(As Sampled from: Typing into the Void -Essays, Reviews, and Other Outrages, 1999-2011)
Regardless of one’s opinions, it is a commonplace that one holds them against an entrenched and dominant elite. Politicians of either camp bravely man their soapboxes against the soiled propaganda of the other’s sinister cabals. Writers and scholars daily defy the ossified norms established by the tyrants of last week. Entertainers of all genres continually regard the face in the mirror as belonging to a bold, far-sighted rebel. Wherever people fall, they declare that elites are very bad things indeed: seducers of sense, corruptors of truth, and destroyers of the common good.
Occasionally, a brave soul will acknowledge that human society has long tended to hierarchy, and that the natural scattering of fortune and talent at will yield a concomitant inequality. The raging revolutionaries pay him no mind. We can maintain our opinions without support, but not without opposition.
Just as often, we Americans are reminded of just how utterly ignorant all the other Americans are. They cannot find Afghanistan on a map, come within 50 years of dating our own Civil War, nor explain the scientific method in a way that any working scientist will credit. They attribute “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” to the U.S. Constitution. Accompanying these humbling accounts will be a depressing diagnosis of educational failure and technological woe: humans plugged into the matrix, smacking the pleasure-button of pop culture like so many lab rats, or swine unable even to conceive of a difference between pearls and swill.
This is not that diatribe. I am not come to denounce the proles for preferring their action movies and video games to Shakespeare and the New York Times Book Review. A thousand milk-fed, un-fathered eunuchs have issued this mewl o’er the long years, and have achieved nothing. The Great Unwashed still consider the Great Credentialed as useless as sans-culottes considered the Vicomte de Valmont, and their decadent tastes as divorced from reality. I make no effort to sway their good opinion. They come by it honestly.
Which is not to say that I celebrate their ignorance. Sadly, Stupid is king. Vapidity blares at us from our screens, depicting with ever-crisper pictures ever-greater degradations of the human spirit. An athlete misses a jump, and a horde of cretins swarm to Photoshop his picture with the label “FAIL”. A young man deliberately injures his gonads for the camera, and millions watch in stunned glee. Presidential candidates hide their Ivy-League degrees with folksy homespun claptrap and deer heads mounted on the wall.
But if society is hierarchical, are the paysants to blame if it is stupid? I say, no. I say that humans follow leaders, and our leaders, cultural and intellectual, have brought us to this impasse. We are a nation of barbaric fools not because the pagani will not embrace the light, but because our high priests find it safer to scribble in the darkness.
Permit me to restrict my thrust. I am not talking about the political elite, still less of the economic elite, however gravely the Marxists may intone that they are all one and the same. That some humans have authority over other humans follows the accident of popularity and the experience of respect. One may pass in and out of such power as the time demands. Economic power seems more secure, until one considers that 80% of millionaires are first-generation wealthy.
Rather, I focus one what might be called a cultural elite, those who direct our national conversations, lead the marketplace of ideas, and fuss most vividly over whether they’re in the elite, and whether that is a good thing. These are the ones who have failed us.
For worse than any idiocy on YouTube, worse than the degeneration of the English language into a mash-up of incomprehensible nominalizations and acronyms, worse than the million “um’s” we utter like shibboleths to enter the blessed realm of the Un-Pretentious, is the rote, voluminous blathering of the pretentiously middlebrow. Fools with embossed degrees and no learning use terms like “elitist” and “anti-elitist” without any knowledge of what a passable elite would look or sound like. Joel Stein, a graduate of Stanford University, briefly a teacher of humor writing at Princeton, and semi-permanently a writer for Time Magazine, could stand as the Middlebrow’s patron saint. He begins an article for the August 23, 2010 issue, forthrightly titled “Bring On the Elites!” with the following:
I went to a better college than you did. That does not make me a better person than you. It does, however, make me smarter, more knowledgeable, more curious and more ambitious. So, in a lot of ways, better.
As Stein purports to be a humorist, we may assume that something in the above is intended as funny. Perhaps it’s the final sentence, which Microsoft Word, at least, knows to be a fragment. This might also excuse the contradiction, and the logical fallacy (as if a degree was any more proof of intellect than a baptismal certificate was of virtue). But nothing excuses the insipidity, the cliché, the absence of considered thought married to the dullness of expression. We are persuaded of nothing by this or the rest of the article, save to avoid humor-writing classes at Princeton, or Stanford for that matter.
But Time Magazine, a glossy newsweekly splashed with misleading headlines and statistics of the month, hardly bears the standard for the true intellectual elite. When great minds wrestle with the inner realities of humanity and its place in the universe, they publish them in small scholarly journals for fellow minds to meditate upon. One such tome, Diacritics, published the following illumination by Berkeley Professor Judith Butler:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
The late Professor Denis Dutton of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, responded to Butler with judicious bluntness:
To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.
Where are our leaders, our geniuses, our Twains and Bierces? Perhaps the Atlantic Monthly can shed some light. They happen to have a “The Culture Issue” out now, promising new fiction by Stephen King and an analysis of the creative thinking of Paul Simon, Tim Burton, and several people I’ve only dimly heard of called “How Genius Works.” It appears they are not kidding.
Genius, it would seem, is found in the way Jennifer Yuh Nelson (She of Eternal Fame) turns drawings into other kinds of drawings, in the exegesis of the verses Paul Simon didn’t put in his songs. Anyone working from a definition of genius distinct from that of creativity had best keep quiet about it.
But let us savor the political wit of the back page, where readers may steep in such japery as stirred the Algonquin Round Table. A reader questions the expression “just to the right of Attila the Hun,” and Jeffrey Goldberg offers this naughty scintilla of pith:
Attila the Hun was very right-wing, even compared with other Huns, who were, as a rule, advocates of small government, school choice, and beheading. Attila first came to public attention when he issued his “Contract With Mongolia,” which called for lower taxes, ending state subsidies for unfunded federal mandates, the pillaging of Scythia, and an end to collective bargaining. His decision to invade western Europe was motivated in part by a desire to dismantle the welfare state, in part by a desire to rape government employees. Though Attila was in many respects a social conservative, he was also an advocate for postnatal abortion. After retiring from politics, he worked as an executive at Koch Industries, and appeared on Dancing With the Stars.
One wonders whether this isn’t funny because it works too hard constructing a strawman out of every meme from every blog Goldberg reads, or because the juxtaposition of a 5th century warlord and a 21st century political movement doesn’t actually write itself. In any case, it fails not only as humor, but also as anything else worth reading. It neither elevates, nor informs, but conforms with self-delighted perfection to Screwtape’s definition of “flippancy”:
Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else: any of the can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it . . . . It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it…
Our sages are thick with dullness, stuffed with ordinariness, so besotted with their own image as beacon to the world that they gaze past the darkness of the glass. No sensible person trusts the Atlantic Monthly to tell him the season, but the magazine natters on, certain as a Russian boyar of its incomparable superiority.
But surely, these and other associated follies are the result of our technocratic fetishes, our divorce from the clean and pure rhythms of Nature and the Earth. Any elite raised in Industrial blight and succored on the plastic of the Machines must slip into folly. A real and true elite would invite humanity back to his true home, to embrace the land and the trees and the water. So the novelist, poet, and essayist Wendell Berry would doubtless thunder, as he strains to protect our Virgin Mother Planet from the ravages of man and his dirty tools:
I do not own a TV set. I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and ommunity stability, good work.
Berry intones with assurance of a Pentecostal preacher, blessedly safe from the notion that one could say the same about the sewing machine, or the pencil, or the moldboard plow. Nor did his post-graduate education ever teach that bringing peace, economic justice, ecological health, chocolate candies, a cure for baldness, or the Holy Grail filled with powdered unicorn horn is not what a computer is for.
Here babbles the true fool of our times: a man, purportedly educated and apparently successful by the lights of the society he shuns, who stands completely unable to connect an object with its function, a task that any ancient Greek with the wherewithal to attend one of Aristotle’s lectures could have done with a gesture.
Shall we not utter the truth, and blame these Credentialed Ignoramuses for our collective horror of the excellent? For our soporific speech, staggered with glottal static so that no one will suspect us of knowing le mot juste? Faced with such labored idiocy, is it any wonder that the common citizen prefers the simple, honest stupidity of his fellows?
Lest you think me hyperbolic, consider the current philosophy of education for the most basic and essential of all the civilized arts: reading and writing. Every year the Conference of College Composition and Communication meets to adjust and celebrate its philosophy. Mary Grabar, writing for Minding the Campus, returns from this year’s meeting with a depressingly familiar report:
After spending four depressing days this month at a meeting of 3,000 writing teachers in Atlanta, I can tell you that their parent group, the Conference on College Composition and Communication, is not really interested in teaching students to write and communicate clearly. The group’s agenda, clear to me after sampling as many of the meeting’s 500 panels as I could, is devoted to disparaging grammar, logic, reason, evidence and fairness as instruments of white oppression. They believe rules of grammar discriminate against “marginalized” groups and restrict self-expression.
Even noted composition scholar Peter Elbow, in his address, claimed that the grammar that we internalize at the age of four is “good enough.” . . .
Freed from standards of truth claims and grammatical construction, rhetoric is now redefined as “performance,” as in street protests, often by students demonstrating their “agency.” Expressions are made through “the body,” images, and song—sometimes a burst of spontaneous reflection on the Internet. Clothes are rhetorically important as “instruments of grander performance.”
So panels focused on everything but the written word as traditionally understood.
Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa show the results of this anti-rigor in their book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. According to their results, 45% of college students demonstrated no significant improvement in learning over their first two years, and 36% showed the same over four years. Will we evince surprise at this? We pretend to understand the stupid, and to countenance the inane, until the masks melds with our true face, and we cannot tell the difference any more. Jehovah demanded only the foreskin of the penis from Israel; Middlebrow America insists upon the whole frontal lobe.
And whose notion was Middlebrow? Did it bubble up from the brain-freezing depths of the heartland, or trickle down from the urbane coasts? Was it a meeting of the minds, or an escape from having them? I will allow New Yorker critic and music historian Alex Ross to answer for me:
Back in 1915, the critic Van Wyck Brooks had complained that America was caught in a false dichotomy between “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” between “academic pedantry and pavement slang.” He called for a middle-ground culture that would fuse intellectual substance with communicative power. In the thirties, the middlebrow became something like a national pastime: symphonic music was broadcast on the radio, literary properties furnished plots for Hollywood A pictures, novels by Thomas Mann and other émigrés were disseminated through the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Middlebrow was a plot, and one common to the cultural wasteland of early 20th-Century America. It was an attempt to have our cake while swallowing it whole, to achieve, as Teddy Roosevelt would put it, the civilized virtues while bitterly clinging to the barbarian ones. Our cultural leaders tried to fit the square peg into the round hole by making the hole bigger, and we have all fallen in.
Thus my contention is that we have no real elite, or at least, none worth admiring or seeking to emulate. If I then profess a defense of elitism, I am left in the position of Admiral Horthy, the Regent-Dictator of Hungary, practicing monarchism without a monarch. Such a position, however, I am determined to argue.
For despite what I may say, I cannot truly blame the pale, disheveled egalitarians pretending to be our elite. What was I expecting of them? They were born from the same soil as me, and Alexis de Tocqueville predicted their path some centuries ago:
Taken as a whole, literature in democratic ages can never present, as it does in the periods of aristocracy, an aspect of order, regularity, science, and art; its form will, on the contrary, ordinarily be slighted, sometimes despised. Style will frequently fantastic, incorrect, overburdened, and loose – almost always vehement and bold. Authors will aim at the rapidity of execution, rather than at perfection of detail. Small productions will be more common than bulky books: there will be more wit than erudition, more imagination than profundity; and literary performances will bear marks of an untutored and rude vigor of thought, frequently of great variety and singular fecundity. The object of authors will be to astonish rather than to please, and too stir the passions rather than to charm the taste.
By a similar token, de Tocqueville explains how democratic science will be practical rather than theoretical, and democratic art more useful than beautiful. These professions, once undertaken with a sense of leisure and devotion, now require a fierce and hungry competition. The aristocratic writer was made by the favorable support of a single lord or bishop; the democratic one must hustle and struggle as one pen among thousands. To cultivate a refined taste is to slit your own throat. Our elite cannot be truly elite; they cannot afford to be.
Elite-ness, to mean anything other than a temporary position of dominance, requires a true separation, an above-ness. The medieval nobility drew their permanence from their control of land, permitting them ease and escape from the vicissitudes of labor and commerce. To rule, like a hawk among lesser birds, was their work.
No such rara avis soars above us today, and it is only with the most romantic of blinders that one could lament its lack. A true elite preys as often as it inspires (perhaps, more often), running the risk of blighting the landscape it must draw from. De Tocqueville understood the dangers of building too high the ramparts that keep out the vulgar:
It will sometimes happen that members of the literary class, living always amongst themselves, and writing for themselves alone, will entirely lose sight of the rest of the world, which will infect them with a false and labored style; they will lay down minute literary rules for their exclusive use, which will insensibly lead them to deviate from common sense, and finally to transgress the bounds of nature.
Given the ease with which our academics would wall off even the word “nature” with protective quotes, preferring the plain speech of the man who has never read Shakespeare to their abused and cowering prose presents small difficulty.
But some reason must explain why Shakespeare’s plays continue to be performed four hundred years after their context has vanished, or accomplished poets like Robert Pinsky can still find a book deal for the nth translation of Homer. I suspect that, as Aristotle might put it, the old tragedies make humans seem grander than they really are. Even Shakespeare’s villains display a mastery that few of the rest of us may hope to attain in our mortal coils.
By that token, most of our popular culture lays out similar themes. Comic book superheroes pay homage to nothing so well as aristocratic notions of privilege and puissance. They fly above us, command the elements, wear capes and personal insignia. In the classic Batman graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, at a moment of complete technological and civilizational breakdown, Batman rides into town on horseback, deputizes street gangs, and proclaims to all within earshot: “Tonight, I am the Law.” Any French Comte who had to ride against Vikings or other raiders would have understood.
Leadership will never not be needed, and leadership will always compel a certain aloofness in those who attempt to practice it, and evoke a certain obeisance in those subject to it. If the foot soldiers of British regiments in the Revolutionary period still preferred that their officers be gentlemen, if the tabloids insist on calling any actor or musician whose career survives a decade an “icon,” if John Kennedy’s afterlife as Martyr of Camelot continues to dwarf his rather paltry political accomplishments, then we may trust that some need to acknowledge rank, of whatever kind or source, remains, un-excised, in the heart of the most radical leveller.
So I say that a real elite may one day come to us, and like the others it will be welcomed for its benefits and punished for its failures. I say so without any real stake in the matter. I cannot maintain absolute fidelity to the refined or the vulgar tastes. Some days I want to learn Black Sabbath riffs and guffaw at basic cable clip shows, others I yearn to copy quotes from Montaigne with a fountain pen while the Brandenburg Concertos dance happily in the background. The habit of our age is to assume that the latter is but an esoteric archaism, but the data do not bear this out. A sturdy Penguin edition of Montaigne’s essays sells well and regularly on Amazon, as do CD’s of Bach. In this our liberated age, anything, even the sophisticated, may find a home.
 Martha S. Richards, The Collins Group, “Wealth in the United States,” http://www.enewsbuilder.net/collinsgroup/e_article000189795.cfm (accessed May 16, 2011).
 Joel Stein “Bring On the Elites!” Time Magazine (Aug 23, 2010)
 Denis Dutton, “Language Crimes: A Lesson in How Not to Write, Courtesy of the Professoriate,” The Wall Street Journal, February 5, 1999
 Jeffrey Goldberg, What’s Your Problem?, Atlantic Monthly, May 2011, 108.
 C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 2nd Ed (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 56.
 Wendell Berry, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” New England Review, 1987
 Mary Grabar, “Writing Teachers: Still Crazy After All These Years,” Minding the Campus, entry posted April 21, 2011, http://www.mindingthecampus.com/originals/2011/04/_after_spending_four.html, (accessed April 22, 2011)
 Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise – Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 261.
 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Richard D. Heffner, 2nd ed (New York: Penguin, 1984), 176-177.
 De Tocqueville, 175.
 Aristotle, Poetics, II.2