In Praise of Elitism: Obama studies 101

Everyone keeps telling us what a brilliant orator B. H. Obama is. I don't see it. Maybe you have to be there and witness the performance in propria persona to feel the magic. Maybe (though we cannot say it) there's just a whiff of Dr. Johnson's dog about the enthusiasm. But on the page, anyway, Obama is pretty flat. Sloppy, too. Consider the now-infamous bitter-small-town guns and God routine from April 11:

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not.

“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Charity prevents me from scrutinizing this syntactic train wreck too closely. But I would like to object to the response it elicited--both the response from the punditocracy, whose countenance contracted in a single brow of woe to castigate Obama's "elitism," and Obama's response to the response, which has been a set of variations on the Prufrockian theme "That's not what I meant at all./ That's not it, at all."

Let me first say a word about "elitism." When was it that "elitist" broke free and became an all-purposive negative epithet--a little semantic stink-bomb that, emptied of any definite meaning, is almost as potent as "racist" in bringing discussion to a grinding halt and clearing a room? William Henry, in his unfairly neglected book In Defense of Elitism (1994), speculates that the great change came "somewhere along Bill Clinton's path to the White House." By the mid 1990s, Henry observed, "The very word, used as a label, seems to be considered enough for today's rhetoricians to dismiss their opponents as defeated beyond redemption."

I should point out that, unlike me, William Henry was not a knuckle-dragging, right-wing fascist hyena. Indeed, he was not a hyena of any kind, but, on the contrary, was a life-long Democrat whose heroes included Hubert Humphrey, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., etc. Nevertheless, Henry understood that by enrolling "elitism" in the politically correct index prohibitorum verborum, one effectively condemns oneself to the cognitive dissonance of perpetual mendacity. The political philosopher Harvey Mansfield once spoke of "the self-evident half-truth that all men are created equal." It is a politically expedient fiction as well as a judicial ideal. (It is curious, though, that anti-elitist partisans of equality draw the line at legal equality: when it comes to justice, what they want is not dispassionate evenhandedness but a certain predetermined outcome.) In the realm of talent and achievement, however, the ideology of equality is a fantasy, and a dangerous one at that. Henry dilated tartly on

the simple fact that some people are better than others--smarter, harder working, more learned, more productive, harder to replace. Some ideas are better than others, some values more enduring, some works of art more universal. Some cultures, thought we dare not say it, are more accomplished than others and therefore more worthy of study. Every corner of the human race may have something to contribute. That does not mean that all contributions are equal. . . . It is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose.

True, too true, but hardly the sort of the your common or garden-variety Dean of Diversity would look kindly upon.

The point is that reality is elitist. Failure to acknowledge that might make you feel kinder, gentler, etc., but at the significant cost of living a lie.

The ineluctability of elitism is why I rankled at the description of Obama's bitter-small-town-guns-and-God comment as elitist. It was smug; it was self-righteous; it was blinkered, bigoted, emotionally impoverished, and otherwise odious; it but it was not in any normal sense of the word "elitist." I do not live in Pennsylvania. But I do live in a small(ish) town; I think the Second Amendment is a vital prophylactic against the untoward prerogatives of state power; and I'd sooner "cling" to religion than the hectoring, welfare-state, just-let-us-tell-you-how-to-live-your-life directives dispensed by Michelle and Barrack Obama. But what bothers me about such directives is not their elitism but their arrogance.

Indeed, for connoisseurs of political savvy, perhaps the most disturbing thing about Obama's mini-diatribe was the contrast it revealed between the oleaginous, feel-your-pain evangelism of hope he has on an infinite playback loop and the disabused arrogance that crackles just beneath the burnished, campaign-trail mask.

The moral? Well, there is at this this one positive thing to come out of Obama's statement: we now possess, much more precisely than before, some measure of the contempt in which Obama holds most Americans. Obama knows this, and he doesn't like it. Which is why his replies to the widespread criticism of his remarks are instructive. "I didn't say it as well as I should have," he objected a day or two ago. But that was completely disingenuous. He said it plenty well. When Mr. Blotton, in Dickens's Pickwick Papers, asserts that Mr. Pickwick is a "humbug," there would have been tears before bedtime had not a quick-thinking member of the Pickwick Club asked whether Mr. Blotton had used "humbug" in "its common sense."

'Mr. Blotton had no hesitation in saying that he had not--he had used the word in its Pickwickian sense. (Hear, hear.) He was bound to acknowledge that, personally, he entertained the highest regard and esteem for the honourable gentleman; he had merely considered him a humbug in a Pickwickian point of view. (Hear, hear.)

'Mr. PICKWICK felt much gratified by the fair, candid, and full explanation of his honourable friend. He begged it to be at once understood, that his own observations had been merely intended to bear a Pickwickian construction. (Cheers.)'

And so it was with Obama's bitter, small-town, gun-toting, God-fearing, xenophobic, unemployed isolationists. Really, he says now, he meant all that in a Pickwickian sense. What do you think? I think we all know exactly what he meant. He meant that he regarded most Americans as bitter, small-town, gun-toting, God-fearing, xenophobic, unemployed isolationists who needed help. That is bad enough. Even worse, however, is the disgusting pretense that he actually meant something more emollient. Most of us have gotten used to being treated with contempt by politicians. But Obama has upped the ante. It isn't pleasant. But it is, at any rate, useful to know just how stupid he thinks we are. I for one will not forget it.