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Saturday, July 21, 2018

BY WAY OF EXPLANATION


Well, I have cranked out another 185 fundraising letters to folks here at Carolina Meadows [this time to those registered as Unaffiliated], so I think I will take a break before merge-printing the matching envelopes and say something about the controversy I stirred up by describing the anti-Trump TV commentators as “privileged” and “self-congratulatory.”  I was being flip, but the underlying issue is actually quite interesting and deserving of some extended commentary.

I shall begin by reminding you all yet again of a few statistical facts that I allude to quite frequently.  First, only one-third of adult Americans have college degrees.  Two-thirds do not.  Second, median household income in 2016 [the latest figure I could find] was $59,039.  In other words, one-half of all American households had annual income that year of less than that amount, the other half had more.  For example, if a husband and wife both work full-time jobs for the year, taking two weeks of unpaid vacation each year, the husband earning $20 an hour driving a panel truck delivering furniture around town and the wife earning $10 an hour cleaning houses, the two of them are rather better off than half of all American households.  Keep those statistics in mind.

Cable news, which I watch more or less obsessively, typically features a host [Wolf Blitzer, Ali Velshi, Nicole Wallace, Anderson Cooper, all those Fox News types, and so forth], a rotating panel of regular commentators, and special guests brought on for their expertise in the story of the moment.  There are also reporters in the field – people talking into handheld microphones checking in from a political rally, a hurricane, a bus crash, a demonstration, or some other newsworthy event – and these reporters will quite often interview someone on site, a police chief, a student in a high school where there has been a mass shooting, a person attending a political rally.

I am quite sure, without having taken the trouble to check, that virtually every single cable news host, commentator, panel member, special guest, and field reporter is a college graduate, and most of them are graduates of one of the top 200 or so colleges and universities among the more than 2,600 Bachelor’s Degree granting institutions of higher education in America or their foreign equivalents.  The only members of the non-college two-thirds who ever appear on TV are people being interviewed in the field.  The majority without college degrees have educational credentials inferior to the minority who are graduates, and they know it.  What is more, they may be uncredentialed, but they are not stupid.  Ask yourself how they feel about the fact that one of them is on TV always as the object of the news report, never as the subject, always being asked “what it felt like,” never “what it means.”  If you are heavily into Lit Crit and Identity Theory, you might even want to employ the currently fashionable term “being othered.” 

Let me give you as an example of what I am talking about something I saw on old-time TV maybe fifty years ago or so.  I was watching a right-wing talk show called The Firing Line, the brainchild of that rather odd, exquisitely cultivated and educated icon of American conservatism, William F. Buckley, Jr.  Buckley had invited onto his show a White couple from the rural south who had protested [as I recall] the fact that their child was being told things in school about evolution that conflicted with their Fundamentalist Protestant beliefs.  Also on the show were a pair of big city lawyers defending the School Board.  Buckley was a devout Roman Catholic, not a Protestant, but he was on the side of the parents in this dispute.  The couple were clearly of very modest means, dressed in their Sunday Go To Meeting best for the TV appearance and visibly ill at ease.  The opposing lawyers were impeccably dressed and quite casually fluent.  Now Buckley was with the parents in this fight, but he treated them more or less as specimens, not as people.  By his every facial grimace and ironic vocal tone when talking to the lawyers, he managed to communicate, as clearly as if he had said it, “You and I, we are alike, for all that we are on opposite sides in this dispute.  I can easily imagine you coming to my elegant apartment for one my famous harpsichord performances.  These benighted folks, whose cause I thoroughly embrace, are however infra dignitatem.”

The regulars on cable news travel in the same social circles, regardless of their political affiliations.  They know one another personally, often run into one another at social events, and exhibit toward one another, even in the midst of vigorous, even heated, political disagreements on television, a variety of verbal cues and body language that communicate to anyone capable of noticing [which is to say, everyone] that they are all members of the same social circle.  Let me cite one example, to me at least quite striking.  Michael Cohen, universally described now as “Trump’s fixer,” has been much in the news lately.  Donnie Deutsch frequently appears as a panelist on Morning Joe on MSNBC, principally, so far as I can make out, because he knows Cohen personally and speaks with him often, despite the fact that Deutsch is clearly a New York Democrat.  One of MSNBC’s hosts is “The Rev,” Reverend Al Sharpton, an old time associate and follower of Martin Luther King and a fixture in the Civil Rights Movement.  The Rev has a weekend morning show on MSNBC, but he was just on yesterday because he had had breakfast with Cohen, whom he knows, and was there to report what he had learned.  My eyes popped open when this fact was dropped.  Sharpton knows Cohen well enough that when Cohen wants to reach out to a media figure to peddle some spin about himself, he calls The Rev??!!  When I was young, we used to make fun of the Old Boy’s Network of Oxford and Cambridge graduates in England, but this is head-spinning.  My mother-in-law, now departed, had a phrase that she would mutter when someone Jewish was mentioned.  She would say, half under her breath, “unser leute,” which in German or Yiddish, means “our people,” which is to say, one of us, an insider, someone basically o.k.

When I described the anti-Trump TV commentators as “privileged” and “self-congratulatory,” this is what I was talking about.

8 comments:

Jerry Fresia said...

I know what you mean and I agree.

Back in the early 60s, Malcolm X appeared on Meet the Press (or one of the shows like that).
I remember reading the criticism that the interviewers had of him at the time, namely that he
didn't chum around with them before and after the show and he wasn't particularly warm, respectful or friendly. I was only
a teenager at the time but I remember thinking it was rather cool that Malcolm kept his distance.

He wasn't one of them, to say the least.

howard b said...

Do you witness such a glaring winking elitism in say moving from the twenties through the sixties?
My guess was that people respected those who were their so called betters and saw themselves as members of some higher social order and greater good.
The problem is that even if Trump is out to con and connive them he is one of them and ironically part of the super elite at once.
I agree with you the establishment is full of bubble heads if not air heads

LFC said...

Have read the post quickly but don't have the time to comment extensively now.

Would point out something that I believe has been pointed out in the comments sections here by others before. Your figure of one-third of Americans w 4 yr college degrees, two-thirds without, is at least slightly misleading b/c it doesn't take into account the not insignificant number who have some college education but have not finished a 4 yr degree. Btw, just something that comes to mind: Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of bestselling and prizewinning books, writer for The Atlantic, and who appears on TV (at least the PBS NewsHr) occasionally, does not have a college degree. He studied at Howard University but did not finish.

That said, I am not taking issue w your point about who is generally a "subject" and who is an "object" on TV (as mentioned before, I don't watch it, though I have of course in the past; I've never watched cable TV to any extent, though).

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I do not think the figure is misleading, because it is the credential, not the engagement with the material, that determines which jobs one is eligible for. As for Coates, it is also the case that Bill Gates did not finish. The existence of a handful of super-successful people who did not complete their degrees is of no importance to the points I was making.

s. wallerstein said...

Howie B.,

I grew up in the 50's in New Jersey and my impression is that the U.S. was less elitist back then (among whites). All males of a certain generation had served in the Army in World War 2, almost without exception and that, I believe, was a leveling experience. I don't remember feeling superior to the working class kids with whom I went to high school, even though I knew that I'd probably go to a "good" university and they'd end up driving a truck. Besides that, due to a stronger union movement, the difference between working class incomes and upper middle class incomes was less than it is today: I recall visiting a high school friend whose father was a city bus driver, and they lived more or less like my family did, maybe the car was a bit older, but everybody drove General Motors cars or Fords, everybody had basically the same home appliances, and ate basically the same high cholesterol diet. Once again, I'm talking about whites.

LFC said...

There was less elitism in the U.S. in the immediate postwar decades, at least among whites via-a-vis other whites, b/c there was less economic inequality. The rise in, or return of, inequality since c.1980 is of course well documented (not just a U.S. phenomenon) and goes along, probably, with a change in attitudes of the sort RPW is talking about.

The emphasis on credentialism, noted by RPW, is part of this. And, relatedly, it throws light on some of the actual behavior of the so-called '9.9 percent' (the stratum just below the top .1 percent) that has the effect of protecting what they have and hardening inequalities.

Take public schools. As has been noted by others many times, the close association (not an invariable iron law, to be sure, but a general trend) of good public schools with neighborhoods whose housing costs are such that you have to be in, or close to, the 9.9 percent to live there means in effect that there is something close to a private system of education for the better-off. The schools in question are public in the sense that they are tuition-free and funded by taxes (often by property taxes in large part), but they are private in the sense that access largely depends on neighborhood and income.

The Supreme Court over the years has reinforced these trends, e.g. by prohibiting suburb/city busing in the absence of de jure (as opposed to de facto) segregation (Milliken v. Bradley, 1974) and by keeping the system of property taxes funding education in place and disapproving attempts at equalization of it.

The 'self-congratulation' of the privileged minority can be seen as epiphenomenal in relation to these more fundamental realities, and betrays perhaps some nervousness and a belief, warranted or not, that the system has a certain fragility.

Charles Pigden said...

A nice detail on the MSNBC interview with Sharpton and a white guy whose name I did not catch. (I get MSNCBC on YouTube down here in new Zealand.) They were a witty and well-informed bunch and were competing with one another to illustrate their analyses of the situation with apt quotes from famous R& B and Rap lyrics. They did a pretty good job too. But I bet if the conversation had taken a slightly different turn they could have done a similarly decent job with Shakespeare quotes.

Jerry Brown said...

Professor, the couple earning $60,000 a year is not necessarily "better off" than anyone else, unless they actually enjoy the 4000 hours they have to put into earning that income- they just have a very slightly higher than median income. I know what you are trying to say and agree with it but you need to be clearer. They are putting in a lot of time and probably effort to end up with that income.

I probably would not have mentioned this if you had not referred to William F. Buckley as "exquisitely cultivated ". I had the misfortune to watch his show when I was younger and if there was anyone I would punch in the face it would have been him. Multiple times maybe even though once would have been enough. The disdain I regarded him with could only be matched by his disdain for the people that actually work.