The Internet is a Focus Group

Our correspondent, T-Bone Burnett, added that comment to the New Yorker cartoon I posted which has generated so much traffic in the last couple of days. This comment is echoed in a magnificent essay in this morning’s New York Times by Michiko Kakutani, entitled Texts Without Context.

Other challenges to the autonomy of the artist come from new interactive media and from constant polls on television and the Web, which ask audience members for feedback on television shows, movies and music; and from fan bulletin boards, which often function like giant focus groupsAs reading shifts “from the private page to the communal screen,” Mr. Carr writes in “The Shallows,” authors “will increasingly tailor their work to a milieu that the writer Caleb Crain describes as ‘groupiness,’ where people read mainly ‘for the sake of a feeling of belonging’ rather than for personal enlightenment or amusement. As social concerns override literary ones, writers seem fated to eschew virtuosity and experimentation in favor of a bland but immediately accessible style.”

From the day I started this blog, I have tried to resist this urge to write what the search engines tell me would be popular. For reasons that are lost on me, posts with the word “Torture” in them are very popular on Google. This 19 month old post is still regularly on of the most searched out ones on this site. And of course there is always this favorite, which must be an immense disappointment to the thousands of web surfers who have landed there searching for porn. If I wanted to really get a lot of hits, I’d combine these two “focus group” hints and just call the site “Torture Porn”. I’m sure it would be very popular.

Let’s face it, we are drowning in a sea of media crap. Yes of course there is some wonderful art being made, but the fact that any sentient human being spent their working hours producing “Kirstie Alley’s Big Life” or “Jerseylicious” is a convincing argument that Darwin might have been wrong–we can devolve as a species. As Ms. Kakutani points out, there are even academics willing to legitimize this drivel.

In a recent Newsweek cover story pegged to the Tiger Woods scandal, Neal Gabler, the author of Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality absurdly asserts that celebrity is “the great new art form of the 21st century.”

I wonder how the executives at A & E (remember when that stood for Arts and Entertainment?) or the Style Network that finance this reality garbage can look their children in the eye and tell them to study hard so they can grow up to be like Mommy or Daddy and add to the world’s store of cultural heritage with “Jerseylicious”?

I know we have had some epic battles on this site over the meaning of the Internet, reality TV and its effect on our society. And in those fights I have glimpsed something that Jaron Lanier references in his new book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Kakutani synthesizes it this way.

For his part Mr. Lanier says that because the Internet is a kind of “pseudoworld” without the qualities of a physical world, it encourages the Peter Pan fantasy of being an entitled child forever, without the responsibilities of adulthood. While this has the virtues of playfulness and optimism, he argues, it can also devolve into a “Lord of the Flies”-like nastiness, with lots of “bullying, voracious irritability and selfishness” — qualities enhanced, he says, by the anonymity, peer pressure and mob rule that thrive online.

Perhaps one of the reasons I keep blogging is that somehow (with a few exceptions) we’ve managed to have a civil discourse with myriad political and cultural points of view represented here. And I too am addicted to my I Phone and my constant connectivity, so I really don’t have an “get off the grid” cure for what ails us. What I do suggest is that we all try to create more communion, where we sit around a table, share a meal with our family or our friends–free of the distraction of the the TV,the computer,  the crackberry, the I phone. And we make those meals last, as we often do in my house, where we find ourselves still at the dinner table at 11 at night, teasing out the last bit of a theory over the last drop of wine.

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55 Responses to The Internet is a Focus Group

  1. Terry says:

    Perhaps the answer you’re looking for is that equality is not all that we thought it would be. We decided to abandon “rigid social hierarchy” in favor of equality. Perhaps we gave up “social hierarchy” when what we should have given up was the “rigid” part.

    I’m not entirely convinced, of course, but I do suggest it as a reasonable course of discussion. It’s not like the Founding Fathers were entirely convinced that uneducated non-landowners were able to participate in any reasonable way in a democracy. (They gave us an electoral college as a safety switch to keep the population from doing something stupid that the intelligentsia could divert.)

  2. JTMcPhee says:

    Focus group? Or just a magical new window into The Real Id, now being so successfully “mined” by people who peep-hole into what used to be the space behind closed doors and mostly shuttered windows, where the vast majority of us humans really live? Without the careful sunscreen that we apply to our public faces, to keep our fellows from knowing we are as, well, you can’t call it “depraved” any more, too like, judgmental, man, maybe as “dark “as the other guy. I’ve only done two focus groups, and the folks there had their screens firmly in place.

    Garrison Keillor’s motto for the Town of Lake Wobegon: “Sunt Quod Sunt.” We are what we are.

    Stop pretending. It ain’t pretty. Isn’t that right, Catholic hierarchy? and America’s Generals? and politicians? and you Boy Scout leaders? And Mr. Selbutton, Director of Christian Education for a church I once attended, high forehead, high stiff collar, bow tie, Aqua Velva, and groping hands and a hot crotch, Stand up, Stand up for Jesus…

    On the other hand, I loved those family dinners, especially in the summer. The taste of milk drunk in the open air, back when the Hedlins Milk guy made a fair living delivering the return-and-re-use glass bottles with the crimped wax-paper caps to the little “branded” cooler box at the back door, pot roast and new potatoes, Christmas cookies, conversation, no TV, “reality” or otherwise…

  3. Morgan Warstler says:


    For the fact that now I know Jerseylicious exists I have you to thank. You likewise have the NYT to thank for offering it as some kind of found artifact to prove once and for all that we teeter on the brink.

    Let me preface this by saying, I do not like reality TV, I think it is a sign of a society that doesn’t want to respect talent and quality, a society that doesn’t want to be told that there is a great distance between themselves and others who are more successful, a society that don’t want to confront the hard work success requires without even a guarantee it will come. I think it’s the same reason many institutional Democrats rail on about helping the poor (who mean nothing to them), when their real motivation is pulling down the rich (who annoy them greatly). Reality TV is the theft of attention from quality work to crap… but at least with TV, people are spending their own attention, they aren’t requiring me to read Camus.

    But, much like the mind / body dichotomy where too many people place all their chips on the mind, too many people place their chips on art.

    Reality TV functions as kind of a niche “mirror” product – it is meant attract as an audience the very kind of people shown in the show. I’m sure Jerseylicious just kills it in the hair salon crowd.

    Art set in a hair salon requires a script so unreal, and actors so talented that you and I can finally care about something in a hair salon. It becomes Steel Magnolias, or some other thing.

    Why shouldn’t the hair salon crowd have an inexpensive mirror product that celebrates them in their own way? Why must they suffer through aspirational shit that makes them see themselves in Steel Magnolias?

    I know a bunch of people who make reality TV, you do to – why shouldn’t they look at their kids as say, “I make entertainment for people who don’t normally get to be the focus of media.”

    Isn’t it odd that virtually EVERY expensive scripted TV show is about Cops, Lawyers, and Doctors and NONE of the reality TV is?

  4. len says:

    We make best what we make of our own lives. If there is no group in our lives, it is bare. If we attempt to make a group of our lives, it is false.

    The web is a canvas and life is a web. Song For Kim was made by three men who as young men loved one woman. Because of that love, thirty five years later, we can make that video and give it to her. This is not art as Hollywood makes it for the masses but as it is made on the web of our lives to become a simple gift we can share with everyone. It is beautiful and true.

    “Shadow and light in turn, but always love” because from this emerges a greater light. Let there be light.

  5. JTMcPhee says:

    A copy of “Hustler” and a dark room is “entertainment” too, and at least it gets you away from the darn TV and keyboard. Hey, that’s a Free Market Choice now too, isn’t it?

    And as I’ve noticed, a whole lot of those Cop and Lawyer shows are about private vengeance and retribution on your “successful” people, many of whom get there by being born into Legacy positions at the Right Schools. “Successful” people who have embodied the real nature of the “virtues” peddled in the piddly guise of “libertarianism.”

    Even Doctors have have a hard time gaining Big Success these days — go do your chart-picking research and see what doctors earn any more, on average now. Not your Hollywood primp pimps doing their chopping, channeling and Bondo jobs on gluts and gastrocnemiae and those tissue-enclosed bags of milk ducts, glands and adipose tissue that are the Commons chalice and paten of our culture… “Drink of this, all of you… Eat of this, all of you…”

  6. Jon Taplin says:

    @Terry-Your comment reminds me of Len’s question last week of whether we need an elite. Perhaps the founders had a point.

  7. Jon Taplin says:

    @Morgan- Your argument is valid until you examine the underlying reason for “Jerseylicious”. It’s not made for the hair salon crowd. It’s made for people who want to look down on the hair salon crowd. People who’s lives are so pinched that the only enjoyment they get is in thinking they are a bit superior to some dumb Jersey stylist.

  8. Morgan Warstler says:

    I can’t believe I’m doing this…

    Link to show:

    Link to CAB audience data:

    Link to FB page:

    Look at the fan comments on FB. 3300 girls OBVIOUSLY straight out of the Style Network’s demo:

    1. incredibly excited.
    2. couldn’t care less about “haters.”
    3. no one making fun of the hair salon crowd.

    Reading their comments it seems there are a TON of hair salon workers all very excited about this MIRROR show of their own lives.

    BLS data says 630K hair salon workers:

  9. Fentex says:

    I thought calling the Internet a focus group was a compliment. It isn’t like anyone is forcing participants to use blogs, read or add to comments.

    And if you do you get to take what you want from them.

    It reminds me of a cricket club owner in India who noticed that his teams merchandise was being copied cheaply by a counterfeiter. Instead of getting angry he took the success of cheap knockoffs as free market research and produced his own cheap line to compliment the expensive and profited from a bigger market – knowing exactly what price and market they would fit.

    Likewise, if the Internet is a focus group, people who want to learn from it have it given free.

    I also don’t understand why one would find it odd that ‘Torture’ is both searched on or that such searches should find extended discussions on the highly topical subject.

    It’s not like the issue and it’s consequences are going to disappear simply because the mainstrwam media is tired of it and authorities want it brushed under the rug – that’s all the more reason people will turn to search engines to ferret discussion out.

    One should never listen to advice to try and game search engines – as they improve their algorithms attempts to game them will only be punished.

  10. Dan says:

    What is a hierarchy if it isn’t rigid? It’s part of the definition. You’re either the boss or the gofer. If you can’t tell which, then the hierarchy is absent.

    Like a climbing a rubber ladder.

  11. Alex Bowles says:


    You’re assuming that the arrangement is static. Once a boss, always a boss, and all that.

    But just because a structure is definite at any given moment doesn’t mean it can’t evolve over time.

  12. Rick Turner says:

    The Internet can also be thought of as a “Disfocus Group” or an “Unfocus Group”.

  13. Armand Asante says:

    If ever I felt more vindicated in calling people on this blog Luddites, I can’t recall.
    The fear of technology is just oozing from this post.

    The internet is a focus group?
    Authors will write for “groupiness”?
    Readers will read just to belong?
    Say what?????
    Have you old people even been paying attention?

    Readers on the internet already belong. They belong to whatever group/common interest they want to belong to – even if it be a group of only 20 people worldwide!
    We read ONLY what interests us and brings us entertainment. Everything else we filter out.

    Authors no longer need to appease “focus groups”. They can finally appease themselves – confident in the knowledge that those with common interests (and only those) will set their filters to include them.

    Your old world is rapidly aging
    Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
    Cause the times they are a-changing…

  14. Rick Turner says:

    One thing is for sure…the Internet is the successor to the soapbox of the past… Some even get to use it as the back porch of the train and do whistle-stop touring…

    The danger is in thinking that all knowledge is here. It’s not.

  15. len says:

    “One should never listen to advice to try and game search engines – as they improve their algorithms attempts to game them will only be punished.”

    Absolutely. There are however ways to play games with it that work to increase search results without ‘gaming’ it in the sense of artificially stimulating it. Nevertheless, like any media before it, stimulate it you must.

    YouTube is pop radio. Marry it to social networks and it’s the same as a record plugger trying to get jukebox attention in a soda shop of millions and millions of jukeboxes.

    You don’t need an elite for that. Elites for that, say the critics, are being replaced by friends who pass links to you along with a comment. All that disappeared is distribution limits.

    It doesn’t mean there are no roles for critics in the mainstream, but you have to consider that it is a stream that now has an infinite number of lesser and greater tributaries and it is no longer a mainstream critic’s role to try and stop those lesser from feeding in to the same main as the greater. It simply won’t work. The reason Felicia Day is the success she is is because there are no committees, no notes, and her critics are her peers.

    Armand has this right: “They can finally appease themselves – confident in the knowledge that those with common interests (and only those) will set their filters to include them.”

    With the web, I find I care less about TV. Paradoxically, I’m caring more about movies. They are the escape from the little screen and the typing fatigue. Movies are the immersive media. One thing some underrate is passive immersion.

  16. Rick Turner says:

    Errr, who is Felicia Day? Am I supposed to go find out? How do I know she’s not another Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian?

  17. Fentex says:

    Felicia Day has become the Queen of Geeks.

    An actress; she’s had roles in Buffy, Dollhouse, Lie to Me, House and more but more relevantly Doctor Horribles Video Blog (a little project by Joss Whedon to explore Internet based entertainment) and her own online comedy series The Guild (a funny soap opera about a guild of online gamers).

    She’s a smart attractive women who’s a big hit with the genre crowd and pops up in all sorts of entertaining online places.

    Why if I were (mumble) years younger….

  18. Alex Bowles says:

    @Len, I feel a similar way, though oddly, I’m loosing interest in movies. I mean, I enjoy them. But they seem sealed in a hermetic way. Books – totally offline, with no batteries and no links – are what’s gaining ground for me.

  19. len says:

    Same feeling. Immersion unencumbered by interactivity except of one’s own thoughts and imaginations.

    T-Bone also said this is a cold medium. Sometimes flesh demands more than disincarnate thoughts however they shine. They have no warmth.

    The problem for the mainstream critic is in too many cases, common opinions suffice to drive markets and marketing. For all the demographics, people don’t have a hard time recognizing what they like or good work. In that perspective, mainstream critics grow more academic, there opinions more related to the worlds of critique that inform investors than watchers.

    I much prefer to pick my own material and if it doesn’t earn me the investor dollars that support by a major critic can send my way, so be it. “Better to rule in hell” one might quote, but better targeted I think was the quote from Ringo about fixing things in my own garden.

    I’ve always felt it was better to sing to the two lovers in the corner booth than the loud mouthed business types shouting out songs from a beer covered table or the cool booth in the dark next to door. My gig; my choices.

    Hell, I’ll watch Hallmark before Spike.

  20. len says:

    Hey Rick, watch the online episodes of The Guild. Relax. It’s for fun. It’s kind of like some early SNL: it grows on you.

    Felicia Day may be a Whedon girl (a badge she is very proud of) but she made her success herself with the help of her able and talented friends by refusing to accept the opinions of Hollywood snakes that she is too this or too that or not f**kable enough. It turns out, the snakes got it wrong on all those counts. This is where the revolution went. They are where the mojo is for their generation. We have T-Bone. They have Felicia. Life is good.

  21. Alex Bowles says:

    I’m also a fan of Spike Jonze. And in its favor, the internet does create an especially good home for stuff like this. (“I’m Here” a short film by SJ in three parts).


  22. Fentex says:

    T-Bone also said this is a cold medium

    The passions aroused and explosively expressed don’t seem to inhabit a cold medium.

  23. Clint says:


    I think you actually did link torture and porn, simply by mentioning it in your text. Are you working to boost your ratings? Is it sweeps month?

  24. T Bone Burnett says:

    The passions aroused and explosively expressed on the internet would never be expressed face to face.

    “Today the tyrant rules not by club or fist, but, disguised as a market researcher, he shepherds his flocks in the ways of utility and comfort.” Marshall McLuhan

  25. len says:

    Day is a good example of what happens when mainstream critique faces next generation technology, savvy and talent. Some of you may know about the so-called Vanity Fair Six, aka, the TwitterBabes. Vanesssa Grigoriadis invites six women all noted for espousing Twitter and having very large followings there (Day, 1.6 million). Aftet an intelligent and thorough interview with each of them, all accomplished in their fields, she goes on to write a hack piece designed to trivialize them. The kerfluffle that followed online was short with some of us trying to tell the VF6 that a) don’t walk into the bear trap so willingly for the sake of a shot at glamour and b) don’t do the job for them with all the online angst and declarations of emnity with ‘the mainstream’ mags about to go out of business as online publications continue to erode their base.

    In short, don’t roll into the punch.

    Most disappointing was that as supposedly media-savvy folk, these ladies have at their disposal talents and tools that enable them to respond creatively instead of acing like, well, “girls” with hurt feelings because unfortunately for them, they badly wanted to be VF glamour girls and didn’t see the trap untill it was too late. The so-called mainstream is out of touch and too many are out of time and ideas. Their critiques fail the smell tests for jealousy and being well-informed. They’ve come to the the ‘right wing’ of media, entrenched, enraged and witless.

    In entertainment, it’s usually a bad idea to meet the heckler with your own heckling or worse, anger, when your best defense is in the art you practice. These critics are not tyrants. They are village gossips who happen to own the best bakeries in town and to get the sweets one is compelled to listen to them. What the web has taken from them is they can no longer control access to the pastries because regardless of quality, there are thousands of road side stands on the narrow path to their shelves now and nothing they can do to change that.

    It isn’t the internet: it is a generation in conflict with a generation as it has always been that is eroding the former powers of certain elites. No loss there because as soon as a hole opens in either side, many hands are stepping up to fill it. Meanwhile Day is stepping up from indie production to Siffy (SyFy) movies and more roles in network television.

    Persistence is the only non-negotiable essential in what is a cold medium indeed even if used by passionate people.

    The funny bit: it is a self-revealing medium. When I made my response to the VF6 kerfluffle in the form of a YouTube video, all I had to do was google their names. The photos they had posted, the bits they put out their willingly to promote themselves did the job for me. If you take the media consultants OUT of the process, then your image is what you made of it and you have to step up to the responsibility that what is made of it next is not entirely or even a little under your control.

  26. Rick Turner says:

    Len, this whole Twitter, how I liked my scone today, gee it’s cold in Toronto look at me type of “talent development” leaves me utterly cold. I checked out Day’s website, and what struck me is that there’s just a whole lot of “look at me” blathering there. The idea that we should all be interested in this stuff is beyond me. I don’t need to live vicariously through someone else’s scone crumbs…

  27. Morgan Warstler says:

    Rick, do you mind if other people do?

  28. Rick Turner says:


    I just find it odd…

  29. len says:

    She’s 30, Rick. That’s what they do at that age. She’s no different than what the bands of our era were doing to get attention. That said, we do have a word for these gals: attentivores. In an era of the ten-cent celebrity, it takes an enormous amount of effort to keep the light on them. I’m not a twitter fan but that’s not what’s important. She built that fan base one fan at a time while writing, producting, directing and on the string financing it. She worked her ass off. Some of the rest of them are kinda thin on the ground, but Vanity Fair gave them the Wet Willie without glancing back.

    The web has in no way changed the politics of entertainment. It has blown open the exact issue T-Bone notes about focus groups. Perhaps it is the big one but at least when she is producing her show, there are no notes from the executives and the rest of the no-talent except sucking up to critics. God, I am so tired of entertainment filtered by the money guys who tend to push their own perversions into the mix.

    Like Thelma and Louise, they made their own escape. Unlike them, they know when to get out of the car and walk. I can’t help but cheer for it even as I found their response to the VF article kinda lame. Me, I kid both sides. It ain’t a serious thang. We shouldn’t forget to have fun with them.

  30. Dan says:

    “The passions aroused and explosively expressed on the internet would never be expressed face to face.”

    I think that is changing. I don’t talk to strangers any more. When I meet someone socially or through work, I avoid all discussion of the world at large. I even do that with my friends now. I still remember one good friend telling me in late 2001 that we should “nuke ’em all,” which meant drop an atomic bomb on every Arab capital, and when pressed on it, insisted that he was serious, and that in fact this was the *only* reasonable course of action. The cold-blooded murder of a hundred million innocent people.

    And this was a friend of long-standing, and someone who was only too well aware that I found it painful to hear him express such an opinion.

    Something is broken that, I fear, can’t be fixed. The symptoms will continue to manifest themselves more clearly as the years go by.

  31. Morgan Warstler says:


    Um, that was pretty normal in late 2001.

    What exactly do you think is broken? All I see is kids who are smarter, more emotionally secure. I don’t mean its perfect in Candyland, but I’m amazed with the next generation. My daughter just came in and showed me she wrote her own name?!? I mean I was twice her age learning to do that. I have angst about the banking system, I think we’ll see the destruction of our monetary system in our lifetimes. But to me those are just survivable process stories, the underlying assets – they are just smarter than ever.

    You can right now basically for FREE video conference with a billion people, infinite data is right at your finger tips. What’s so depressing?

    Small note to T BONE: Where I grew up, it wasn’t Friday night without a fist fight. The nastiness said to someone’s face was pretty frigging horrific. I think most high school dark comedy’s still get it pretty correct – juveniles can be horrifically mean. The web’s anonymity always carries a discount: take those without names and faces with a grain of salt. But that’s ending. More and more, people stand behind who they really are online.

  32. JTMcPhee says:

    In physiology, organisms live and remain homeostatically stable thanks to what are unfortunately called “negative feedback loops.” “Positive feedback loops are sometimes part of healthy physiology, but generally are not a good thing. TeaBagging, as a shorthend for the dysfunction in the midst of our Interregnum, strikes me as the epitome and archetype of a positive-feedback loop.

    There’s a disorder called “disseminated intravascular coagulation” that kills a lot of folks affected by systemic inflammation and infections. Little clots form all through your body, sucking up all the clotting materials, while you bleed out through your capillaries, eyes, and every orifice. To my imagination that sounds a lot like where we are. Transfusions of new blood products can sometimes help, or maybe anticoagulants that kind of “stimulate” the system, and sometimes those just make it worse.

    As the article says, “prognosis is grim.” All for the want of functioning negative-feedback. How do you homeostaticize greed and tribalism and that fear of the black unknown Enemy out there who is going to “get you” and “take you over?” Answer that and you might have something.

    Oh, wait, wait, I know, “20 percent of GDP.”

  33. Rick Turner says:

    Len, that’s not what I was doing when I was 30! My career as a pro musician was already pretty much over after being on five or six albums, playing the length and breadth of the US and Canada, and I was onto new vistas…helping design the Grateful Dead’s sound system, building instruments, and being a columnist for Guitar Player Magazine… And what I discussed was generally being in service to music and musicians, not my latest cup of cappuccino. Twitterism is a substitute for creativity, not the expression of it.

  34. len says:

    Twitter isn’t a substitute of course. It’s just fan mail without secretaries with a bit of voyeurism. Harmless but also if you stare at it, some insights on what the star is actually having to do (and hilarious at times).

    When you were in your twenties, as Spencer Davis said, bands were easy to put together because it was all new. We accepted the VeeJay sub-par album and even embraced it because it was “our sound” not the Nelson Riddle Orchestra with Old Blue Eyes. That’s generational. She is having to do it at 30 because studio after studio rejected her or objectified her. She had to learn the hard way what one famous script writer talked about as the “must be f**Kable” to get the part because the show is targeted to a teen demographic. IOW, she was up against the same things Kate Bush was up against when she decided against a touring career and took it all to the home studio. As you’ve pointed out, that only worked then because the money had already been spent on her.

    They wouldn’t spend it on Felicia. She found another way. Instead of going to the usual sources for access to capital, she went to Microsoft. And it worked.

    We really should welcome her and those like her who innovate with the toys at hand, make their own rules and reach their audiences. That was what we wanted to do all those years ago and some did only to be reabsorbed just as she will be. But until then, by God, she shines.

  35. Ken Ballweg says:

    A focus group has an audience of people capable of acting in some direction divined from said focus group.

    Who the hell, with the power to act, listens/reads us?

    The internet focuses people through the Echo Chamber Effect, to the keen, though not necessarily accurate, insight that they are the ones with the true and good and and righteous and enlightened insights.

  36. len says:

    Another way to think of it is this: is there a difference between elites and adepts?

    I credit my friend Dave Blalock for asking that question.

  37. Callie K. says:

    One of the great promises of America, is that anyone can educate or innovate himself or herself into the position of an “elite”. That promise was backed up by the creation of public education, public libraries, National Parks, and public arts. All of that, regardless of how crumbled to disrepair and neglect they may be presently, was based on the view that every American should have a path to self-improvement no matter how humble your beginnings. My father was a first generation American who put himself through medical school and gave his kids a life of privilege far better than anything his immigrant parents could have imagined for him. He never stopped reminding us that everything we had was earned by the application of his self-discipline and intellect to the notion that he would stop working on himself when he was dead.
    Celebutantes, trustafarians, Wall Streetwalkers, D-list rehabitués and GWB notwithstanding, privilege is mostly earned in this country. The fact that that word elite has now been turned in to a pejorative, where people assert their right to remain ignorant, a rallying cry by those who cast aspersions and look down on those who have bothered to raise themselves up, by whatever means, publicly subsidized or otherwise, speaks to the destruction of the very ideal that making yourself better, more knowledgeable, and yes, more adept, is something worth aspiring to. So if I want to drink a cappuccino, decline to eat food with poison sprayed on it, or shot through with chemicals and hormones, while I read another book and shake my educated head at all the senselessness that goes on in the world, you can bet I earned that right the good old-fashioned American way and I’m damn proud of it.

  38. Hugh says:

    I’m not sure what Gabler is on about, as he used to decry the things he now seems to salute–junk culture, the cult.of celebrity, etc.–but there’s a lot of meat in this gracious post despite him. In San Francisco once I attended an interview with the late Pauline Kael, a native of that place. She pulled this droll shaggy dog to the effect that the American Framers had emplaced a grand and hopeful experiment in full expectation of a flowering of learning, expression, science and the arts. “Instead,” she said, “we got television.”. In other days Gabler said similar things.

    But I beg to differ with Mr. Burnett a distinguished and unusually civil person. I’m not surprised that he’s repulsed by the rudeness of Internet byplay (indeed somebody here infected my computers the other day and Apple had to sort it out), but in the main I’m impressed by the discursive decency. When I was a young journalist I used to write the most unutterably injurious things about persons in high places, and wallowed in my ability to take them down. If they objected I’d suggest that they come see me so I could tell ’em to their face. I meant, too.

    But one day some nice people did pay me a visit just to ask whether I realized how poisonous was my pen. I hadn’t realized it, oddly enough, and afterward I was deeply ashamed and switched to writing features–human interest stories, that kind of thing.

    In retrospect I don’t know why I was so angry with perceived authority. Maybe it was Nixon or my father or all the bossy schoolteachers I had to obey. It seems that I entered newspapering as though I were joining a boxing gym. To those of you who may be matriculating under Prof. Taplin, trust me, that’s not a healthy motive.

    Then again I started to young, and with help eventually outgrew it. So my difference with T Bone, and my response to Jon, is that I think the Internet is like that. Callow and caustic. But it’ll grow out of it if it just doesn’t sell out first.

  39. Hugh says:

    Wow, Callie! As we used to say, that is some chewy text! Bravo.

  40. len says:

    @callie: Had your father insisted to you that it was your right by inheritance to be elite without becoming adept, and had you accepted that, we’d have a quarrel. Instead, he used the status he attained to enable you to become adept and by your own diligence, you became elite.

    I am convinced inherited elitism works against us if it does not lead one to become adept but at what? I am convinced that elitism comes about by natural forces born of our need to cooperate but at what?

    Kat Williams comments in his routine, Pimpadelic, that his friends warn him that success and wealth will change him. He says, “I earned this so I CAN change.”

    My father was a mechanic, a musician and a racist and at the same time, good friends with the black men who worked for him and their families. Sometimes some of us must become adept at overcoming our inheritance. I can’t fix cars.

    We have to earn change. But change what? A shining city in a lifeless desert? Or irrigation along the Nile next to the embalming temple at Karnak?

    YouTube gives me access, but the only reason the video could be made was all three men loved her and didn’t let go of that. Sustainability.

  41. Rick Turner says:

    Thanks, Callie…

    As a society, we do seem to accept and embrace the elite of sports…and the elite of trash… Why not art and intellect?

  42. Hugh says:


    if I may, the answer is: to become more adept at things at once. I know people like your father. There’s a tenchant old joke you must have heard. It goes, What do you call a black man with a Ph.D. The puchline is ugly.

    To days ago John Lewis from here and Sheila Jacson Lee, of Texas, were entering the Capitol and some tea partiers slurrred them and spat at them. Old Lewis took in stride but said he hadn’t seen anything like it since the ’60s. The GOP seems dtermined to fight this new bill in the courts on grounds that it establishes an unconstitutional “right” and.pits the Commerce Clause against reserved powers. That will put the jurists in a bind and, I fear, will invite a new chapter of indecency and civil animus.

  43. Hugh says:

    Sorry, len. I’d meant to say “more adept at ALL things at once.” And, likewise, that the couple of congressional veterans were attacked TWO–not “to”–days ago.

    One of my eyes is giving out and it’s like blogging when you’re the Hathaway shirt model with the ostensibly swank eye patch. The ‘net I can see getting better; politics, uglier than ever.

  44. JTMcPhee says:

    Gingrich is an adept. Cheney is an adept. Both are elite. Read the article on assasination in Wiki and you ought to hear all kinds of resonances with the notes of this discussion. Carvill and Matalin and Dick Stone are elite adepts. Ninjas and many samurai were/are adepts. , the “people of the derivative” are serious, jovial, LTFAO-at-our-expense, too-big-to-fail elite adepts. Those folks who over maybe 3 or 400 years have run the Catholic Church hierarchy as their own private wet dream under their gold-thread cassocks are adepts and for all the vows of poverty, who until the legal judgments won by those pesky trial lawyers started landing was the biggest private landowner in the US and much of the rest of the world? Now there are some adepts and elites for you!

    Nancy Pelosi now appears, along with Barack Obama, to be an adept, also elite. Petraeus and McChrystal and maybe even O. bin Ladin are adepts, one at least has shunned by all accounts the Ferrari elite.

    I’ll see your anecdotes, and call: My father the chewing-gum-company sales promotion manager was an adept in the complex business of enthusing the sales staff, top to bottom, into high-pressure peddling of small-price-point discretionary consumables, and innovated the early bar-coding of his company’s and the “candy industry’s” products and supply chain generally, and set up one of the first programs for replacing all those road-running, boozing, expense-account-padding, dirty-joke-telling, womanizing, good-middle-class-income-able-to-support-the-family-on-one-person’s-paycheck salesmen, with a bunch of low-paid, non-commission young lads and ladies reaching out to the sales outlet clientele by telephone sales bank. Ah, I love the smell of Capitalism in the morning! It smells like burning human flesh, with a hint of what they call “decomp” on CSI…

    But for all his yearning and wanting and striving to join the elite, particularly the financially elite, hanging around with Standard Oil execs, bank presidents and such in the various elite “clubs” he and my mom worked their way into, joining an Investment Club, all the while doing all kinds of good civic works from leading Scout troops to running the town’s annual self-celebration around the 4th of July to my mom’s years as a substitute teacher, they were just another low-to-middle-middle-class Corporate Couple who did not have the fortune, in the “luck” sense, to Make It Big. Maybe if my Dad had been smart enough to marry one of the Wrigley daughters, like his big boss…

    My paternal grandfather worked all through the Depression with a company that made shoe repair equipment, shoe polish, brushes and sole-dressings, thus largely immune, thanks to NEED of people who had to preserve the shoes they had rather than go to Closets R Us for that rack that carefully holds 100 pair, to the Crash and the gutting of the country by that Bubble. He holds maybe 15 patents, a real innovator, organized the production of beautiful shell jewelry in South Florida in the winters, ran his summer home as a bed and breakfast and lived in the upstairs of a duplex house, renting out the bottom floor. He gave my dad an Ivy League education, my dad became a WW II Navy seagoing captain, but all his connections did not make him Successful or give him access to the Elite Status.

    We have buried Calvin, but he rules us from his grave. What are the numbers? 80 percent of the nation’s wealth (both real and Financial Industry Funny Munny “products”) is held by what, 10 or 15 percent of the population? Even that fractions out to a much steeper curve at the top. My wife, my daughter, my stepdaughter, hundreds of millions of others are flat-wage-slaves “due to bad economic choices,” I think that was Warstler’s phrase. I could have bought original-issue Microsoft for what, $18 a share? If I dropped a thousand into that pot 25 years ago, I would be crowing about my Elite Adept status and looking down my nose at the lesser orders and telling them that if they just applied themselves, showed a little energy and enthusiasm and gumption, they would be looking down too. I personally gave up my seat on the bus via two divorces and a distate for what it takes to be a “successful lawyer.” Instead I go to work looking forward to figuring out ways to help badly damaged people heal, and beat my way through the Unsurance thickets to make an easier path for them. All for $15 an hour, no benefits and thank God for my little veteran disability that qualifies me for VA health care. I guess that makes me a “loser,” right, Morgan? Take that to the cleaners, okay?

    Yah, the Adepts and Elites do be adept and agile and all that stuff, they get “people” to manage their money for them, maybe they ARE a self-made person from a standing start, some minute fraction of them, another Sam Walton.

    Guess what? They should count their fortuitous blessings, because yes there are circuitous routes by which a few, a very few, can win their way into the top-predator, top-story-of-the-jungle-canopy. We Ever-Hopeful Americans buy into that notion that folks on the top peddle, as a pressure-release valve against the simmering and building heat of the pressure cooker most of us are taking a terminal bath in. You folks all read the liberal social scientists and critics: your Fable of the Upward Mobility into the Wealthy Nobility is pretty much, not exclusively of course, you can trot out the personal and anecdotal exceptions that prove the rule, but it is pretty much a complete fraud.

    Ask why some of the folks we comfortably lump as Tea Partiers are crazed and maddened and ready to pop? As a young person of maybe two Generations ago might have said, “Well, DUH!”

  45. len says:

    If they are going to become uglier, then we must shine more brightly. We must light up the world for all to see them in their ugliness. Two months ago, health care was dead. My how Lazarus does dance at his coming home party.

    Today on my Facebook page, all my friends overseas and in Canada are sending congratulations. Obama got it done. Yes, the dry truth is otherwise, but for what we want to believe and need to believe, Obama got it done. That is sending a tremendous surge of hope around the globe that America is finally becoming her old self again.

    If they want to fight, give them flowers. Remember: fight with no violence and keep your eyes on the prize.

    Yeah, T, going all hippie again. When will Hollywood quit listening to the critics and market researches and simply shine? The commedians hear it. Finally I think the musicians are waking up. Film makers? The Hurt Locker? But is that all? What about the hopeful stuff? What ever happened to the celebration of being America, the humble but true celebration of our gifts?

  46. JTMcPhee says:

    Yep, if we can just get back to the Bailey Savings and Loan level of things, and not just tell Old Man Potter off but mount his Scroogey head on a pike, why, “It’s A Wonderful Life!”

    Did I just hear a little silver bell?… Or just a ding-a-ling?…

  47. len says:

    @jtmc: I don’t care how adept they are who made them eliteNumero.1percent. Unless the people whom they want to love them do, they’ve got nothing but distractions. Tonight, I have the world downstairs watching TV. I like it.

    In defense of the web: over the last year as my FB page has branched, some very talented and brilliant people have become my FB friends. Like here, they are way above average, beyond locale, and funny and kins. They send me music I’ve never heard, authors I’ve never read and even remind me about times I’d quite forgotten. Good times. Some are best friends from high school. Some are lovers long lost. Some are people I’ve never met but whom I know will have a hot cup of coffee should I come calling.

    I like it. It’s never cold.

  48. len says:

    As a society, we do seem to accept and embrace the elite of sports…and the elite of trash… Why not art and intellect?

    Because someone doing something you can’t imagine doing at all scares people. It’s easy to accept an ice skater who’s form is delightful to the eye. Appreciating a professor writing an equation on the board takes a rare eye.

    There is the rare elite and there are the self-selected elites. Then there are elites of the vox populi. These seem to have the shortest shelf life unless they are adept.

  49. Hugh says:

    Yeah, that snippit from JTM stuck with me too. It is pretty haunting, but I demur.

    Crazy William Blake penned something right up this alley. Forgive me but his language was sexist and I must paraphrase for lack of memory. He said that he’d made it his practice “to think the best of every man”, and found that doing so was enough to make a bad man lift his lamp and a bad man “to swing his lantern all the higher.”. A reflective shining, then. You’re right, len: we’ve got to shine brighter.

    @ JTM, reckon you’re right about Calvin but he’s underrated these days and in any event it’s hard to construe him via modern optics. A more obvious precursor is Thomas Hobbes, a think person’s Maciavellian. These days the power-fiends seem more animated by Hobbesian thinking, or even Malthusian. I can’t tell whether you’re captivated by this stuff or whether you’re rejecting, or both. As LBJ once said, I guess I could teach it either way. Generally I tend to think that Philosophy is a cul-de-sac. Kierkegaard did do, and of course he tried to prove as much. You’re a bit like him, methinks.

  50. Morgan Warstler says:

    JTM: I personally gave up my seat on the bus via two divorces and a distate for what it takes to be a “successful lawyer.”

    I should have said this before, but I will now, you’re the fox with no tail… why don’t you stop having so much anger at those who dropped $1000 into MSFT at $18, and enjoy the decision you made? I despise pickles, I don’t despise everyone else for liking them. I despise lawyers, but I deal with them all day without pissing on their leg.

    Respecting others decisions is how you respect your own.

    Anyhoo… this is my favorite Calvin quote: “Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade. It is a great power that has been intrusted to your keeping which charges you with the high responsibility of inspiring and ennobling the commercial world. It is all part of the greater work of regeneration and redemption of mankind.”

  51. JTMcPhee says:

    Yah, Warstler, I guess I should be carrying a serving tray at this party instead of sticking my nose into other people’s business. Your selection of fave quotes says more than I could hope to.

    Hey, if you got no tail, it’s harder for the hounds to grab your ass and drag you down, now isn’t it? “Anger at those who dropped…”? Nope, you just don’t get it, and maybe you will be lucky and that ennobled commercial world of yours will sustain until after you are freed from this mortal coil. Let’s see, should I, as a means of developing “self-respect,” “respect” them value-added boys at Enron and Lehman and G-S and GM and whatnot? For their “decisions” and self-advertising skills?

    All I want is the hope that in amongst all that “regeneration and redemption” (God gave you your money, I understand, and I accept His judgment on me) there will be a nexus of behaviors and thinking and relationships and affections that keeps the species alive and not all picking usable bits of trash off the garbage piles of our population concentrations. Ain’t no way in Hell that any benighted-personal-self-interest-driven Randian-Hayekian structure is going to make that possible.

    Hugh, Calvin may be underrated, but it seems to me anyway that the notions to which he gave divine sanction are pretty well in operation.

    Anybody know if bernard actually did what he mentioned, “go sailing”?

  52. Ken Ballweg says:

    The myth of upward mobility exists to obscure the reality the direction of the truly poor. Who, it is said, we will always have with us. More truth than truism since they serve the purpose of scaring the crap out of the wage slaves in the middle making them put up with the predatory practices of the elite’s.

    Inheritance tax? Not my problem. Death Tax? Well that’s a different matter. Don’t want nobody taxin’ no death; ‘cus we all die, you see.

    Sort of like my current theory/explanation for how Beck survives an advertiser boycott that would have brought down a “color” commentator on any other network: he makes the moderately crazy of Fox (tail or tail-less) look sane.

    By the way Morgan, you do know that the tale of the tailless fox has been marvelously retold by that liberal Hollywood elitist Wes Anderson and now is a revolutionary screed on taking down predatory capitalists? Pip, pip; must keep up old boy.

  53. len says:

    How Art is reduced to autobiography and branding… the pure heresy of Amarna.

  54. len says:

    This is how things devolve even as they appear to be evolving. There is truth in it in terms of creativity but this is a technique that can only be practiced by true adepts. The rest of us learn as they go meaning we throw away the first two until we have sufficient technique and awareness to make it right the first time, often by accepting it’s imperfections to retain it’s breathing freshness and emotion.

    But yes, committees in the studio and notes from executives who’ve never held film in their hands or delivered a credible performance or script kills the art in my opinion. On the other hand, not knowing how to plan a shoot wastes time, money and creative mojo. The best know how to balance it.

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