Friday, September 30, 2016

What Follows

Subsequent to the first Presidential Debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (which Clinton clearly won, but I doubt that it helped to make up anyone's mind), I thought that it might be illuminating to visit the topic of Elites and Elitists. Here is the Merriam Webster English dictionary definition of the word "elite":

"Noun. Simple definition: the people who have the most wealth and status in a society: the most successful or powerful group of people. Full definition: 1a. the choice part; b. the best of a class; c. the socially superior part of society; d. a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence; e. a member of such an elite."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump likes to use the word elite in the speeches he gives at his rallies. He uses it as a buzz word or - especially as it pertains to his audience - a dog whistle. By its simple definition, however, he definitely belongs in the elite. How this clownish billionaire became a populist hero of the American middle class is another of history's mysteries. Michael Reagan, son of the late president, has speculated that Trump has been listening to alot of conservative talk radio, knows what's on the minds of its listeners and has cleverly shoveled it back at them.

But what Trump is referring to in his speeches is probably the elite in part 1d of the full definition - the "political" elite or the "Washington" elite, which he is campaigning to unseat and supplant. These are the people who failed the American middle class, who work only in the interests of the wealthiest Americans, who sold American industry, and with it the blue collar worker, down the river to Mexico. These are the people who have turned their backs on ordinary white Americans, who are systematically handing America over to immigrants, to Hispanics and Muslims. These are the people who are undermining the Constitution, specifically its First and Second Amendments, that guarantee their freedom to worship whomever and however they please and to bear arms.

But what Trump represents, the movement of which he is the figurehead, is an aspect of a much older cultural trend - a trend away from centers of power or influence and away from paradigms and standards defined and long upheld by a cultural elite. Canons are being deconstructed, old masters (most of them dead white men) are being replaced by new ones (women and people of color). In some respects, this trend is a welcome adjustment to a culture that has moved away from Europe and into the world it once colonized. However much culture used to be based on tradition, to the extent that a greater part of tradition has been exclusive to European ones, such a tradition is necessarily exclusive. T.S. Eliot insisted that tradition does not worship the past, but that it is alive only while it is growing. Eliot, however, was a cultural elitist in the sense that he believed that a society devoid of classes would be the death of culture.

Merriam-Webster offers a quite different definition of the word "elitism":

"Elitism. Noun. 1. leadership or rule by an elite; 2. the selectivity of the elite especially snobbery; 3. consciousness of being or belonging to an elite. Elitist. Noun or adjective. being or characteristic of a person who has an offensive air of superiority and tends to ignore or disdain anyone regarded as inferior."

One of the antonyms of elitist is "democratic," which certainly makes it plain that a cultural elitist is not inclusive or egalitarian.

The demography of the people who are most likely to support Donald Trump is quite telling. He or she is more likely to be white, middle class, over the age of 35 and not having a college degree. The last part is the most sticky. The better-educated a person is, it appears, the less likely he is to follow Trump. The people who support Trump claim to feel left out, passed over by the Great Recovery. As outsiders, they would like nothing more than to see the system that excluded them demolished. And more than one observer has likened Donald Trump to a "wrecking ball."

As a critic, I have acquired a rather different understanding of - and attitude toward - the word "elitist." To me, an elitist is someone who holds everything to the highest standard. If the purpose of art is to illuminate the souls of human beings, the best art is the kind that is most effective in its illuminations. But critics - the good ones anyway - aren't well-liked by the public because it doesn't seem to them that critics admit to liking very many books, plays or films. Recently, the fans of the film Suicide Squad, which is the latest run of the comic book movie mill, tried to access the movie review website called Rotten Tomatoes innumerable times in an attempt to shut it down. The fans were upset that a majority of film critics reviewed Suicide Squad negatively. Unfortunately, such films as Suicide Squad are proof against the influence - and the very existence - of criticism. Fans make the common mistake of confusing what they like and what is good. This is why I've often accused so many critics of being little more than fans themselves.

As T.S. Eliot went on to point out: "We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were 50 years ago [this was written in 1948]; and that the evidence of this decline is visible in every department of human activity."(1)

The appearance of Donald Trump as a candidate for president is certainly indicative of the decline about which Eliot was writing. I've written before about Barack Obama's unfavorable image with many Americans, who think he is too "professorial." In other words, they don't seem to want a president who is - or seems to be - smarter than they are. American presidents have sometimes had to simplify, or coarsen, their oratory so that the stupidest spectator or listener won't be reminded of their stupidity. Lyndon Johnson, for instance, always told his advisors and speech-writers to limit themselves to one or two syllable words. Johnson, who was evidently more intelligent than his southern fried image made him out to be, took pains to assure his public that he was as dumb as they were.

Trump has taken Johnson's practice to a new depth. It's probable that he isn't nearly as stupid as his outrageous slogans, that the target of his rabble-rousing is an actual rabble of ill-educated middle class whites, fearful that their country is slipping out of their grasp. What they don't seem to grasp is that it slipped away ages ago.

I remember being harangued in 1992 by a silent type Navy first-class draughtsman (his rate - or MOS) about how elections should be about character, not personality. That's why Bill Clinton, of zero character but heaps of personality, could have defeated George H. W. Bush. History would have a different story to tell if character were the considering factor in elections. Jimmy Carter, for example, would've been re-elected in 1980. Bill Clinton would never have been elected, which would've spared us the unavailing spectacle of Hillary's will to power. Trump would still have television.

(1) T.S. Eliot, Notes Toward a Definition of Culture.

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