For the first 50 minutes of last night's presidential debate between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, ABC's moderators, George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson, gratuitously blowtorched Senator Barack Obama with four trivial, but calumnious, questions that seemed to have nothing other than character assassination as their objective - largely through guilt by association.
Yes, notwithstanding the many serious problems afflicting "Bushed" America, we got four nit-picking calumnious questions: (1) Did Obama's characterization of working-class voters as "bitter" indicate he's an out-of-touch elitist? (2) Does Obama believe in the American flag? (After all, he seldom wears an American flag pin.) (3) Can you tell us again, Senator Obama about your ties to the Rev. Wright we know from four controversial out-of-context quotes? And, thanks to question allegedly supplied to former Clinton administration spokesman Stephanopoulos by right-wing hate monger Sean Hannity, (4) What about Obama's association with former Weather Underground terrorist, William Ayers?
Viewers not already repulsed by ABC's journalistic travesty also saw Hillary Clinton savaged for being untrustworthy and forced to explain again why she misspoke about the sniper fire she supposedly encountered when entering Bosnia. Nevertheless, blowtorching Senator Obama with calumny designed to prove he is a dangerous out-of-touch left-wing elitist appears to have been ABC's main objective. And Senator Clinton was quite willing to pour gasoline on his flames, even if the major beneficiary was a distinct minority of Americans - elitist John McCain and his "Bushed" Republicans.
One can expect more smears of "elitism" from the Republicans this fall. Simply recall how they despicably "swift boated" John Kerry and added salt to the wounds with photos of his elitist windsurfing.
In fact, the smears of "elitism" are almost as old as the United States itself. Moreover, one also can argue that such attacks go far to explain why the United States has never achieved the goals set by the Founding Fathers -- self-proclaimed elitists and gentlemen who mistakenly believed that ordinary citizens readily recognized their superior qualities and, thus, would naturally look to them to lead the country. For, as readers of Gordon Wood's wonderful book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution already know, those Founding Fathers came under attack as unsuitably "elitist" soon after they had startled the world with their enlightened principles and successful American Revolution.
What were the marks of such gentlemen? According to John Adams, "By gentlemen are not meant the rich or the poor, the high-born or the low-born, the industrious or the idle: but all those who have received a liberal education, an ordinary degree of erudition in liberal arts and sciences." [p. 195] Benjamin Franklin could think of no greater rebuke than to say someone "thought like a shopkeeper." [p. 200] George Washington "realized he was an extraordinary man, and he was not ashamed of it. He took for granted the differences between himself and more ordinary men." [p. 206] Thomas Jefferson was the epitome of the eighteenth century gentleman. By 1782, he was "at once a musician, a draftsman, an astronomer, a geometer, a physicist, a jurist and a statesman." [p. 203]
Thanks to such unapologetic elitism, "no generation in American history has ever been so self-conscious about the moral and social values necessary for public leadership." [p. 197]
Yet, by the 1790s these unapologetic elitists would come under attack by "tradesmen, mechanics, and the industrious classes of society," who organized themselves into "mechanics' associations and Democratic-Republican societies" in order to demand that "people do their 'utmost at election to prevent all men of talents, lawyers, rich men from being elected.'" [Wood, p. 276]
They were led by people like Abraham Bishop, a liberally educated gentleman but notorious demagogue, who acknowledged the superiority of such gentlemen - "in wealth, in birth, in private character, in intellect, in education" [p. 273] - but who also believed (prefiguring Andrew Jackson) that "ordinary people ought not to be ruled by men greater, wiser or richer than they." [p. 273]
And, thus, "For a half century following the Revolution these common ordinary men striped the northern gentry of their pretensions, charged them at every turn with being fakes and shams, and relentlessly undermined their capacity to rule…Here in this destruction of aristocracy, including Jefferson's 'natural aristocracy,' was the real American Revolution - a radical revolution in the nature of American society whose effects are still being felt today." [Ibid]
Radical revolution? Yes, America's eighteenth century gentlemen (whatever their flaws) were shunted aside by ordinary men who extolled the comparatively debased values of commerce and personal gain. Radical revolution? Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1841 description of commerce in America: [T]he general system of our trade…is a system of selfishness; is not dictated by the high sentiments of human nature; is not measured by the exact law of reciprocity; much less by the sentiments of love and heroism, but is a system of distrust, of concealment, of superior keenness, not of giving but of taking advantage…."
Moreover, "confident of their ability to determine all by themselves the truth and validity of any idea or thing presented to them, but mistrustful of anything outside of 'the narrow limits of their own observation,' plain, ordinary Americans were thoroughly prepared to be the prey for all the hoaxers, confidence men, and tricksters…who soon popped up everywhere." [p. 362] Any reader of Mark Twain knows this to be true.
Today, Americans are debating whether Barack Obama's use of the term "bitter' constitutes condescending elitism, but they are in a state of blissful ignorance about the bitterness of many of America's Founding Fathers. "At the end of his life, George Washington had lost all hope for democracy." [p. 366] John Adams "spent much of his old age bewailing the results of the Revolution, including democracy, religious revivals, and Bible societies." [pp. 366-67]. And Thomas Jefferson "hated the new democratic world he saw emerging in America - a world of speculation, banks, paper money, and evangelical Christianity that he thought he had laid to rest." [p. 367]
Having taken the lower road, today we find ourselves buried in a crass culture of consumerism and gripped at the throat by unaccountable corporate elites whose boots are licked repeatedly by the Republican Party and such incompetent political hucksters as Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Moreover, bashing intellectual, cultural and political "elites" (but not the business elite) is a time-honored "divide and conquer" technique employed by Republicans, conservatives and the media they own, in order to deflect the anger caused by corporate capitalism's "creative destruction" and grand theft of both jobs and long-held cultural traditions.
Thus, the criticism of Senator Obama's supposed elitism by the McCain campaign is not news, but more gross hypocrisy on behalf of a man known to have contempt for the little people, a man who reportedly owns eight houses and has a net worth of some $100 million and a hypocrite who now seeks to preserve the tax cuts for the rich that he once opposed.
And neither should we be surprised to see two of America's media elites, Stephanopoulos and Gibson, hypocritically blowtorch Obama for his elitism. Nevertheless, shilling for ABC's corporate strategy of divide and conquer - especially in light of Senator Obama's demonstrated ability to inspire new voters and transcend partisan bickering - left a bad taste in the mouths of many American viewers.