The Cumberland Post

The Cumberland Post
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Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Stages of Elitism

In this month's Atlantic, Christina Davidson has a piece entitled "Let Us Now Trash Famous Authors."

In her essay, Davidson writes about the famous Depression era collaboration between Tennessee writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. She describes her interviews with a few of the descendants of the people who had been the subject of this well known book. She expresses her bafflement at why the younger members of these families "seem unaware that their ancestors feature in the most significant historical documentation of Depression-era share cropping and one of the great American literary masterpieces of the 20th century." She also notes that some descendants are downright hostile, that they feel exploited and hold the view that their family "seemed to have become a big business from which only strangers ever profited." They remember that while their anscestors worked the fields, Agee and Evans "stayed back at the house...poking through drawers to record every spool of thread, scrap of fabric, and clip of newsprint they discovered."  Agee wrote the families later but never mentioned or sent them a copy of the book that he and Evans wrote.

One descendant is especially bothered that "Agee and Evans didn’t tell her parents that their lives would become a book. 'Momma and Daddy didn’t know what they was doing. They was trying to help ’em out. And they just wanted to write about how poor Momma and Daddy was.'”

A Wikipedia writer makes this interesting observation about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

"Although at its heart a story of the three families...the book is also a meditation on reporting and intrusion, on observing and interfering with subjects, sufficient to occupy any student of anthropology, journalism or revolution."

A writer in Wikipedia reports that "the son of Floyd Burroughs was also reportedly angry because the family was 'cast in a light that they couldn't do any better, that they were doomed, ignorant.'"

The first picture below is of Agee, the second is Evans.

Much biographical information is available about Agee and Evans in books and on the internet. It's worth noting that Agee attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and graduated from Harvard and that Evans went to Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and attended Williams College. As young men, both visited Europe (on separate ocassions).

Davidson's brief essay and my little research on the book led me to think some about "Good Intentions." You know what I'm talking about--that passionate desire to help someone less fortunate.

"Good Intentions" is of course what people sometimes say when there's been a collosal screw up. "Well they had good intentions."  It's frequently said about liberal elitists whose latest scheme has somehow backfired and caused irreparable harm to individuals or the nation.

How do you get from those good intentions to the condescending liberal elitist looking down on the destruction he/she has wrought? I propose that individuals pass through five stages. I'm a recovering liberal, and although I went through a few of these stages myself, luckily I never stood on the high sacred ground of the final stage.

The first stage of elitism is the growing awareness that you are somehow different from other people. It's as if you've been singled out, chosen. In another era, you would have felt "called." You start to think of yourself as better, cooler, more sensitive, and more intelligent than most others. This awareness is obviously enhanced by attending an Ivy League college or a prestigious feeder prep school. Ivy Leage schools however are not absolutely necessary--a lowly state university will do in a pinch if you believe in yourself and have the right professors. Even a community college will work if you can maintain the proper attitude. Again, the key to this stage is the almost epiphany-like awareness that you are  a member of a very select group.

The second stage is the realization of the fact that your beliefs are shared by everyone else in this select group and that all of you are entitled to the elevated status that belonging to this group naturally entails. In the 60's you might have joined a commune or before that the Communist Party. And in an earlier more spiritual age, you might have thought of yourself as a member of the "elect."

The third stage is the tragic recognition that most of the others in this life will never have the insight, the vision, the creativity, or the power that you do. It's a terrible fact that might make you momentarily sad. But it is a fact. The hubris of this recognition may be upsetting to some outside your circle, but it's something you and your comrades are quite comfortable with. In our society, there's a huge mass of people stuck in the middle. To you with your progressive perception, they are lost in meaningless jobs and material pursuits. Many of your group will learn to ignore them. If you are an artist or academic, however, you will learn to make fun of them and ridicule their values because you have an ethereal mission of greater historical significance than someone in their petty lives could ever imagine. If you're a politician, you'll soon learn that you must mask your disdain for them while easily manipulating them with soaring oratory and rhetoric.

Elitism's fourth stage is the simple understanding that because of your intelligence, insight, and vision you have a duty to improve the lives of those at the very bottom. There's no guilt involved in this. It's just a matter of necessity. Ignoring the rabble in the middle, you must reach down benevolently to those at the very bottom, those victims trapped there because of poverty and prejudice. You with your greater knowledge understand that they of course will never totally escape their condition. It's a given. But you can make their pitiful lives just a little better. You can at least give them hope. And, if you and your colleagues act in concert politically, you can assuage their feeling of inferiority and improve their material status with money you get from the stupid worker drones in the broad middle. The world cannot be made perfect but it can be brought closer to perfection. 
In the final stage, as a fully accredited Elite Liberal (unless you die beforehand), you get to look down from the sacred and intellectually protected heights on what you have wrought. Most often it's destruction, chaos, confusion, a morass of unintended consequences. Have no fear. Big Media is your friend and with the proper spin, your ass is covered in the present. As for future generations, Revisionist, Marxist academic historians are your friends as well. The millions of bodies, wrecked lives, shattered institutions, broken families, and doomed individuals can be turned into martyrs for the cause or, in a pinch, ignored altogether.

Agee died at the age of 45, so he didn't get to fully appreciate (a) how his and Evans' work would be recognized as a masterpiece of 20th century letters or (b) how he would be regarded by the families whose private lives he invaded that summer in 1936.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" but I'm not surprised that Agee treated his subjects as lab rats.