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Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The other elitists

Shallow and vulgar discourse can now be found across class lines

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

"Your last two columns," charged the email from someone with the unlikely name of Harmony Threesome, "were nothing if they weren't insufferably elitist. Why don't you get off your high horse? Who appointed you the judge of all the good people who shop at Walmart?"

In case you missed all that led to such a diatribe, go back and read my columns in the Dec. 17 and Dec. 31 issues of WORLD, where I described two efforts to interview shoppers at the entrance to the local Walmart. In the first case, virtually no one would talk. During my second visit, shoppers talked-but with embarrassing shallowness and vulgarity.

Ms. Threesome (if that was really her-or maybe his-name) also asked in her (or was it his?) email if I didn't know that the disciples Jesus called to serve closely with Him were common folk. "So don't you people at WORLD have any time for fishermen and laborers? Peter and John were the Walmart shoppers of their day."

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Now, anybody smart enough to use a pseudonym like Harmony Threesome and to get quoted in a national magazine is no dummy. So Harmony must also know that Peter and John, blue collar though they may have been, were also the authors of multiple books in the New Testament. I assume they were capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation concerning the content of those books.

But Peter and John also probably bristled a bit, as I do, at being called elitists. As I have said before in this space, I hope that when you hear the term "media elite," WORLD magazine isn't the first thing that pops into your mind. I'd much rather instead that you would conjure up images of the pompous, arrogant, and condescending folks at The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS News, and, of course, the Public Broadcasting System.

But it's a pretty obvious fact that at least one form of elitism is a built-in component of just about any media effort. With each issue of this magazine, there's an implicit sort of suggestion that our reporters, writers, editors, and designers have been blessed with a certain level of insight to sort out and cull and select and reject enough of the right details to produce, in the end, a package that is helpful and pleasing to you, the reader. In that sense, we at WORLD are probably elitist.

But the two kinds of behavior I described based on my visit to Walmart have nothing to do with social class. I could just as easily have found such responses, I think, among shoppers at Barnes & Noble or at Macy's. I could have found them in Manhattan or Newton, Kan., in downtown San Francisco or in Jasper, Tenn. Anti-social coolness and trivial vulgarity are overwhelmingly classless sins in today's culture. You can find them anywhere and everywhere.

Ironically, the mass media heads who think they are so smart and who are indeed so often condescending toward the "unwashed masses"-those mass media bear as much responsibility as any other mechanism for spreading such anti-social and vulgar behavior. Accompanied, aided, and abetted, of course, by the so-called "social media," the mass media have made it seem cool to be aloof, to put people down, to launch a mean-spirited double entendre.

So I would argue that instead of engaging in elitist behavior ourselves by interviewing and then reporting on the Walmart clientele, we may simply have opened the door for those people, however unintentionally, to play the part of the new elite. First by cutting us off, and then by trivializing or vulgarizing the conversation, they were doing exactly what the major media have told them is acceptable and what the social media give them so much practice in doing. As I say, the fact that it happened in front of Walmart was beside the point. It could just as easily have happened in virtually any setting in today's sorry society.

And don't forget that it was the party with the phony pseudonym, whose address we still don't know, who thought it was so clever to carry on a one-sided conversation.

Email: jbelz@worldmag.com

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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