Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Elitist Issue

Did anyone else think that the January 4 issue of The New Yorker could have been subtitled "The Elitist Issue," the Stuff White People Like issue? OK, the general POV of The New Yorker shouldn't be news to me, or to anyone, but reading this issue, it was like I suddenly understood why the Bill O'Reillys of this world deride "liberal coastal elitists" in the way that they do.

Here are the contents of the January 4 issue:
  • an article about the broken California university system, something that affects Californians of all income levels, but the article focuses on the protests and strikes at Berkeley--the system's most elite university. It shows that even though the situation is urgent, Berkeley easily gets bogged down in political-correctness-run-amok stuff: I laughed aloud when I read that the student activists had spent hours debating whether a strike is "a European tactic unsuited to students of color, who challenge the status quo simply by going to class."
  • an article about Vampire Weekend, the indie rock band that has, as the magazine puts it, polarized and offended people with their "effete, collegiate image," "the incongruity of four upper-middle-class boys channeling Third World musical traditions."
  • an article about Whole Foods, the pricey organic grocery chain that looks at "the number of college graduates in the area" to decide where to open new stores. Many paragraphs are devoted to the anguish that some liberals feel when they discover that the Whole Foods CEO is a libertarian who doesn't believe in universal health care.
  • some pieces about Dead European Males: an article about Van Gogh, Gauguin, and the modernist mindset, which comes to a rather airily philosophic conclusion; and a review of a recent theater/music piece that juxtaposes Schubert and Beckett
  • an article about Grace Kelly, the beautiful and patrician movie star who actually became a princess
True pop culture finally makes its way into the magazine only on the last two pages, with reviews of blockbuster movies Avatar and Sherlock Holmes. And even though David Denby genuinely enjoys Avatar's beauty and exhilaration, there's still a hint of elitism in his review. He writes, "Actually, life among the Na'vi, for all its physical glories, looks a little dull. True, there's no reality TV or fast food, but there's no tennis or Raymond Chandler or Ella Fitzgerald, either." Um, Mr. Denby, if you want to list good things about American culture... could you maybe try to include some things that became popular after 1950?

The short story in this issue, "Baptizing the Gun" by Nigerian writer Uwem Akpan, would seem to disprove my thesis--it adds racial diversity and focuses on a gritty subject, the corruption and danger and poverty in Lagos. But because the story is not really distinguished in an artistic sense (there's a cheap twist ending that would have been hokey in a magazine story 100 years ago), there is something unsavory about publishing it... as though The New Yorker feels we should overlook the flaws in Akpan's writing because he is saying something "important" about Africa, even though, in that case, a news article or autobiographical essay would be much more satisfactory than fiction. So it seems to have been published because it adds diversity to the issue, which is certainly a "liberal elitist" thing to do.

Still, far more unsavory is one of the poems in this issue, "The Things" by Donald Hall, which I am tempted to call the worst poem I have ever read.
When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
--de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore--
that I've cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial: a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother's rocker,
a dead dog's toy--valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother's souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.
I just can't shake the feeling that the only reason Hall wrote this poem is because he wanted to brag about his art collection. And then he tries to convince us that he's not bragging, that he's really a sentimental guy who takes pleasure from the little things in life, and tries to make us feel upset that his children will throw these things away. But really, how upset can one get? These kids are lucky, they're inheriting De Koonings! It all leaves an extremely bad taste in my mouth.

I rather liked the other poem in the issue, though, "Only So Much" by Rachel Hadas, so go read it if you want a palate-cleanser.

Now, though the Jan. 4 issue made me more conscious of why some people in this country despise the "liberal coastal elite," that doesn't mean I agree with that. (To quote Metropolitan, my favorite self-consciously elitist movie: "I could hardly despise them, could I? That would be self-hatred.") I like Vampire Weekend, I enjoyed the Grace Kelly and Whole Foods articles, and am now convinced I should listen to Schubert's "Winterreise." But I think The New Yorker is stronger when it provides a more wide-ranging view of the world, with an article on something like politics or science thrown into the mix. It's funny: I don't always find the articles about international crises enjoyable to read, but I miss them when they're gone.

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