Thursday, December 17, 2009

Proletarianization of the Elites and the Sarah Palin Phenomenon

Jonah Goldberg, Editor at Large at the conservative National Review Online (NRO), has an interesting piece on Reality TV and the decay of American culture. I actually find myself largely agreeing with Goldberg on the point, but then, again, I am what Goldberg and many other conservatives would probably call an effete liberal intellectual -- no matter that I come from a very working-class, blue collar family. What I find interesting about Goldberg's piece is that it serves as a very critical commentary precisely on the Sarah Palin phenomenon, even though I don't think Goldberg himself is aware of this critique. Take this critical passage from Goldberg's piece:

British historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilizations thrive when the lower classes aspire to be like the upper classes, and they decay when the upper classes try to be like the lower classes. Looked at through this prism, it’s hard not to see America in a prolonged period of decay.

It’s not all bad news, to be sure. The elite minority’s general acceptance of racial and sexual equality as important values has been a moral triumph. But not without costs. As part of this transformation, society has embraced what social scientist Charles Murray calls “ecumenical niceness.” A core tenet of ecumenical niceness is that harsh judgments of the underclass — or people with underclass values — are forbidden. A corollary: People with old-fashioned notions of decency are fair game.

Long before the rise of reality shows, ecumenical niceness created a moral vacuum. Out-of-wedlock birth was once a great shame; now it’s something of a happy lifestyle choice. The cavalier use of profanity was once crude; now it’s increasingly conversational. Self-discipline was once a virtue; now self-expression is king.

Reality-show culture has thrived in that moral vacuum, accelerating the decay and helping to create a society in which celebrity is the new nobility.
I'm pretty sure that many Palinite conservatives would see Palin herself and the Palin phenomenon as one that represents the corollary fallout to what he calls "ecumenical niceness": Palin and Palinite conservatism represents "old fashion notions of decency" that are now fair game for a vicious assault. But anyone who looks more expansively at what underlies Sarah Palin's popularity and the Palinite movement would notice that it is really one that seeks to make "harsh judments of the underclass - or people with underclass values" verboten. In other words, any criticism of the cultivated anti-intellectualism, the utter lack of curiosity about the world, and the overall ignorance of "real Americans" is nothing more than elite snobbery. The Palinite movement is one where wearing one's ignorance on one's sleeve is a badge of honor.

How can one not look at the GOP's embrace of Joe-the-Plumber this past Presidential campaign season as a direct representation of the conservative upper-class trying to be like the lower-class? Of course, the conservative upper-class elites fool themselves into thinking that what they really are embracing is the fundamental goodness of "real America." But what I see are the conservative elites (i.e. witness just about any Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity show) cynically and intentionally stoking the lower-classes and romanticizing their lower-class values such that the conservative lower-classes actually look with disdain on things like a university level-education, a white collar job, articulate public speaking, etc. And yet it appears that Goldberg himself agrees with Toynbee that such a phenomenon indicates a society in decay.

And there is no better manifestation of this than Sarah Palin. Listen to how her supporters describe her appeal. They say she's a "real" person. She connects with the "common" person (which is shorthand for the non-elites). They tend to either dismiss as irrelevant, or actually glory in the fact, that Sarah Palin doesn't read newspapers or travels abroad or barely got a college degree. And though the whole "out-of-wedlock" birth with Bristol Palin is presented by Sarah Palin as an unfortunate occurrence that will make life harder for Bristol and her son, there is no "shame" reflected here. Maybe disappointment. But not shame.

Jonah Goldberg puts forward the idea that a society where celebrity is the new nobility is a sign of that society's moral decay. I ask: How does the Palin phenomenon not serve as a perfect example of this? And it's the Palinite conservative movement that is actively promoting this as a value. Worse, though, is the fact that it is the conservative upper-class elites, which Goldberg clearly represents, who are nurturing and even glorifying the Palin phenomenon. In essence, if we make the connection Goldberg would have us make, it is the conservative upper-class elites themselves who are both celebrating and hastening along, through their embrace of the Palin phenomenon and their encouragement of the Palinite movement, that which contributes to the moral decay of our society: the proletarianization of the elites. And it's not just the reality shows that are encouraging this, but also, I'd say, the Fox News talking heads shows led by the likes of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity as well as the histrionics of the National Review Online that Jonah Goldberg himself oversees.


Eric said...

I'll admit that, while not being nearly bad enough to make me switch sides, the culture and class warrior aspect of the conservative movement is perhaps my least favorite favorite part of it.

But, I also think part of the problem is with liberals (and some conservatives) who equate "not as well versed as I" with "anti-intellectual", and who equate "not as curious about the same worldy things as I" with "utterly uncurious about the world". And also who equate "not as able as I to fluidly express their knowledge" with "they have no knowledge."

This kind of thinking flies in the face of many people's everyday experiences. A redneck oilfield welder who has to figure out on his own how connect two 60' lenghts of pipe together at a precise 17 degree angle is acutely aware of the fact that he's probably dealing with tougher intellectual problems than 90% of our politicians, and he doesn't have the benefit of being able to speculate or flat-out lie about the viability of his proposed solution. So when he hears liberal TV pundits pooh-poohing on his ability to think, you better believe it is taken personally.

The same guy may have invested thousands of hours of his life, during his 'spare time', to learn how to plant and harvest a thick crop of alfalfa or bermuda grass to feed to his small herd of cows, which he has also spent decades improving by tiny little increments, carefully and deliberately weighing the value of each genetic trait he introduces to the herd every breedig season.
He's probably more connected to the earth and conscious of the dynamic activity of the life that goes on within and above it than 9 out of 10 people walking the streets, but he picks up a magazine and reads that because he doesn't know or care much about situaton in Rwanda then he is utterly uncurious about the world, and you can bet he takes it personally.

Bush is a good example. By all accounts, he probably read twice as many books during his presidency as you and I put together, Huck, but I'd bet he is a person you would call anti-intellectual and utterly uncurious.
You and I can agree that he was a horrible president, but it wasn't because of a lack of intellect, it was because of a lack of guiding principals. Obama is headed down the same path.

So when you are thinking about the "brain-dead conservative" movement and their culture wars, just remember... it takes two to tango. Much of the rhetoric on the conservative side is a reaction to expletives, slights, and ad hominem attacks that have been hurled at them by people who's only real complaint is that when conservtives engage their intellect they arrive at different conclusions.

Huck said...

Eric - All extremely fair and good points. I don't disagree with you. Just a couple of response comments. You write:

But, I also think part of the problem is with liberals (and some conservatives) who equate "not as well versed as I" with "anti-intellectual", and who equate "not as curious about the same worldy things as I" with "utterly uncurious about the world". And also who equate "not as able as I to fluidly express their knowledge" with "they have no knowledge."

True. Liberal and conservative elites do need to be careful about generalizing and misrepresenting practical or experiential knowledge as qualitatively distinct from and inferior to -- for lack of a better term -- "intellectualism." In all honesty, I probably have a tendency in this direction. But I come from a background where this practical or experiential knowledge is very much alive. Neither of my parents graduated high school (though they did both get their GEDs). My father is an electrician who ultimately ran the family electrical contracting business that my grandfather (also only educated through high school) started. My mother has worked exclusively in clerical roles. And I acknowledge and respect the experiential wisdom (and the inherent intelligence) of both of them. So I do try to acknowledge that. But, I should say that I am not really talking about this. I am talking about those who really do glorify ignorance, incuriosity, and inarticulateness as somehow qualitatively better as a character trait, even if as a perceived character trait, than what I might call formal learnedness. I think this is what Jonah Goldberg is talking about when he quotes Toynbee about lower classes aspiring to be like the upper classes as the hallmark of a thriving civilization, and where the reverse (upper classes trying to be like the lower classes) leads to societal decay. I can understand some of the criticism against the elitist intellectualism that comes from the "real" American, but I have no patience, coming out of the background that I do, for when such criticism converts to a disdain for intellectualism period. It's like folks who chafe at elite intellectual snobbery decide to cut their nose off to spite their face and glorify NOT reading newspapers and think that going to college is corrupting of "real American" values. The potential overreaction on your part here, I think, is to pretend that a lot of folks with life experience (which all of us have, by the way) aren't uncurious about the world, aren't ignorant, and don't value the ability to articulately express their thoughts. And these people exist. I know some of them. They are in my extended family. (cont...)

Huck said...

Let me flip your reference to George W. Bush back on you to show my point here. I know that George W. Bush is not dumb. I've seen video clips of him when he was Governor of Texas where his sharp mind and ability to express complex thoughts in digestible ways was clearly on display. So, though I don't know how many books Bush read while he was President, I have no reason to doubt your claim. But, the fact that he "dumbed himself down" reveals something to me about Bush that gets to the heart of the problem -- and is the perfect example of what Goldberg, via his Toynbee reference, is indicating. I don't think GW Bush is a fool by virtue of a lack of ability or knowledge or intellectual capacity, I think he is a fool because he chose to consciously play the fool when he didn't have to and had the ability not to. He didn't encourage people who had practical and experiential wisdom, if not formal learning, to aspire to something more; he basically told them (and all of us) by his cultivated "real American" persona not only that what they had was good enough, but that there was actually value in being uncurious, formally unlearned, and inarticulate. The difference that I see between Bush and Sarah Palin is that Bush "dumbed himself down" to connect with this, whereas Sarah Palin IS this. Partly why I loathe Sarah Palin and Palinite conservatism so much is that I think she actually insults the experiential and practical wisdom of people like those you gave in your examples as well as like my parents that propelled them to value intellectualism, formal learning, articulate expression, and to make sure that I could get it. In fact, she insults me because I managed to rise above my "station" by embracing more than just the practical and experiential wisdom I could have obtained by working as an electrician in the family electrical business. To "aspire to the upper classes" so-to-speak. And I would imagine that this might partly account for why even a fair number of conservatives (and I'd even include you in this number) have some reservations about her.