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The Case for Elitism

Written in 2007, and even more true today

by John Mendelssohn

Someone famous (albeit not quite famous enough to be linkable with his or her quote by Google as of 2007, when this was composed) apparently once observed that the public is a pig. 

Apologies, I think, to the pig. 

The Brits, among whom I have resided for nearly five years now, would prefer to imagine that they are less swinish than Americans, but one need only stroll along the Thames between our home in Ham and Kingston, where I think Eric Clapton attended art school, to see that English swinishness takes some beating. The riverbank is absolutely strewn with litter --- empty Lucozade and Coke bottles, plastic carry-bags, crisps bags, and the inevitable, uh, fag butts. (The world is their ashtray!) In the actual Thames, Her Majesty’s swans glide gracefully among hideous plastic flotsam. It makes you want to cry, or to pull your own hair out.

Or to pull out the hair (if not vital organs) of the local litterers. Wait a few minutes for a bus in Kingston and you’ll see half a dozen teens asserting their burgeoning masculinity, openly disdaining the notion of anyone as hard (in American English: tough) as they being constrained by the rules before which others cower, by blithely letting their KFC boxes and Burger King cups and wrappers fall where they stand. 

And the boys, as Bob Hope would surely have said, aren’t much better. Ta-da-DUM!

Last year, while unsuccessfully trying to pitch an idea for a TV documentary series called Rubbish!, I came up with the idea that every resident of the UK should be issued three plastic bottles, and that all beverages should, after a certain date, be sold from the tap. Lose your bottles; die of thirst. This, I thought, might substantially cut down on the amount of plastic flotsam fighting it out with the swans. Also, since savourers of fast and junk food seem by far the most prolific litterers (I cannot recall having glimpsed even one Tesco’s Finest container in the woods across the road from our little house), it seems to me that such food should be taxed very heavily, to enable the local councils to hire enough cleaners to pick it all up. A Big Mac and a Coke, sir? That’ll be £27.30. 

Which, of course, isn’t that much more than it is already. 

I have often wondered how many person-hours are wasted each year in the production of signs, made to be displayed in shop windows, reading Now Open. If such signs were simply to decree Open, would passers-by scratch their heads and mumble confusedly to themselves, “I wonder if that means right now, or at quarter past eight this evening, or next July.” 

Several years ago, outside a big do in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park sponsored by Absolut, I was trying to get the attention of people to whom I hoped to hand flyers advertising a performance of my scripted sketch comedy troupe, The San Francisco Hysterical Society. I found that bellowing, “Absolut vodka shown to cause intoxication in mice!” got lots of people turned round smirking. Disdaining the flyer I tried to hand him, though, one not so easily duped snorted, “Well, duh!” One apparently had to get up a lot earlier in the morning than I had to fool this, uh, dude. Whom I recognised a few weeks later at my local polling place, where he was accorded exactly as many votes as I, prodigiously clever though I yam.  

I say all this by way of prefacing my admission that I have lost my faith in democracy, especially as it’s practised in America. I have quietly believed this since George W Bush was re-elected in 2004, and came to believe it even more passionately after seeing The Guardian’s online coverage of last November’s midterm elections. I acknowledge the possibility that the filmmakers were probably tacitly encouraged to depict as many geeks and yahoos (both in the pre-digital sense) as possible to make Guardian readers feel all lovely and warm and superior, but still. The rampant stupidity of most of these people – including those who were going to do the only sensible thing and vote against the Republicans, mind you – made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.  


And that, of course, was a dozen years before Trumpism.

And now today’s entry’s money shot: I can’t bear the thought of having exactly as many votes as the guy in Golden Gate Park, or some Dairy Queen waitress in Fungus, Nebraska, who regards George W Bush as a rilly, rilly great man, and am hoping that someone can explain why the vote shouldn’t be reserved for those who have a rudimentary grasp of history and political science. Can’t say which Middle Eastern country is largely subsidised by America, to the intense displeasure of its neighbours? Can’t identify the country in Southeast Asia in which America was involved in a controversial war in the 60s and 70s? Can’t identify the martyred leader of the American civil rights movement? On your bike, pal. 

Martyred. Controversial. I was only trying to see if you were paying attention. Minimise bias by having the prospective voter’s test devised by people from across the political spectrum. And don’t dare tell me that’s impossible, that even Rush Limbaugh and Noam Chomsky, say, couldn’t agree on the neutralness of a question like Iraq in the 90s was involved in a long war with its neighbour (a) Venezuela, (b) Kenya, (c) Iran, or (d) North Korea. I’m not talking about needing a BA in Poli Sci here, but about having slightly greater socio-political sophistication than that of an empty  Lucozade bottle.

Absent this change, it will continue to be less and less about what a candidate believes in, or even about his or her character, and all about how much money he or she has to spend on television advertising, and the deftness (and ruthlessness) of the ad agencies he or she hires. (Have you no decency left, sir, indeed!) In many areas of life, we all recognise that the only ones who come out ahead in the end are the lawyers. Well, in this, it’s only the image consultants and ad agencies who come out ahead, and just marginally at that, since they have to live in the world they’ve helped create. 

Speaking of character, I gnash my teeth at its mere mention in regard to political candidates. If someone’s an effective politician, and committed to decriminalising drugs, say, or implementing free universal health care, why should it matter if she enjoys looking at photographs of men with hairy backs, has deficient personal hygiene, loathes cats, or hasn't accepted Jesus H. Christ as his Lord 'n' saviour?

Oh, yes, yes, it would cost an awful lot of money putting in place a system to disenfranchise those whose IQs are lower than the air pressure in their tyres. Probably a few bucks less than the war in Iraq, though. 

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