The Nation, 14 April 2008

An article titled “Who Are They Calling Elitist?” leans on Geoffrey Nunberg’s book Talking Right to analyze the way rightists have used the image of a “liberal elite” to discredit any opinion with which they disagree.  The best lines come from Nunberg: 

Just look, for example, at the way liberals are referred to in the media, even in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.  Wherever you look, the liberal label is almost exclusively reserved for middle-class whites.  Phrases like ‘working-class liberals,’ ‘Hispanic liberals,’ and ‘black liberals’ are virtually nonexistent, though ‘conservative is frequently used to describe members of all those groups.  When the media are referring to members of the working class or minority groups who vote left-of-center, they invariably describe them as Democrats, with the implication that their political choices are shaped by economic self-interest or traditional party loyalty rather than by any deep commitment to liberal ideals.” 

Thus the idea of a “liberal elite” becomes not only defensible, but tautological- if only members of the (affluent white) elite can be called liberals, then liberalism is solely an elite phenomenon. 

Reviewers take on the collected poetry of Philip Whalen and of Helen Adam.  The Whalen review starts with some rather hostile epigrams of his (e.g., “Not a word/ Not for love or money/ Not a single word from me, nor music/ [These are not words but signs/ They carry no charge.]/ Make your own speech./ You’ll get none of mine.”)  interlaced with facts about the history of Zen Buddhism, then concludes with a look at Whalen’s unfortunate “political” poems, the only substantial theme of which is the stupidity of his neighbors.  So, “Almost all Americans aged 4 to 100/ Have the mentality of Chicago policemen.”  Here we see the flip side of the “liberal elite” trope- a left-liberal who believes that most Americans are hopelessly reactionary and congratulates himself on his superiority to them.  The Adam review paints a far more appealing portrait of the poet, closing with these lines from “Counting Out Rhyme” that have been stuck in my head for the last couple of days:

Then cam’ the unicorn, brichter than the mune, 

Prancing frae the wave wi’ his braw crystal croon. 

Up the crisp and shelly strand he trotted unafraid.

Agin’ the lanesome lassie’s knee his comely head he laid.

Upon the youngest sister’s lap he leaned his royal head.

She stabbed him to the heart- and

Oh!  How eagerly he bled!

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