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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Let's just talk about "elitism" for a second

So a lot of the discussion surrounding Rob Ford's popularity, it seems, centres on the slippery and oft-misused notion of “elitism.” How does the storyline go? Angry voters are finding a champion in Ford because of the way he stands up to the downtown elites.

Anybody noticing a common theme here? Yesterday it was "fed up with high taxes and wasteful spending." Today it's ordinary, hard-working lunch-bucket types, tired of being told what do do by the condescending latte-sucking downtown socialist elites. In both cases, Ford's appeal is based on a noxious current of anger and resentment. Rags like the Sun never miss an opportunity to stoke that current by torquing every storyline with resentment of these so-called elites.

I wrote at some length yesterday about how far the discursive goalposts have been moved by thirty years of right-wing stupidity. The touchstone was Ronald Reagan's dismissive putdown during one of his debates with Jimmy Carter. 


It seems like a throwaway line, but it's resonated through public discourse ever since, and we have suffered for it. Consider the context: Carter's making a well-researched argument, listing in concise and easy-to-follow bullet points the policy areas wherein he and Reagan disagree, and Reagan just smiles in his folksy, aw-shucks manner, and in four short words, blows off the argument with a smile. What the hell, eh? Facts and policy don't matter. Who wants to listen to that guy with his facts and figures, anyway? It's the easy-going, genial manner that wins the day. Now there's a guy I can sit and have a beer with. 

And look where we are now. Once upon a time, education, intelligence and the ability to reflect thoughtfully on things were considered desirable things. They were something to aspire to. It's indicative of just how degraded public discourse has become that they're now considered liabilities. Nowadays, it's almost lethal when you can be portrayed as an "elitist." The very term itself has taken on pejorative overtones; to call someone elitist suggests that he or she is arrogant, out of touch, considers himself or herself better than everyone else, and has all kinds of other undesirable qualities.

The corollary, of course, is the inevitable elevation of ordinary and transient social convention to the status of Holy Writ. "Let's go back to the phones: we've got Mike from Canmore, ready to tell us what he thinks about the long-form census." (The Harrisites used to call it "common sense," when what they were really up to was one of the most vicious class wars in nearly a generation. Ontario still hasn't recovered from the damage.) But there are other terms for it as well: populism, gut instinct, and eventually, mob rule. 

Whatever you want to call it, it's all based on common elements: simple easy answers, no thought required, everything boils down to quickly memorized slogans and clichés. With Reagan, there was never any shortage of those: "Evil Empire," "tear down this wall," "government is the problem." Again, it's indicative of just how badly civil discourse has been degraded that today's right-wing flying monkeys can just repeat similar catchphrases ad nauseum and believe that they're making cogent arguments.

The current civic election in Toronto has its share of those idiotic, no-thought-required memes as well: "gravy train," "hard-earned tax dollars," "tax-and-spend leftists," etc. My personal favourite is the so-called "war on the car." News flash, morons: there is no "war on the car." What there is, is a recognition that not everyone drives a car and that any sane and workable transportation policy has to account for the fact that different people have different ways of getting around. Yes, it's an idea with a lot more syllables than “war on the car.” Get used to it.

As a matter of fact, it really doesn't take much to break down these clichés; once that's done, it becomes pretty clear that the assumption and value judgments they're based on don't stand up. "Tax-and-spend," for instance. I wrote yesterday about taxes, but once again: Societies raise revenue, collectively, by requiring their citizens to pay taxes. They then allocate their collective resources in accordance with publicly determined priorities. In other words, they spend the money. "Tax" and "spend." When did this become a Bad Thing?

Again, an illustration of how important it is for progressives to win back the discourse. If we fight on the other side's terms, we're screwed.

So, back to those idiotic truisms. It's time to reclaim the notion of elitism as well. When we're talking about multi-million-dollar decisions that affect the future of my city and my community, I want those decisions made on the basis of comprehensive analysis, careful consideration, genuine attempts to build consensus, and a well-thought-out rationale that considers:
  • what the objectives are
  • what resources are available to pursue them
  • what the opportunity costs of those pursuits are
  • the target population
  • what the indicators of success / failure are.
In short, I want those decisions made by intelligent, thoughtful, educated people. I don't want them made on the basis of some stupid angry asshole's gut reactions. If that makes me an elitist, fine. Sue me.

Let us conclude with this:

Further examples here, here, here, and here.

Angry, overbearing, belligerent, name-calling, and screaming. Lying about his boorish, drunken antics. Simple-minded proposals that have no basis in fiscal or mathematical reality. No grounding in which level of government does what. No ability or inclination to connect with people who disagree with him. Pulling answers and numbers out of his ass. These are not civic virtues, folks.

So, my suburban friends: how badly do you want to cut off your noses to spite your faces? Never mind buying into the questionable premise that the city is broken and he's the one who's going to fix it. Do you really think this guy's going to make things better? Do you really want to put this guy in the mayor's chair just to stick it to downtown voters?

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