Jeff Greenfield: Obama and Orwell and elitism





[Mr. Greenfield is a commentator on CBS News.]

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.

"Everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, is a way out [of the worldwide depression,]" Orwell writes. "It would at least ensure our getting enough to eat, even if it deprived us of everything else. Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such an elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already." And yet, he adds, "the average thinking person nowadays is merely not a Socialist, he is actively hostile to Socialism. … Socialism … has about it something inherently distasteful—something that drives away the very people who ought to be flocking it its support."
One key to the movement's lack of popularity, Orwell argues, is its supporters. "As with the Christian religion," he writes, "the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents." Then he wheels out the heavy rhetorical artillery. The typical socialist, according to Orwell, "is either a youthful snob-Bolshevik who in five years time will quite probably have made a wealthy marriage and been converted to Roman Catholicism, or, still more typically, a prim little man with a white-collar job, usually a secret teetotaler, and often with vegetarian leanings … with a social position he has no intention of forfeiting. … One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England." (Think "organic food lover," "militant nonsmoker," and "environmentalist with a private jet" for a more contemporary list.)

Orwell also rails against the condescension many on the left display toward those they profess to care most about. ...



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