Politics for Commoners

Maybe us couch potatoes really do know as much as the cognoscenti, after all

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Now that the two major presidential candidates are appearing regularly on such venues as Oprah and MTV and Larry King Live, we--and they-- are being treated to endless moral strictures from the cognoscenti as to just why this isn’t proper. George Bush and Al Gore are talking down to us, we are told. They are trivializing the election. They have brought the business of politics down to the lowest common denominator of taste. Just why finding a broad common denominator in a democracy should be a bad thing is never quite explained. I suppose we just have to take it on faith that there are superior specimens among us whose severe standards on public issues are good for us in the same way that unpalatable fish oils were thought to be at an earlier stage of society. The idea seems to be that if something is enjoyed by enough people there has to be something wrong with it. And that’s why, in the judgment of our betters, a presidential candidate should stay away from anything so vulgar as a TV show that has its own built-in audience-- that is, one that isn’t hectored to watch or listen in for purposes of self-improvement. The source of this attitude, of course, is a conviction-- not terribly well disguised-- that if a large enough number of people like something or pay attention to it, it can’t be much good. This is a profoundly anti-Democratic bias, and it exists in the realm of morality and science and aesthetics as much as it does in political thought. There is the occasional virtuoso of virtue who knows what is good for us in all spheres. I think of William Bennett, whose disregard for prevailing mass behavior is so enormous and charged with emergency that he will even deign to appear on television in prime time himself in order to more effectively denounce the times and the mores. At a time when most televangelists have learned to modulate their tone and limit their didacticism for fear of limiting the size of their followings, Bennett is virtually the last person left who can publicly harrumph with absolute certainty of his right to sit in judgment on others. His voice is full of sounding brass, but hath not charity. I confess to an unguilty pleasure in watching Bill Bennett wriggle with discomfort as he tries these days to disavow his friend and former fellow moralist, Joe Lieberman, who has displayed an uncommon warmth and capacity for tolerance of diverse points of view in his new role as a candidate for national office. Oh, Bill Bennett is not the only offender. There is a slew of them, ranging from George Will, who can at least be elegant in his statements disapproving the commonplace, to the unfortunate Steve Allen, the once-hip cabaret comic and musician who has degenerated (or lost his audience) to the point that in his old age he begs us in full-page ads to help him combat the Sodoms and Gomorrahs that the entertainment industry has caused to be teeming all about us. To my mind, the most inadvertently telling commentary about the distrust which elitists have for popular phenomena occurred more than a decade ago, when Ronald Reagan was still president and somebody published a tell-all book which included the information that his wife Nancy had for decades been guiding his career by consulting an astrologer who in turn consulted the stars. (The celestial kind, not the Hollywood variety.) How laughable, how outre, how vulgar, the accepted organs of opinion all chorused at once. Not a one of them was open-minded enough to consider the possibility that if Reagan’s wife had been telling him how to get ahead all those years because of what some astrologer had been telling her, then she and her husband had, all things considered, ended up more than a little bit ahead of the game for it. More so, it would seem, than most of those superior sorts howling with derision. And, truth to tell, Oprah and Larry and Dave and Regis and Jay and all the rest of them have been taking the public pulse long enough that maybe they ought to be telling Al and Dubyah some things, too, rather than merely being kind enough to listen to them. (You can write Jackson Baker at baker@memphisflyer.com)

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