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The Trouble with Elitism

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 26, 2011 11:33 PM

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Whether well-groomed or unwashed, almost everyone can agree that elitism is bad. No one, however, can agree about what elitism really amounts to, or about who the elite might actually be. In a recent Globe op-ed, Neal Gabler, a film historian, has railed against the cultural tyranny of "media executives, academics, elite tastemakers, and of course critics"; meanwhile, in the New York Times, film critic A. O. Scott has struck back, pointing to "the corporations who sell nearly everything with the possible exception of classical music and conceptual arts." They, he argued, rather than a bunch of curators, are the cultural elite we ought to be defying.

Now the editors of n + 1 are weighing in. It's hard to imagine a more 'elitist' publication: its editors, for instance, most of whom hail from Harvard, write a column in every issue called "The Intellectual Situation." In their piece, "Revolt of the Elites," the editors argue that the idea of "elitism" is itself misleading. No concept, they write, has "more completely defined and disfigured public life over the last generation" than the concept of elitism.

The n + 1 editors are under no illusions about elitism: it's real, and perpetuated largely, they argue, by America's colleges, which are unbelievably expensive and getting more expensive every year. Those colleges spawn politicians, generals, professors, and titans of industry by the bushel, but, perhaps counterintuitively, it isn't elite power that drives people crazy. The problem elite culture: fancy-schmancy books, movies, music, and art. "When Al Gore said his favorite book was Stendhal’s Red and the Black, this could be boiled down to mean, You know what? I’m an upper-class guy who went to Harvard," they write. "Of course, everyone with power in America is an upper-class guy who went to Harvard. But this isn’t held to be the problem."

Power elitism seems to be okay, probably because it seems meritocratically justified. But why should cultural elitism be so annoying? Because, the editors argue, it seems like a kind of dishonesty, or "bad faith." Consumers of elite culture, "instead of saying I’m pleased with my superior class background... pretend to like boring books, films, and sports." As the editors see it, anti-elitists are often right: they correctly sense that high culture is inextricably tied to social class, and that many people who claim to enjoy highbrow culture are really just enjoying being rich and educated. Without knowing, anti-elitists agree with the French social critic Pierre Bourdieu, who, in his book Distinction, "unmasked 'good' or distinguished, educated taste as so much 'cultural capital,' a mere panoply of status markers."

There are, in short, good reasons to find the practitioners of elite culture annoying. And yet, they argue, the costs of hating the cultural elite are extraordinarily high. In the first place, a culture-focused anti-elitism distracts us from the real elitism we need to worry about: the elitism of "the power elite." And, in the second place, anti-elitism stands in the way of self-improvement. Everyone has a right to improve herself by learning more about the world. And yet anti-elitism "flatters deprivation as wisdom by implying to the uneducated that an education isn’t worth having."

The editors hope for a time when a more egalitarian, "democratic socialist" America encourages people to improve themselves in a class-unconscious way. When class barriers fall, culture can be about enjoyment, not resentment. In this they echo Orwell, who wrote in one of his As I Please columns about his pleasure at finding, during the War, that the iron railings around London's private gardens had been taken down and used as scrap metal:

Many more green spaces were now open to the public, and you could stay in the parks till all hours instead of being hounded out at closing time by grim-faced keepers.... The parks were improved out of recognition by being laid open, acquiring a friendly, almost rural look that they had never had before.

Perhaps the same, the editors seem to suggest, is true of culture generally: bring the barriers down, and Pollack and Schoenberg will seem more welcoming.

That's certainly possible. But part of what culture does is help us to differentiate ourselves from one another. People like different things because people are different. There's no accounting for taste -- no iron law suggesting that, once snobbery is pushed aside, all 'self-improving' people will inevitably come to love Schubert and Kandinsky. The editors seem out of touch with what anti-elitists do, if they're not going to museums and film festivals. "Everyone else in America," they write, "more or less forthrightly confesses that they’re trying to grab as much money as they can, and if somebody has meanwhile forced a liberal education on them, that doesn’t mean they’ve had to like it." In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: for many people, there's more to life than money and MoMA. The fact that someone doesn't love your culture doesn't mean that he doesn't have one of his own.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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