Really insightful piece by Matthew Continetti:
The heart of the matter:
Freedom Is Eating Steak Well Done With Ketchup
Over the last year however the press has fixated on the steak and its accompaniment, returned to them again and again, fetishized them, contorted them into a metaphor for the childishness and vulgarity and gaucheness that Trump's opponents so despise. "Putting ketchup on his $54 steak drives a wedge between Trump and his fans," reports Marketwatch.com, citing a silly PPP poll in order to expel Trump from the in-group. Does Trump put "Bernaise? Chimichurri? Peppercorn?" on his steak? Negative. "Instead, Trump went with ketchup, that most pedestrian of all condiments." Lock him up!
I am fascinated by the condescending use of "pedestrian," with its connotations of déclassement, to describe one of America's most popular condiments. What it suggests is that the fixation with Trump's manner of eating is in reality a fixation with the persistence of habits and attitudes and trends that the over-schooled and undereducated metropolitan producers of news and opinion do not like, deem retrograde, wish would recede into the past as humanity progresses toward its gender-neutral, multicultural, borderless, medium-rare steak au poivre future. "For real, Mr. President?" asks the Washington Post‘s food critic when confronted with Trump's menu choices.
G. K. Chesterton:
It is hard to read stories like these without coming to the conclusion that so much of our elite's abhorrence of Trump is a matter of aesthetics, of his not fitting in, of his stubborn devotion to practices and ideas deemed retrograde by opinion leaders but that still appeal to, oh, about half the country.
GKC did not regard this as an advance for civilization. Instead he described “good taste” as “the last and vilest of human superstitions”
The modern world will not distinguish between matters of opinion and matters of principle and it ends up treating them all as matters of taste.
The history of the 20th century shows that it was a superstition that could be exploited for the worst ends. England and its Bloomsbury group should serve as a warning. Ostensibly concerned with Taste and Art and Higher Things, the reality was far different.
Lytton Strachey and his “friends” might mock the middle classes and their conventional heroes but their disdain was not disinterested:
Even by the ungentle standards of most literary cliques, Bloomsbury was exceptionally malicious within its own ranks, and with outsiders cruel to the point of systematic sadism. All the talk of 'friendship' concealed quite different interests,
First, last, and always, the real politics of Bloomsbury was a search for elite cultural power in England.
“Taste” for Bloomsbury, as Chesterton saw clearly, became an elastic standard which swallowed up all aspects of life .
Within Strachey's supercilious view of the British middle class was encoded an assumed right to rule that class
Upper class sensibilities trumped left-wing solidarity with the laboring classes:
And my God how workmen smell. The Whole house stinks of them. How I hate the proletariat. (Vita Sackville-West)To Virginia Woolf, there were things more important than feminist solidarity or professional accomplishment. Things like a good manicure:
The politics of taste, as practiced by Bloomsbury, was totalitarian in both scope and practice.
Woolf withdrew from West’s very presence, preferring to dismiss Rebecca because she had dirty fingernails. Bloomsbury was Woolf’s safe haven, but Westcertainly just as enamored of creature comforts as Woolf wasjourneyed to the Balkans and beyond, to Lebanon and South Africa, in order to understand the nature of the modern world. She was not, in short, afraid of dirtying herself by reporting on great events and movements of the twentieth century.
As Paul Johnson noted of Strachey:
From the Apostles he grasped the principles of group power: The ability not merely to exclude but to be seen to exclude. He perfected the art of inapproachability and rejection.
Here we see the fatuous absurdity of the Bloomsbury worldview. They begin by cultivating Higher Feelings and Refined Tastes while seeking companions who share those tastes. They end up excluding the great poets and writers of their age because those people are not up to the high standards of Bloomsbury.
I have just had a most shameful and distressing interview with dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic believer in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.
Except it doesn’t end there.
Following Strachey's lead, the coterie remained far too preoccupied with questions of mere taste to touch real greatness .
In the film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the unmasked traitor Bill Haydon offers an explanation for going over to the Soviets:
Haydon is seemingly based on Kim Philby, one of the Cambridge Spies. As Koch reminds us, Bloomsbury and the Cambridge Ring are not separate phenomena.:
It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly.
One generation mocks the conventional heroes and holds their countrymen in contempt and views her allies with disdain. The next generation betrays their country in the service of a murderous tyrant.
The Cambridge spies were Bloomsbury's heirs by direct line of descent. The crucible for both was the 'Cambridge Conversation Club', the Apostles, a long-established campus secret society for aristocratic young intellectuals. Tennyson and Hallam had been members, Strachey and Leonard Woolf had taken over the Apostles for their own political purposes before the war, and a generation later Blunt and Burgess remade it for theirs.
Sometimes it seems that all worthwhile social commentary is really just elaborations on G. K. Chesterton
Variations on a theme