January 16, 2011

The phantom elite

A.O. Scott, responding to a Neal Gabler essay on “The end of cultural elitism”:

The virtue of Mr. Gabler’s essay is that it gives energetic and eloquent voice to a pervasive ideological fantasy. None of the “commissars” and “imperialists” in his tableau of cultural dictatorship are named, and that is for the simple reason they are imaginary creatures. I don’t mean like straw men erected for purposes of debate, but instead like ogres and dragons invented to scare children. But belief in these monsters is remarkably widespread, in part because they answer the need for scapegoats, and no one is easier to blame these days than “elitists” of various kinds.

Ignoring their instructions thus becomes a heroic assertion of liberty, a way of striking out against illegitimate and arrogant authority. But who are we kidding? There is very little in cultural life that is easier than ignoring what critics have to say, and for more than 200 years normal Americans have been doing just that. And critics, for the most part, have accepted that, since virtually none of us is actually motivated by the urge to tell other people what to do. [...]

There is a cultural elite, in America, which tries its utmost to manipulate the habits and tastes of consumers. It consists of the corporations who sell nearly everything with the possible exception of classical music and conceptual arts, and while its methods include some of the publicity-driven hype that finds its way into newspapers, magazines and other traditional media, its main tool is not criticism but marketing.

And an especially effective marketing ploy has always been the direct appeal, over the heads of supposed experts and fuddy-duds, to the consumer. Make-believe elites—which is to say independent voices in the public sphere, whatever the terms of their employment or the shape of their sensibilities—disrupt the perfect union of buyer and seller. No pesky commissars prodding and scolding, just a bunch of people doing what they want, which coincidentally happens to be what the companies with the biggest advertising budgets want them to do. No argument, no debate, no chance of wiggling through something you don’t like or staring at something you don’t understand. Freedom!

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