Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt, the language of cultural elites and the arts

Tahrir Square
By Barry Johnson

For the past few weeks, we have watched the people of Tunisia and then Egypt revolt against the power elites that govern them. It has been thrilling, speaking as someone who is not a member of a power elite. It reminds me of the dock strikes in Poland before the collapse of the USSR or the massive rallies in Prague that culminated in the Velvet Revolution. The big rallies against the War in Vietnam are nearest equivalent to these events in my own life, but we were attempting to overturn a policy of the government, not the power elite itself.

I am using "elite" here deliberately and "power elite," the term of social critic C. Wright Mills, specifically. And, I am using them as the editors of n+1, a magazine of the Left, used them in a recent article called "Revolt of the Elites".  That essay discusses two sorts of elitism -- power and cultural -- and how they have come into conflict,  and it argues that culture is the only sphere that the power elites don't control completely. We'll talk about that in a moment.

The language of Egypt right now is familiar to us -- democracy, human rights, representative government, self-determination, equality before the law. We may be skeptical that Egypt ultimately will act on those ideas, create a society that attempts to live by them. It's a big place with lots of competing ideologies, religious and otherwise, that aren't very democratic.  But the purity of the language now is almost as thrilling as the video of the rallies in Tahrir Square.  Here is what Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood said: "We aim to remove all forms of injustice, tyranny, autocracy and dictatorship, and we call for the implementation of a democratic multiparty all-inclusive political system that excludes no one."

Where did that language originate? From the cultural elites of the 17th and 18th century, who argued against the Divine Right of Kings and for the essential dignity of the individual. We could name a few -- Locke, Hume, Montesquieu. And we can point to the Americans who took those ideas and made them real -- Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton and Franklin, our own cultural elite -- in a functioning Constitution.

To this day, the great lessons that the American cultural elite learn (and that they then teach) involve this language and the ideas of freedom and self-government that are at the root of it. And it never fails to unsettle the power elites. Even in America. Especially in America. Which is why the power elites have attempted to co-opt culture at every turn by commodifying and sanitizing it, waged the Culture Wars of the 1990s, played so deftly the game of turning the very citizens that the cultural elites champion into their enemies by labeling them -- elitist. A strategy as thrilling in its way as the rallies in Cairo -- the dominate elite charges their only enduring opposition with elitism, and because it controls most of the mechanisms of culture-making, manages to make it stick!

We know when this strategy began in earnest, and n+1 reminds us if we've forgotten. The days of Nixon and the Silent Majority, Agnew and the nattering nabobs of negativism. And we've seen it continue through Reagan and Jesse Helms, Palin and the Right Wing propaganda machine that hosts Beck, Limbaugh and the rest.

Here's n+1:
"Who, then, is guilty of elitism, if not the elitely educated in general? The main culprits turn out to be people for whom a monied and therefore educated background lies behind the adoption of aesthetic, intellectual, or political values that demur from the money-making mandate that otherwise dominates society."
Look, we know that America is even bigger and more diverse than Egypt: This is painting with a broad brush. America contradicts itself at every turn, muddies and blurs itself. It is a paradox and then a paradox of paradoxes. But one of the most profound of these is that illuminated so well by n+1.  Cultural elites are mostly made up of the children of members (however lowly) of the power elites, but inevitably their work subverts the power elites of their parents.

Why is that? Because the arts resist control. They speak directly to us, and the moment they engage us, they have done something profoundly important. They have reminded us that our experiences as individuals is important, unique, maybe even crucial. I'm thinking of music as I type these words, specifically Mozart's Quintet in C Major, the first piece of classical music that had this effect on me. The feeling it gave me -- and just that rumbling cello at the beginning was enough -- reminded me of my own possibilities, and understanding those, my own responsibility for those possibilities.

I  could just as easily talk about the history I learned in college, the philosophy, the Shakespeare. Almost anything. It all led to the same place ultimately, a place that resisted control by power elites and sought to replace it with systems built on power sharing by individuals imbued with the same dignity as I. Even to type that in America in 2011 seems both naive and dangerous. Because in America 2011 "power sharing" sounds a lot like "socialism," and "socialism" is the Devil himself. Just ask Beck and Limbaugh.

Antony girds for battle. Charles Warren/Wikimedia
Why can the governors of Kansas and Texas abolish the arts commissions of their states, as we discussed yesterday? Because in their states, they have won the culture war. They have successfully labeled the arts "elitist." And that has always been a fatal term in American culture. Why should the state fund something that isn't for everyone? (The state is always funding -- or forgiving the taxes of -- very specific people and their corporations, and it is transferring small amounts of money to the sick and indigent.)

Yesterday, the argument I made against those governors was that they had failed to act democratically. That makes them "elitist," right, by definition?  They are Mubaraks. Representatives of power elites. And the arts, which privilege the individual conscience, spirit, thought, are enemies of those elites.  Of course they want to close down their arts commissions: America must only speak in the language of power and greed. It mustn't speak in the language of democracy, representative government, the common good, the individual spirit.

Except again, America is paradoxical. There is no Beethoven without the money that dribbles from the power elites. And the members of those elites (business, government, the military) are themselves individuals. As individuals they are prey to the same feelings at the sound of Thelonious Monk as I am or the language in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra (particularly interesting to read write now), They read Kant in college and studied the Constitution. They are divided against themselves, or they already would have wiped out Monk. Completely. Not a trace.

My argument for the healing power of the arts starts with Monk.  Or when the house lights go down, the stage lights come up, and Antony's friend Philo talks about the worrisome effect of Cleopatra on the general: "... his captain's heart/Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst/The buckles of his breast, reneges all temper, /And is become the bellows and the fan/To cool a gipsy's lust." And suddenly we aren't members of elites or not, we are humans seeking the same sustenance -- insight into the mystery of life, inspiration from the beauty of the language, affirmation that we, breathing the same air, are connected to this.

I am not especially naive. I can leave Antony and Cleopatra and approve actions that poison a river or support a tyrant. I might even find some justification somewhere in the text (speaking of paradoxical). The same bellows and fan that cool a "gipsy's lust" can ignite a conflagration of whatever sort. But deep down, I think Shakespeare reminds us that we are individuals -- not pawns or rabble, not consumers or soldiers, not even CEOs or generals. Soon after Philo speaks, Antony responds to digs by Cleopatra, who is sure that Antony will leave her for Rome -- and his wife. Antony declares, "Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space."

The united governors of Kansas and Texas hate that idea. It declares that there are limits to the control they represent, the control of the power elites that selected them. In the theater, we are all Antony (and Cleopatra, wonderfully enough), and we all assert, "Here is my space."  In Kansas and Texas, they subscribe to the idea that it's only your space until I take it from you. Which I will, if I want. The language of greed and power. And you know what -- Shakespeare warns us about that, too, doesn't he? Because he's a realist and understands that Rome can take Antony's space if it wants. So can the Koch brothers in Brownback's Kansas. We in Oregon are similarly afflicted -- I'm not arguing that we have created another sort of society here.

I don't know Sam Brownback or Rick Perry. I don't have any special insight into what makes them tick or how self-aware they are. I don't know what bargains they've made with what devils or what prayers they utter to what gods at night. I employ them simply to seek a greater understanding of how we've gotten to this particular state in the life of America: When a certain segment of the American public can be whipped into a frenzy against the people who most vociferously argue for their right of self-government and their inherent individual dignity. In Egypt, they seek to topple the power elites. In America, they seek to abolish the NEA or the Kansas Arts Commission.

It's a good day in Egypt.


Gwenn said...

Fascinating post.

It makes me think about how some the most influential artists today are the people who don't present themselves as artists--I'm thinking of people like Stephen Colbert for example. In a sense, they are influential because they avoid traditional associations with the so-called cultural elite.

Barry Johnson said...

Excellent point, Gwenn. The rise of the comic as culture creator/commentator has occurred in about the same time frame. Not that there weren't some earlier examples (I'm thinking Lenny Bruce), but the form has reached a different level since the early '70s, and more now than ever. Most of them ARE part of the cultural elite (as n+1 uses the term), but they do a good job disguising it.