Thursday, April 03, 2008

Aping White Elites


Thers is developing a veritable Barnum Museum of conservatarian bombast. Get a load of this specimen:

Unfortunately, I don’t have time enough right now to give these thoughts the treatment I think they deserve. The importunate urgency in our age is very strong: it militates against my inclination to let them marinate for awhile, in the hopes that a structured essay may issue from the marinade.
This is entertaining, God knows, but it's also educational. In the first few decades of the 20th century, one of the things that made blacks so comical to regular people was their alleged fondness for big words, which was supposedly an attempt to gain status by acting white. The historian Ronald L.F. Davis evocatively describes that era's frenzy for songs and plays that showed blacks "aping white elites to comic effect, trying to ice skate, clumsily walking along a high fashion boulevard, haplessly trying to ride horses in the manner of an English gentleman, and strutting proudly in exaggerated dress at parties and 'darkey' balls."

Reading Cella, it struck me that these stereotypes are much more true of bone-ignorant conservative whites than they ever were of the blacks for whom they were invented. What is Cella doing if not "aping white elites to comic effect"? Der Kulturkampf is essentially a cakewalk, in which hard-right bullyboys vie to represent "civilization" by strutting around in tuxedos made from its scraps. Dime-a-dozen phrases from Plato and Burke, tin-eared attempts at antique eloquence, and metric assloads of earnest exhortation...these are the rhetorical equivalents of the traditional cakewalk contestant's ludicrously oversized top hat.

The difference, obviously, is that cakewalks mocked white elitism; the haughty prancing of Cella & Co is an absolutely humorless celebration of it. It all has to do with monocles, mint juleps on the veranda, and the pleasure that comes with perceiving oneself as a thinker of Elevated Thoughts. Movement Conservatism is a sort of endless Renaissance Faire for people who think saying "prithee" makes them Sir Philip Sidney.

And now, having distilled these lucubrations into a true aqua divina, and served it in nuce lest this too-puissant spirit should overmaster your own, I must away betimes.

10 comments:

four legs good said...

I think U might have something there.

Anthony McCarthy said...

To some extent it's also a class issue, the default class of black Americans being underclass they also fall into it. It's most apparent because the enforcement and insistence on the stereotypical role of black people makes it, maybe, the strongest and hardest to kill. But the absurd idea that poor people are stupid and can't learn how to use a word of four syllables victimizes other groups too.

The stereotype of the ignorant French Canadian in New England is similar, though it seems to have broken down to a greater extent within the past fifty years. It was always pretty funny to hear pretty stupid Anglo-Saxon New Englanders ridiculing "Frenchies" who were often better read and more informed than they were, often having mastered two languages as a matter of course. Even when there was no accent issue the surname used to be enough to enforce the stereotype. Even more pernicious was the acceptance by French Canadians of the role model provided to them by the majority, and that has a definite parallel in the role models that are accepted even on the left that limit and even destroy black people today. Gangsta always seems to me to be more acceptable to many white people than serious, positive roles among most minority populations. I'm struck at how many white people display an extraordinarily visceral rejection of what Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint are doing these days when they have little at risk from the destructive pop culture promotion that gets black people killed in horrifying numbers. Point that out and you will be called everything from a racist a cultural imperialist and, most inhibiting of them all, an old fart.

Phila said...

I'm struck at how many white people display an extraordinarily visceral rejection of what Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint are doing these days when they have little at risk from the destructive pop culture promotion that gets black people killed in horrifying numbers.

This is a tough call for me. While I don't reject it viscerally, I also think that "destructive pop culture" tends to be an awfully convenient scapegoat, and what I've heard of Cosby's public statements are a bit...undialectical, for my tastes. Frankly, the sight of millionaires lecturing the poor is never all that edifying to me. (Interesting too that despite the vast popularity of gangsta rap among white teens, it's not getting them killed, as far as I can tell.)

Anyway, as far as what I'm saying here goes - granting that this post is not entirely serious - it's entirely a class issue. People like Cella fancy themselves members of an educated, civilized aristocracy, and their language reflects that. Since they're painfully dumb and barely literate, it doesn't quite come off, of course. But it's the thought that counts.

Anthony McCarthy said...

Frankly, the sight of millionaires lecturing the poor is never all that edifying to me.

Nor me, but that's not all there is to the efforts that Cosby and Poussaint are making, there is a considerable amount of effort being made to give people living under the results a voice too. Apparently a lot of people who are not anywhere near being millionaires are objecting to the destructive effects of pop-culture on black children. And the "Gangstas" are or aspire to be millionaires, themselves and what they do amounts to another kind of preaching. It isn't innocuous.

As for the white equivalent, some of them target gay men such as myself advocating violence up to and including our murder. I condemn gay men who advocate self-destructive behavior among us, it makes no sense to let straight punks off the hook.

None of this begins to address what they say about women.

I have wondered what the effect of having his son murdered has had on Cosby. I'd expect it was a decisive factor in his activities since.

Phila said...

No real argument from me...I
d never say that that stuff's innocuous, especially given the attitudes towards women and gays. And I know what you mean about white people who simply don't want to see this, because the music represents some ideal of transgression and rebellion for them.

At the same time, the extent to which these issues have been used to beat up on black kids and trash "dysfunctional" black culture, by racist reactionaries who hate gays and women at least as passionately as any rapper, makes it necessary to tread very carefully, IMO. And I'm not convinced that Cosby's always been as careful in that regard as one would like. But again, I'm not attacking him...just explaining where I see some small grounds for discomfort. I've seen the more visceral reactions that you're describing, and I agree that they're...um...problematic.

Anonymous said...

People like Cella fancy themselves members of an educated, civilized aristocracy, and their language reflects that. Since they're painfully dumb and barely literate, it doesn't quite come off, of course. But it's the thought that counts.

You mean like how they lap up Ann Coulter's stuff because She! Uses! Footnotes! without bothering to see if her footnoted cites really do back up her assertions?

Really, the white cons are all about the projection. Their grandparents and parents were so good at creating the sheltered workshops sparing them from even the briefest encounters with reality that they have a hard time operating outside of their wingnut-welfare cribs.

commenter without qualities said...

Spot-on, Phila. Two comments:

First, I'd wager Cella's a lawyer, or at least has had legal training. As a former lawyer, I can usually spot someone who's read too many federal regulations and Supreme Court opinions. When such folks address Subjects of General Interest, they attach the clanking tin cans of legal prose in the misguided hope that this will shine the shit of their dreary old arguments. This pathology doesn't play ideological favorites. Glenn Greenwald, for all the fine and glorious work he does, has a fatal fondness for adverbs, including the latinate ones (indubitably, patently). Wherever you see spoor like 'patently', you know you are on the trail of an attorney.

Second, who are the "white elites" Cella is aping? I'd say they are the "educated liberal elites." That is, people who made a lot of sacrifices to get an education that produces a desire and ability to write tight, lucid prose salted with apt, but not too-abstruse, quotations.

That is, people like you! Because Cella didn't actually get that education, though, his imitation is a travesty. But deep down inside, whether he knows it or not, he wishes he could use the language the way you and Thers can. I think that's the only silver lining we can get from the noxious clouds of Cella's prose...

Phila said...

But deep down inside, whether he knows it or not, he wishes he could use the language the way you and Thers can.

Well, whether Thers and I are good writers or not, at least we both understand that this sort of language should only be used ironically. I mean, I love purple prose, and I think it's funny to lapse into it in the midst of other types of writing, but I'd never intend it to be taken seriously.

Which isn't to say that not I'm prone to my own forms of pomposity, natch.

The Kenosha Kid said...

Not one word about Buckley, who is incontrovertibly the veritable ur-NeoconBlogger, forsooth?

Anthony McCarthy said...

The foremost language issue isn't style, it's whether or not you intend to try to tell the truth with it. That's the first reason Thers and Phila are better writers than these hacks.