Friday, January 7, 2011

More "elitism" nonsense

One of the conservative buzz-words is "elitist." This is often, in the right-winger's lexicon, a synonym for someone in the knowledge-based community. If you are an economist, especially one who doesn't subscribe to the trickle-down theory, you are an elitist. If you like poetry or painting or music or literature that requires a bit of concentration and maybe even study in order to appreciate, you are an elitist.

When I see an article with a title containing a word derived from "elite" I am immediately suspicious of right-wing know-nothingism. (T0 be fair, the left has had its share of this kind of mud-slinging, though much more in its socialist past than in its feeble modern incarnation.) Thus, when the Boston Globe ran an Op-Ed by critic and biographer Neal Gabler entitled "The end of cultural elitism" my B.S. detector began blinking furiously. See what you think: click here to read the article.

Here is my response which I sent to the Globe, though it is too long for them to actually print.

Ah, another attack on the "elites" which supposedly rule us (Neal Gabler: "The end of cultural elitism", 1/6/11). The first sentence is nonsense, and it doesn't get any better. Gabler writes: "As anyone who has ever wiggled in his seat at a classical concert or stared in disbelief at a work of conceptual art can attest, culture in America has usually been imposed from the top down." In fact, the vast majority of people who attend classical music concerts or "conceptual" art exhibits do so quite willingly, enthusiastically, and with the intent of appreciating the art being presented.

We Americans read lots of reviews of movies, art, literature and music. These reviews, which don't by any means all agree, present opinions of people who read, look and listen carefully to lots of artistic material. Obviously some of these reviewers rub us the wrong way by being arrogant and condescending; however, in most cases we learn something that affects our receptivity to the work in question. Sometimes we are persuaded to read, listen to, or watch the work in question, and sometimes not.

Gabler is simply wrong in most of his examples. "The Social Network" received generally favorable reviews but not uniform accolades. It had pretty decent success but was neither a triumph nor a bomb. Similarly for Franzen's "Freedom." In fact, in spite of mixed reviews, it "soared to the top of bestseller lists", as acknowledged by Gabler in apparent contradiction to his own conspiratorial thesis.

So what other news does Gabler bring us? That "The DaVinci Code", a page turner like the James Bond books of a half-century ago, and many others, was popular in spite of many critical pans. This is surely more of "dog bites man" than insight. Critics don't tell us what we should or will enjoy, they simply report on the comparative craftsmanship of the works.

Or, maybe, Gabler thinks that any expertise is elitism or "commissar"-ship? Are doctors the "medical elite" and chemists part of the "scientific elite"? Is Oprah Winfrey an elitist? Is anyone who studies and learns part of some "educated elite"? Do parents and teachers have elite expertise that they force on poor children? Would he have any argument at all if he didn't keep repeating loaded words like "elitist", "commissar" and "ordinary folks"? Overall, this reminded me of the teenager's complaint: "Aw, do I have to learn all this Stuff?" or, more ominously, of the fascist dictum that we should "think with our blood."

(How many people still remember what "commissars" are or were? Not a word you hear a lot these days.)

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