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Monday, October 13, 2003
In a mailing list post, Harm made a connection between my long post on art-under-repression attitudes under freedom and one of his on the California election, saying both were essentially decrying elitism of one form or another. I'll quote the relevant bit (from here):

the operative word is, as mr. humphrey put it, elitism--a basic axiomatic assumption that people don't know their collective ass from the book/movie/cd/ideology they're supposed to consume & therefore said huddled masses need some Direction & Guidance b/c they obviously don't have a clue about what's Really Good for them. which is an overtly & unconscionably totalitarian mindset, except its proponents do a great job @ couching it in faux-populist terminology (chomsky & his many immitators are particularly good at this) like "dominance of the media" or the "tyranny of corporations."

basic point being (which basic point was also glancingly articulated by mr. barthel in one of his recent blog posts) nobody is holding a gun to anybody's head. if one believes e.g. nike is an earthly manifestation of 4th-level hell type avarice, you always have an option BUY ANOTHER BRAND OF FUCKING SHOES. ditto w/r/t consumption of media, art or ideology.

the matter of are-you-willing-to-take-popular-anything-at-face-value-or-not issue is a super-duper fascinating vortex of conflation (a what?) between culture & politics & also an increasingly relevant point of contention; see recent hubbub over ca recall (is it REALLY an exercise of democracy or not) which i've tried to document @ link

I don't want to argue with the substance of his post, necessarily, as I guess I'm trying to stay away from explicitly political stuff nowadays; nevertheless, I do pretty much disagree, both about the recall itself (which I've said before[1]), about ballot initiatives in general (hate 'em, no matter the cause), and about campaign finance reform as something that disenfranchises the affluent--I think CFR is problematic, but mostly because it almost never succeeds at its stated goals and only ends up driving the influence of money on politics more into the shadows, where it's much harder for people (in which I definitely include myself) to find out about it.

Anyway, what I do want to take a small issue with is making the connection between my anti-elitism and his, because I think they're very different. Mine is cultural and his is political. What's the difference? Well, basically, the difference is that politics matters and culture doesn't; politics has a real effect on people's lives. Culture has an impact on people's jobs, sure, but that's an individual-level thing. It doesn't basically regulate their existence like politics does.

It's obvious that I'm an anti-elitist in the cultural realm, where I have a major problem with knee-jerk anti-popism. Taste is important and useful but not absolute; just because you like band X and think you have good taste (a point which I may very well agree with you on) doesn't mean that band X's commercial failure is due to the bad taste or, worse, stupidity of the buying public. Similarly, just because something is well-loved doesn't mean that it's bad, that the supposed vapidity of the masses washes back onto it. Context makes art interesting but not good, and to actually judge a piece of art, you need to remove it from that context to whatever degree you can; and, always, it's more useful to find something good than to find something bad. Indie-kid purism and elitism annoys me to no end.

But I'm also the guy who wrote: "while I'm strongly in favor of finding effective ways for citizens to participate in politics (appearances here to the contrary, perhaps), I'm not one of those morons who thinks that a sophomore politics major has the same authority as Richard Armitage to speak on issues of foreign policy. (Thank you, Noam Chomsky.) Things like experience and knowledge matter; efficacy, in other words, is a factor."

Politics is a process, a factory, a machine: it produces legislation that has an impact on people's lives. If the culture industry produces essentially bon-bons of one flavor or another, politics produces knives and jigsaws and guns and medicine; things that can be very useful, but things that can also kill. And for that reason, I want the people producing those things to be very, very smart at what they do. They have to be good at politics, at governing, at administrating, at the skills required for their position in government. This doesn't make them better than anyone else as people, but it does mean that they have this particular skill instead of other skills. And the fact that I want talented people to govern me means I also want them elected by people who can sense those qualities. I think, to a greater or lesser degree, that works OK right now, but largely because of the kind of things we see going on in the Democratic primary at present: whoever has the best political organizational skills gets the funding, the good staff, the motivated voters; whoever's best at speaking looks good in public. This person then gets submitted to the voters. None of this has to do with the issues, which (hopefully) are what the voters can judge candidates on in the general election. The nominating process is profoundly elitist and, I think, rightly so.

I feel comfortable saying this, especially when you compare the considerations with those surrounding culture. With culture, who suffers if Britney Spears sells instead of the New Pornographers? Some Matador employees, maybe, and possibly Carl Newman, although he seems pretty happy with what he's currently got, as far as I can tell. Would our world, our collective lives, be noticably better if the music we like was the mainstream? (Or if, heaven forfend, we recognized that in part it already is?) But when one candidate beats another, it's bad news for the rich or the poor or hot dog manufacturers or whoever. It has a very real effect on a probably large group of people. Even more important is the fact that sometimes electing the wrong candidate--often for very good populist reasons--can make things worse for almost everyone via a breakdown in civil services or national security or the simple functioning of the government itself. And while I admit that elitism doesn't necessarily prevent these problems, I would contend that it sometimes does, and this very possibility is reason enough to have a far greater tolerance for elitism in politics than in culture. (Of course, this is all predicated on the idea that you think the government is doing better when it's functioning well; many people, including perhaps Harm, would disagree.)

So if you look back to the original post, you'll see a bit where I say the efforts of artists to include the context (real or imagined) of suffering in judgment of their work is not an artistic consideration, but a political one. One of the things I mean by that is that it's eligible for critique. Some musician says their album is a punk album, you can debate whether or not it is, but it doesn't actually matter, and the debate becomes an artistic product in and of itself, another source of enjoyment. Things like claims of repression, however, are intended to have a very real political effect, and as such, it's worth examining whether or not these claims are valid and/or what effect they could have.

At any rate: good post by Harm, and apologies to my music readers for the eruption of semi-political content.

[1] Right below said post is a post about the whole Valerie Plane thing. Hey, remember July? Weird.