The votes have been counted, the confetti (and ostrich feathers) have drifted from the rafters, the stage has emptied and the lights dimmed, and a new leader has been elected.
Yes, Jennifer Gray has won Dancing With the Stars, prevailing over the improbable candidacy of teen mom, famous daughter and dancing juggernaut Bristol Palin. Around Bristol, whose moves were considered by many to be less than scintillating, controversy swirled. How did it happen that, week after week, despite scoring by the judges that left her at the bottom of the heap, she avoided elimination while arguably better dancers were sent packing?
Was this a case of Tea Party advocacy in the extreme? Did viewers simply admire her pluckiness? Is this an indictment of DWTS as merely, in the final analysis, a popularity contest and not a recognition of skill? And, finally, what, if anything, does it mean in that larger dancehall known as the political arena, that Bristol ultimately did not win the contest, and in fact came in third?
It’s hard not to extrapolate the enthusiasm of Bristol’s supporters (who, according to many reports, voted early and often) into predictions of how they might respond to a presidential bid by her mom, who, despite faltering in her vice-presidential bid and perhaps bringing John McCain down with her, continues to enjoy superstar status in the feverish world of far-right-wing politics. Apparently, in Bristol’s case, they cared less about how well she performed than they did about, simply, her pedigree. Will this translate to equally uncritical support of mom, should the Grizzly-in-chief decide to run for the highest office in the land?
In the final analysis, DWTS is simply frivolous entertainment – asking that the show carry portentous political prognostications on its toned, sequined shoulders is asking a lot. However, the saga of Bristol serves, in my opinion, to highlight what I consider an oddity in the American weltanschauung – a distrust, if not downright fear, of elitism.
Elitism, in its pure form, certainly is to be rejected. It implies people of power and privilege, often unearned, who have no experience with anything resembling the hardships of those struggling with poverty, lack of access, and disenfranchisement, making decisions aimed at serving their own insulated class. But elitism American-style often is something different. It suggests a distrust of education, of nuance, of the responsibility of citizens to take the time, and do the work, of learning, really learning about the issues.
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “An informed citizenry is the bulwark of a democracy.” To be truly informed means not listening exclusively to Glenn Beck and getting one’s information in 25 words or less. It means understanding that governance requires intelligence as well as character. To be informed means to have a balanced perspective (and not in the FoxNews sense). And it means, perhaps, to examine one’s own impulse to want leaders whose abilities are not personally threatening – the inclination to bestow the guy (or gal) with whom it’d be comfortable to have a beer with superior qualities of mind and heart that are not in evidence.
This is a lot to lay on Bristol Palin, who undoubtedly did her best, however short her best might have fallen in any objective sense. Bristol herself acknowledged the long shadow of her mother when she commented, “Going out there and winning this would mean a lot. It would be like a big middle finger out there to all the people out there who hate my mom and hate me.”
No, Bristol, we don’t hate you (at least I don’t). I see you as a kind of victim yourself, of a celebrity you did nothing to earn except by being born into your family of origin. What I hate is the thought of image prevailing over substance. Do we honestly think that if Chelsea Clinton had cha-cha’d, pasa-roble’d and jitterbugged with the same degree of panache and expertise as Bristol, the bleeding-heart, tax-and-spend, hate-freedom crowd would have jammed the phone lines? I doubt it. We progressives are plenty flawed but we can recognize excellence when we see it.