Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Elitism, Exclusion, and the Fallacy of Community

Some interesting conundrums continue to boil up in the stew the media have cooked over the charge of elitism leveled against Barack Obama. Given that one of his messages has been that of uniting groups with many different interests and values under a single "umbrella," under which they can discuss their differences as well as their agreements, an accusation of elitism is tantamount to an accusation of hypocrisy. Thus, as I had previously speculated, this attack may have been concerned more with finding and piercing Obama's most critical point of vulnerability than with weighing the many issues relevant to deliberating over who would make the best successor to the Oval Office. My reasoning is simple enough: The American electorate may not fully grasp all the intricacies associated with the rights and duties of the Executive branch of their government, but they know hypocrisy when it bites them. If they are convinced that, for all of his "audacity of hope," he is as hypocritical as any other politician, then there is a strong chance that they will turn away from him.

Unfortunately for Obama there may be a paradox behind his "umbrella" vision; and that paradox involves a fallacious conception of the concept of community. I last discussed this problem with respect to the legal qualifications for Swiss citizenship at a time when the Swiss People's Party was running an electoral campaign that most would describe as discriminatory. Without trying to defend the Swiss People Party, I discovered that trying to get to the heart of the nature of community led to some rather troubled waters:

The position I have previously endorsed is that community is the expression of "self" across a group. This, of course, is the old rabbinical trick of answering one question ("What is community?") with another question ("What is self?"); but, even if we hold any detailed account of that second question in abeyance, we must still recognize that one cannot had a sense of "self" without a sense of "other." Thus, when a community is deciding on whether or not a "new applicant" should be a member, they are basically ruling on the "otherness" of that applicant. If that "otherness" is recognized by the community as a whole as being too "alien," then membership is denied; and, by the very criteria that constitute the nature of community, this is probably as it should be.

Nevertheless, all this academic scare-quoting of everyday nouns like "community," "self," and "other" does not refute the assertion that this approach to determining community membership is, by its very nature, discriminatory. If you cannot have self without other, you cannot have community without exclusion; and exclusion is just a synonym for discrimination.

In other words that "umbrella" is a myth; and, while many might still invoke it as a "fiction of convenience," when we start to tease out all of the underlying social issues, the inconveniences may well outweigh the conveniences.

After writing this I found myself reflecting on the extent to which I engage of "rhetoric of exclusion" in my writing, particularly on this blog. Consider some of the "exclusionary gestures" a reader of yesterday's post would encounter:

  • At the most general level, anyone not interested in vocal recitals is likely to feel excluded.
  • However, the reference to Jane Austen is probably even more exclusionary.
    • Some will be put off by the tacit assumption that they recognize the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice.
    • Those who recognize it may be put off by finding it to be cliché and/or passé.
    • Others may take it as a red herring that distracts from more substantive observations about music and its performance.
  • Many readers may be put off by analytical speculation on why recitals are different from opera performance.

Nevertheless, I suspect that all readers, even if intuitively, have a "feel" for this rhetoric of exclusion: There is so much to read that we use any cues we can to indicate whether we should be spending any more time on a particular text.

Perhaps a better way to attack the charge of elitism is to accept it. After all, the very principle of a representative government (as opposed to an inclusive one on the model of a town meeting) presumes that "the masses" will be represented by an "elite." This is entirely acceptable if everyone has a hand in choosing those representatives, which is why so much attention has gone into providing every American citizen with an effective electoral process. From this point of view, electoral decisions can be made on the basis of who is likely to be best represented by which candidate. My wife likes to tell the story of the early days of choosing delegates for the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For most government business local communities would tend to send one of their "distinguished elders" as a representative; but, if the debate was about taxes, they would prefer to send a farmer who had to worry about the day-to-day economics of living off of his plot of land. It is no longer practical for us to change our representatives depending on the subject of debate, but this example demonstrates our cultural history of taking representation seriously. Karl Rove recognized this and knew how to convince enough of the electorate that they would best be represented by our current President. If we are to judge by the polls, most of that electorate is no longer convinced, which this means that they will be much harder to convince by any candidate in November. The worst that can happen is that, under the control of highly unrepresentative special interests, the mass media will disenchant the electorate to the point that they will feel that no candidate can possibly serve as an effective representative. This will continue our trend of poor voter turnout and probably leave us with a new Administration as disappointing as the current one (if not more so). It should also leave those inclined to conspiracy theories to wonder whether the mass media have been deliberately churning up the "teapot tempest" of elitism to achieve that disenchantment and thus strengthen their own hands as "players" in a political process dominated by "power-elite capitalism."

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