Who’s afraid of (the charge of) ‘elitism’?

Is it elitist to advocate government funding of TVNZ 7 and, by extension, Concert FM, National Radio, the NZSO and the Royal New Zealand Ballet?

I don’t think so.

Michelle Boag, in her appearance on Jim Mora’s ‘The Panel’ on National Radio on Friday (8 April), raised the argument in relation to the demise, through lack of government funding, of TVNZ 7 [The comment is about 7min40s into the audio.].

Brian Edwards – the other guest on The Panel that day – had raised the issue of the upcoming demise of TVNZ 7 because of lack of government funding [about 5min15s into the audio]. In response, Boag repeatedly made the point that the channel should not be taxpayer-supported because it had low audience numbers: It did not rate well (though month-on-month growth was ‘encouraging’, according to Mora).

While Boag had no doubt that Mora and Edwards might think some of the programmes on TVNZ 7 are ‘good’ she pointed out that;

“there is an argument which says that the audience for these things is so small that to continue to support them is elitist”

How good is this argument?

I’ve heard similar accusations of elitism used many times over the years. Perhaps unexpectedly, these charges of elitism have been projected across the political landscape not by cloth-cap wearing unionists or wet-as-dishcloth liberals demonstrating solidarity with the oppressed and marginalised but, instead, by a swagful of right wing politicians that has included Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and Rodney Hide – none of whom is usually feted as the scourge of the elite, except in their own rhetoric.

It’s worth having a closer look at this type of charge of elitism as it seems to be buried way down deep in the neo-liberal, discursive rabbit hole.

There are two relevant aspects to the notion of elitism: The first aspect supports the charge (that such support is elitist); the second, however, modifies the first and shows that the charge is – to put it kindly – mischievous.

Elitism often incorporates the idea of a self-appointed group in society who believe their qualities (e.g., intellect, wisdom, wealth, lineage, etc.) justify their opinion and judgment being given greater weight than those of the rest of society (even to the point of having the governance of the entire society reserved for themselves).

Elitism understood in this way suggests that the elite are likely to have a sense of entitlement that their sensibilities and preferences should garner more support from society – in, for example,  how tax dollars are spent – than should the preferences of others.

This is the charge so often heard: A middle-class, educated ‘elite’ who are inexplicably predisposed to like classical music, opera or ballet feel entitled to demand that taxpayers support their preferences by subsidising national or regional orchestras, corps de ballet or opera companies. If they want these things then let them pay the full cost themselves, so the argument goes.

Now, it is not often pointed out by those who use this line of argument that the orchestras, corps de ballet and opera companies may well survive without subsidy via raising ticket prices, having fewer performances or targetting their marketing almost exclusively at a tiny number of very wealthy patrons. Alternatively, they may survive in countries close by to which those with enough money can visit for performances. In effect, the ‘elite activities’ would continue but be accessible to far fewer of those people who value and would like to see the performances but can no longer afford the entry price.

This leads to consideration of the second aspect of the notion of elitism: Almost invariably, elitism endorses the “exclusion of large numbers of people from positions of privilege or power“.

Going back to the original example – TVNZ 7 – how does advocating for the free to air broadcasting of a range of programmes amount to an exclusionary approach to the ‘privilege’ of enjoying knowledgable, informed and extended debates?

Here’s a brief outline of what TVNZ does:

TVNZ [7] is a news, current affairs and documentary channel for all New Zealanders with 30 percent news and 70 percent other factual and arts programming.

Similarly, how do entirely free (to the user) radio broadcasts of classical music exclude large numbers of people from listening to classical music?

What about the NZSO, ballet and opera then? Well, ticket prices for these can still be steep but does that just mean that they aren’t subsidised enough? It would be accessible to all then, irrespective of means. That certainly wouldn’t be elitist – quite the opposite.

Leaving these ‘elite activities’ to the market would simply make them more exclusive, less available and less accessible to the majority. They would, in other words, be truly elitist pursuits.

But isn’t it the case that only the middle-class, educated mid- to hi-brow elitists are getting their preferences paid for while everyone else’s preferences are not being supported? Isn’t that how the ‘exclusivity’ is working here? No, to both.

Plenty of tax money gets spent – one way or another – on rugby, popular entertainment (and entertainers), shows on Television New Zealand and pop and rock music. I don’t have the figures, but I’d be surprised if ‘popular’ culture wasn’t subsidised to a far greater dollar amount than supposed ‘elite’ culture.

More relevant, however, – and with apologies to the postmodernists amongst us – all ‘preferences’ are not equal. The point about a market is that it can efficiently deliver cheap versions of products to a mass market. ‘Popular’ culture, by definition, is the mass market. What a market can’t do is deliver cheap version of products that are only currently desired by a mass market. It is very poor at what can be called an ‘educative function’ in relation to goods. It assumes that preferences are already formed and that new preferences only come through market mechanisms and innovations. This is wrong, as a matter of scientific fact.

Many things that are ‘desired’, but only rarely; other things that are needed in society are not desired by all people; and yet more things that are of long-term value are not valued in the short term. Human development, acculturation and learning are evolved processes that address this deficiency in relation to the contingencies present in the ‘here and now’ ‘preferences’ of organisms.

This last point is important: Any and all cultures enculturate and socialise new members into the values, norms, rituals, artistic pursuits and necessary skills required to be a member of that particular culture. Without that acculturation and socialisation process the developing individual will be ‘all at sea’ in the social and cultural world into which they grow.

Tim Hazeldine did a much better job of explaining this educative function in economic terms than I could, back in 2000. He argues for arts funding because of its externalities (he also argues for an ‘engagement’ orientation, rather than a “supply-side” funding model for the arts). That is, it should be funded because of the ‘third party’ benefits it provides. As he puts it,

The public at large benefits – perhaps more than it knows (though I consider it elitist to assume that appreciation of the arts is elitist) – because Capital-C High Culture is the bedrock of Low or Popular Culture and indeed of the small-c ‘culture’ – the whole set of norms and values that makes life in society intelligible and tolerable. Unborn generations – who of course have no vote today – will want to have the culture handed on to them in good working order: this is the curatorial function of the arts. And because successful consumption of the artists is itself an act of connoisseurship or expertise – a learnt skill – the budding arts patrons themselves may not always know what is good for them – may not appreciate that an act of arts consumption now is an investment in their own better arts consumption in the future.

We can think of TVNZ 7 in a similar way. In ‘our’ culture, the ability to access knowledge and to think with it is one of the most potent capacities for succeeding in and contributing to society. There is a ‘connoisseurship’ about the accumulation and use of knowledge that is one of the most valuable forms of ‘capital’ available. “Knowledge is power” and “Knowledge and human power are synonymous” said Francis Bacon at the establishment of the western enlightenment and the modern world.

That is one reason that formal schooling has arisen – educated workforces are needed for the economy we now have. The true elite has long sought to create a monopoly over the potency of knowledge via mechanisms such as private schooling, limitations on access to higher education and the like. Despite the need for having a literate workforce attempts remained to limit the educational opportunities of the ‘ruder’ sort of (working class) person, women and the disabled.

It is abundantly clear that exposure to knowledge, debate and critical analysis are not just a matter of preferences – they are the key to our modern world. They represent an infrastructure that needs delivering to every citizen, just as the arts represent an appreciative skill set that can develop endlessly, given the chance. I don’t have time here to explore the intellectual appetites of working people but it should be enough to note that working class reading was voracious and, interestingly, more aligned with the ‘classics’ than ‘modish’ books. The thirst for ‘culture’ as the expression of a culture’s ‘capital’, was obviously not an accident amongst the working class, given half a chance.

If you still don’t believe me that so-called ‘elite preferences’ should be state supported, then consider two final points.

First, consider the sheer fact of the massive development of the human cortex and what that means for the human capacity, motivation and desire for knowledge and how. It is more extensive, convoluted and complexly interconnected (both with itself and the rest of the nervous system) than in any other animal. It is also incredibly plastic throughout life and, highly significantly, has developmental plasticity that lasts until the early twenties (i.e., it does not reach its ‘mature’ form until then – after that point it remains plastic but not in this formative sense).

Similarly, Dennis Dutton’s recent book (published prior to his recent, sad death) The Art Instinct, emphasises the evolved, ‘designed’ requirement for cultural expression – it is not just an individual preference for ‘high culture’ or ‘beauty’, which could be otherwise – but a species-distinctive predisposition.

Second, it is remarkably odd that right wingers who are usually so assertive about the need for us all to acknowledge excellence in all of life’s pursuits to suddenly demote ‘high’ culture and intellectual discussion to a mere ‘preference’ – one amongst many.

Whatever happened to the strident calls for our society to stop worshipping at the altar of mediocrity!? Strangely, it is not ‘elitist’ to have this overarching concern for ‘excellence’ and the reverence of ‘tall poppies’ but it is elitist to claim that there are some things (such as in-depth knowledge, discussion, analysis and debate and the exploration of artistic possibilities) of which it may be worth collectively ensuring the flourishing and, indeed, continuing access to and maintenance of.

You may not have noticed it when you read it, but the quotation from Hazeldine (above) includes a paranthetic comment – “though I consider it elitist to assume that appreciation of the arts is elitist“. I think this comment puts the finger on just where the elitism lies in the charge that it is ‘elitist’ to advocate state funding of TVNZ 7 – and ‘high’ culture.

Boag, Prebble, Douglas and their ilk are – unsurprisingly – the true elitists.

I’ll finish with a line from a ‘popular culture’ movie – the children’s animation feature ‘The Incredibles’. The film is about a super-hero family that has to go into hiding because of a backlash from the public.

The villain of the film (‘Syndrome’) is a mere mortal without super powers who tries to extract his vengeance on the ‘supers’ by inventing devices and weapons which “will make everyone super”. He sneeringly continues, “and when everyone’s super – no-one will be.”

It’s fascinating that this sentiment is placed in the mouth of the villain (the film’s ‘adult’ message is basically an attack on the ‘tall poppy syndrome‘). For the true elite this sentiment is, of course, villainous. It is the state they really fear: A state within which there is no elite.

It is in this light that the constant attacks on ‘elitist’ advocacy for state funding of free – or near free – access to the best that our culture has to offer in all its pursuits should be understood.

The elite are very afraid of this variety of ‘elitism’.

Understandably so.

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