May 2, 2008


Obama and Orwell: What the master Brit can teach Democrats about elitism. (Jeff Greenfield, May 1, 2008, Slate)

Elitism has bedeviled American liberalism for the better part of four decades. It undermined the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry, and now it's making mischief in the Obama campaign every bit as much as the omnipresence of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The charge that liberal candidates don't connect with or understand the values and beliefs of regular Americans is embedded in old epithets like "limousine liberal," which I first heard aimed at New York Mayor John Lindsay in 1969. It was also at the core of "radical chic," the phrase made famous by Tom Wolfe in his savage 1970 account in New York magazine of a fund-raising party for the Black Panthers thrown by Leonard Bernstein and his wife in their Park Avenue duplex. (Wolfe didn't invent the term, but he gave it currency.)

There's also an even older and more illuminating antecedent from across the Atlantic: the writings of George Orwell in England in the late 1930s, which describe a version of elitism that echoes powerfully in our current political battle.

Orwell's 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier is an account of his travels to England's industrial North, to the towns of Barnsley, Sheffield, and Wigan. Orwell—once a scholarship student at Eton—wrote of everything from conditions in the coal mines to the homes, diets, and health of desperately poor miners. He himself was a socialist who could also turn a critical eye on the British left, and in the middle of the book, he devoted a chapter to the failure of socialism to gain a foothold among the very citizens who would have seemed to benefit most from its rise. Substitute liberal or progressive for socialist, and the text often reads as though Orwell were covering American politics today.

Trim away all the dross and it's this easy: men favor freedom over security. How can a guy who tries selling them on the latter help but seem prissy?

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 2, 2008 3:18 PM

I have a live version of Ray Wylie Hubbards "Redneck Mothers" that I love for this very reason...

The band and the writer and the song are clearly critical of the redneck subject and his mother but the crowd clearly love the character and cheer loudly at the chorus:

Just kicking hippies assses and drinking beer...

Posted by: Benny at May 2, 2008 4:21 PM

I don't know if Orwell would but Whittaker Chambers probably would. Murdoch's flagship
is very much like what Time and Life was at
the start; under Henry Luce. The Post is much
more Hearstian populists

Posted by: narciso at May 2, 2008 7:09 PM