American theater-goers may not yet be fully aware of it but the British playwright David Hare (Plenty, A Map of the World, Racing Demon etc.) has added his 2p worth to the outpouring of artistic protest against the American and British governments which took their countries into war in Iraq. Stuff Happens, which takes its title from a remark by Donald Rumsfeld about looting after the collapse of Saddam’s army, dramatizes the whole decision-making process that led to war and by all accounts of it — I have not had a chance to see the play myself — according to the sort of views you would expect from a left-wing British playwright. Unlike the New York Sun, for which I write, the New York Times was interested enough to have sent its theater critic, Ben Brantley, to London to see it, and he was duly appreciative, noticing that in this compound of fiction and the actual words of President Bush and Tony Blair and various other government officials “an alarming, unyielding centeredness gradually reveals itself, suggesting that Mr. Bush has found in his born-again Christianity something akin to the divine right of kings.”
Oh well, another artist heard from. They’re everywhere this election season, busily going about their artistic business which is all Bush-bashing all the time for the duration. But an interesting thing said about the play by one of the President’s many critics among the British journalistic and intellectual élites bears closer looking into. Rod Liddle, writing in the Sunday Times, cannot help noticing “a susurration of warm agreement, a low mew of appreciation” to be heard all over London these days:
“It is the sound of clever, metropolitan, left-of-centre middle-class people having their political prejudices confirmed for them at a cost of only £25 per head (plus the taxi fare, of course). In a certain sense, this mellow and agreeable babbling has become the defining sound of London…. Presumably what we’re seeing here is a prolonged howl of anguish from a dispossessed chattering class that cannot quite believe that the electorate does not share its sense of outrage.”
This is well said, but I wonder if it goes far enough. For the theater-goers flocking to Stuff Happens in order to congratulate themselves on their own political intelligence are also engaging in an act of social self-definition, like Catholics who in the old days wouldn’t eat meat on Fridays or Jews who wear a yarmulke. They are proclaiming a class loyalty. In congratulating themselves they are also congratulating each other on being smart enough to see through the “lies” of Tony Blair and George W. Bush. And the unspoken corollary of being that smart is that they are smart tout court — smarter than other people and especially smarter than those who are too dumb to see what an idiot George W. Bush is. It’s why they insist on his stupidity in the first place: because opposing him for it is just like going to the theater to see political plays by intellectual playwrights: that is to say, a sign that you belong to the Aspirational Cognitive Élite. I believe that, in America, the presence of these ACE’s in significant numbers is what distinguishes the blue states from the red states.
THIS IDEA FIRST CAME to me a few weeks ago when I was having dinner in the company of one of the Bush-bashers, a man who actually refers to himself as an “intellectual” and who spent the whole meal bashing away until I finally said to him: “But why is George Bush lying and deceiving us, as you say he is, in order to wage war in Iraq when there is no obvious electoral advantage in it?”
He looked at me in a sort of pitying way, as if he thought me just too stupid to “get” it and said: “Because he’s in the pocket of the Israelis!”
Of course he could have said any number of other things: that he did it for the oil or to increase the profits at Halliburton or to avenge his father or any of a host of more exotic reasons, but it didn’t really matter as long as the reason were hidden from the sight of the base vulgar and only accessible to advanced powers of ratiocination like his own. I suddenly realized that, like the conspiratorial omnivore Michael Moore, he would probably have been prepared to accept any or all of these explanations too, so long as he wasn’t asked to believe the one thing that has always seemed to me most obvious, namely that Bush is an ordinarily decent guy doing all he can to do what he thinks best for his country. An intellectual like my dinner companion can’t believe that, you see, because that’s what the stupid people believe. It would amount to a loss of identity for him, a devastating decline in status from the Aspirational Cognitive Élite to the lumpen mass of the cognitively challenged.
I believe it was Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein in The Bell Curve (1994) who first identified the cognitive élite as a new social class poised to supersede declining ones based on wealth or region, race or religion, but their insight was lost in all the fuss about race and the heritability of IQ. We should have seen then that among the political consequences of the growth of a self-identified élite based on intelligence and education would be the increasingly vitriolic hatred for someone like President Bush — a Yale and Harvard man who is a kind of class traitor for courting the “some college” and lower social orders that still predominate in the red states.
I think it’s also the reason the Democrats, the natural political home of the ACEs, nominated John Kerry for president this year, even though he was in so many ways inferior as a candidate to someone like Dick Gephardt. Better than any of the other contenders, Kerry came across as an intellectual. Now of course they’re paying for that choice. But perhaps, as the choice was made primarily as an affirmation of the Democrats’ status as the intellectuals’ party, they won’t mind so much if he loses.