Dead Idea Watch: Elitism


Behold—behear, I guess—“Accidental Racist,” Brad Paisley’s and LL Cool J’s attempt to settle this black/white thing once and for all. Attention white people, particularly those involved in poetry slams: please stop talking about race. There are lots of ways you can do it cogently and inoffensively, but there are also a lot of safe routes through a minefield. Well before LL says “RIP Robert E Lee, but I gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me,” this song turns into Claymore City. I first became aware of it via Grantland’s Rembert Browne, who argues that the appropriate response is not indignation but smirking disdain. It’s hard to ignore a song from history’s greatest country music singer and today’s hippest rapper, though, which is why Will Shetterly has taken to the New York Times to explain why elitists hate “Accidental Racist.”

Let’s say you have an argument about a particular issue, but you’re worried that the people whom you hope will agree with you are too stupid to understand it. Or maybe your argument is wrong, but you still want people you regard as stupid to buy in. The term “elitist” is definitely for you. You can use it any time the people who disagree with you are experts in their field, or hold college degrees or even speak standard English. You can use “elitist” to refute any argument that is based on specific concepts, learned values or a cosmopolitan familiarity with different places and cultures.

Most importantly, you can use “elitist” to prima facie reject the notion that any cultural product is better than any other, vanquishing that idea in much the same way that saying Mr. Mxyzptlk‘s name backwards will make him disappear. For example:

Is art influential? It can be—“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” rallied abolitionists, and “The Jungle” provoked the demand for a safer food industry. Should people care about a country song? That’s irrelevant. They do. Country music, the music of the white rural working class, has often been mocked by elitists whose understanding of power and art was shaped at expensive private schools.

Note the totally non-elitist use of an em dash instead of a semicolon in the second sentence. More importantly, note the way Shetterly raises any song people like to the same level as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle. There’s no difference between books that shaped the course of American history and a pious cash-in jam by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J. If you insist that there is, it’s probably because your “understanding of power and art was shaped at expensive private schools.”

It’s a neat bit of logic: popular equals important, and disdain for anything popular equals elitism. Shetterly goes on to cite “The Ballad of the Green Beret” [sic] as an example of a song that “especially outraged” elitists, probably because—like “Accidental Racist”—“the song’s first sin is it’s earnest. There’s no irony to please hipsters.”

First of all, maybe one reason “The Ballad of the Green Berets” drew criticism is that it was released in 1966, shortly after the deployment of US combat forces in Vietnam. That’s beside the point, though, because Shetterly is describing the “first sin” of “Accidental Racist.” But if we’re putting them in order, I think we should also consider that the first line of the chorus presumes the listener is white, the white singer would like us to let bygones (example: slavery) be bygones, and LL Cool J’s rapping makes “Parents Just Don’t Understand” sound like “Meat Grinder.” After that, I am willing to consider that elitists hate the song because it doesn’t contain irony, as they hate the symphonies of Beethoven for the same reason.

Shetterly’s no-irony argument—which imagines an undefined group of people, guesses at why they disagree with him, and then blames their disagreement on an imagined negative quality he ascribes to them—reveals the term “elitist” for what it is: a straw man. Not just any straw man—it is the straw man, a straw colossus bestriding America from presidential elections to dog food commercials. And it is dumb.

God willing, America will soon be such a nation of elitists that we do not take Brad Paisley/LL jams seriously unless they contain interesting ideas or music. If that doesn’t work out, I would settle for a nation where certain smug authors writing in the New York Times are not so sure that “they think they’re better than you” will be a killer argument. I didn’t go to an expensive private school, but I learned enough in my public one to suspect that I’m not completely different from those who did.

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  1. I completely agree. The problem isn’t that the song is earnest; the problem is that the song is glib. It’s also just goddamned dull, and it kind of swims around in an abyss of cliches. Songs like “The Hurricane” and “A Change is Gonna Come” are no less earnest (at least to me), but they don’t oversimplify the issue, and they’re not boring.

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