Thursday, May 29, 2008
Be All the Bastard You Can Be
But all you have to do is knock on any door and say, "If you let me in, I'll live the way you want me to live, and I'll think the way you want me to think," and all the blinds'll go up and all the windows will open, and you'll never be lonely, ever again.
- Inherit the Wind, Henry Drummond to Bertram Cates
Everyone will have different reasons why they gladly accept the sobriquet. Dana and Etha have already given some of their thoughts on the subject and for the very first Carnival of the Elitist Bastards, I thought I'd do likewise.
As for "bastard," I don't associate it with meanness or pugnaciousness, though that can be a part of it too. To me, it suggests being on the "wrong side of the blanket;" a stranger to the common hearth that warms the great mass of society.
A true story:
Some years ago I worked at a law firm in the outer regions of one of the greatest, most cosmopolitan, most culture-drenched cities in the world. We were undergoing the annual ritual of a "secret Santa" exchange of gifts. That year, a coworker who was also a personal friend, had drawn my name and called my wife to find out what I might like. At the time, I was anxious to get Janet Browne's definitive two-part biography of Charles Darwin, Voyaging and The Power of Place.
On the day of the exchange I opened the wrapping to discover the substantial, but hardly daunting, second volume of the biography and warmly thanked my friend. However, to the rest of the room, it was as if we had each suddenly sprouted a second head. There was much staring and even questions if I was really happy to receive the book.
But mine was not the weightiest book given as a present that day. Another person had received a tome larger than mine but accompanied neither by suspicion nor by disbelief that it was welcomed. It was one of those day-by-day, even minute-by-minute, accounts of a local baseball team's latest season. All I needed to do was to restrict myself to those things they found "normal" and "important" and all the doors of their minds would have been thrown open and the shutters unbarred.
And here is where the "elitist" comes in.
We're not talking about a sense of privilege based on birth or bank account. Far from it. In fact, it is hard to think of anyone in the United States who is derided for possessing those sorts of assets. The term, as it is used today, is a slur aimed at anyone who is not satisfied to live down to America's plastic culture; anyone who values art, literature, science and the other grand legacies of civilization over "reality" television shows, video games and "sporting" contests featuring drug-inflated multimillionaires. That is not to say that television, games and sports are, in and of themselves, something to be shunned or looked down on. They are, or at least can be, important and even uplifting recreations. I have been at times a rabid sports fan, played more than I should at video games and overindulged in mindless tv. But always I remembered that the greatest recreation is learning.
Our elitism, on the other hand, is not exclusionary. We welcome everyone to join. It is neither an aristocracy nor oligarchy. It is not even a meritocracy. All that is needed to be our brand of elitist is a willingness to learn and the determination to go on trying, regardless of how far you get.
The social attitude that thinking and learning are somehow suspect allows "elitism" to be used as a weapon -- by creationists against educators; by corporate flacks against scientists who deliver inconvenient truth; and by politicians, often themselves in thrall to the wealthiest sliver of society, against any opponent who lets it slip that they have any erudition.
Even if only in a small way, that is what the Carnival is about -- to show that it is not just a few "eggheads" stuck away in ivory towers who value education and expertise; to point to a day when it is no longer dangerous for a politician to show that he or she is smart and learned; and, if we are wildly successful, to make it as cool to be in the library as on the football field in every high school.
Oh, and if you want to live up to the other meaning of "bastard" and kick some intellectual butt along the way, feel free. After all, being made an outcast tends to make you tough ... so they deserve what they get.
Oh, that and I have a baseball game on right now.
Beyond that, all the way, right on, John. Yup.
A true story: The other evening I was relaxing in my neighborhood bar chatting with the other elitist bastards about this and that. Suddenly, I felt a tug on my sleeve, and heard a slurred voice in a heavy Appalachian accent say, "Excuse me." I turned, and saw tall, emaciated man with long stringy hair and maybe three teeth in his mouth (meth addict?). "Did I hear you mention Edgar Allen Poe? I love Poe!"
He bought me a round, and I bought him a round, and we talked for a good 45 minutes about Poe, why "The Imp of the Perverse" is the key to all Poe's short stories, short stories versus novels, contemporary horror fiction versus 19th c. classics, and film adaptations of Poe. We talked about Ambrose Bierce ("You have to read 'Charles Ashmore's Trail,'" says I) and Sheridan LeFanu and Bram Stoker and MR James. Then he looked at the clock and mentioned that he had to go meet his "lady friend," and took his leave.
After he left, one of the pretty people of my acquaintance asked, "Why were you talking with that creepy hillbilly?"
"Because he loves Poe."