Critical politicking and the plague of Mitt Romney

While the name Alex Ross may be foreign to most, in my field of study, he is a rock star. Before he was 30, The New Yorker brought him onboard as their music critic. Before he was 40, he had published his best-selling book “The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.” And Saturday afternoon he sat down with me and several other students for a writing workshop and a fancy pants lunch. It was pretty cool.

Our discussion topics varied – we talked about Internet comments sections, seat-reclining etiquette on trains vs. airplanes and the egoistic nature of criticism. Somewhere between non-sequiturs we arrived at the role of a critic. Ross asserted the role of the critic is to be a stand-in for the audience, rather than a stand-in for a professional (or an insider). In other words, the critic shouldn’t actively seek to write above his or her audience’s heads. [I’ll stick with just the masculine from now on for clarity. No offense ladies.] He should be intelligent, insightful and judgmental but not condescending nor haughty. In other words, a critic has to be a snob, but not sound like a snob.

Mitt Romney

"It's me, Mitt, doing average normal guy stuff like everyone else!"

This is the conundrum that haunts Mitt Romney.

A good critic knows more than the average reader. Way more. A good critic knows everything there is to know about his field of criticism. A good critic has refined taste and looks down on certain works as “lesser than.” But a good critic expresses his opinion without an elitist tone, because such a tone alienates readers. It is possible to write intelligently, yet simply and to write sophisticated text that appeals to the layman.

Mitt Romney (or at least his advisers) has known this since day one. It’s hard to like a guy whose suits cost more than most family sedans. It’s the reason the one-percenter tries oh-so-hard to cultivate an image as an average Joe.

Romney would make a terrible critic. No one’s buying his pretense. His peppering of forced colloquialisms and robotic recitations of patriotic tunes aren’t enough to cloak the friendly $10,000 bets he makes on a whim or his failure to recall any period of financial difficulty in his life. He’s a snob, and he comes off as such.

Critics are politicians too. Ross’s book about classical music made the New York Times bestseller list. It was among the finalists for a Pulitzer Prize. Though it’s filled with references to long-dead composers I’ve never heard of, I both understood and enjoyed it tremendously. He contextualizes an “elitist” subject for non-elitist readers.

Fortunately, a critic’s audience is typically more immune to bullshit than the American electorate (or at least more likely to recognize it.) I’m pretty sure Ron Paul would be a good critic and, honestly, so would Herman Cain, just as long as he’s not covering foreign affairs.

Today’s critic has to be intelligent without sounding like he or she is trying to be intelligent. In short, today’s critic has to be George W. Bush.