Debbie Reynolds as Molly Brown
Monday, May 2, 2011


Elites

That’s a shot from The Unsinkable Molly Brown up there. What that has to do with elites I’ll get to eventually.

I suggested in my post on Marilyn that she was abused by East Coast elites, including her husband Arthur Miller. I’d like to suggest that there is a continuing and ongoing tension between two sets of people: those who are part of the East Coast Elites, or who aspire to be part of it, and those who because of region, or education, are not.

Since I was born in DC, and lived for most of my life in DC and Northern Virginia, attended parochial and private schools, and hobnobbed a bit with people on the periphery of power, I should qualify as at least a potential member of the elite, but I don’t. I had a nervous breakdown and an arrest. That, as Shaw advises in Fanny’s First Play, rid me of any notion of respectability. My schools were not first tier private schools (St. Albans, Sidwell Friends, Ivy League colleges) but second or third tier schools (parish parochial grade schools, diocesan high school, George Washington and Catholic Universities.) So what I write is written as an outsider. It might be said that even at my advanced age I’m beset with envy and wish to be part of the elite that I’m describing, so be it.

Since at least 1789, and the adoption of the Constitution, a crucial problem has been defining just who is an American. The tendency was to regard those who most resembled the current inhabitants, what came to be called the WASPs, as Americans and as white. Now whiteness, as in race, is a social construct. There’s a whole academic industry out there that considers race, gender, and class the most important things in literature and life. That really assigns them more value than I think they have, but in some cases they have to be dealt with.

A social construct is a way of looking at something, like race, and assigning by tacit agreement, certain characteristics to it. Now it’s obvious that skin color is subject to enormous variation, and there are other indices by which races are marked off, but these are indices that someone observes, and it is then postulated that these determine the race of the individual. This leads to absurdities, such as the “one drop” rule, and the various melodramas that concern the issue of “passing.” I haven’t read it in about 50 years, but if I recall correctly there’s a passage in Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side, in which the naive protagonist, Dove, is asked if he has colored blood. He takes these words in their literal, non-racial sense, and replies that he does. In the movie Pinky, a girl passes for white. She’s played not by a light skinned black actress such as Dorothy Dandridge, but by Jeanne Crain, who is white. The problem is that if a girl is white enough to pass, and she looks like Jeanne Crain, why not regard as her white? Pinky ultimately affirms her identity as a black woman, but why bother with the race thing at all? Why not simply assert that it is her identity as woman, as a nurse, as a human, the content of her character, if you will, that is important?

The tendency of the WASPs in each wave of immigration was to regard the members as non-white. The Irish were thus non-white. When immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived the previously non-existent category of Slav was created, and people from Poland, Ukraine, and wherever were non-white, Slavs.

When some immigrants, particularly Jews, moved from the East to the West, from New York, Boston, and their first destinations, to California they created a culture that came to project itself as the ideological opposite of the dominant WASP culture. Rather than emphasizing the group, they asserted the importance of the individual against membership in the class, of the individual interior essence against the external accidents of class, legitimacy, and other popular markers.

The elite culture has countered with a mockery and denigration of this non-elite culture and its heroes. I want to look at how this has worked out in popular entertainment of the classic period of Hollywood, and in how elites have responded.

I’ve mentioned Jewish immigrants up above because the men, the moguls, Mayer, Fox, Jesse Lansky, and others who shaped the early movie industry were first, possibly second, generation immigrants who were Jewish. Their ethnicity as Eastern Europeans, and their religion as Jews, both disqualified them from membership, even if they had amassed wealth, in the class of the Eastern elites. Both of these groups were regarded as being non-white.

The movies that these men produced, particularly during the period of the golden age, roughly from the 1930s through the 1950s and early 1960s, show a counter-ideology that elevates the individual over the class. Where there are Marxist deviations into class warfare, as in You Belong to Me, they tend to be exceptions, or derived from sources such as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Street Scene (1931) offers a socialist critique of capitalism, but the relationship between Sam (a Jew) and Rose (a gentile) is predicated upon the irrelevancy of religion with regards to personal feelings. Sam sees Rose as a friend, and she regards him as a potential husband, despite the differences in religion. This goes towards the idea that the interior person is something more than external circumstances.

Three on a Match (1932) shows both downward and upward mobility as Vivian Kirkwood enters a life of promiscuity and drug addiction that causes her to lose her personal wealth as well as her husband, while her friend, Mary Keaton, overcomes poverty and juvenile delinquency to enter show business and eventually marry Vivian’s ex-husband. Robert Kirkwood, who divorces Vivian as her decline becomes complete, accepts Mary’s background and refuses to be blackmailed by it.

Gold Diggers of 1933 is a depression era story. It is notable in that the gold diggers of the title wind up marrying above their nominal class, and that in the case of the Carol (Joan Blondell) and Lawrence (Warren Williams) relationship it appears that there is a true love relationship that transcends class.

Wise Girl (1937) centers around the attempt to deprive a widowed father of his children, and to educate them according to the standards of remote institutional authority. It is demonstrated in court that the home-schooled children actually have a superior education. The wise girl alienates and then reconciles with the Bohemian artist who is the father of her nieces.

My Man Godfrey (1938) features downward mobility. A wealthy man becomes a bum, a “forgotten man,” following romantic disappointment. He becomes the butler to a wealthy family, and eventually romance ensues.

Stella Dallas (1937) is interesting because Stella wants to marry the rich kid, but once she catches him she does nothing to convincingly maintain the status that should be conferred upon her by the marriage. She associates with drunks and gamblers while caring for her daughter, who moves into association with the upper class people that Stella should be associating with.

You Can’t Take it With You (1938) is about a cast of assorted screwballs and their interaction with a wealthy family.

Blossoms in the Dust (1941) deals with illegitimacy. Edna Gladney fights against children being stigmatized as illegitimate on their birth certificates. This inherently postulates that a condition such as legitimacy/illegitimacy is what a Thomist would call an “accident,” i.e., not a part of what makes a person what they are, their substance or essence.

The Late George Apley (1947) contrasts a proper Bostonian with improper non-Bostonians.

Pinky (19xx) departs from my paradigm in that it’s about race rather than class, and rather than rebelling against what I’ve described as the social construction of race Pinky (Jeanne Crain) accepts her destiny as a black woman. On the other hand, it could be argued that if a Black woman is so light as to resemble Jeanne Crain, is she really Black at all. At this point a bit of cognitive dissonance should set in, and the whole notion of race should be rejected. The one drop rule, which Pinky winds up accepting, and the idea that Blacks were somehow more primitive anthropologically, which was a common idea of racist theories, would logically mean that everyone was to some degree or other, Black. I don’t want to push this too far, and as I say Pinky winds up acquiescing in the social definition of her race.

Auntie Mame (1958) is set in the period 1928-37, and presents Mame as a free spirit who is friends with a variety of bohemian artists and intellectuals. Mame contrasts with Dwight Babcock, the executor of her brother’s estate, and later with the Upson’s, the parent’s of Patrick’s girlfriend. Mame commits an outrage against the Upson’s genteel anti-semitism by funding a home of Jewish orphans. Now this can be expected in the post-Shoah era. It is also a pretty standard liberal trope. And it is an assertion of “the content of character,” the interior, over external markers such as religion, or race.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1962) is based on the biography of a Titanic survivor. Based on her Wikipedia entry, however, there are significant differences between the movie version and the real Molly Brown. We’ll pass over reality, and stick with the movies, which are always easier to deal with. Molly is portrayed as illiterate. Her first efforts towards literacy, and some degree of upward mobility, are guided by her husband, who is himself barely literate. When Molly and her husband achieve some wealth they attempt to enter Denver society which is ruled by what the movie describes as the “sacred 36.” This element of Denver society is described as being second generation as opposed to the noveau riche Browns. Molly’s attempts to join society are rebuffed, and she and her husband journey to Europe where they are accepted as entertaining American barbarians. The degree of acceptance, and the reality of the friendship extended, is unclear, but it prompts the scene shown at the top of this post. Molly’s courage in the face of the Titanic disaster ultimately gains her acceptance in Denver society. The disaster can be seen as allowing Molly’s social superiors to see and accept the inner Molly as someone of worth regardless of their shared conceptions.

In the postwar era most movies that dealt with WW II on the small squad infantry level showed a mixed group of people, farmers, intellectuals, urban toughs, rich kids, professional soldiers, all united in their desire to crush the Axis, and all differences of class or ethnicity reduced. If these differences weren’t resolved at the start of the movie, they usually were by its end. Examples include Battleground, Battle Cry, possibly The Best Years of Our Lives. Even a film like It’s Always Fair Weather, which I’ve about before in context of its cynicism, and its portrayal of frivolous lives, shows people of disparate backgrounds united in the face of a common enemy, both during WW II, and after.

I don’t want to go on too long about old movies, so I’ll leave it to the reader to watch some of the classic movies and determine for himself if this element is there.

How do the elites view these outsiders? There is denigration of the outsider, the Westerner, the farmer, the religious, in short those who are not WASPs.

The Scopes trial of 1925 arose in response to Tennessee’s law against the teaching of evolution. Now if you know the case through either the play or movie Inherit the Wind, or through the reportage of H. L. Mencken, you have a distorted view of the case. The instigators of the trial were not a bunch of rednecks out to repress freedom of thought. The city fathers wanted a way to publicize Dayton, and attract attention to the town. The law presented a way to get Dayton into the news. The textbook used in the class was not just a book that taught evolution; it also taught eugenics. (Eugenics is pretty much discredited as a result of Nazi efforts at sterilization and extermination of the “unfit.” In Buck v. Bell 274 U.S. 200 (1927) the Supremes enshrined eugenics as a valid reason for involuntary sterilization.) So the city fathers, whatever their sins of racial or religious bigotry, were somewhat better in opposing the use of these textbooks than their opponents were in condoning them.

Mencken ridiculed the residents of Dayton. Maybe they were hicks. Maybe not. The question remains though whether or not they had a right to have their concerns over the teaching of evolution, and its consequential doctrines addressed.

There is a pattern of denigration of a person’s ideas not because the ideas are bad, but because the person is disliked.

Tea party/tea bag. A trader on CNBC suggested that it was time for a new tea party. This was picked up on by people who felt that the present exorbitant rate of taxation, derived from a source unknown to the Revolutionary era founders, was analogous to the tax enacted on tea. Some people, such as Janeane Garofalo, who has no known expertise in history, or political science, said that members of what became known as the Tea Party movement, did not understand what the original tea party was about. She did not, as far as I know, tell anybody what she thought it was about. Other people, not necessarily Janeane, started using tea bagger, a sexual term, for Tea Partier. Since the left approves of gay liberation, and non-traditional forms of sex, it’s not clear why this is a term of contempt. In any case what is the connection between sex and taxation? (Maybe it’s that if you pay too much in taxes, you won’t be able to afford much sex?)

Glenn Beck. Everyone likes to pile on this guy. Partly because he’s a Mormon. As a Catholic I have to say that I don’t care too much for his leaving the Church, and I certainly don’t accept the Book of Mormon as having any kind of scriptural authority. However, that’s his own business. He is not college educated, and is largely self-taught. These are points against him in the view of some. However, none of that has anything to do with argumentation. Two questions need to be asked. Are his facts correct? If his facts are correct, is his interpretation of the facts correct, or at least plausible? Beck does not pose as an intellectual. He regards himself as an entertainer, and as an entertainer he seems more successful than someone like Jon Stewart, who has been consistently unfunny every time I’ve ever watched him. If Beck’s shtick is to cry on cue, it’s a better shtick than Stewart’s screwing his face up to make himself uglier than he already is. To refute Beck, it’s necessary to refute his facts, and the interpretations of the facts. Screwing your face up, as Stewart did in an alleged commentary, is non-probative of anything except muscular control.

I should admit that in checking Beck’s entry on Wikipedia that he did make some outrageous statements. When he was called out on them, he usually apologized. I don’t recall Stewart or Colbert ever apologizing for anything.

Beck’s act might give cause for not listening to him. The act, and the off-putting nature of the act, could be regarded as giving evidence of a lack of common sense. I’ve dealt with the topic of common sense and rhetoric before. But these are reasons not to listen in the first place. I find David Letterman and Jon Stewart repellent, both in terms of appearance, and in terms of performance, so I don’t listen. If I do consent to listen, then I have an obligation, once the other issues have been dealt with, to deal with any substantive comments.

John Wayne is controversial because he was expressly patriotic, especially during the Vietnam era. Wayne did not serve in WW II, though he did submit an application to the OSS. He was deferred because of his age (34), and his children. He may also have had some physical problems, though there is some controversy about that. Wayne was mocked as a hypocrite for advocating service in the Vietnam war and was regarded by some as a draft dodger because of that lack of WW II service. Now the same people that reviled Wayne for failing to serve in WW II failed themselves to serve in either Korea or Vietnam. As a rhetorical ploy they were attempting to impugn Wayne’s ethos. However, Wayne’s appeal was not based on any heroism real or imagined, he appealed to what he perceived as common values, patriotism and revulsion towards communism. His revulsion was proved correct in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon, and the creation of the killing fields of Cambodia.

Dwight Eisenhower was considered an inadequate president at the time, and now I’m told that historians are re-evaluating his presidency.

Barry Goldwater was portrayed as crazy, and a commercial, which admittedly aired a single time, portrayed him as leading towards a nuclear war.

Ronald Reagan was mocked for playing against a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo, yet Humphrey Bogart was never mocked for playing a lion tamer in The Wagons Roll at Night, or Donald Crisp for acting with a dog (Lassie). His intelligence was questioned, as was his sanity.

George W. Bush and Sarah Palin are the most recent victims of this syndrome. Bush got average grades at Yale, as did John Kerry. Grades, however, reflect more the ability to please the teacher, and to regurgitate in proper format the professor’s opinions and beliefs than any serious intellectual effort. There is some correlation, but it’s not 100 per cent. 18–22, the usual age range for college students, is also a time of rising sexual interest. When I was the age of Bush and Kerry I was more interested in chasing girls than I was in geology, or Latin, two of my subjects as a freshman or sophomore. I got lousy grades in fact. After a break I was able to overcome the lousy grades and go to grad school. Bush and Kerry both show the pattern of bright students who were not overly absorbed by their studies.

I don’t want to get involved in a defense of either Bush or Palin, both of whom I rather like, but consider that one of the most frequent hostile comments about him is that his trouble speaking, his malapropisms, were taken as signs of idiocy. Everyone makes mistakes, some of us more than others. It’s possible to have a larger recognition vocabulary, seeing and understanding a word in print, than a speaking vocabulary. When I see the word “avoirdupois” I know what it means, but since it’s French I’ll be damned if I can say it correctly. (Same with “Sforza” or “Sbarro.” Those initial consonantal combinations don’t occur in English. You may recognize them, but you can’t say them.) It’s also possible that Bush’s mind outpaced his tongue. I can hear my liberal readers laughing at that, but consider the possibility.

As for Palin, she’s been maligned because she attended multiple colleges. That could be a matter of money, or changing interests, or any number of reasons. None of which may have anything to do with her intelligence. She was attacked over Bristol’s pregnancy. The list of attacks goes on. What do any of these things have to do with Palin’s ideas?

What do any of the attacks have to do with the ideas of these people? Absolutely nothing. An idea is refuted by another idea, or by a disproof. If you believe that the moon is made of green cheese, I can show you reasons why it is not. You don’t disprove my assertions by positing that I’m in the pay of the green cheese industry and want to stop people from getting cheap cheese.

Gentle reader, do you think that you’re immune from class prejudice? Let me assure you that you are not. Consider how you react when you go into Best Buy or order a pizza from Domino’s. Don’t you look down upon the salesman or the delivery person because they wear polyester shirts, rather than the shirt-tie-suit uniform of the office worker? Don’t you assume that because they are working at what you consider a low class job that they are somehow inferior, and can be patronized? Of course you do. I’ve done it, and I’ve had it done to me.

Despite the rhetoric about the personal is the political, something that I might deal with later, facts remain facts regardless of the person stating them, and ideas are good or bad regardless of the person advocating them.

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