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What’s Crass?

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I just googled the term “crass commercialism”: 89,900 hits.  I also just googled “crass politics”: 7,740 hits.

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On the radio last night I heard a largely insignificant news report – the specifics of which already escape me – in which an interviewee criticized some business for its “crass commercialism.”  Soon after this report there came another, this latter one on Hillary Clinton’s speech yesterday on Roosevelt Island in New York.  Of course, the latter report featured a few clips of Mrs. Clinton telling a cheering crowd just how great and good and marvelous she will be for middle-class Americans if she is elected to the U.S. presidency.

Why, I wondered, do we accept so readily the classification of commerce as being “crass” while politics does not commonly get labeled as such?  (What can possibly be more crass than a political campaign – than an adult dissembling, lying, and shifting in order to persuade the masses that he or she is a secular savior?)

One possible reason is that “crass commercialism” is more alliterative than is “crass politics.”  But given the contempt that intellectuals typical pour on the likes of Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, shopping malls, and commerce generally – and given also the plaudits and honors that these same intellectuals routinely bestow on politicians who excel at demonizing commerce while promising to protect people from commerce’s alleged predations – I’m confident that something more than a fondness for alliteration is at play here.

So what’s going on here?  Those activities that regularly get labeled as “crass” are those that appeal to the masses.  Hollywood blockbusters are “crass”; indie movies are cool.  Pop music is “crass”; John Cage’s music is cool.  McDonald’s is “crass”; artisan cheesemakers are cool.  Wal-Mart is “crass”; a boutique merchant selling hand-knitted sweaters is cool.  Supermarkets are “crass”; farmers’ markets are cool.  Shopping malls are “crass”; small stores tucked into basements along Bleecker Street are cool.  Barnes & Noble and Amazon are “crass”; independent bookstores each specializing in only one genre of literature are cool.  Home Depot is “crass”; a mom’n’pop hardware store is cool.  DisneyWorld is “crass”; Iceland’s fjords are cool.  American football is “crass”; soccer (in America) is cool.  The suburbs are “crass”; Georgetown is cool.  Budweiser is “crass”; Sierra Nevada brews are cool.  White zinfandel from California is “crass”; rosés from Bandol are cool.

This list can be greatly extended, but you get the picture: whenever and wherever entrepreneurs and businesses adopt business models that appeal to large numbers of people, they are called “crass.”  Far more appealing, apparently, are entrepreneurs and businesses that refuse to seek larger profits by catering to large numbers of people.  Cool are the entrepreneurs and businesses that ignore the desires of the masses and concentrate their attentions on serving only a select handful of customers – as it happens, customers typically with above-average incomes.  (Quite the opposite holds for politicians: when a politician adopts a populist political position, he or she is often hailed as a pioneering “Progressive.”  Catering to the masses politically is widely regarded to be commendable; catering to the masses commercially is widely regarded to be contemptible.  Strange that.)

While I confess that my own tastes, largely enabled by my above-average income, tilt overwhelmingly to the “cool” and away from the “crass” – there is, for example, nothing that I enjoy more on a hot summer day than a few glasses of fine rosé from the Bandol region and nothing that I avoid with more fervor than white zinfandel – I find it curious that entrepreneurs and businesses that enthusiastically and successfully cater to the masses rather than to high-income elites are treated with contempt by the same intellectuals who complain so loudly about how the market ignores the needs, desires, and demands of ordinary people.

In short, almost all of the commerce that is labeled “crass” is commerce that equalizes.  Most obviously, such commerce, by creatively taking advantage of economies of scale and global supply chains, brings to ordinary people goods and services once available only to the rich

“Crass commercialism,” however, equalizes also in yet another way.  When the talented indie filmmaker “sells out” by using his skills to make a major Hollywood motion picture, he shares his talents with a far larger number of people than he did when he made esoteric indie films that won the loud applause only of the likes of NYU’s film department and critics for The New Yorker.  This filmmaker, by “selling out” – by pursuing crass commerce – spreads more evenly throughout the population the fruits of his unique talents.  When the celebrated chef “sells out” by using her talents to create fine cuisine with mass appeal for sale at airports and shopping malls – rather than continue to cook exclusively for diners on Nob Hill – she makes more equal the distribution of gastronomic delights.  When the acclaimed designer of clothing for the rich and famous “sells out” by starting a line of clothing to be offered for sale at Target, he helps to deconcentrate the wealth of access to uniquely designed clothing.  When a great musician records an album expressly designed to have mass appeal, her “selling out” is really her offering her talents to a larger number of people than before.

“Crass commercialism,” in other words, is really mass commercialism.  It is commerce – driven chiefly by the “crass” pursuit of profit by the “sellouts” – in which creative talents of producers are ‘distributed’ more evenly throughout the population rather than hoarded by elites.

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