Claire Fox is director and founder of British think tank The Institute of Ideas, and was formerly co-publisher of the current affairs journal LM (Living Marxism). Recently she made a speech entitled "In Praise of Elitism" at a Centre for Independent Studies forum in Sydney. Here, courtesy of the excellent news website The Australian, is an edited version …
"We are told we live in an anti-élitist age. We no longer accept the word of the old élites such as newspaper editors who handed down tablets of stone in the past. Instead we have a blogosphere that we create. Indeed, the old élites 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 élite 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-élitism, 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 élites -- 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-élitism is not the answer to such prejudice. In fact, there is nothing attractive about contemporary anti-élitism. By its terms I'm regularly branded with the elitist tag.
In Britain I have been accused of élitism 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 élitist 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-élitism 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 élites' role in society and their failure to inspire or have anything to offer ordinary people. It is the élites and establishment organisations who often champion anti-élitism. 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 élitist and announced plans to hold services everywhere from skateboarding parks to pubs and cafes. It is the élites 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 élitism 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, élite 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 élite, 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 clichéd, 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 élite.
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-élitism 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 élite, 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-élitist 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-élitist 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-élitist élite 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-élitist 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 élitist novels, we would then give him a degree in rustic studies."
The GOS says: Well said, Claire Fox. We agree. In future we resolve to be totally élitist. We will scorn the thoughts of those younger than ourselves, we will be remarkably rude to anyone who can't spell, and we'll simply ignore anyone without a university degree in a seriously old-fashioned subject.
Should be a quiet life …
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