Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Elitism? It's the stupid people, stupid!

(Count the number of elitist words in this article.)

Why is liberalism often tied with elitism in American politics? What is it about elitism that bothers people? Jeff Greenfield, with help from George Orwell, has explored these questions, in a new article over on Slate.com. The answers are illuminating.

Ah, there I go. I used "illuminating" when I could have used "thoughtful." One is pretentious, the other is pedestrian. That is the basic difference between so-called elites and working-class, as Orwell explains in his 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, a look at working class life in the industrial heartlands of England before World War II.

In the first part of the book book Orwell goes inside the life of working class families. He does everything from famously descending into a coal mine and describing the working conditions, to commenting on the typical diet of a blue collar family. Greenfield's article is interested in the second part of the book. In it, Orwell states that these conditions are not acceptable, and that socialism could improve the lives of these families. But then, Orwell wonders, why are we not all socialists? The rest of the book attempts to answer this question.

It doesn't take too much effort to see the parallels between the setting of Orwell's book and the blue-collar districts Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are trying so hard to win. Why is Obama's elitist tag hurting him so much? Greenfield ties our modern elitism to Orwell's socialism. This works because blue collar voters rail against them for the same reasons. Orwell suggested that people do not argue against socialism for empirical reasons (another nice elitist term) but for more complex emotional reasons which most socialists fail to understand.

Greenfield gleans this and uncovers reasons why people today passionately balk against liberalism even though the system could benefit them. Orwell recognized how pretentious, arrogant people were contributing to socialism's negative reputation among more conventional people.

“...The food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself
off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of
his carcase; that is, a person out of touch with common humanity.”

“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and
‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice
drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’
quack, pacifist, and feminist in England."

(Hey, I'm not a nudist!)

"If only the sandals and the pistachio-colored shirts could be put in
a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaler, and creeping Jesus
sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly!"

To read these lines, you'd think Orwell himself was anti-socialism. But he states very plainly that he is in favor of the system, but against many of its disciples. He put it this way, "As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents."

I had never thought about it this way before. Over the last eight years of the Bush administration I have pondered why more people have not turned to liberalism in-light of what neoconservativism has brought on our country (and the rest of the world). But the problem is so many liberals are so damn annoying! And I'm one of them. It reminds me of the line from Annie Hall, "Don't you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we're
left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us
that way sometimes and I live here!"

But this explains a lot: from why people freak out when A-list (and B-list) Hollywood celebrities try to tell middle America how to live; to why Bill O'Reilly has a television show; to why the elitist tag is such an anathema. Oh, drat! Did I say "anathema" when I could have said "poison"?

That brings me to another reason Orwell found that people actively opposed socialism, namely the turgid (ding!) language employed by its followers. There are people who lace their speech with haughty words. Words like "haughty" or "nuance" or "notwithstanding." People who do that are probably also annoyingly liberal. They've probably never spent too much time in a mine shaft or working as a longshoreman. They probably sip their beer while they pontificate. They have as much in common with a blue class worker as my grandparents do with the digital age.

Ironically, socialism tends to suffer from the same thing that vexes (yes...vexes) it's more conservative cousin, fundamentalism. "The ordinary decent person," Orwell writes, "who is in sympathy with the essential aims of Socialism, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any Socialist party that means business." What's a reasonable voter to do?

During this democratic election there has been no shortness of pandering to the blue collar worker. Much has been made (another great elitist term: "Much has been made of...") of Obama's inability to connect with them, and Hillary's re-inventing herself as a working class hero (she's lived in every small town in Pennsylvania and Indiana). I have been surprised that such pandering has worked, after years of inaction by government to help them. This is the very thing Obama tried to explain in his disastrous San Francisco (ding!) talk on "bitter" middle America. And, with the help of Orwell, it's not hard to see why it was such a blunder. It's not that what he said was wrong. It's how he said it. It's how a vast group had been boiled down into a demographic, and quantified as an anthropological phenomenon.

I always felt there was a certain amount of play-acting among the most vocal liberals. I've also felt that I need to stop feeling and I need to start doing. Feelings are for elitists. Rolling up your sleeves, as our President has often done to clear so much brush at his Crawford ranch, is what connects with people. It's not that the liberal ideals are wrong, it's that you get the impression you need to change your whole lifestyle to believe them. It changes everything. You have to dress different. You have to act different. You have to grow a mustache and get all kinds of robes and lotions and you need a new bedspread and new curtains. You'd have to get thick carpeting and weirdo lighting. You'd have to get new friends. You'd have to get liberal friends. Most people aren't ready for all that.

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