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If Obama’s An Elitist, Then So Is Orwell

People enduring severe economic stress “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” Barack Obama privately told a group of fundraisers in San Francisco. For those who have been on the moon for the past … Read More

By / April 17, 2008

People enduring severe economic stress “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them,” Barack Obama privately told a group of fundraisers in San Francisco. For those who have been on the moon for the past few days, you should know that Hilary Clinton responded that Obama was “elitist, out of touch and, frankly, patronizing.”

That word, frankly, is what poker players call her tell. When she says it, you know she is about to bluff: advance a charge that would be just plausible if we didn’t know her, a charge she is counting on 24-hour-cable-coiffed-heads to play dumb about for excitement’s sake. Oh, by the way, John McCain just agreed with her: Obama is elitist. And now Maureen Dowd.

I can’t really imagine a time attacks like this wouldn’t annoy me. If you are worldly, erudite, discriminating, articulate, etc., then you presumably have rare gifts. But since these are rare, and worthy, then you must be part of an elite. So, na, na, how can you be elite without being elitist?

As it happens, though, I just finished reading Dreams From My Father, the younger Obama’s extraordinary memoir, and these particular attacks strike me as foolish and brazen in way that borders on dangerous. Do we really — proudly — credit politicians this much for their ability to manipulate us? Do we really want — as Richard Gere twinkled at Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman” — a “professional”?

I picked the book up in an airport out of curiosity; I was a strong supporter anyway and thought I might learn a thing or two about his past. I did not expect to be utterly absorbed by the third page, by his story and, even more important, his style. Imagine Orwell combining his autobiographical essay about his public school, “Such, Such, Were The Days,” and his reflections on British imperialism “Shooting an Elephant,” with The Road To Wigan Pier. Imagine Orwell having the religious humility to look back without rancor.

So now imagine that Orwell ran for Parliament in a working-class district after the war, and gave an interview in which he said that poor people sometimes cling to religious dogmas or xenophobia to try to make sense of their world. Imagine his Tory opponent — knowing full well that few people in the working-class actually read essays or books — suggested that Orwell, that author, was elitist. Imagine that a columnist for (of all places) the Times of London picked up the story and accused Orwell of being — how did Dowd put it? — less a candidate than an anthropologist.

I guess the idea is that if you are brilliant enough to write, and write movingly, about your years in poverty, your gratitude for the transcendent life of the mind, your decision to organize against despair with compassion and mentoring, your years defending people downtrodden by forces they cannot control, your loved ones in far-flung parts of the world, pitting their magic against alcohol — indeed, if you can write anything without a ghostwriter — then you must think you are smarter than ordinary people, and must therefore be “out of touch.” (On the other hand, if you are accustomed to privilege, and educated to triangulation, so that you know how to buy a ghost writer who'll make you appear a populist, then, by definition, you don’t think you’re so smart, and must therefore be close to ordinary people.)

So here is an anthropological question for you. What do you say about the future of a democracy that buys this stuff?

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