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April 27, 2012

Interesting Post at Commentary, on the Vicious Disdain of the Elite

Good essay rebutting the charge that the 1950s were a Conformist-Culture Wasteland -- in fact, large numbers of people, from the Middle Class and Working Class, took an interest in High Culture.

The interesting thing about this was that the "elites" objected at the time -- they actually were opposed to The Stupid Masses (as they thought of them) becoming cultured.

The essay is about several things (it's lengthy) and I can't digest it all. But let me just hit that one part.

Macdonald made himself the chief critic of the cultural category he dubbed the “middlebrow.” The great danger to America, he argued in his most famous essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” was the effort by the masses to elevate themselves culturally. Because of the middlebrow impulse, he said, book clubs had spread across the country like so much “ooze.” The result, Macdonald believed, could only be the pollution of high culture and its degradation in becoming popular culture. “Two cultures have developed in this country,” insisted Macdonald, and “it is to the national interest to keep them separate.”

His words were vicious. “Already we have far too much of this insipidity—masses of people who are half breeds” daring to partake of “the American culture of the cheap newspaper, the movies, the popular song, the ubiquitous automobile” and creating “hordes of men and women without a spiritual country…without taste, without standards but those of the mob.”

That was, Macdonald explained, because “the masses are not people, they are not The Man in the Street or The Average Man, they are not even that figment of liberal condescension, The Common Man. The masses are, rather, man as non-man.” He quoted the author Roger Fry approvingly as saying Americans “have lost the power to be individuals. They have become social insects like bees and ants.”

MacDonald turned out to be a great fan of the New Left of the 1960s.

Dwight Macdonald, who spat on the ambitions of the midcult man, took an interesting journey himself in the 1960s. He became a movie critic and later a contributor to the Today show. When student radicals took over buildings on the campus of Columbia University, Macdonald celebrated them and responded mildly when members of the Students for a Democratic Society (which gave birth to the terrorist Weathermen) literally set fire to the manuscript of a professor. The man who had denounced the barbarism of the American middle saw true barbarism in practice and found it wonderfully stimulating.

I've written a lot about the not-so-secret yearning of supposedly pro-"Common Man" liberals to reinforce class distinctions, thus carving out for themselves a New Aristocracy class.


This is the primary psychological drive of the bien pensants. If you understand this about them, you understand everything about them.

Everything they say, and everything they do, is calculated towards one specific purpose, one unchanging goal: To differentiate themselves from their "common" fellows, and, by differentiating themselves, in conspicuous demonstrations of anti-common sentiment, declare and affirm themselves to be members of the New Aristocracy.

I keep reposting this; it's still true.

The aristocracy has always sought to differentiate itself from the hoi polloi by signalling other aristocrats via the conspicuous display of manners and opinions marking them as elite. In the 1920's, for example, the highborn would talk about opera and symphony, but never popular music-- popular music was for the lower classes, and if you enjoyed a pop song, it was best to keep that to yourself. They would discuss live theater but never filmed features-- again, the first was accpetable, the latter declasse. And of course there is all that stuff about eating and drinking.

Gosford Park catalogued much of this, especially in the screenwriter's commentary, which, for my money, was more interesting than the actual movie.

We still have a moneyed aristocracy, of course. And I imagine that many of those old rules still apply (although, quite frankly, I wouldn't know for certain).

What I find interesting from a sociological standpoint is liberals' aping of the opinions and manners of the aristocracy, usually with a healthy infusion of kneejerk progressive politics, as a new form of differentiation from the masses whom they so clearly despise. Just as the old middle classes would also attempt to mimic the behaviors of the wealthy, so too do today's liberals -- even those who aren't very wealthy at all -- seek to emulate the codes and mores of the leisure-class to show that they, too, belong in the company of the elite.

Quick proof: Go find any liberal. Ask him what he thinks about USAToday. If he does not immediately say "McPaper," I will buy you a Filet-O-Fish or McRib (your choice; supplies are limited).

Now, USAToday is neither an especially good paper nor an especially bad one; it's not really remarkable in any way. But the word has come down from the liberal aristocrats that the proper attitude towards USAToday is that it is a McPaper, and so that's what they all say, even if (as is usually the case) they've never so much as read the paper before in their lives.

They call it McPaper because of a series of faux-aristocratic biases -- the "mom and pop" local operation is always more virtuous than the national franchise, anything that smacks of mass-appeal is to be automatically despised, etc. -- and they say it's a McPaper, over and over again, for the same reason 1920's aristocrats all talked about the operas they usually slept through-- to signal to other "Progressive Elites" that they Belong, that They Are Part of the Higher Class.

Shibboleths, in other words, in that most excellent word Rush Limbaugh introduced me to a month or so back.

The important thing about a shibboleth is not whether it is true. That is not the point of the thing. It may be true; it, more likely, especially as years wear on, may be false.

The important thing, the only important thing, about a shibboleth is that it's not what the commoners are saying. The point of the shibboleth is not reaffirm external truth, but to reaffirm personal identity.

It is no wonder they all quickly fall in a line and begin spouting minor variations on the same stupid claim. The point was never, ever to consider the truth of the matter, and subject it to analysis; but precisely to simply repeat what other self-discovered members of the New Aristocrats are saying, because that's how they each know they belong.

You can stuff your "uncomfortable feelings" in a hat, New Aristocrats. People with some sort of true religious or ethical imperative against killing of any kind may fret a bit over this. But you lot?

The only "uncomfortable feelings" you really have is the fear that one day you might be mistaken for a commoner, by mistakenly saying the same thing the commoners say.

As Michael Palin says in the Argument Clinic sketch: An argument is a reasoned series of premises designed to prove a point. It's not just the automatic gainsaying of whatever someone else says; that's just contradiction.

But that's precisely what the New Aristocrats do. This isn't thinking. This isn't reason. This is simply the automatic, reflexive contradiction of anything a commoner might happen to say. Even if the "commoner" happens to be right.

Because the whole point is to have a different opinion, one the commoners do not share. And the commoners, being, generally, a reasonable and sound-thinking lot, unfortunately have the tendency to think the right things a distressingly large amount of the time.

Forcing the New Aristocrats to often, and more and more, take increasingly unreasonable positions simply to signal their uncommonness.

And hence: Increasing stupidity from the supposedly smart.

As the saying goes: Only an intellectual can believe things this stupid.

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posted by Ace at 04:53 PM

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