Saturday, February 12, 2011

palin and the cultural elites

Even a blind squirrel, rooting about desperately for food, bumps into an acorn on occasion. In this case, that squirrel is the former governor of Alaska. 

Sarah Palin is correct to observe that there is a cultural elite in the United States opposing her and her followers. Yuval Levin described the problem succinctly two years ago: "Palin’s cultural populism put her at odds with the foe that did her the most serious damage: the nation’s intellectual elite, whose initial suspicion of her deepened into outright loathing as the campaign progressed. Her inability in interviews to offer coherent answers about the Bush Doctrine, regulatory reform, and the Supreme Court’s case history, together with her unexceptional academic record and the fact that she had spent almost no time abroad, were offered as evidence that Palin represented a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism on the Right."

By these measures, Mrs. Palin lacked what George W. Bush lacked before her--cultural capital. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defined cultural capital as knowledge, condensed in the symbol of the university diploma. Cultural capital is not equivalent to economic capital, but it can be exchanged for it, as degree-holders expect their salaries to rise with their credentials. 

On the whole, liberal arts education has prided itself on producing opposition to the economic values of capitalism. More than anyone, students and professors in the humanities have claimed that devotion to interpreting the great works of art and philosophy produces true knowledge about human nature and disposes persons to more ethical modes of behavior. But the entanglement of the systems of distributing cultural and economic capital is not easily overlooked. 

Like the possessors of economic capital, the holders of cultural capital have gatekeepers to patrol the boundaries of their exclusive grounds. If you don't know the right people, you won't be invited to the State dinner, the boardroom, or the golf outing where business deals will be made. If you are a person who says "stutting" instead of "studying"--or "aks" and not "ask"--you won't be in the classroom with the children of the titans of industry...except perhaps as a custodian, nanny, or entertainer.

It is interesting, then, that one finds the guardians of Culture reaching for economic metaphors to describe differences in cultural value. Consider this example of the many knee-jerk reactions to an article concerning the acquisition of Maya Angelou's papers by the Schomburg Library:  "If you cannot name a poet other than Maya Angelou and you think she's absolutely wonderful, your opinion doesn't mean much. I'm glad she makes you happy, but, again, your opinion means little if you can't put it into a context outside of yourself. It's no different from declaring one's love for Hershey bars having never eaten another brand of chocolate."

I am not a great advocate of all of Angelou's writing, but I believe that she has made some important contributions to dance, letters, and politics in the US and the African diaspora. If for no other reason than that her papers contain correspondence with James Baldwin and Malcolm X, their arrival at the nation's premiere library for African-American research would be a good thing. 

As I saw something that I found valuable trashed without any investigation, I began to empathize with the way Sarah Palin and her advocates must feel. While I can never agree with their vision for the country, I can relate to the experience of being denigrated as culturally inferior. If the wealthy person does not deign to dine with subordinates, the cultural elite refuses to eat that which is mass produced. The overlap can be uncanny... and unsettling. I may not be in the economic elite in this country, but I have been conscripted to join the cultural elite by virtue of my liberal arts education.

I would imagine it never occurred to the woman who hated Oprah's Book Club and Hershey's chocolate how class-specific her argument was. You like Hershey's? My God, how can you stand that mass-produced concoction? I bring back one box from Switzerland after my annual ski trip to the Alps. It's the only chocolate I can stand!

I noticed the same condescension when I heard people criticizing former President Bush (43) for never traveling abroad and lauding candidate Obama for his extensive international career. I believe there are important ethical differences between the two presidents, but the same would be true when comparing President Bush to Michelle Obama, who spent her childhood and early adulthood on the US mainland. To assume that travel is simply a measure of the extent of one's intellectual curiosity ignores that some haven't the means to travel, wish to stay close to loved ones, or participate in local activism. 

Besides, the travel of the tourist and that of the migrant worker are entirely different. Who has seen more of the variety of the world: a scion of wealth who has traveled internationally but stayed only in posh hotels or a domestic who travels the entire length of the social ladder every time she leaves her home in the slums to go to his estate? To assume that expertise is lodged in the former because he is well-traveled and conventionally articulate would be a grave mistake. 

Well, I am not sure that there is a clear way out of elitism, but I do think it is time that all of us in the preponderance of liberals in the liberal arts confront that the academy works within (and sometimes in the service of) a capitalist system. We are not speaking from a pure position beyond it, nor are the ways that we determine membership less tilted in favor of the already-haves. A liberal academic (and I am using the term very loosely to encompass a range from centrist Democrats to doctrinaire Marxists) tends to feel like the only righteous person in the world. Robber barons are above us on the economic scale. We chastise them for their lack of ethical scruples. Philistines are beneath us on the cultural scale: the poor dupes who, it would seem, vote Republican because they don't read Dostoevsky or don't understand post-structuralist theories of subject formation. Despite this noble image of our standing, alone, against the crushing weight of these opposing forces, we are not innocent. We are not beyond the economic system. 

The university colludes with the strategy of restricting social mobility in its very role as guardian of credentials. Those who are not well-positioned to pass standardized tests and speak standard English are unlikely to even make it to college, the supposed domain of the liberal elite. Consequently, the leftie/Commie/pinko/queers at your local university are doing far less to overturn capitalism and redistribute wealth than they (or you) might think. 

I would like to see a version of education that was not involved in creating distinctions of taste but inspiring a shared sense of responsibility to find out about each other and, thereby, do better by each other. That kind of ethic and curiosity should be a shared right because it has become a shared responsibility. 

My friend JMA was talking tonight about an absence of love in the world. The novelist Milan Kundera says that "love is a continual interrogation" of the other person. That means that when I have run out of questions, I have run out of love. If I have no questions, I have exhausted my care and concern. The challenge, then, is not simply to be interesting--which so many of us try so hard to do--but to be interested.


  1. I say all this realizing that it could mean I have to pay some modicum of attention to Lady Gaga's new song--realizing that I am not suited to such a task, antiquarian elitist that I am. But, I also realize that if I can't find something to say in response--and something more productive than simply damning it--then I am fully complicit in the problem of cultural elitism. At the least, I need to be open to being shown something in it that excites my curiosity and use it as a chance to excite that in others.

  2. This was refreshing to read, especially from an academic. I feel that I see things I find valuable "trashed without any investigation" constantly, and, unfortunately, this seems to create a cycle. Upon reflection of my own, I realized that I wouldn't defend Palin so much if I weren't seeing her be ridiculed every time she opens her mouth. The same would apply to how I view W and Obama. Bush was viciously attacked (sometimes) unfairly. Therefore, I not only defended him even when I felt less than passionately about what he was doing, but I also find myself laying blame on Obama when it is (sometimes) undeserved. While it's fun to be able to say "Now how do you like it?" to the liberals as I and a large portion of the country lambaste their hero, it's definitely an unfortunate way to conduct public discourse.

  3. Thank you for your comment, Scott. I especially appreciate your candid confession about the way point-scoring for one's own team can override one's true convictions.

    It seemed, though, that you were suggesting that elitism was the province of liberals, who you suggest are a minority in opposition to you "and a large portion of the country." As I see it, there are at least two types of condescension -- economic and cultural. They are distinct from each other and tend to fluctuate. That is, there isn't a fixed relationship in which "liberals" always wield elitism against humble conservatives. That does happen, but the right has its Marie Antoinette moments, as well. (I'm thinking of the Bushes following Hurricane Katrina).

    So the problem of elitism seems to me to be larger than party politics, which is only one ground on which it plays out. This blog was an attempt to name and consider solutions to this problem. Thank you, again, for contributing to that.

  4. "If you cannot name a poet other than Maya Angelou and you think she's absolutely wonderful, your opinion doesn't mean much."

    This is how I feel about music. Like what you like, but if you can't get down to jazz or another medium that is without a vocal melody, then I don't respect your opinion. I also recognize that I'm a bit of a music snob myself (however, I respect Lady Gaga's talent, even if I don't dig her music).

    I think Palin is a much easier target than Bush. Yes, we laughed at Bush when he'd mess up on camera, but I feel as though he was much less visceral in how he spoke to opposing individuals (assuming of course those individuals were American patriots). I think Palin's tone, more so than her background, is what got her into trouble.

    Even as elitist, you'll find smart (notice I didn't say intelligent as there is a difference) individuals who are aware of their intelligence and will try to down play that as much as possible so as to value an opposing person's opinion...even if that person and his/her opinion is less educated. However, people can still be defensive in nature. And when Palin spoke the way that she did, it was all too easy to attack her as elitist would.

    And so while I agree elitism may have a degenerative effect (at least I think that's what you're saying) on societies, I don't have much sympathy for Palin. Once your open your mouth, your subject to criticism. I know this all too well as a blogger.

  5. Thank you, again, for reading, BG. We must be intellectual kin, because I love jazz (and I don't mean Kenny G--who I don't care for--or Anita Baker--whom I love). You'll have to enlighten me on Gaga's talent because I'm not currently sure what it is. The songs from her most recent album aren't bringing anything new to the table... they sound like bad techno to me. But I am happy to learn to listen.

    I don't think there's as much a problem with being a snob (a music snob or any other kind) as there is with not recognizing that one is a snob. (And using "one" instead of "you" is a sure sign of being snobby or at least prissy about language, lol).

    In advertising this blog, I described it as emanating from a "fit of sympathy" for Palin. LIke any fit, it passed. But I think what caused the fit, and what remains, is my understanding that everyone's culture is worthless and meaningless to somebody. Jazz spent half a century as "low" music and only started to receive recognition as a "classic" genre beginning in the late 60s. So, rather than looking down on music forms I find thin, unsophisticated, and boring, I just try to ignore them while keeping an open mind that someone might teach me how to appreciate them.

  6. First, I would just like to acknowledge my "your" typos...twice. Yikes. (For the record, I am not a writer. English is not my strong suit)

    About Lady Gaga, my brother really liked her and showed me this Youtube clip where she was playing a version of "Poker face" with just the piano. It was dope. She is immensely talented. She writes and arranges her own music, and anyone that can do that to me is talented, even if I don't enjoy it.

    I respect Gaga, but I don't listen to her. However, she's a musician, and she needs to get paid. So, she makes music that sells. At some point, I plan to blog my thoughts about contemporary American music (particalurly that which is targeted to a black or "urban" audience), in an aptly, snobbish piece entitled "I like ignorant music...because I am ignorant", with the premise that people need to finish their sentences. They always leave that last part out :)

    And Jazz is soooo dope. I've got a rack of vinyls I've yet to listen to, but right now I'm currently distracted by my South African house tunes from Pretoria that were introduced to me.