Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The anti-elitist pose of the elites

It's defensive, it's camouflage and it leads only to dumbing down

We are told we live in an anti-elitist age. We no longer accept the word of the old elites such as newspaper editors who handed down tablets of stone in the past. Instead we have a blogosphere that we create. Indeed, the old elites seem rather nervous, on the back foot, humble in our wake, especially in front of the young. At a big launch event for the 2012 Olympics in London attended by all the great and the good, one of the most powerful and key members of the elite in London, Keith Khan, head of culture for the 2012 Olympics and chief executive of London arts centre Rich Mix, turned to a group of teenagers in the front row and told them earnestly, "I have got to learn from you." What's more, he meant it.

We are told that this is the end of deference, and not being one for being deferential, that should appeal to me. But I've got serious reservations about today's anti-elitism, and as Khan's sycophancy suggests, anti-elitist deference is just as distasteful as more traditional subservience.

And while it is always an attractive idea to someone like me to give a metaphorical kicking to the elites -- especially those in Britain with their old school ties and their class and privilege who snobbishly conclude that they naturally merit access to the best of education, arts and culture while the rest of us can rot on the sidelines -- in truth, contemporary anti-elitism is not the answer to such prejudice. In fact, there is nothing attractive about contemporary anti-elitism. By its terms I'm regularly branded with the elitist tag.

In Britain I have been accused of elitism for defending expertise and for arguing that authority gained from acquired insights and knowledge is more insightful than subjective prejudices: doctors really do know more than their patients; teachers really do know more than their pupils. I have been called an elitist for arguing against the proposition that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are as good as Jane Austen's, or for arguing that Beethoven is superior music to hip-hop. And I've been called an elitist for arguing that degrees in media studies, golf studies and tourism are not as rigorous as degrees in physics, English literature or the classics.

In other words, you can be branded an elitist if you don't buy the fashion for cultural relativism, that pernicious orthodoxy that refuses to distinguish between the second-rate and the excellent. Contemporary anti-elitism is a con and at its heart lies a real scorn for ordinary people, dressed up in the language of democratisation. It reflects a crisis about the elites' role in society and their failure to inspire or have anything to offer ordinary people. It is the elites and establishment organisations who often champion anti-elitism. They are constantly trying to suck up to ordinary people. There are British institutions that are rebranding themselves as we speak to become more "relevant", their new logos invariably featuring graffiti-style graphics, their mission statements suddenly written in street-cred language.

The Church of England recently decided its image was too elitist and announced plans to hold services everywhere from skateboarding parks to pubs and cafes. It is the elites that spend all their time chasing after us, trying to include us, empower us, listen to us. In Britain, politicians are consulting the electors daily on what policies they should adopt. MPs have been told to set up blogs. Researchers from mainstream political policy circles proudly boast they read Facebook on the internet every day to see what we are interested in. It feels like stalking!

Kevin Rudd isn't the only one flirting with young people on YouTube. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown listens to Arctic Monkeys on his iPod, as he gives government grants to local authorities with the requirement that they consult young people about what they think about council services and initiatives. Every government green paper has a youth version (think big writing and lots of cartoons), and there are youth parliaments and shadow youth councils everywhere.

Another institution that has declared war on elitism is the BBC, which seems to be having a bit of a nervous breakdown and an extended bout of self-loathing, worried that it is too distant from its viewers and listeners. In recent years it has commissioned numerous reports and internal reviews that have concluded that the BBC comprises middle-aged men in suits and is too metropolitan, middle class, white, elite and distant to appeal to the majority. As a result there is a big initiative to give viewers the right to answer back. And you have the ludicrous situation in which chief political editor Nick Robinson is told to blog daily and use such rambling, ill-informed bar-room responses from viewers as "an important part of developing his judgments".

Time magazine, one of the most elite, old-school journalism outfits around, has had its prestigious person of the year award since the 1920s. Winners have included Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, Bono, George W. Bush and even Adolf Hitler. You get the gist: they are people of substance. Last December they put a mirror on the cover of the Person of the Year issue, literally reflecting the fact that YOU and I had won the coveted award "because it is you, not us, who are transforming the information age", "wresting power from the few", and "democratising the web for 'the people"'.

It has become de rigueur at every policy event in the arts/media/politics to have a youth speaker. Some hapless 16-year-old stands up and gives some rather mediocre speech and gets rapturous applause and a standing ovation regardless of what they say. Of course, they are not applauded for what they say; they are simply being patted on the back for being young and being there.

And these fawning adults are using these children as a stage army to ensure their institution is in touch. The obvious point is that teenage speakers are often self-indulgent, banal, derivative and cliched, but why wouldn't they be, they are teenagers. That wouldn't matter if the adults didn't tell them their views were interesting regardless. The problem here is not the teenagers but the spinelessness of a sycophantic elite.

In Britain there has been a major overhaul of science in the general certificate of secondary education exam to make the curriculum more relevant and partly because too many students have been failing physics, biology and chemistry. And in anti-elitist Britain, you cannot have pupils failing! The authorities justified these changes by citing a national survey that asked pupils why they were failing and the majority said they thought physics and the hard sciences were "dull and boring". So the Education Department took these 15 and 16-year-olds at their word and reformed the curriculum to create the 21st-century science course that wouldn't be dull and boring. Out went periodic tables of elements and the structure of the atom or anything too abstract, and in came modules on mobile phones, healthy eating and the drugs debate.

But while cannabis may be more fascinating to teenagers than quadratic equations, letting the immature, philistine opinions of teenagers dictate education policy is obviously worrying. I'm not blaming the pupils. The tragedy is that these views are wheeled out and cited by adults who should know better. It is supposed to be an example of the great anti-elitist education revolution when, in fact, it is the institutionalisation of ignorance.

Among the worst culprits to have bought into the anti-elitism orthodoxy are the museums and the heritage world. Curators, scholars with specialist knowledge derived from incessantly studying the Ming dynasty or Egyptology, are now packed off on re-education courses in audience development, participation and access. Now every museum has invited everyone from the homeless to people from old folks' homes to curate their own history by donating objects that "mean the most to you". Heritage has been rebranded as "personal place-making". The Heritage Lottery Fund has a "your heritage" project, and English Heritage has a "my heritage" project. It will be the punters who define what should be part of heritage. One major report suggests that "historic properties should consult with local communities and visitors, as well as those who do not visit, about what they would like to experience in order in increase their relevance to everyone". But seriously, how will people know what they would like to experience after the leaders of the heritage industry have abandoned trying to introduce the public to anything unfamiliar in case it alienates them?

There is a similar story back at the BBC where the head of television news, Peter Horrocks, confessed in a speech to the Reuters Institute last year that some broadcasters of his generation went into TV to produce "journalism that would change people's understanding of the world and shape the views of the audience". That sounds like an admirable aspiration but for Peter and his peers it is a mea culpa because they have abandoned trying to shape audience's views. They are too busy chasing them. Like the rest of the elite, they have lost faith in their own mission and, worse than that, they have no faith in us, the public, and our capacity to be stretched.

In anti-elitist news, every issue, however complex, has a simplistic explanation. The big stories are accompanied by a video wall of flashy graphics and quirky camera angles in case we get bored. It's as though we have the attention span of gnats. I'm not making it up, they really do think the majority of people are stupid. In their own reports, we are told that the majority (the working class) would be put off by professionally detached presenters. We are told that this socio-economic group will relate better to news if it is presented by an emotional, "your-heart-goes-out-to-them" style. With stories told in accents that audiences recognise, presented by I'm-your-friend-matey journalists.

It reveals a gross caricature at the heart of the anti-elitist agenda, that the working classes are incapable of thinking or analysing and can only feel and empathise. The noble savage is back in fashion. Without admitting it, the anti-elitist elite is saying the higher reaches of cultural ideas could not possibly be of interest to most people, so there is no point in offering them these things.

In Jonathan Rose's book The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, a wonderful study of 19th-century autodidacts and the early workers' education movement, a cowman's son, on discovering the joy of literature, declares "it was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time". In today's anti-elitist culture, we would probably leave this agricultural worker on the seabed and give him a hand-held camera to film himself and then broadcast it on BBC News. We'd tell him not to bother reading at all and that his natural aptitude for cowherding was just as valuable as any skill in literature, and having deprived him of those elitist novels, we would then give him a degree in rustic studies.


Australia's Leftist leader gets the Bill Clinton treatment

Women's groups refuse to criticise behaviour in Kevin Rudd that they normally deplore. If he had been a conservative, they would have been shrieking to high heaven. Some of the nightclub "girls" below

Voters were divided yesterday on the moral and political implications of Kevin Rudd's admission that he went to a strip club one drunken evening in New York four years ago. But his Labor colleagues - including deputy party leader Julia Gillard - remained tight-lipped on their leader's September 2003 outing. "He's acknowledged he made an error, and I think that's all that needs to be said about it," Ms Gillard said. Opposition spokeswoman on women Tanya Plibersek did not return calls yesterday.

One male frontbencher, who did not wish to be named, said the story could work in Mr Rudd's favour. "It might humanise him a bit. People see him as too much the bookworm and diplomat," he said.

Women's organisations and church groups remained particularly silent on Mr Rudd's night out. "If we hanged every bloke who was stupid, there wouldn't be many left," National Foundation for Australian Women spokeswoman Marie Coleman said. Women's Electoral Lobby spokeswoman and prominent feminist Eva Cox said Mr Rudd had a generally good attitude towards women. "It's not something that represents his usual behaviour," she said. [Fat old Eva Cox nee Hauser -- pic below -- is far to the Left so her defence of a Leftist from behind her thick glasses is to be expected. I gather that Cox cleared out years ago but she still uses his surname. A strange feminist!]

Labor strategist Bruce Hawker said he did not think Mr Rudd - a staunch Christian - would lose popularity among voting women. "People, whether they be women or men, aren't going to be particularly fussed about this," Mr Hawker said. "I think people are much more concerned about how the parties' policies are going to affect them. "I don't think he's demonstrated anything that can be construed as bad character."


Australia: Muslims feel cut off, left isolated by fear

The poor little petals! They are probably projecting their own hostility onto others -- or maybe it's just guilt at being part of such a hostile and destructive religion

FEAR is isolating Australian Muslims, leading to distrust of the Government and driving them outside the country in their search for information and community, the first national fear survey has found. The survey set out to look at how Australians viewed their safety after the events of September 11. 2001 but the pilot study found Muslim reacted very differently to the wider population. "The trial was quite stark," said Mark Balnaves, of Edith Cowan University, who co-authored the nationwide survey. As a result of the early indicators, Muslims, who make up 1.5 per cent of the population, were treated as a special sample, to clarify the early results. [It's not the first time they were given specially favourable treatment either]

"For Muslims it wasn't a generalised fear," he said. "Where non-Muslim Australians may have a fear of travel on planes, Muslims had a fear of going out of the house, of going out into the community. "There is a fear of government, distrust of the media and the [consequent] closure of the [Muslim] community is quite worrying," Professor Balnaves said. The research showed that Muslims were much more likely to have kept the "Be Alert Not Alarmed" packs and had a sense of needing to defend Australia. "Then they realised they might be the very people who were seen as a threat," he said.

Kuranda Seyit, the head of the Forum on Australian Islamic Relations, said mainstream Muslims were a little more cautious about going to public events, but it was not going to stop them going about their business. "With young Muslims, the level of fear is lower, but they are more upset with what is going on. The older generation are more fearful," Mr Seyit said. He knew of people anglicising their names to avoid discrimination when applying for jobs.

The survey comes as Pauline Hanson and another would-be Queensland senator, James Baker, promised to campaign on the issue of Muslim immigration. Mr Baker proposed banning Muslim immigration for 10 years and putting other measures in place "to ensure Australia's Muslim population is in no doubt we mean business in stopping extremist attacks". Those measures included revocation of citizenship and deportations of the families of convicted immigrant terrorists and suicide bombers.

The interviews, where anonymity was guaranteed, revealed Muslims were suspicious of connections between government and the media, believing the media may be controlled by the Government. "So they are going to extreme sources, outside Australia," Professor Balnaves said. "To Al Manar [the Hezbollah-backed website], to blog sites with groups that would be counted as highly radical" in search of information they see as less biased against Muslims.

The fear, which has led to a loss of trust in their own society, has policy implications for the government, Professor Balnaves said. "If they end up being a ghettoised community, they will end up with psychological consequences in these communities. They are very careful now about what goes public and very concerned about their own safety going out in public," he said.

The National Fear Survey, funded by the Australian Research Council, interviewed 750 participants and covered urban, regional and rural areas. Its aim was to help the Federal Government in policy deliberations on how to assist communities that are in fear.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when blogger.com is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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