Thursday, April 22, 2010

Mrs. Teasdale Joins the Revolution: Frank Rich and the Dictatorship of the "Downtrodden" Snobs

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By Barry Rubin

Margaret Dumont whose best-known character was as Mrs. Teasdale in the Marx Brothers movies; Chatsworth Osborne Jr.; of the Dobie Gillis show; Richie Rich of comic-strip fame; the Howells of Gilligan’s Island; and countless others.

They're stock characters in American culture. Rich, society people who speak with exaggerated accents, look down their noses at the masses, and take their privileges as being due to their superior virtue. This is a particularly American response to class difference: laughing at these pretenses. Communist cartoons portrayed fat, top-hatted plutocrats in hope of stirring a proletarian revolution against privilege; Americans ridiculed its pretensions.

Yet what if those very people were to take over the revolution, seize control of the left, and laugh at the masses who suffer from their policies? That's what's happened.

It's as if the stuffy Mrs. Teasdale were to put down her copy of the Social Register, pick up a copy of Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals, and proclaim herself leader of the revolution. Indeed, not just any revolution, but of a progressive revolution against privilege and for the suffering masses. How could she simultaneously ridicule—even demonize--average people while pretending to be the standard-bearer of social justice?

In other words, how can you simultaneously be an arrogant, privileged snob and a freedom fighter against the fascist hordes?

Enter Frank Rich. For those fortunate enough not to know, Rich is a minor—but as we will see highly symbolic—American cultural figure. He was New York Times theatre critic, a job where he became famous for destroying the hopes, dreams, and shows put on by people who are actually creative. Some say he played a central role in decimating Broadway, though I’m in no position to tell. Then he became a cultural columnist at the newspaper and now holds forth both there and on MSNBC.

Rich has become notorious in his new role as a polemicist extreme even by contemporary standards in ridiculing and demonizing everyone who isn’t on the left (a far left that has temporarily hijacked the liberal label). Critics of President Barack Obama are, to him, merely fascist racists who have nothing legitimate to complain about.

Debt high, spending sky-high, health bill unsatisfactory, foreign policy failing? No actual discussion of these issues is permissible. The debate is over. And no decent or respectable person could possibly disagree.

(My personal grievance is the claim that these radicals embody liberalism. I'm confident that Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey would be on my side. One of the wittiest 1960s' slogans was, "We are the people our parents warned us against." Of the radical left that poses as liberal today--with its tendencies toward anti-Americanism, softness toward dictators, ambiguity about free speech, and so on--it might accurately be said: These are the people the liberals warned us against.)

Having had the misfortune to have attended secondary school with Rich and having seen his thinking and methods close up, I can add another dimension to the story. Rich’s father owned Rich’s Shoe Store. As far as I knew, and this was a very well-off neighborhood, his family was the wealthiest of all those in the school. With his friend, Jeremy Pikser, son of secret Communist party members who once explained to us that Joseph Stalin was a really good guy, he ran the dominant clique among the honor track students.

So here we have the perfect combination: the wealthy snobbish bully, who looked down on everyone, and the Communist offspring, who accepted that ideology. Rich was vicious toward everyone outside of his clique. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who could get such sarcastic hatred into his tone of voice. Those he denounced were not bad in his eyes for reasons of politics or morality but simply that they were unfashionable or, even better, couldn't defend themselves.
This circle, where no one thought of punching him out for the endless insults and his coterie would laugh appreciatively at his ridicule, was a risk-free bullying environment.

Sort of like MSNBC.

Rich would later write an autobiography in which he claimed to be the real victim. His step-father, you see, was mean to him. (George W. Bush equals stepfather? You said it, I didn't.)

Having been present at a number of the incidents Rich describes I can tell you that he is not all that accurate on key points. But the bottom line in judging Rich's honesty, however, is the following story. In the book, Rich claims that his parents so neglected him that after he graduated high school they went off to England and left him home alone. Funny about that, says a friend who spent a lot of time in the United Kingdom, I was in London at the time and ran into him there, on that very trip with his parents.

Rich would also say, in a television interview about his book, that he had always been a friend to the underdog. I couldn't think of anyone I have know of whom that is less true.

So here we have it: an over-privileged snobbish bully who feels superior to everyone else while at the same time perceiving himself as victim of an uncultured vulgar capitalist. Here we have the makings of the modern, Obama-era radical.

Whatever talent Rich has, the road for him was still easy. Out of university he landed a job at a short-lived magazine and then straight to the New York Times. He has enjoyed every privilege and suffered few hardships or setbacks. Rich has no idea how most people in America think and live or what they have to do to survive. He's never met a payroll or struggled to pay his bills. And he has no interest in knowing. His long career shows that empathy is not among his virtues.

But our modern intellectual culture prizes the rebel, the underdog, the man of the people. Once, those who came from backgrounds like Rich donned workmen’s clothes and went to work in factories to organize unions or, earlier, went to peasant villages in Russia, shared the impoverished life of the people, and preached revolution.

Today, however, you don’t have to make any sacrifices. Bring together your arrogance and snobbishness and your pretense at being a heroic battler for the downtrodden. People who work for a living, who have small businesses, who dare differ from the dominant ideology—the old downtrodden –are now evil reactionaries, while the Park Avenue (or is that Upper West Side?) fashionable privileged elite are the progressives. Quite a neat reversal.

Old style: Please pass the caviar, Natasha. And did you hear what those dirty, ignorant peasants are up to now? They want to kill us all and seize our estates!

New style: Please pass the caviar, Natasha. And did you hear what those dirty, ignorant Tea Party people are up to now? They want to kill all the African-Americans and let poor people die without medical care!

Of course, while denouncing the mean and selfish, you can be told how great and virtuous you are, even by the president himself. Rebellion without risk; gallantry serving greed. Having the fun of beating up the powerless on the excuse of defending the powerless. Who could ask for more?

And so, for Rich, the other side has no case and merits no respect. They're merely all those grubby little people he's never met living in places he's never been. Rich gets to dehumanize them both politically and culturally: they’re not only evil but they talk and dress funny! Haw-haw-haw, as the Upperclass Twit of the Year in the Monty Python skit would laugh. But, then, they don't get to be--like our current crop of revolutionary elitists--champions of social justice while living in palaces.

What has happened here is quite comprehensible. In 1953, after the East German workers revolted against the “worker’s state,” the Communist playwright, Berthold Brecht remarked, “Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?"

Well, the proletariat—the downtrodden masses of the Marxist phase of the left’s history—let down the left. Workers and peasants preferred a nice living standard and more freedom rather than Communism. So the left-wing elements of the elite and intelligentsia elected a new proletariat: themselves.

Here’s how George Orwell explained it in 1946:

"Scientists, technicians, teachers, journalists, broadcasters, bureaucrats, professional politicians: in general...people...hungry for more power and more prestige [are looking for] a system which eliminates the upper class, keeps the working class in its place, and hands unlimited power to people very similar to themselves."

Their secret wish, he continues, is to: "Usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip." Yeah, that’s Frank Rich all right.

Imagine the scene! It’s the grand political correctness fundraising ball. Everyone who’s anyone is there, none of that common riff-raff allowed. But the Marx Brothers crash the party.

In a great huff, Mrs. Teasdale denounces Groucho, Harpo, and Chico as reactionary, racist, neo-fascists who don’t respect the environment but instead advocate violence and teach hate. All the guests in tuxedos and designer dresses applaud wildly.

The servants pick up the trio, gag them so they can’t speak in their own defense, and throw them out.

Good grief! Let them eat cake has become a slogan of the left!

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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