The New Anti-Elites
Chōkōdō Shujin criticizes the modern elevation of mediocrity, particularly through the portrayal of superheroes, as a reflection of cultural decay that values accessibility over true greatness and intellectual depth.
We see in society a uniquely modern propensity to elevate the mediocre. At times, this even extends into a reflexive abhorrence of the great and the beautiful. This is, I think, a learned, or rather conditioned, response. Rather than admired, the truly great and beautiful are now routinely demonized, viewed as the enemy, and thus depicted as such. This can be best described as an anti-aesthetic movement. It is nothing if not cancerous, the result of petty envy and impotent spite, an ideology created solely to address grievances, rather than a devotion to further any greater cause. Excessive value has been given to altruism within modern society, and the elevation of the mediocre has naturally evolved into the degradation of the great. This is the metaphorical cutting of the tall trees, as it were. Perhaps this can be seen as the feminine tendency to nurture having run amok, being given free reign and being celebrated as the ideal. Surely a backlash is inevitable, in some form or another.
In many cases, true greatness is suppressed due to the discomfort of the masses. A great or beautiful individual is seen as threatening, rather than aspirational, and so we see tedious writers with politically expedient ideological leanings being held up as paragons of intellect, or the glorification of obesity that is the body positivity movement. In schools, particularly in the Anglosphere, students are told that not only they can attain greatness, but that they are inherently great. This is the result of the modern advocacy of self-esteem, that is, an overly high regard for the self entirely devoid of reflection. Greatness, as they have redefined it, is viewed and understood as something that is not only achievable, but accessible to any and all. The frequent use of the word “accessible” in modern discourse is quite telling. “Relatable” is often used, as well, in a similar manner. Novels or art, for example, are often praised as being relatable, and anything even vaguely esoteric is derided as elitist. Those who are great are rarely relatable. Indeed, the truly great individual is often inscrutable. The archetype of the great man has been replaced with the relatable, plucky underdog. In other words, greatness now largely exists in a neutered form. Egalitarianism first pervaded all aspects of society, and was then replaced with “equality,” and it has at last been transformed into the truly amorphous “equity.” I have never seen this word satisfactorily defined, and moreover, the language used to describe it can only be described as obfuscation. “The quality of being fair and impartial” is the best attempt at this that I have seen, and even this definition is entirely subjective, the implication being that this is an admirable and desirable thing. On its face, of course, fairness is a laudable thing, and impartiality, too, can be seen as commendable. However, these concepts, especially fairness, are presently being taken to absurd extremes, and while proponents of “equity” may claim impartiality, it is obvious to any that this is far from the intent. Modern progressives make little attempt to even feign impartiality, which can be seen in the routine preference given to certain segments of society at the expense of others. The blame for this rests on the aforementioned emphasis on accessibility, especially in its relation to greatness.
A great intellect, for example, can of course be cultivated, but a certain foundational greatness must be there to begin with. Intellect is not something that is accessible to all, and in modern society, education, or rather, credentialing, is regarded as synonymous with intellectual capacity in order to veil this truth that they regard as too abhorrent to even speak of. Intellect can be refined, obviously, but it is largely immutable, and one cannot cultivate something that simply is not there, try as they might. Education is not a substitute for intellect. Talent, too, can be cultivated, and indeed it should, but fundamentally, talent is something that is innate, and at times even indefinable. In modern society, however, everything is subject to relentless and often arbitrary categorization. It is an irony, then, that proponents of this sort of categorization typically reject the concept of IQ, except in those instances in which it is convenient for them. Intelligence and greatness are inseparable, which is offensive to modern progressive sensibilities, and so it has been redefined so that everyone can achieve at least the illusion of intellect. Intelligence is not “fairly,” “equitably,” or even “equally” distributed, and this is seen as a problem to be remedied. Their prescribed remedy for this disparity is accessibility — that is, the accessibility of education. I shall avoid the obvious issue of the racial and gender quotas that we presently see in higher education, the workforce, and even the arts, as it is but low-hanging fruit and has been addressed by those who are far more well-informed than I. It is the concentrated and deliberate effort to curtail greatness that is my concern.
“Elitist” is typically only used as a term of derision in this day and age, and one can only question why this must be so. The elite are, in a word, the finest, the most excellent; why, then, is it so woefully unacceptable to be regarded as an elitist? Why is demonstrating a preference for greatness such great cause for controversy? A traditionalist should be proud to be called an elitist. If anything, elitism is a reflection of his aesthetics, cultivation, and sound judgment. One should never be ashamed to hold a preference for that which is superior, nor should one be ashamed to advocate on behalf of others who share such views. Elitism runs decidedly counter to the prevailing push towards accessibility at all costs. It is the elevation of the great, the noble, and the beautiful. Greatness does not exist in some finite quality, and the elevation of the great does not result in depriving the mediocre of anything at all. The elevation of greatness does, however, reveal the shortcomings of the mediocre. This seems to be the source of the abhorrence that modern progressives have for greatness. Invariably, when held up to the great, the mediocre can be seen as inadequate as they truly are, stripped of their veils of education and their inane credentials. They despise the great precisely because of what the great reveal by the mere act of existence. The inflated self-esteem that modern progressives have been so thoroughly indoctrinated with cannot stand up to anything resembling scrutiny, and so they seek to curtail that which they neither possess nor have the capacity to achieve. While the mediocre so often claim that their flaws are virtues, as seen in the body positivity movement, especially, they appear pathetic when held against the great and beautiful. The ugly woman despises the beautiful one, and the mediocre intellect detests the superior. Propagating mediocrity and ugliness, then, is viewed by these sorts as a form of altruism. In a sense, it is a way to demonstrate that they are “caring,” to use a word that has become inescapable. In promoting the average as great and the ugly as beautiful, they are shielding mediocrities from discomfort. Once again, the feminine instinct to nurture having run amok comes to mind.
Invariably, good triumphs over evil, and in the end, all that remain are hollow platitudes that leave the audience with a fleeting and superficial feeling of virtue, a faded afterimage of goodness.
This altruistic elevation of mediocrity is not limited to the realm of politics. Matters of leisure, too, have become inundated with this banal sentiment. More specifically, beyond being an anti-aesthetic movement, this new strain of anti-elitism can be called an anti-Romantic movement. It stands fundamentally opposed to all of the basic tenets of what is traditionally understood as Romanticism, favoring the Everyman above the Overman, and small grievances over grand tragedies. Indeed, this anti-aestheticism opposes grandeur itself. The only examples of heroes we see in this era, at least in the mainstream media, are found in the numerous superhero films that are so numbly churned out by Hollywood producers. I think this genre has been deliberately chosen; the implication here is that to be great, one must be endowed with some supernatural quality. In the modern, egalitarian era, greatness is regarded as unnatural, and elitism is to be avoided at any expense. Men do not elevate themselves to greatness. There is no true hero’s arc to be found in these films. Rather than embarking on a quest or journey, an accident of either fate or birth endows the superhero with his otherworldly strengths. The lack of originality in such films is often outstanding, and the results are predictably uninteresting. These heroes are accessible, and dare I say equitable, for their abilities are impartially bestowed upon them. Before their transformations, they are often much like the members of their audiences, that is, blandly approachable young men and women. The actors portraying them are attractive, but never dangerously so; we see no Valentino or Garbo in this era. The heroes do not do anything outstanding through their own will or merit. In a sense, they are without agency; their greatness is only the result of luck or fate, as if drawn by lottery, and they dutifully carry out their missions. One could even say they are compliant. This is the face of equity.
More than anything else, what these modern, all-too-modern heroes lack is depth. Their writers mistake puritanical irreproachability for purity, with the result being that they have no flaws to speak of. We do not see the agonized conscience of an Othello, or the hubris of a Macbeth; these heroes are invariably good, without flaw, while the villains they fight are irredeemably evil, unsympathetic, and without the prospect of redemption. The hero can never experience downfall, and the villain’s actions can never be justified. This is nothing if not a juvenile, and frankly bland, method of approaching drama. Character development and, moreover, nuance are entirely absent from these conspicuously manufactured universes. These are worlds with neither grandeur nor subtlety, leaving little room for anything resembling humanity to take form. This rigid framework is stifling. I am often dubious of what is presently called creativity, and even more so of innovation, but one cannot help but marvel at the lack of either in this era. Naturally, audience members will project themselves onto these unflawed, rather than flawless, heroes; the audiences then become without the capacity to see themselves as anything beyond imperfect. They see the world only in terms of the most broadly drawn heroes and villains. This is obviously reflected in the dichotomy of modern politics.
The great men of Shakespeare’s grand dramas are invariably flawed. Recall Othello’s bitter jealousy and his ensuing blind rage, or the madness of the otherwise passive Hamlet. Yet who cannot see even a faint glimpse of himself in either Othello or Hamlet? This is the nature of tragedy, and without at least the potential for tragedy, for downfall, there can be no true greatness. Instead, in what passes for modern drama, we see only emptiness. This is not the existential emptiness that is glimpsed by Hamlet, but the emptiness of commercialism that will never be recognized as such. Society has created a vacuum, a spiritual void. There is no potential for meaningful conflict to emerge within such a shallow and simplistic framework. Any conflict, then, must be contrived, and so it is. Evil men seek to do evil for its own sake, for the sheer pleasure of causing harm, while their good counterparts seek to remedy this evil simply because they are good. Neither side can have any greater motivation. The hero can have no selfish reason for doing good, only altruism. He has nothing to gain beyond goodness for its own sake, and we know that he cannot fail in his defeat of his foes. Invariably, good triumphs over evil, and in the end, all that remain are hollow platitudes that leave the audience with a fleeting and superficial feeling of virtue, a faded afterimage of goodness. We are left with a goodness bereft of greatness. There is no room in the weakened modern psyche for greatness.
Similarly, in a very feminine way, true eccentricity has been replaced with quirkiness; this quirkiness is also contrived, with various quirks acting as a substitute for personality in our equitably workshopped plastic heroes. They rarely possess any interesting or unusual traits. Quirkiness is far more accessible than eccentricity, and perhaps it is more comfortable for the intended audience of these films. Comfort and safety are paramount in such an order, which has produced an inescapable, stultifying conformity. Stripped of even the barest of human qualities, nothing lies beneath the surface of these modern facsimiles of greatness. This is the most obvious propaganda, designed to manipulate, exploiting the emotions of those lacking sufficient reflective capacity to recognize it as such. Passion is absent, leaving only weak sentimentality to excite their dulled senses. The audience is meant to be stirred by these morality tales, of course, but never to any extreme degree. There is no room for the Romanticism of Wagner in such a limited dichotomy. Greatness, beauty, and heroism have been given a ceiling in these glorified operettas. Because greatness is unattainable for most, it cannot be depicted lest the audience be made to feel inadequate. Once again, self-esteem is paramount, and nobility has been sacrificed upon the altar of accessibility.
This faux altruistic elevation of mediocrity in all spheres of society can only endure for so long before exhausting itself. These anti-elites cannot exercise total control over the social, political, and artistic discourse indefinitely. Like all things, such trends are cyclical, and eventually the popularity of such an anti-aesthetic movement will surely wane. It is impossible to predict what form a backlash to this anti-aestheticism will assume, but it will, of course, be a vast improvement, even if it amounts to nothing beyond a reactionary movement. I do not speak from a place of optimism, but when the lowest depths have been plumbed, as we see in the present era, there is nowhere to go but up. It is always darkest before the dawn, if I may resort to cliché.