Democracy & Elitism 3: burning down the straw man, and who are these out-of-touch “liberal elites,” anyway?
Let’s begin with a quick trivia question. What legislator’s Top 20 donor list includes the following?
- Blackstone Group (Financial Services)
- Bain Capital
- FPL Group (Energy)
- DLA Piper (Corporate law firm, representing Global 1,000 and Fortune 500 companies)
- Kindred Healthcare
- Beacon Capital Partners
- Comcast Corp
- Brownstein, Hyatt et al (Corporate law firm)
- Venable LLP (Corporate law firm)
- Hummer Winblad Venture Partners
- Apollo Advisors (Private equity firm)
- River Terminal Development
- Time Warner
We’ll have the answer for you at the bottom.
Now, let’s look at a stereotyping process that’s quite popular these days. I used a term in part two of this series that may be new to you: iconography. In his fantastic new novel, Anathem, Neal Stephenson adapts the term to describe “an oversimplified, and in most cases, wildly inaccurate schema used…to make sense” of the cloistered world of intellectuals at the center of the story’s narrative. These schema often take “the form of a conspiracy theory or an allusion to characters and situations from popular entertainments.”
Stephenson is obviously riffing on a common tendency in our culture, which relies on the simplistic type at every turn. Think about the stereotype of the mad scientist. Or popular depictions of the tranquil-but-lethal kung fu master (one imagines that The Real Monks of Shao-Lin lead far less eventful lives than film or television depictions would lead us to believe). Or the trope of the crooked used car salesman. Or the ambulance-chasing lawyer, or the narcissistic model, or the eggheaded professor who doesn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain. We have clichés for all sorts of types or groups of people, and more often than not these quick, cheap categorizations prevent us from understanding the humans depicted in meaningful ways. That is, iconography is no substitute for character development.
We especially use iconographies to help us deal with types of people that need demonizing.
Meet the Straw Man
Thanks to our popular media and partisan noise machines, the public now has a clear picture of the brie-sucking, hyper-liberal (dare I say socialist) kingmaker conspiring with others of his/her ilk (over a bottle of fine chardonnay) to impose a new Golden Age of Communism on ordinary, God-fearing working folks. (I say noise machines, plural – despite the fact that this phenomenon, in its current incarnation, is a primarily Republican production, we now have muddle-headed progressives reproducing this fictive meme, as well.)
But there are some problems with the Evil Librul Intellectual Elite meme.
First, note that these people all seem to exist in big cities in the Northeast (that’d be New York, the home of Alpha Socialista/She-Demon Hillary Clinton, and the capital of the People’s Republic of Taxachusetts, Boston) or on college campuses. These strange elite enclaves are depicted as alien to “real America,” which seems, in the popular iconography, to correlate with “middle America,” “flyover country,” the “Heartland” or “Red America.” New Yorkers, Bostonians and those who live in college towns apparently aren’t real Americans.
But we might productively argue that you can learn a lot about what’s real and what isn’t by looking at the largest groupings, right? If there are X number of people in location Y and 2X in location Z, it makes no sense to pretend that those in Y are somehow more typical, more authentic and more legitimate representations of the overall population than the citizens of Z.
I’ve lived in New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado, and I’ve visited a majority of the states in the Union. From what I can tell, and for better or worse, no state or region that I’ve visited is more “real American” than any other. Regarding Boston, for instance, I assure you that my neighborhood just around the bay from Southie was extremely real and American.
Second, these evil librul elites are depicted as having massive amounts of money and power. Well, there’s no doubt that some Northeastern liberals have money and power (John Kerry is richer than Croesus, and the Kennedys come to mind, as well). The iconography also depicts this mysterious group as tax-happy in the extreme. There is a grain of truth in here, in that legislators like Kerry and the Kennedys do support higher tax rates than their GOP and Blue Dog Democrat opponents.
But, the straw man makes no coherent sense. The fact is that the policies these elites explicitly support would take lots of money out of their own pockets while lowering taxes on working class people in “real America” – the people that the anti-librul elite iconographies are targeted to. When talk turns to an issue like health care, the stereotypes present us with all sorts of noise about “government control,” which might make more sense if the puppetmasters weren’t already rich enough to have the best care available. In what plausible way is their personal power and wealth enhanced by policies that cost them money and make them powerful corporate enemies?
It’s easy enough to believe that rich and powerful people want more money and power, but what are we to conclude about politico-apocalyptic narratives that lack basic internal consistency?
Remember, motive matters.
While some intellectual elites may have power and money, a vast majority live their lives far removed from wealth or broad influence. More commonly, performance elites have jobs like teacher or professor or social worker or community organizer or non-profit manager. In the corporate world you’re likely to find them in middle-management, and some of them helm small, medium and large businesses. You’ll find them in IT groups everywhere, and you may even find people working with their brains in marketing departments. Some of these knowledge workers do okay financially, to be sure, but as a rule they’ll laugh until their sides hurt at the idea that they have access to disproportionate levels of power.
The point is that our popular stereotype of the liberal socialist power elitist looking to deliver America into the arms of a new Soviet world order is a laughable fiction. In a country with 300 million people, it would be remarkable if you couldn’t find one or two people fitting just about any description, probably, but in reality the image that we’re being asked to buy is an urban legend that can’t withstand even mild scrutiny. Heck, a good hard look at their election donor lists indicates that even the people who seem to fit the stereotype to a T aren’t doing a very good job of threatening Kapitalism.
Which brings us back to our trivia question. Did you figure it out yet? If not, it’s this guy. Right. One of our most visible effete northern socialist liberals.
So, what do we do with stereotypes that simply don’t square with the facts and that ask us to believe the most improbable things about human behavior at every turn?
More importantly, what do we do with the people who keep peddling these implausibilities?
Next: Elitism vs Egalitarianism vs Freedom
Image Credit: Tennessee Guerilla Women
Aw, jeez, you sent me to Kerry’s website. Next time i go through airport security, the TSA is going to think i’m some kind of commie and strip search me like a terrorist.
I don’t understand the “real America” meme. What’s so great about being broke, meth-addled and ignorant? (and for the record i live in the “real America”) Yeah, how’s that for a stereotype…
I’ve also lived in the ghetto of, arguably, America’s roughest city. I don’t see any difference between the trailer ghettos of “real America” and the public housing ghettos of the inner city beyond a lower population density and the color (but not behavior) of the residents. Actually, i feel safer in Detroit than in the cracker ghettos of “real America”, ’cause white people are fucking crazy.
Who would want to be a “real American”? There’s a straw man that deserves the torch more than any other. I’ll stand with the working class any day, but a working class that revels in the shit they’re forced to live with is an affront to the solid working class of old. Most of the things that “real America” blames on the “commie libruls” from the coasts was won by real working men and women who had real pride in who they were and refused to be pushed around by the privileged elite.
Slammy, although you won’t have to know all of Western intellectual history for the test, it’s a bit shameless not to understand the straw man argument when there’s enough Google about it to choke on. Here is Safire in NYTimes on Obama’s use of straw man: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/07/magazine/07wwln-safire-t.html
Happy Pearl Harbor Day!
Tough to admit how much concerns about elitism have colored my past and held me back. (To this day, I still boast about not having a college education.) Great series, Dr. S.
But Russ, you ARE a performance elite. You may not have gone to college but you’ve clearly done a good job of educating yourself (and the issue isn’t where you got the ed, but that you got it). I think it would be nearly impossible for a thoughtful reader to consider your body of work here without concluding that you were an accomplished intellectual.
Be proud of your accomplishments and don’t let those who’d keep you down convince you that you have anything to be ashamed of.
Including yourself. It’s the internalization of those false dichotomies and toxic memes (there, I used the word) that destroys the very people who should show us all how ridiculous those stereotypes are.
This is the real elite, a bundh of diverse thinkers without all the invective and hyperbole that infects many progressive blogs.
Thanks, Sam. And on behalf of all of us, thanks, Jeff.
Let me try this again: you yourself have erected a straw man in the form of supposed right wing grievances against “liberal elites.” As you demonstrate, the phrase which is used so often with tautological obviousness refers to a phenomenon that both logically and empirically can’t and doesn’t exist. But no one of real intelligence doubts that reality is complex and that political convictions are themselves manifestations of human diversity. The problem of elites is the problem of an opaque political process. And when I see Blackstone’s in a list of political donors to Senator Kerry, I feel confident that Blackstone hopes to purchase Senator Kerry’s support for retaining capital gains treatment of hedge fund income. Not that they wouldn’t avow a higher motive.
Let me try this again: you yourself have erected a straw man in the form of supposed right wing grievances against “liberal elites.”
As I understand the term “straw man,” it describes something that doesn’t really exist. What I have done is reproduce things that I have heard said by actual people, and in doing so I have tried, as best I can, to represent those words as accurately as possible. If not actual quotage, I’m trying to provide plausible paraphrase.
So to your charge of straw man, I’d reply “no, composite.”
As you demonstrate, the phrase which is used so often with tautological obviousness refers to a phenomenon that both logically and empirically can’t and doesn’t exist. But no one of real intelligence doubts that reality is complex and that political convictions are themselves manifestations of human diversity. The problem of elites is the problem of an opaque political process. And when I see Blackstone’s in a list of political donors to Senator Kerry, I feel confident that Blackstone hopes to purchase Senator Kerry’s support for retaining capital gains treatment of hedge fund income. Not that they wouldn’t avow a higher motive.
True, true and true, but I’m not sure what your point is. Best I can tell you’re agreeing with me.
Everything is explained by Kerry’s Senate committees.
Larry, you can watch practically any commentator on Fox or listen to practically any conservative talk radio host and hear the words “liberal elite” used in a pejorative sense within minutes. I googled the term in quotes and got 129,000 hits. Clearly, the term exists. Reading parts of just a few of the google hits, it is just as clear that the term is used almost universally to air “right wing grievances,” or what the right seems to think are grievances.
Whether a liberal elite exists or not is immaterial. I think it’s clear to anyone doing enough research that race doesn’t exist in any meaningful way. But that doesn’t make its reality, in the minds of many, a fact. People will act on perception. In those cases, perception becomes reality. It’s certainly worthwhile to examine perception, why it exists, and its root causes. I think that’s what Sam is trying to do here.
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