In Defense of Elitism

Deliverance is making a comeback. The 1970 novel, which became an award-winning 1972 film, is one of the most pungent defenses of elitism ever committed to paper and film. A new novel by Erica Ferencik, The River at Night, is basically a retelling of Deliverance, this time with four female leads. In both versions, a group of four urban elites go on a rafting trip that brings them into disastrous contact with the supposedly dark, illiterate forces of outback America. Looking for adventure, they instead find filth, inbreeding, and sexual assault. It’s rural populist America as toothless horror show.

The River at Night is a timely recasting, as America has entered a period of feverish anti-elitism. According to the new populist conservatism led by Donald Trump, elites are responsible for most of the problems in the world, from the budget deficit to a surfeit of lousy movies. In one sense, Trump’s populist revolt was a long time coming. For decades, liberals in Washington and the entertainment industry have mocked and derided Middle America, condemning guns without knowing any gun owners, condemning anyone—no matter how well-intentioned—who had questions about transgenderism as a bigot, and filling movies with left-wing agitprop. Trump was a resounding rejection of such elitism.

Yet Trumpism itself has become a kind of elitism—an anti-elite elitism. For much of the twentieth century it was considered praiseworthy for people from all places and classes to try to improve themselves by exposure to great novels, fashion, and classical music, as well as speaking well. According to Russell Lynes, in 1949 there were three classes of cultural appreciation: highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow. These categories effectively broke down tastes in music, dress, drinks and civil organizations. Highbrows liked museum art, wine and literary magazines. Middlebrows enjoyed musical movies, more casual clothes, and book club selections. Lowbrows wore old army clothes, read comic books, and listened to the jukebox. But there was also movement among the three categories—a person who liked pulp fiction could also read The Iliad, and fans of Hollywood westerns (lowbrow) might be coerced into attending the theater (upper-middlebrow) or even the ballet (highbrow). Conversely, a red wine connoisseur could occasionally enjoy a cold beer at the local tavern.

At some point in recent history, however, this kind of cultural aspiration became suspect. The 1960s saw a widespread rebellion against bourgeois aspiration; casual dress, comic books and pop music were valorized over Beethoven and Thomas Mann. The movement all began to flow in one direction, from high and middlebrow to pop culture. By the 1970s and 1980s, one of the recurring plots on sitcoms was the snob getting his or her comeuppance at the hands of the blue collar protagonist; the show Cheers built an entire relationship, the romance between bartender Sam and snob Diane, around this trope.

Trump is the end point of this decline. Anti-elitism has become its own form of elitism. Between the ideology of the left and the boorishness (and racism and anti-Semitism) of the alt-right, there’s only one brow: the lowbrow. In this culture, a person with good manners who reads challenging novels and attempts to appreciate classical music is not someone to emulate; she’s a member of the suspect class. A man who refuses to use vulgar language to refer to a woman, even if that woman is the world’s most hectoring feminist, is a “cuck” who is willingly sinking under the oppression of political correctness (in my view, calling a woman the c-word is a form of cowardice, not politically incorrect boldness). When the dapper conservative intellectual George Will called out populist blowhard Bill O’Reilly for some bad reporting, O’Reilly blew up and called Will “a hack.”

Just a few short years before the O’Reilly era, it was possible to find populist figures who had a touch of the elitist in them. Charles Bukowski, the great, hard-drinking poet of the streets, was passionate about classical music; Ronald Reagan, an actor, appreciated the arts and quoted from his reading of books such as Whittaker Chambers’ Witness. Conservative founding father William F. Buckley was arguably the most erudite and educated journalist of his generation. Can you honestly say that narcissist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulis has anything approaching Buckley’s civility and insight?

In an insightful 2014 piece in the New York Times, novelist Thomas Mallon lamented the end of the aspirational sectors of culture—highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow—in favor of a kind of ubiquitous, bland populism. “In the end,” Mallon wrote, “we’re all better off with a republic of letters, not a democracy. No amount of mindless ‘liking’ or one-star customer-comment scorn can replace the lengthier, more considered critical judgments we used to have time to write and read. With everyone clamoring for recognition in the same ether—with everyone now, in effect, his own publisher—our judgments are ever less nuanced, ever more nasty or stupidly appreciative. Speed is imperative, and rumination is out.” Mallon is right, and our abandonment of cultural standards comes at a cost—in political discourse, in artistic output, and, perhaps most importantly, in thoughtful, civil interaction. As Mallon argued, “The brow that’s really in danger of disappearing is the furrowed one.”

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  • Mike Toreno

    “When the dapper conservative intellectual George Will called out populist blowhard Bill O’Reilly for some bad reporting, O’Reilly blew up and called Will “a hack.””

    Will is a hack. O’Reilly is also a hack, but actually Will is probably a worse hack than O’Reilly. In 1979, Will wrote a column deriding the movie “The China Syndrome,” a fictional story about a nuclear power plant accident, saying it painted a completely false picture and was intended to whip up hysteria.

    Before the ink even dried on the column, the Three Mile Island accident happened.

    Will then wrote another column, saying he was still right, even though a real accident had just unfolded that was uncannily similar to the events portrayed in the movie.

    So yes, Will is certainly a hack. All right-wing journalists are hacks, I guess. Whether someone is a hack or not depends on what he does, not on whether he’s being called a hack by a hack.

    What he’s not is dapper. He is a grown man that wears a bow tie.

  • C. D. Carney

    I don’t like the word alt-right. I had been following politics since Bill Clinton was elected and I honestly had never heard it before late last year and suddenly it was like gravitas! Everyone who wasn’t voting (D) was a card carrying member of the so-called alt-right which winds up being defined as the real deplorables. I don’t agree with the real alt-right and I don’t agree with 99% of the people using that label. I know, not a real comment on the story but there was a discussion on the hated c-words so here’s mine on the a-word.

  • jlord37

    Just the opposite. The Alt Right is all about elitism. They definitely see themselves as modern day ubermenentschen.