IN DEFENSE OF ELITISM
Not to pick on Anne Thompson again, a fine industry journalist certainly, but a blog entry she published this past Friday piqued my interest for all the wrong reasons. (See the post, the healthy comments thread, and also David Poland’s response.) Thompson took a critical stance on a new feature of the New York Times’ Carpetbagger section, where lead critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott will provide an in-depth answer to one reader’s question every month. Allowing the critics to choose a question to answer, and giving them some time to work on their response, as opposed (one presumes) to encouraging the critics to respond quickly and often to reader comments on their reviews, “allows the critics to stay at a remove from their readers, to stay in control,” Thompson wrote. “To pontificate from their high ivory tower of authority. It ignores the new order of the day, which brings critics onto a more equal footing with their readers.”
This post frustrated me because it is an exemplar of a web 2.0-centric philosophy that is propagated throughout the internet: that the internet having lowered — nay, removed entirely — the barrier of entry to engaging in discourse is a good thing. Cultural institutions like the Times choose critics like Dargis and Scott for a reason — they are far more intelligent and better informed than the vast majority of people on the subject of cinema. In effect, the topical articles they choose to write, and they ways in which they tackle their film reviews, serves as a filtration system which reframes the conversation, the discourse regarding a certain subsection of cinema, to focus on what matters. To argue that every single reader’s commentary (or even the majority of such comments) demands Dargis and Scott’s time, and to argue that the “new order of the day” is one in which the inquiries and interests of readers are as valid as those of the critics, presupposes that the function of the film critic as a filter is no longer necessary.
This proposal has terrible repercussions for the quality of the cultural conversation in general, and Thompson’s post wouldn’t rile me up so much if her thinking wasn’t so popular throughout the ‘net. News websites are beginning to pop up that exist solely to answer reader questions, like MyReporter.com, a news site that covers coastal North Carolina solely by responding to reader questions; or Kommons, a website a college friend started that provides a public platform for any Twitter user to respond, at length, to any user question. Of course, naturally the questions are typically trivial and uninteresting, since there’s no filter for who can ask them. Thanks to the “new order of the day,” we can know the answers to such questions as “Why does the New Hanover County tax office accept credit cards online, but not in its office?” and, from Kommons, directed at Pee Wee Herman: “Do you know where your bike is?”
Elitism isn’t a fashionable practice to value on the internet, but without filters, this is what we get. The truth is that I’d much rather have A.O. Scott controlling the frame of the conversation than “Stormy” from Raleigh, NC, who asked Scott in the comments section of Scott’s The Eagle review, “Much of the movie is quite good, but where is Keira Knightly (sic)?” People like Scott and Manohla Dargis have been vetted and chosen by elite institutions to filter out what is and is not important with regard to cinematic discourse. Such institutions are certainly far from flawless, but without cultural gatekeepers, our society runs the risk of being mired in a muck of irrelevance and trivia. All opinions are not created equal.