The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Responsible Elite In ‘A Face In The Crowd’

Posted on | December 14, 2011 | 14 Comments

by Smitty

At the suggestion of Ladd Ehlinger, I took in A Face in the Crowd, a 1957 Kazan flick that is well worth your time. ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes goes from nowhere to national stardom. Andy Griffith is powerful as an Icarian pop culture icon.
The documentary on the DVD includes a couple of interesting quotes from the writer and director:

  • Schulberg: “This movie was really meant as kind of a warning that, with the phenomenon of television, that politics would never be the same.”
  • Kazan, attributed: “There is a cost for everything.”

However, what piqued my interest was the General Haynesworth character. He says, starting at 53:06:

My study of history has convinced me that every strong and healthy society from from the Egyptians on, the mass had to be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite.

Mention of ‘the mass’ recalls The Crowd, by Gustave Le Bon, a serious study of crowd psychology. Basically, information diffuses poorly in a wad of people. If you’re at a Lady GaGa concert, rumors about whether she will perform the next song dressed in fresh beef cuts, or in a huge flour tortilla worn as a toga, won’t cross the music hall very well. When she comes out on stage, the TV screen will move that crucial information instantly. That’s the difference at which Schulberg was getting.YouTube amplifies the point:

But the crowd has an aggregate pulse, as the information-deprived individuals repeat this or that rumor, or YouTube clips go viral. The beef cuts on Lady GaGa become three strategically placed young baboons, which may or may not be real. Charismatic people like the Lonesome Rhodes character can tap into that aggregate pulse of the crowd, and ride it to fame. Stacy McCain wondered aloud if Huey Long was an inspiration for the Rhodes character, but Wikipedia cites other entertainment names as inspirations. Amusingly, according to IMDB, sombody named Keith Olbermann likes to refer to Glenn Beck as Lonesome Rhodes.

What about this ‘responsible elite’? No less a figure than Jesus of Nazareth noted For the poor always ye have with you. . .. In other words, there will always be poor, rich, and quite a few in between. There is going to be a distribution of wealth, irrespective of whether the Inner Party uses propaganda to reduce everyone else to poverty (while proclaiming wealth), or not.

The thing that matters, if you’ll allow me something like a Gaussian Distribution of wealth, is that there is a current circulating within the distribution. The simple fact of inequality in wealth distribution is neither evil nor escapable. Money cannot be evenly distributed any more than information in a crowd. That there is wealth movement within that distribution, and that people have liberty to move as much or as little as desired, is crucial. There will be a figure in a burqa doing the next song. Lady GaGa, or not?

And so Lonesome Rhodes has a metorotic rise. Talent and opportunity, along with a soulless media machine, propel him to vast heights. Yet Rhodes lacks the maturity and perspective to handle it. The same figure who casually mentions Grand Theft Auto at the beginning of the movie, who uses women cruelly throughout, never grasps that he is the very thing he despises. To ride the meteor successfully requires a strong internal commitment to something both good and external, where the soul is regularly taken for trimming. Rhodes tries using whiskey, but the whiskey uses him instead. For a worked example of my point, take a tour of Graceland and ask whether Elvis handled the fame well, or did his head ‘splode? Would you date Lady GaGa?

Is Glenn Beck a Lonesome Rhodes figure? Beck seems more in touch with the nature of human evil, including the internal portion. Does he constitute a member of a ‘responsible elite’? In the movie, the General seemed more of an oligarch, delegating the messy work of dealing with the mass to Rhodes. No, Beck wants everyone to do the homework, and move as far in the direction of the elite tail of the income distribution as they care to go. This notion of capitalistic opportunity and movement within the income distribution according to merit is an important facet of American Exceptionalism. Lady GaGa is probably not the Postmodern Rhodes, but I’m confident I’ll never know for sure, as my interest really does not extend past a running gag in a blog post.

Dan Riehl might actually find himself agreeing with Keith Olbermann’s point about Glenn Beck.

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14 Responses to “Responsible Elite In ‘A Face In The Crowd’”

  1. richard mcenroe
    December 14th, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    In case no one has mentioned this yet: Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

  2. Ladd Ehlinger Jr.
    December 14th, 2011 @ 10:46 am

    Great post, sir Smitty! And yes, while it is Olbermann that refers to Beck as “Lonesome Roads,” it is still entirely apropos. A broken clock still right etc.

    Before anyone rushes to Bleck’s defense, note that Blechh’s agent and shaper is liberal-progressive operative George Hiltzik (occasionally mistaken for his son, Matt).

    There is a method to Blechh’s Road-ian rodeo show, and I don’t think the madness is for the greater good.

  3. Joe
    December 14th, 2011 @ 11:10 am

    Let’s just say the Olympian pathethon of Conservative principles and thought are not O’Reilly, Hannity, or Beck.  I think Beck means well, but I get he has a big streak of reformer.

  4. Anonymous
    December 14th, 2011 @ 11:18 am

    Having a big streak of reformer isn’t the issue; there’s a lot that needs reforming, especially via shrinkage. Choosing your reforms carefully, and especially knowing when to stop, is the issue.

  5. Joe
    December 14th, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    I prefer my conservatives, standing up and shouting “NO” like William F. Buckley, Jr. rather than getting into a reform mode.  Reform has, historically, always been about trying to impose your views on someone else. 

  6. htowt
    December 14th, 2011 @ 12:39 pm


    Your post is  pure genius.

    Visually setting a bell curve of our country’s wealth next to a uniform distribution of that wealth and posing the question, “Can/should Obama move us from here to HERE?” is striking in its impact and simplicity.  Put in a graphical depiction of the circulating economic currents within that distribution, and, well, I may need my pills.

    Nice work and great imagery.

  7. Christy Waters
    December 14th, 2011 @ 1:14 pm

    Another great movie to see: “Meet John Doe”, with Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck.

  8. smitty
    December 14th, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

    I guess I’m not as anti-Beck, but then I’ve spent some time trying to be my own Beck, which is what we all must do.

  9. Adjoran
    December 14th, 2011 @ 3:03 pm

    Not only is it impossible to “distribute wealth evenly,” there is no reason to suppose it should be.

    There’s a line in a Catholic hymn looking forward to “a fair and equal sharing / of the things the earth affords.”  I’ve pointed out to several priests that the line is a contradiction:  sharing can be fair, or it can be equal, but it cannot be both.  None has been able to offer a coherent defense of the line.

  10. chuck coffer
    December 14th, 2011 @ 4:41 pm

    Beck has turned into a self obsessed lunatic. Those two hyenas he broadcasts with are about as toady as it gets. It’s like Hitler in the bunker. He’s batshit insane. I regret ever defending him. He can kiss my black ass.

  11. Charles
    December 14th, 2011 @ 5:40 pm

    The postmodern Lonesome Rhodes of today is Keith Olbermann, ten years ago it was Bill Maher.

    Glenn Beck fits into the Lenny Bruce category, when it turned all serious it stopped being funny.

  12. smitty
    December 14th, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

    The defense is probably that it makes the meter work. Or that, in the Millenial Reign of Christ, the contradiction shall be resolved because that’s just the kind of heat He packs.

  13. Bob Belvedere
    December 15th, 2011 @ 9:06 am


    ‘This is Salvation, the most powerful handgun in the world.’

  14. Tennwriter
    December 15th, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    I don’t keep up with Beck, but last I saw him, he was doing fine to all right.  And trying to educate folks on good, serious books is a noble endeavour as Smitty did with Explaining POMO.