Anti-Elitism versus Anti-Intellectualism: What the CBC is Doing Right and Wrong
There are necessary aspects to the current changes at the CBC, despite widespread protest from several camps, but there are also some major mistakes in the CBC’s approach. I am not a conspiracy theorist; I think the people responsible for the CBC changes are trying to make the institution better. Nevertheless, they have overlooked the influence that a powerful societal trend has had on their decision-making process, namely the confusion between anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism. Because of this, the CBC risks losing its relevance as a cultural institution in Canada.
Let me start by listing what the CBC has done right. They have acknowledged a very real need for the structure and content of CBC programming to change in order to reflect Canadian society. Much of the criticism of CBC Radio’s programming changes has come from the classical music community, since classical music is getting cut more than anything else. But the CBC’s current efforts attempt to do something that classical music can’t, something mandated by the Broadcasting Act of 1991: “(viii) reflect the multicultural and multiracial nature of Canada.” The classical music that dominated the old CBC primarily (though not entirely) reflects the culture of Canadians of European descent.
Another thing they have done well is to recognize that the CBC needs a Canadian solution. Many critics of the current changes cite successful public broadcasters in Europe, but to be “predominantly and distinctively Canadian”, we will necessarily have to develop our own model, reflecting our particular history and cultural background. According to Wikipedia, about 20% of Canada’s population has predominantly non-European roots. That same figure for Germany is 3%, making a public broadcaster focused on classical music much more appropriate there than here, even if this is simply a convenience of geography.
And the CBC’s desire to create more eclectic, cross-genre programming is, in my opinion, an important step in finding a Canadian model, despite the notable short-comings of their first attempts. I read a great book during my master’s degree, a collection of articles on music compiled by Christoph Cox (whom I met recently in New York) titled Audio Culture. This collection was great because it looked at themes instead of genres. Topics such as the role of electronics in improvisation were addressed by authors as diverse as Umberto Eco, Brian Eno, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and DJ Spooky. It was refreshing because labels didn’t matter, ideas did, and that is much closer to how many of my friends and I listen to music. The CBC is trying to address this shift.
The CBC has gone wrong, however, by uncritically letting itself be influenced by the confusion in our society between anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism. This has led to a compromised approach that by its nature will be unable to provide “a wide range of programming that informs, enlightens and entertains”, as mandated by the Act.
The first misstep comes in equating elitism with intelligence, a trend stemming from mass consumerism. When the definition of good is “the thing that can be replicated and sold most cheaply and in the highest quantities”, then rarer qualities like intelligence, which cannot be mass produced or sold cheaply, get criticized. They are labelled as elitist because this is a convenient pejorative term.
However, “intelligence equals elitism” is a problematic proposition. Elitism by definition promotes class divisions. In its most benign form, it is the belief that the “elite” know what is best for the “non-elite” (usually the elite also decide who is and is not a part of their club). At its worst, it is the giving of a false air of superiority in order to maintain some advantage (abusive elitism). Intelligence, on the other hand, has no class-based implications; it is simply the striving for knowledge. Truly intelligent people are rarely elitist. Intelligence demands humility, and as the saying goes, the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.
Elitism as it is most often practiced is abusive elitism: it is a defensive tactic for those with an agenda to protect, those who are not intelligent enough to see the fallacies in their own positions. To me, the failure of any society to install a non-abusive, elite-based system of government demonstrates a basic problem with the principle—people have been trying for a long time, after all, from Plato’s Republic to Soviet communism. The problem is in the power that is coupled with even the most well-intentioned elitism, which eventually leads to abuse and a corresponding devaluation of intelligence. Elitism in practice reinforces the status quo, whereas intelligence, through the advancement of knowledge, is perpetually challenging the status quo. Therefore, intelligence and elitism are diametrically opposed.
As such, I don’t agree with Morley Walker’s statement that the cultural elitism that favours classical music is perhaps not all that bad (Winnipeg Free Press, 3 May 2008). Even when well intentioned, such statements run the risk of giving ammunition to anti-intellectuals who have an axe to grind against classical music. There is no need to attack popular music, like Bob Dylan’s, that many people enjoy; the anti-intellectuals will turn these attacks around and say, “Look, Bob Dylan fans, those classical musicians have a hidden agenda to devalue the music you love and to promote their own music.” Therefore, elitism does nothing more than polarize two groups against each other unnecessarily.
In this light, it makes complete sense that the CBC would want to reduce “elitist” programming, and this would seem to argue against classical music. Historically, elitism has been associated with classical music, and for good reason. In the 19th century, classical music was elite—elitism was the basis of early capitalism, and classical music was the primary musical expression of 19th-century capitalist society. The art music of the 20th century—modernist, avant-garde, experimental—also had an elitist component, because it was either an extension of the 19th-century tradition (until World War II) or a political tool of the Cold War; i.e., the West was supposedly superior because of the freedom it gave to artists to be detached from society.
But elitism in classical music has been declining for decades. The political and economic motives for elitist music have largely disappeared, and classical musicians have had to adapt. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, we saw a wide-scale levelling out of cultural norms: art music is no longer regarded as being superior to other kinds of music (something the CBC acknowledges readily), and various kinds of popular and folk music have gained a prestige that would have been laughable mid-last century.
What is left is the music, stripped of its elitism except in a historical sense. More and more, new listeners of classical music are coming to it just because they like the musical experience. How else would one explain the unprecedented rise in interest for opera in North America in recent years? Classical music has developed a new social function, as one genre among many others, to be enjoyed for the things it offers that are unique. The elitist label is an unfair interpretation: this music has endured because of its quality. It is intelligent, yes, and informed by a centuries-long tradition. But that is not the same thing as being elitist, and if Canadian listeners are finding a new use for it, they should not be punished simply for being intelligent.
Furthermore, many of the programming changes going on now are based on a report commissioned by the CBC from affiliates of commercial broadcasting conglomerate, Corus Entertainment. This is a major mistake. By doing this, the CBC has latched onto the mass consumption ideology of anti-intellectualism, which unfairly punishes intelligent music of all genres. It also groups the CBC with struggling entertainment companies like the American TV networks and the Big 5 (or is it 4 now?) record labels, struggling to find a workable business model as the assumptions that have fuelled their success over the past century begin to be challenged by new technologies and cultural shifts.
Such an anti-intellectual approach limits the CBC’s ability to “inform” and “enlighten”, because its roadmap is based on the expertise of “common” and “mass produced”. It may still be able to provide the “entertain” part of its mandate, but it will be competing with commercial broadcasters with much bigger budgets, who are not prevented from pandering to the lowest common denominator, and, moreover, who are themselves struggling in the current cultural climate, despite their large budgets.
The CBC has countered this criticism by saying that its new programming will include enlightening, informative pop music that doesn’t make it to commercial radio. Unfortunately, this concession to musical diversity doesn’t actually work. Pop music functions within mass consumption and is a product of it. Its role is to be, well, popular. So what they propose is impossible, or at least nonsensical. Why would anyone want to listen to the Canadian pop music that fails to do what pop music is designed to do; i.e., be popular? And if they do in fact play good pop music, commercial radio stations will quickly gobble it up. The CBC will be stuck on the losing end of a perpetual game of Hot Potato. Their only option is to choose truly unpopular, not-quite-good-enough pop music. But should the new CBC be devoted to the niche study of failed music?
To be relevant, the CBC’s new programming needs to move away from the music of the mass consumption model, whether successful or not. And this includes a lot of classical music. Who cares if kids in rural Canada hear one of the gazillion recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth on the CBC? They won’t tune in anyway unless previously exposed to Beethoven at home, so they aren’t missing out. And in any case, within 10 years’ time, everyone in Canada will have access to pretty much any kind of music imaginable through their cell phones. Furthermore, in the larger Canadian cities, there is a market for a commercial all-classical station like you find in many US cities. If the CBC stops broadcasting the hits of the 18th and 19th centuries for the drive-home crowd, someone else will.
But there is music that will never be broadcast anywhere else. This includes the traditional and classical music of cultures from around the world, cultures that live in Canada. It includes period performances of European music by leading Canadian ensembles like Tafelmusik and Arion. It includes jazz and rock music that is too edgy for the smooth jazz and Top 40 stations respectively. It also includes compositions by established and upcoming Canadian composers in all genres, electronic sound art, turntablists whose music is not suited to grinding in a nightclub, the indigenous and folk music of Canada and its immigrants—the list goes on. This is a huge repertoire to choose from, and it is informative, enlightening, and entertaining.
The CBC needs to avoid mass-consumption music, not because it is somehow bad or inferior, but because it is already well represented by the dominant cultural media. If they duplicate a service from the private sector, why should they exist at all? There is simply no way to create a unique, relevant cultural product in this way; private broadcasters have had a 100-year head start, and frankly, they’ve done a good job. I watch Scrubs and Law & Order and listen to all kinds of pop music. If the CBC wants my attention in these categories, it’s going to have to deliver a superior product, and that is a task that I fear is next to impossible.
The opposite, non-commercial approach would be much more valuable to the CBC. It would make it unlike any other public broadcaster in the world, it would promote Canadian music, and it would raise the stature of Canada and Canadian musicians. In short, it would allow the CBC to fulfill all the points of its mandate in a cost-effective manner. All this approach requires is that the CBC remove “popular” and “mass” from its decision-making process. There is nothing in the Broadcasting Act mandating high ratings, after all, only a unique and relevant cultural product. The CBC should act as a resource to Canadians, not as an imitation of the mass-produced culture that we already consume. It is in this way that we can build a CBC that is strong, and of which we can be proud as Canadians.
(Originally published on Earsay Music)