The Untouchables

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a bit of a baseball fan – there is his book, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball, and a few others, and lots of baseball columns. But that’s secondary. Will is best known as the erudite conservative political pundit, ever reasonable, citing startling historical detail to support his arguments, sometimes obscure detail, of course. He’s the sort of person who, if ever you found yourself in an argument with him (not a quarrel, but an actual argument), would make you want to curl up and whimper. This has to do with his style – he marshals his facts, like a field general marshals his troops, and those troops march forward, overwhelming the opposition. He doesn’t listen. He has planned, he has assembled his forces, he has worked out the support logistics and his supply lines – and he attacks. You might respond, but he then raises his eyes to the ceiling and says nothing. What do your views matter? What do you know? And getting angry at what you might see as his imperious arrogance would only make matters worse. You yourself would look like a ranting fool to his calm sureness. It works. 


On any Sunday morning watch him on ABC News This Week – he, Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson are the regulars, and George Stephanopoulos is the host. You’ll see. The others let him have his say, and say little in return – either they are in awe of him, or they are humoring him. He is who he is.


But what’s with his love of baseball? That is odd, given his style – and he looks like he’d throw like a girl.


That love of baseball, of course, is more than a fondness for the game. It’s a love of the idea of baseball.


The idea of baseball? Of course – baseball is America, and he’s saying he loves America, and he even knows the player stats from the thirties. It’s a statement of authenticity – he’s a true American.


There is a history of this in academia. No professor in tweeds with his pipe wants to be seen as an effeminate elitist, disconnected from the people. That amazing and warm historian, Columbia University’s big star, Jacques Barzun, who gave us From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, once said this – “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” Barzun could chat about sixteenth century French playwrights as if they’d been his personal friends, but baseball was America. He loved it. George Will understands. A. Bartlett Giamatti was the ridiculously scholarly President of Yale who then became the seventh commissioner of Major League Baseball – Giamatti agreed to the deal that ended the Pete Rose betting scandal, permitting Rose to voluntarily withdraw from the game with no further punishment. He also wrote Play of the Double Senses: Spenser’s Faerie Queene (1975). Who’d have guessed?


But it is the idea of baseball that matters. See that sappy 1989 movie Field of Dreams. James Earl Jones, playing a burnt-out famous writer, says this:


People will come, Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.


Yeah, yeah – we get it. Connect yourself to baseball and you connect yourself to America, the real America – the America of the common man. Cue up Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man.


So George Will is one with the common man, and with that working-class Pirate fan in Pittsburgh in the right field stands, working on that sixth Iron City Beer, bleary-eyed and a little sad, missing Roberto Clemente badly.


Jonathan Chait, a senior editor at The New Republic, will have none of that:


The fabulously wealthy, bow tie-wearing, pretentious reference-mongering, Anglophilic fop who grew up in a university town as a professor’s son, earned two advanced degrees, has a designated table at a French restaurant in Georgetown, and, had he dwelt for any extended time among the working class, would be lucky to escape without his underwear being yanked up over his ears.


Maybe so, but what set off Chait? It was one of Will’s columns, on Barack Obama and elitism. Since it was in the Wall Street Journal, you cannot read it online unless you’re a subscriber – they like to keep the riff-raff out. But George Will is syndicated, so you can find it in The Hartford Courant. The editors in Connecticut aren’t elitists, even if the column is titled Classic Liberal Elitism. There’s no end of the irony to all this.


The column is classic George Will:


Obama may be the fulfillment of modern liberalism. Explaining why many working-class voters are “bitter,” he said they “cling” to guns, religion and “antipathy to people who aren’t like them” because of “frustrations.” His implication was that their primitivism, superstition and bigotry are balm for resentments they feel because of America’s grinding injustice.


By so speaking, Obama does fulfill liberalism’s transformation since Franklin Roosevelt. What had been under FDR a celebration of America and the values of its working people has become a doctrine of condescension toward those people and the supposedly coarse and vulgar country that pleases them.


Okay. Will is sticking up for the common man, in spite of who he himself is. That’s what conservatives do these days.


He quotes Adlai Stevenson, when Stevenson was told that thinking people supported him, saying, “Yes, but I need to win a majority.” And then he quotes Michael Barone – Stevenson was the first leading Democratic politician to become a critic rather than a celebrator of middle-class American culture – “the prototype of the liberal Democrat who would judge ordinary Americans by an abstract standard and find them wanting.” That’s followed by how liberals now seem to have gone over the edge with this awful attitude, stupidly rejecting American exceptionalism, and not believing that “the United States is particularly good and decent.” Liberals now grove on Michelle Obama’s words, that American can be “just downright mean.” It’s so sad.


And then he rolls in his big gun, scolding Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, saying that man had awful principles about how the dumb-ass common man could be easily manipulated.
And to impress us all, we also get this:


The iconic public intellectual of liberal condescension was Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970 but whose spirit still permeated that school when Obama matriculated there in 1981. Hofstadter pioneered the rhetorical tactic that Obama has revived with his diagnosis of working-class Democrats as victims – the indispensable category in liberal theory. The tactic is to dismiss rather than refute those with whom you disagree.


Are you in awe of his scholarship yet?


It seems liberals don’t like baseball.


Jonathan Chait smells a rat:


Democrats and Republicans have developed an exquisite sensitivity toward any slight against the white working class. Blue-collar whites now occupy the same position in American politics that people of color hold in the smaller political subculture of academia: a victim-hero class whose positions (usually as interpreted by outsiders) enjoy the presumption of moral superiority.


The victim-hero class is the object of competitive flattery and the subject of mutual accusations of disrespect. You can’t read a Peggy Noonan paean to real America – “a healthy and vibrant place full of religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and sports-love and mom-love and sophistication and normality” – without thinking of a junior faculty member extolling the dignity of Guatemalan peasant women. Bill O’Reilly’s or Tim Russert’s endless invocations of their working-class backgrounds are the equivalent of the campus activist who introduces every opinion by saying “As a woman of color…” (The one difference being that the latter really is a woman of color, while the former are multimillionaires who retain only the most remote connection to blue-collar life.)


So just who is being condescending and manipulative?


Chait explains the game being played here:


Since blue-collar whites have been trending Republican, conservatives enjoy a presumptive affinity and have taken it upon themselves to police the political culture for any affronts against their favored class. The rules of the game, understood now by all sides, hold that elitism is defined entirely in social, rather than economic, terms. Thus Obama’s attempts to highlight his (relative) lack of wealth did not win him any points. Nor did McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, attract any criticism when he called Obama an “elitist” within a few days of convening a gathering of Washington lobbyists at Johnny’s Half Shell on Capitol Hill.


On the other hand, McCain did stir up a bit of negative publicity when bloggers discovered that what his campaign website billed as Cindy McCain’s recipes turned out to be copied verbatim from the Food Network. To be down with the working class, you needn’t represent its political interests or even share its lifestyle. You simply have to be able to convincingly imitate its social customs.


So the upshot is that to urge the white working class to vote on the basis of economic policy “is itself considered an act of elitism.” That’s a neat trick:


When Obama and other liberals reproach blue-collar whites for voting their values over their wallet, argues Will, they are accusing those workers of “false consciousness.” A Wall Street Journal editorial took umbrage that Obama “diminishes the convictions of those voters who care more about the right to bear arms, or faith in God, than they do about the AFL-CIO’s agenda.”


But nobody’s challenging the validity of caring more about your religion, or even your right to hunt, than your income. The objection is whether it makes sense to vote on that basis. There are, after all, stark differences between the two parties on economic matters. Republicans do want to make working-class voters pay a higher proportion of the tax burden, restrain popular social programs, erode the value of the minimum wage, and so on.


Democrats, on the other hand, have no plans to keep anybody from attending church or hunting.


Chait is just suggesting that voting for a politician “merely because he can mimic your lifestyle” is not a very good idea. But that is where we are, isn’t it?


So Chait suggest we look at this logically:


George Will and the Journal editors would never dream of voting on the basis of which candidate related best to their culture. They support the candidates who share their policy goals, not those who share their passion for watching baseball, or flogging the servants, or whatever other pastimes they may enjoy.


Now, it’s true that many working-class whites also vote on social issues that do have some political relevance, like abortion or gay marriage. It’s certainly not irrational on its face to vote your values over your wallet. (Democratic billionaires do it, too.) On the other hand, conservatives routinely express their fury that a majority of Jews stubbornly flout their own “self-interest” – defined as low tax rates and a maximally hawkish Middle East policy – to vote Democratic. The process of trying to persuade others to reconsider the nature of their self-interest is not some Marxist exercise or an accusation of false consciousness. It’s what we call “democracy.”


Yeah, but it’s not baseball.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Books, Class Warfare, Conservative Thought, Elitism, George F. Will, Obama, Populist Politics, Social Conservatives, The Power of Narrative. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Untouchables

  1. Rick (from Atlanta) says:

    George Will is no mere baseball fan, he’s a fan of (and was at one time, maybe still is, on the board of directors of) the Baltimore Orioles — as he occasionally finds a way of reminding us on Sunday morning, in the same way that Tim Russert, who lived in Buffalo years before moving to Washington, ends his Sunday show during football season with the words, “Go Bills!” At least for Russert, it seems to be a way of urging us all not to take all that political stuff we just discussed too seriously.

    The reason I mention Will and Baltimore is that it is also quintessentially Republican and conservative to root-root-root for the home team, no matter how good or bad they are — since this team is, after all, from my home town, and shouldn’t that be enough? In the words from that famous Stephen Decatur toast, “My Country, right or wrong!”

    No, I’m not crazy about baseball. For one thing, with all those statistics, there are too many numbers to understand and remember, and I flunked almost every math course I ever took. But for some reason, I do like baseball movies. I loved “The Natural” and also like all those others, where some broken-down drunk takes over a loser team, and they shame him into making them winners (“A League of Their Own”), and I especially loved that one that you so inelegantly call “sappy,” “Field of Dreams.”

    I’m not sure why I like that flick, but it has very little to do with baseball being, down through history, so “American.” After all, one of my favorite Americans, despite his shortcomings, was George Washington, who I’m willing to bet was not a baseball fan at all, and you can’t get much more American than some guy whose picture they put on American money. Same goes for Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, probably Andrew Jackson, and maybe even Abraham Lincoln.

    And also, although I don’t pay enough attention to say this with absolute certainty, I swear most of the players in the major leagues come from places like the Dominican Republic and Aruba and even Japan, and some of the best of them don’t even speak English, for chrissakes!

    It should also be pointed out that George Will’s strength comes mostly from his demeanor. He pronounces these little gems with such utter certainty, along with an air of pique and annoyance that seems to say, “Don’t even bother arguing with me about this, because if you disagree with what I say, you are obviously a boob of the first order.”

    Despite this, I’ve heard him be wrong, even as he sounded so right. The one I remember the most was his defense of the brilliance of the founding fathers when they concocted that cockamamy “Electoral College” system. In our actual history, the meeting was running into an especially hot July in Philly, and the founders were so sweaty and exhausted by the time they got around to discussing how to select the president, they just cut the convention short and went home, dropping the matter into the lap of future generations, which resulted in the embarrassing mess we have today.

    But yes, to your overall point: Isn’t it amazing that, once again, the party of “the rich” is trying to pin the “elitist” label on the party of “the people”! What’s truly amazing is how often they get away with it.


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