economic and cultural elite find such issues trivial and distractions from what really matters -- economic issues. As has been noted by other commentators, the greatest animating force among upper-class blue-state liberals is not economics at all -- it is also social and cultural issues. They are just as, if not more, passionate about such issues as bitter small-town Pennsylvanian dead-enders; and they "vote against their own economic interests" in order to keep Roe v. Wade on the books and outlaw handguns and keep intelligent design out of the schools and all that.

It's a pose by such people that such frivolous matters as cultural issues "don't matter" -- they matter very much indeed to such people. They're just not honest, including to themselves, about admitting that.

I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a couple of coworkers, standard establishment liberal types. I overheard them talking about the flag burning amendment, and how silly people were for caring about the issue at all, and how exquisitely high-minded they themselves were for seeing it as the meaningless "distraction from the real issues" it really was.

At that point I insinuated myself into their discussion and challenged them. "Look," I said, "I happen to agree substantively that the flag-burning amendment is a bad one and ought not to be passed, but how can you say it 'doesn't matter' to you, and urge other people to stop being concerned about issues that 'don't matter,' when it's blindingly obvious this is in fact a major issue for both of you?"

"But it doesn't matter," they insisted. "It's a non-issue."

"Fine," I said. "If it doesn't matter, then let's get this behind us and just vote the flag-burning amendment into the Constitution. That meaningless amendment out of the way, we can then focus on what really matters."

"No," they said firmly. "It's a toxic amendment against the spirit of the Constitution and an offense to free speech."

"So it does turn out to matter, doesn't it?"

"No it doesn't matter," they insisted. "But it's important for America we preserve the right to burn the flag."

"How can it both 'not matter' and be crucial for the ongoing health of the nation?"

It went on and on like this. What they really meant -- and what they eventually sort of admitted -- was that they didn't see why an anti-flag amendment should matter to anyone, while maintaining it was not just understandable but well-nigh obligatory as Americans to hold very strong feelings about blocking such an amendment.

But this is a silly posture. I've heard this a thousand times. "Anyone who disagrees with me on this point is a frivolous, unserious thinker who can only rouse himself as regards the crudest, easiest-to-understand hot-button issues. On the other hand, I am passionate about this issue myself, but that's okay, because I really 'don't care' about the issue except to the extent I become physically angry at anyone who disagrees with me on it. But then, I'm on the right side of the issue. There's nothing wrong with caring about the issue if you're on the right side of it; but those people on the wrong side of the issue should get a life and invest their time and energy and emotion in something more 'substantive.'"

Finally I have to admit I'm not Simon-pure on this myself. I have myself wrote along these lines -- I wrote, for example, that while I found the likes of Margaret Cho and Rosie O'Donnell utter buffoons, I had a grudging respect for another hard left female comic, Rosanne Barr (or whatever we call her now), because at least she focused not on frivolous social and cultural issues but rather on tangible issues of taxes and unionism. Not that I agreed with her, mind you, on most of her fairly hard-left, somewhat Marxist workers-of-the-world-unite worldview. But I respected that sort of leftist, even while disagreeing with her strongly, because at least she was concerned with something that actually mattered.

And something more rigorous and intellectual than emotion-driven gut-reaction positions on social and cultural issues. At least arguing about fair wages and unionism has numbers as part of the analysis. And we can actually argue beyond "I just think it should be this way" by comparing, say, how workers fared under Reagan to how they fared under Clinton to how they fared under more liberal Presidents like Carter, Ford, and yes, Nixon.

But that, I think, proves the ultimate point. Wherever we stand on this social issue or that cultural concern, the fact is, we all of us admit that money is important and we all agree (basically) that more of it is better (well, lefties of course want to take it from anyone who has more of it than anyone else, but as regards at least half the population, anyway, they agree more is better).

So the basic dynamic here seems to be that most social/cultural concerns of our opponents seem silly and frivolous to us (if not downright dangerous and a threat to the Republic itself); we just don't even understand why the hell our political opposites are always on and on about crap that frankly just doesn't count. (Except to the extent it counts for all.) But we all agree that money is a legitimate discussion and focus for debate.

Blue-state liberals will never get why gun ownership is so important to so many of their fellow citizens, and red-state conservatives really don't get why gay marriage is suddenly An Extremely Important Issue Which Must Be Addressed Before All Others, but we do all agree that economics is important. The social/cultural stuff is easily dismissed as frivolous and trivial and a distraction -- at least when one's political opponents push their preferred policy on an issue -- but no one denigrates the basic importance of economics itself, even if the right and left have wildly different conceptions of what good economic policy consists of.

Does that make me a snob, too? Does it make me a snob that I think the pampered, cocooned classes who have cushy berths in life and often feel guilty about just how good they have it economically should stop focusing on gay marriage and "torture" and instead agitate for sound trade policy and a lower capital gains tax rate? That I think they should, in other words, "get a life" and stop focusing on such "distractions" and start voting according to what is in the best long-term economic interest (to say nothing of national security interest) of this country?

I guess it does. I guess I am a snob, because I admit -- I look down on these bozos.

Do I consider myself intellectually and culturally superior to them? Keep it on the Q.T., but Hell's Yes I do.

Take PETA. The animal-rights movement is the ultimate upper-middle-class frivoloity, and I strongly suspect animal-rights adherents, most of them anyway, are emotionally and sexually (yes) stunted at that pre-pubescent stage where it's much easier to identify with an anthropomorphized Disney animal-character than a real flesh and blood human being.

So their issues don't matter and are just plain silly and trivial.

But if they try to take steak away from me... or even hamburgers... well, we've got problems, boyo.


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posted by Ace at 10:10 AM

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