Revolt of the Elites
January 24, 2011 12:39 PM   Subscribe

n+1 explores why "it’s the bearers of culture rather than the wielders of power who are taxed with elitism."
"Culture, not power, determines who attracts the epithet.

There are two opposed explanations for this situation. One would be that access to political, economic, and military power is today more meritocratic and open than access to filmmaking, humanistic academia, freelance writing, wine criticism, and so on. Do people no longer complain about the power elite because those with power are no longer elitist? Culture, in that case, would constitute a last vestige of unearned prestige in an otherwise democratically constituted society. The other explanation would be that it simply goes without saying these days that the materially consequential areas of life are lorded over by self-recruiting elites. You wouldn’t speak of a business elite, a governing elite, or a firepower elite because, now, that would be redundant. Complaints about cultural elitism would then be merely a sign that in the world of culture (unlike that of power) there is still an ongoing contest between elitism and equality that in all other realms has already been decided. By the deciders."
n+1 previously on MetaFilter
posted by davidjmcgee (34 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
The ability to create has never been democratic. This will always frustrate some.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 12:50 PM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


I find the article quite interesting overall, but

There are two opposed explanations for this situation.

is horribly annoying. Only two? Really? Gah.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 1:01 PM on January 24, 2011


The resentful right, under the banner — hoisted alike by Beck, Huckabee, and Palin — of common sense, flatters deprivation as wisdom by implying to the uneducated that an education isn’t worth having.

Holy crap, this is the most cuttingly concise expression of this phenomenon I could imagine.

Although at least Beck is offering an alternative!
Beck University (abandon all hope, ye who click here). Previously.

Finally, allow me to repost one of my favorite essays (since made into a book which I have yet to read): Greetings from Idiot America:

The president of the United States [GWB] announces that he believes ID ought to be taught in the public schools on an equal footing with the theory of evolution. And in Dover, Pennsylvania, during one of these many controversies, a pastor named Ray Mummert delivers the line that both ends our tour and, in every real sense, sums it up: "We've been attacked," he says, "by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture."
posted by dhens at 1:05 PM on January 24, 2011 [9 favorites]


Defy the elite! Wait - which elite?
posted by lalochezia at 1:08 PM on January 24, 2011


Or perhaps it's just that the power-wielding elites are also adept at wielding the power of scapegoating. This is why crude dictatorships have also always been quite attracted by the exercise.
posted by Skeptic at 1:09 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]



The two proposed explanations do not include this: the power elites need to divert attention from their thievery so that they may keep pillaging the country without being disturbed. They do so by spending billions annually on a non-stop ad campaign directed at stoking resentment in the very classes they are fucking over. Racism is now only admissible if it's submerged, so that leaves anti-intellectualism, the mother's milk of American reactionaries, hippy punching, and gay bashing. Oh, and the racism is still their, too, only a bit more encoded.

Ergo, I call "fail" on this article.
posted by mondo dentro at 1:13 PM on January 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


BTW, I can only recommend Ortega's Revolt of the Masses. It's a magnificently clear-sighted treatise about populism and its consequences.
posted by Skeptic at 1:18 PM on January 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


Thomas Frank argues that politicians and pundits stir the "Cons" to action by evoking certain issues, such as abortion, immigration, or taxation. By portraying themselves to be the champion of the conservatives on these issues, the politicians can get "Cons" to vote them into office. However, once in office, these politicians turn their attention to more mundane economic issues, such as business tax reduction or deregulation. Frank's thesis goes thus: In order to explain to the "Cons" why no progress gets made on these issues, politicians and pundits point their fingers to a "liberal elite," a straw man representing everything that conservatism is not.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:18 PM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


... access to political, economic, and military power is today more meritocratic and open than access to filmmaking, humanistic academia, freelance writing, wine criticism, and so on.

Excuse me?
posted by leonard horner at 1:20 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Oh, this is good right here. I had never thought of this angle.

Likewise, it’s probably easier for most people to imagine how you start Wal-Mart (you open a store) or come to head up CentCom (you enlist in the army) than how you get to be editor of the New Yorker.

It's true that some so-called "elite" professions seem impenetrable, at least to me. I was just thinking about NPR today, wondering where they all got the same voice style and cadence, because it seemed so unemotional and unnatural. I suppose many people might think a huckster salesman would sound more "authentic" than the people from All Things Considered.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:24 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Elite has been transmogrified into just another dog-whistle word for the right. Like "activist judge" and "states' rights" and "far left", it means whatever I want it to mean at this particular moment.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:48 PM on January 24, 2011 [7 favorites]


dhens, thanks for sharing that article. It's rad. I particularly like this:

"This is a great country, in no small part because it is the best country ever devised in which to be a public crank. Never has a nation so dedicated itself to the proposition that not only should its people hold nutty ideas but they should cultivate them, treasure them, shine them up, and put them right there on the mantelpiece. This is still the best country ever in which to peddle complete public lunacy. The right to do so is there in our founding documents."
posted by davidjmcgee at 1:58 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: House style? All radio / tv / print media outlets have one.
posted by rusty at 2:02 PM on January 24, 2011


"Aristocrat and mass man were, in his mischievous usage, not social categories at all but separate dispositions: “Doubtless the most radical division of humanity that can be made is that between two classes of creatures: those who demand much of themselves and assume a burden of tasks and difficulties, and those who require nothing special of themselves, but rather for whom to live is to be in every instant only what they already are.” The mark of superior people, in Ortega’s sense, is that they consider themselves inferior to what they may become. Self-improvement, for all that it smacks of the self-help shelf at Barnes & Noble, is also, in this way, the rallying cry of the only kind of elite worth having."

This.
posted by ruelle at 2:18 PM on January 24, 2011 [11 favorites]


Some of the people who cry elitest are mind-readers, alway assuming that others cannot possibly appreciate "difficult" things for the reasons they state. There must be an alternative explanation they aren't privy to, they feel. What a taxing mindset that must be.
posted by defenestration at 2:37 PM on January 24, 2011


I like n+1 but when I read this a few weeks ago I thought it was a little weak. Let's not pretend that being a "bearer of culture" is unrelated to possessing power in society; not only is control over culture no less real than power over money or guns, but the people who end up in "filmmaking, humanistic academia, freelance writing, wine criticism, and so on" are largely drawn from the ranks of those who hold other, more concrete forms of power to begin with; this fact isn't lost on people.

It seems like what they're really asking is why the people who have a little power attract so much more opprobrium than the people who have a lot—the Murdochs and Buffetts and the like—and the answer seems pretty obvious to me. Most of us will never meet a billionaire or a senator or a member of the Joint Chiefs, and our sense of their power over us is necessarily somewhat abstract. But we deal every day with people who have only a little more power than we do, and so it is those inequalities we feel the most viscerally.
posted by enn at 3:04 PM on January 24, 2011 [10 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell: House style? All radio / tv / print media outlets have one.

If it's an enshrined house style, I'd love love love to see the documentation. Because what I'm talking about seems more than just the use of some kind of American style of Received Pronunciation.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:06 PM on January 24, 2011


Some of the people who cry elitest are mind-readers, alway assuming that others cannot possibly appreciate "difficult" things for the reasons they state.

Ah, the old "you don't really like that, you're just doing it to be cool" argument. Yeah, never made much sense to me, either.
posted by jtron at 3:07 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


You wouldn’t speak of a business elite, a governing elite, or a firepower elite because, now, that would be redundant.

Reuters: Slim a maverick tycoon in Mexico's business elite

WSJ: Tax Proposal Splits State's Business Elite

BusinessWeek: The Controversy Over Israel's Business Elite

Independent: India's corruption is destroying nation, warns business elite

Huffington Post: "A real culture shift seems to have occurred among some in the military elite..."

Brookings Institution (pdf): China's New Military Elite

Times (London): Inside Saddam's military elite

World Socialist Web Site: Tunisian ruling elite promises national government, imposes military rule

NBC New York: The Government Elite Are Shielded from Economic Reality

NY Times: Brazilian Government Elite Press for President to Resign

RT.com [Russian]: British business and government elite backs Russia’s modernization
posted by Jahaza at 3:11 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was just thinking about NPR today, wondering where they all got the same voice style and cadence, because it seemed so unemotional and unnatural.

Multiple complete strangers have told me I sound like I should be on NPR. Uh oh.

More seriously: there are vastly more people who are qualified to edit The New Yorker than there are positions of editor at The New Yorker. Why can't they start their own magazines? Some of them do, but if we're going to have a culture then it makes sense to have a small number of magazines that everyone important reads and it's hard to break in to that group. Like pop music or TV acting, I don't see any way it could ever be a meritocracy.
posted by miyabo at 3:14 PM on January 24, 2011


There's so much here that's totally wrong it's hard to know where to comment first. (Other than the above comment on what can be disproven with a little Googling.).

But I'm struck by the fact that the idea: "Culture, not power, determines who attracts the epithet." assumes as a premise that culture is not a form of power.
posted by Jahaza at 3:19 PM on January 24, 2011


It's an interesting theory.

I think it's more that people underestimate the difficulty of success in business and the professions, and they overestimate the elements of luck and relationships (luck by another name) in the cultural fields.

There's also an optical illusion based upon relative importance of big breaks. Success in as an executive or professional is achieved (or not) in a 20 to 30 year a campaign that starts when one is 13 years old, and proceeds with many incremental advances, whereas success in the cultural fields tends to be more lumpy, and thus look a lot more like windfalls. The 30 year old one guy who sells a screenplay and changes his life was, the week before, indistinguishable at first glance from 99 other people in LA hoping to do the same thing (although in reality maybe 10 of those 1000 was as talented as he.) The 30 year old who makes VP at a big investment bank may have the same 99 people who failed where he succeeded, but they started failing to match him 15 years ago when they got Cs in 9th grade algebra, and gradually dropped out along the way -- with each stage in the process eliminating many fewer people than the big eliminations in the cultural fields.
posted by MattD at 3:31 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why is humanistic academia being lumped in with journalism and media work?

journalism, the media, some non-profits -- these all require unpaid internships, and may even discriminate against people who went to cheap (aka state) universities.

Whereas doctoral graduate work in the humanities is usually supported by scholarships and teaching -- even at less rich universities. And access to the very richest universities is NOT dependent on having been to the "right" school, at least for your undergrad. (I met people from all sorts of undergrads in the same, well-funded grad program -- from Harvard to University of Arkansas to this obscure college I hadn't heard of, but which the frankly brilliant guy who had gone there told me wasn't respected at all).
posted by jb at 3:40 PM on January 24, 2011


It seems like what they're really asking is why the people who have a little power attract so much more opprobrium than the people who have a lot.

Except it's not. Lieutenants, middle managers and mayors don't catch the same flack as indie film makers, avant garde noise producers and writers. And when the acquisition of more power by the latter band of culture producers means submitting to populist taste, well, that's what that's the article.
posted by doobiedoo at 4:13 PM on January 24, 2011


Harumph!! I extend my elitist pinkie at this!!
posted by pearlybob at 4:30 PM on January 24, 2011


Everyone has taste, even if it's bad taste. If people feel inferior and insecure—like their taste is being judged by some sort of "expert" who knows better—of course they'll lash out at perceived smugness.

Not everyone is knowledgable and informed on issues related to business, war, economics, etc, and for that, they aren't ashamed. They're not expected to know of such things. They leave that up to the suits.

On the contrary, calling a filmmaker, writer, musician or artist an elite is just idle chatter that makes the chider feel better about his or herself. People watch movies. Most have read a book or two. Music is pretty much loved by all. Hell, most people even appreciate art to some extent, even if they worship at the hypercolor altar of Thomas Kinkade. They're expected to know of such things. It helps define who they are and the great (pop)-culture that surronds them. Calling culture mavens and important artists elitests is the opposite of having a differing opinion or point of view on the matter at hand — something most people would feel they'd have to possess before questioning a true elite like a General.

It appears to be an easily exploitable phenomenon. The Arrogant Intellectual That Thinks He Knows Better And Is Constantly, Secretly Judging You For Your Backwoods Ways is a fantastic straw man, a Grade-A diversion.
posted by defenestration at 4:45 PM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


I didn't even know that was common. I certainly didn't that way myself.
posted by delmoi at 4:46 PM on January 24, 2011


...greater (pop)-culture that surronds them.
posted by defenestration at 4:48 PM on January 24, 2011


It seems to me the reason why the cultural elite gets dissed is because they appear to be in the business of telling people what to think; the obvious way to oppose this domination is to think they are wrong.

If some bank wants to pull a power move on you they slap charges on you that throw you into overdraft and then charge you over draft fees. But they don't tell you what to think, and your methods of opposing them might involve storing your money in your mattress, running for a lawyer or any number of things.

If some big bruiser dominates you, you oppose them by granting them the field or running for the cops or your big brother or the 35 automatic in your glove compartment.

But when someone tells me that ballet is better than break dancing, and break dancing is passe, then the easiest way to oppose them is to simply retort "Sez you!!" or to roll my eyes and post in my blog, "Like ANYBODY cares about dancing xcept **** and wanna be Dancing- with- the-Stars losers..."

I'm pretty sure a great number of the cultural elite are anxiously busy trying to sell their writing so they can afford one of Junior's university tuition payments, or perfect that Doppio-Piva-Reverenza sequence in the Amoroso that they are trying to perform, and are not trying to squash people who have differing opinions.

The thing is culture is judged on a scale that is entirely empirical. "Richer" "Has more guns" "Has a lawyer and I don't" are all scales that don't brook any debate. But as soon as you get into debating if this painter has a "more valid message than" some other painter you are leaving yourself wide open to the attack that the cultural elite attracts so easily. How are you going to prove it? It's too nebulous. And that's the thing about culture. It's the production of the nebulous -the cold chill I get when I see a perfectly executed Fia Guielamina- that gives culture its value.

If you don't get that cold chill does that mean I am an elitist snob? Only if I think you should get that chill and that there is something inferior about you, if you don't. Maybe Thomas Kincaid gives you that chill because the muzzy light at the end of the path in his painting makes your heart ache with a feeling that you are almost home... but you will never make it home. That's just as valid as my appreciation for Renaissance Italian Balli. Meanwhile your three month old baby has no appreciation for either of these works of art, and my elderly blind mother throws her opinion in with the baby since she can't see a darn thing and the dance music is just an irritating squeaky noise to her old ears.

It's okay for art to be inaccessible. It's a given that a randomly picked work of art will be inaccessible to most of us. But it is equally art even if it is widely accessible. Of course if you buy a Thomas Kincaid print at Wal-Mart to put on your wall it's not art unless you look at the painting and it means something to you, it makes a feeling inside you. If you never observe it, never feel anything it's not art. And every time a visitor comes in and sees the picture and feels cold and excluded and dull with the dullness of a long day when it has rained incessantly, then it works as art again.

Erps... badly off topic here. "What is art?" was not the post title.

Part of the thing is that it costs a huge amount to produce deep art. It takes hours and hours and hours of commitment and focus. The end result may or may not be decipherable or even successful. To create that one moment of cold chill I got watching the dancer someone has to make a huge investment. So how much will I pay for that moment of chill? Thirty pounds for a ticket at Albert Hall? What about you? Fifteen cents? The whole performance probably looks like a bad remake of a Hollywood B Musical of "Romeo & Juliet" to you. Maybe you would pay a buck to make the artist go away...! It's going to be hard to come up with anything remotely resembling a living wage.

So then necessarily the artists and their supporters have to start chasing the very limited amount of dollars... and the cultural elite gets locked into (strident?) proselytizing that this art is worth your (cash) appreciation. And right away everyone to whom that particular obscure message is inaccessible starts getting annoyed.

At least the CEO who runs the bank which hit me with inappropriate charges contributes something to the culture -mortgages so that people have homes, bank accounts and bank cards so they don't have to try to barter for their groceries, mutual funds so that they can (hopefully) parley their insufficient salary up into enough to retire on... But that dancer? She's just some self-obsessed nut who thinks holding her neck at a stiff angle while mincing across the room entitles her to a share of my money!!
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:46 PM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


Elitism isn't for everyone.
posted by Maaik at 5:20 AM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]


From the article: "Culture, in that case, would constitute a last vestige of unearned prestige in an otherwise democratically constituted society."

In any case (and there are likely more than two alternatives) - while it can certainly be argued that access to "culture" is non-democratic, the process of becoming a known 'bearer-of-culture" is a process so that is generally so difficult, that it is almost ridiculous to describe it as "unearned." (unless we count the Mylee Cyrus/Paris Hilton set in the "cultural elite" - but I'm pretty sure that no one does)

Also ironically, there is a good argument that being a "bearer-of-culture" (known or not) is so expensive in time, effort and capital which is generally not recouped in the lifetime of the "bearer" that makes Culture un-democratic. To put it another way, the majority of people who decide to pursue involvement feel confident that they can afford to not make money, which is generally not a common sentiment in lower economic sentiments.

Doesn't make it right, but I'm just saying - there's no room of rich artists, musicians or academics scheming to keep all their riches from the masses, or figuring how to get more money from them.
posted by illovich at 6:58 AM on January 25, 2011


Most of us will never meet a billionaire or a senator or a member of the Joint Chiefs, and our sense of their power over us is necessarily somewhat abstract. But we deal every day with people who have only a little more power than we do, and so it is those inequalities we feel the most viscerally.

tyler cowen made this point as well in the inequality that matters: "A neglected observation, too, is that envy is usually local. At least in the United States, most economic resentment is not directed toward billionaires or high-roller financiers—not even corrupt ones. It's directed at the guy down the hall who got a bigger raise. It's directed at the husband of your wife's sister, because the brand of beer he stocks costs $3 a case more than yours, and so on."
posted by kliuless at 9:16 AM on January 25, 2011


enn: Let's not pretend that being a "bearer of culture" is unrelated to possessing power in society; not only is control over culture no less real than power over money or guns, but the people who end up in "filmmaking, humanistic academia, freelance writing, wine criticism, and so on" are largely drawn from the ranks of those who hold other, more concrete forms of power to begin with; this fact isn't lost on people.

You know, I vaguely remember a passage (which I can't dig up) that says that in the US, the left and the right have made a unspoken agreement: while the left controls the academy, the right gets to control everything else. Or as I like to formulate it: if the academic left had one-tenth the influence that anti-elitist right-wing rhetoric claims it does, Americans would all be living in genderqueer Maoist ecocommunes.

I am not convinced that cultural elites have anywhere near the power that "money or guns" do.
posted by dhens at 11:00 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


The two proposed explanations do not include this: the power elites need to divert attention from their thievery so that they may keep pillaging the country without being disturbed. They do so by spending billions annually on a non-stop ad campaign directed at stoking resentment in the very classes they are fucking over. Racism is now only admissible if it's submerged, so that leaves anti-intellectualism, the mother's milk of American reactionaries, hippy punching, and gay bashing. Oh, and the racism is still their, too, only a bit more encoded.

Ergo, I call "fail" on this article.


I got the impression that this was fairly implied in this article.
posted by ovvl at 4:47 PM on January 25, 2011


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