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Who's a snob and who's not.

This piece appeared in 1979

Viewed with even a modestly fresh eye, there is a staggering disproportion between problem and response in our intellectual and political world. On the one side, we have a system of government that seems to reduce all presidents to helplessness or deception and all congressmen to petty selfprotection. On the other side, we have the professional thinkers and writers and politicians, the people who are supposedly in business to deal with questions such as these, but whose main interest in confronting them seems not to be to push for new answers or to evaluate the suggestions that are already on hand but to use each new issue as a momentary platform upon which to display their deft cavorting, and from which to land a rabbit punch on someone else.

The emphasis on refined and sophisticated poses, the lack of interest in communicating with "the mass," have left their mark. This style of discussion is snobbish because of its deliberate disconnection from the substance of an issue and from the people who might want to hear an answer; it is dangerous not simply for the poison it spreads but also because of the time it wastes.

When loosing a bon mot against politicians in The New York Review of Books or chortling his way through a review of the current vulgar best sellers, Gore Vidal is more intent on turning the arch phrase than on presenting an idea; political ideas, especially, are for him mere excuses to display his exquisite moves. Garry Wills, who at times is one of the finest critics, too often seems to care more about including the extra quote and qualification that will prove his erudition than with making his meaning clear. (This is true, beyond point of parody, of William F. Buckley.) The political put-down artists-Emmett Tyrrell on the right, Alexander Cockburn on the left-can be vastly entertaining, but they care more about putting on a good show and blooding their swords than informing or understanding.

The effects of the put-down and the pose can be grave. When most people write about war or money or energy merely to strut their stuff or indulge a sneer, we end up laughing-as the society burns.

I sometimes think of a scene from World War II: the small platoon trapped in the jungle, surrounded by Japanese, searching for a way out. There is only one thought in the lieutenant's mind, and that is to find the one right route of escape. He will not make the situation needlessly complex, for he wants to draw on every single member of his platoon with a chance of providing an answer-but neither will he glibly simplify it, for an answer produced that way would be useless. The last thing he wants to do is use this as an occasion for sneering, for sneers would get in the way of survival.

This is what the lieutenant would do in the jungle. But how would some of our writers help him?

JohnSimon: With the gradual degradation of the gene pool, a fact these ferret-faced enlisted men make plain every day, it is hardly a surprise that vulgarities of language and thought grow steadily more frequent. One iii-favored corporal called the tree with a sniper in it a "goddam palm tree" when it was actually a subspecies of the tropical pineapple.

New York Review (pick your author): One of the lesser known figures of the nouvelle vague, Pierre Bonnard ("Bonne" to his friends, tantalizingly reminiscent of Proust's "Bonne Mere") expressed his sarcastic but nonetheless existential view of the anomie of his days with his famous question, "Ou sont les Japs?" It is a question Nietzsche might have asked Dostoevski, and been answered this way-"Die Japs sind in der wald."

Gore Vidal: Our slant-eyed friends lolled about the jungle doing whatever it is soldiers do to advance the interests of Dai Nippon. From the deliciously depraved glances they cast at each other's biceps and well-formed bottoms, it was clear that these happy samurai had recaptured the secret of the Spartan army's special snap. Alas, even the fondly remembered West Point of my boyhood (where my father was an instructor; by the way, I'm related to a lot of aristocrats) never overcame Empire America's slavish devotion to the missionary position.
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Title Annotation:Special Anniversary Section: Who We Are; What We Believe; Why We Believe It
Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1989
Words:719
Previous Article:Taste, class, and Mary Tyler Moore.
Next Article:A rebirth of virtue: religion and liberal renewal.
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