Sunday, May 11, 2008

Reflections: Elite Lite

If the current consternation among Democrats – I speak of the quandary presented to many by the necessity of choosing between Hillary and Obama – is indicative of anything, it is indicative of the fact that, with regard to class, we Americans don’t know wtf we are. Our children will grow up confused by the contradictory ways in which we use words to characterize, and thus dismiss as viable choices, our political opponents. Let’s take a look at two words that have acquired significant political weight from being distorted and abused by our peculiarly American form of Newspeak: “middle-class” and “elite.”

As a card-carrying Effete Intellectual Snob, I track the manipulative, merino-herding mischief being done through usage of these terms by the political class back to our loss of the term “bourgeoisie” and its accompanying concepts of quality and class. There was a time when H.L. Mencken could coin the term “booboisie” and score points against his ideological opposition: As a nationally syndicated columnist and book author, he notably attacked ignorance, intolerance, "frauds", fundamentalist Christianity and the "Booboisie," his word for the ignorant middle classes. No more. Today, every American, no matter how grease-stained, no matter how privileged by birth, wants to be considered “middle-class.” The neologisms coming into currency today, deployed by Madison Avenue-trained political consultants of every hue in the political spectrum, are designed to deconstruct the traditional connotations of the words “middle-class” and “elite” in favor of an elusive and illusory concept of egalitarianism which has no stable definition, because it represents no objective reality. This is also what is going on when Hillary Clinton, in her menopausal desperation, tries to label bi-racial, single parent, up-by-his-bootstraps, super-achiever, Barack Obama, as the purveyor of an “elitist” message.

Everybody wants to be middle-class, but nobody wants to be a “bourgeois.” Be that as it may, a bourgeois is nothing other than a member of the middle-class. Accordingly, as the Wikipedia article states: In common usage the term has pejorative connotations suggesting either undeserved wealth, or lifestyles, tastes, and opinions that lack the sophistication of the rich or the authenticity of the intellectual or the poor. It is rare for people in the English speaking world to identify themselves as members of the bourgeoisie, although many self-identify as middle class. To keep things simple, the battered Webster’s pocket dictionary that I got free (along with a thesaurus) for subscribing to Time Magazine many years ago, and still use multiple times-per-day (along the Time subscription lapsed many moons ago), defines “bourgeoisie” as: the social class between the very wealthy and the working class; middle class. Middle class—there you go. The same dog-eared tome defines the adjectival form of “bourgeois” thusly: of the bourgeoisie: used variously to mean conventional, smug, respectable, etc. “Smug,” huh? In other words, to be bourgeois, which is to be middle-class, is to be as Obama has been called “elitist” by Hillary Clinton for allegedly being. As will become clear below, Obama is being accused of acting uppity-classy, as demonstrated by his blatantly middle-classy behavior. Go figure.

It is even more hypocritical when the forces of conservatism who will be backing John McCain throw the word “elitist” around as a pejorative term. Conservatives are not egalitarians and never have been. They represent the interests of the national moneyed, entrepreneurial, social, and cognitive elite and always have. Their American guru, Russell Kirk, says in his seminal work, The Conservative Mind: “I think that there are six canons of conservative thought.”

The third of these six canons reads: Conviction that civilized society needs orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless society.” With reason, conservatives have been called “the party of order.” If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.

So Kirk preaches that egalitarianism is the road to oligarchy. Evidently, then, those at the top of the hierarchy constructed by the free play of those “natural distinctions” are not to be oligarchs. An oligarchy, as defined in part by the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary is: Government by the few: a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes; also : a group exercising such control: an organization under oligarchic control;... . Is not this Kirkian upper-class, if it is not to be the embodiment of an oligarchy, accurately characterized, then, as an elite? Merriam-Webster on-line defines elite as: The choice part: the socially superior part of society: a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence: a member of such an elite;… . Every fan of the NCAA national basketball tournament knows that to make it to the “Elite Eight” is a good thing: “elite” is a positive adjective. And a positive noun. So, when enthusiastically hierarchical conservatives use the word “elite” as pejorative they are cynically and blatantly playing to the cheap seats. Their deployment of this false egalitarianism is nothing but rabble-rousing of the crassest kind.

God help the bleating merinooisie.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Considering who's lining his pockets, "elitist" IS an apt description of Obama

http://www.counterpunch.com/martens05062008.html

The American Left, brought to you by Exxon!

--MS

Rodak said...

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I read it. If that was why Hillary and Rove and company were calling him an elitist, they might have a point.
But it is beside MY point.

William R. Barker said...

"Today, every American, no matter how grease-stained, no matter how privileged by birth, wants to be considered “middle-class.”"

Obviously an exaggeration; yet I get your underlying point.

I blame the MSM for cooperating with the politicians in moving the goal posts to artificially include upper middle class and even the wealthy into the general parameters of "middle classdom."

Basically, to me, when you're at the point where you don't really have to give much thought to whether you can "afford" to go out to a good restaurant basically any day of the week and your vacation options are more limited by available time you can "spare" rather than cost, you're no longer middle class - you're at the next level. (*SHRUG*) Basically... "disposible" income is what separates the classes.

As for the "elites..." (*SHRUG*) That gets a bit tricky. You can be born into great wealth... born into "the elite;" but you can also rise up to become the elite. Also, it's possible to be one (wealthy) without being the other (elite), or vice-versa.

BILL

Rodak said...

I blame the MSM for cooperating with the politicians in moving the goal posts to artificially include upper middle class and even the wealthy into the general parameters of "middle classdom."

Norman Mailer touched on this question in one of the posts I put up around the time of his death. I think that he was right in suggesting that the fundamental issue with wealth in this country is based in its Christian origins. While wealth is in many respects over-valued by Americans, it is, at the same time (and paradoxically) shameful to possess it. It is part of the "cognitive dissonance" of which I wrote earlier.
"Elite" is a related problem in that the pseudo-egalitarianism that is suggested by shame over privilege (be it inherited, or earned) can be manipulated by politicians (here, with the aid of the media) to move the masses to and fro. Virtually anybody in public office can be called "elite."