The Uses of Snobbery
I plead guilty to being an intellectual snob. It comes from having been a poor outcast fat kid in the backwards backwoods of Texas long ago. I had to cling to SOMETHING to have value in my own eyes, and I chose the contents of books. The ability to read “hard” books and to become lost in them was the only thing I had going for me.
Compared to those contents, as illuminated by my imagination, the squalid surroundings and dimwit country culture of my small-town Texas childhood became dismissible. It was like being thrown into prison and coping with the noise and danger and ugliness and cruelty and excess macho nonsense of the other prisoners by dreaming about your life when finally released. Seen through the mist of those dreams, it was all dismissible, hence bearable.
There is lots in American culture now, 40 years later, that remains unchanged (after a brief abortive flirtation of the USA with being civilized that occurred in the 1960s). If you actually live within the soup of media-business-religion-sports that constitutes all the “culture” that the USA has, then you will slowly be de-brained. I understand that this lowest-common-denominator culture is the natural product of a country made up of persons of so many ethnic and national backgrounds that, other than a burning desire to make as much money as humanly possible, they have historically had very little in common. But I don’t have to join the de-brained brigade just because I was born here.
After a lifetime of being regularly fed drivel, I now watch no TV, read no magazines (celebrity, so-called “news”, or otherwise), consume only carefully-selected contemporary movies, go to no theme parks, read no best sellers, and listen to no radio but NPR.
But I still actually live in the American South. People here are friendly and polite in their personal lives and daily contacts. And this state I now live in is unique among Southern states in having a strong minority population (the Cajuns) with a distinctive culture that influences many aspects of life here. But the public reality that reigns in this place and time is still highly driven by the larger mass of US media ideas and images that flood in upon us daily, and by a good deal of local self-deluding nonsense about the glorious Old South. The result needs continually to be dismissed if one is not simply to despair for one’s country. I can’t turn on the main local AM radio station without hearing a local Homer or Jethro imitating Rush in order to book his own transient local fame. (The usual chorus of drawling dittoheads always obligingly call in to agree.) This city, Baton Rouge, has a paroxysm every time the LSU Tigers play a football game and doesn’t notice much else that happens publicly. In politics it is cruel, in art is is limited to country and rap and phony Cajun music, in public thought it is limited to a slavish love of business and business persons, and a widespread desire to try to guess what they might want before they want it, so they won’t get in a huff and take their many dollars to some even more accommodating Southern state.
Oh yes, the folks did stir from their torpor recently to get incensed when the state legislators voted themselves big raises—raising themselves from tiny salaries originally based on the fact that theirs was once a part time job to middle-class level salaries. Smart people I knew joined the brigade of the incensed. I didn’t point out to them that if you pay people with power peanuts you give them tremendous incentives to take bribes.
It would have been pointless, and gotten a lot of folks mad at me.
The USA has a history of driving its artists and intellectuals into exile. In the 1920s through the 1940s it seemed as if most such folks were to be found in Paris. Now they have found a precarious home in academe. For those of us who are unacademicized, there is only the internal exile of dismissiveness. One gets ones information through the Internet, and lets the drivel go.