The Velvet Rope and Fox News

courtesy C. S. Lewis Society of CaliforniaIn the only speech to college graduates in his brilliant career, C. S. Lewis spoke of the “inner rings” of culture and the problematic quest to gain entry. “The Inner Ring” was the Memorial Lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944. The C. S. Lewis Society of California has preserved this wonderful piece of prose for all generations to explore.

This “inner ring” is the carrot at the end of ego’s stick, and, according to Lewis, once entry is gained, it becomes a shallow victory.

Once the first novelty is worn off, the members of this circle will be no more interesting than your old friends. Why should they be? You were not looking for virtue or kindness or loyalty or humour or learning or wit or any of the things that can really be enjoyed. You merely wanted to be “in.” And that is a pleasure that cannot last. As soon as your new associates have been staled to you by custom, you will be looking for another Ring. The rainbow’s end will still be ahead of you. The old ring will now be only the drab background for your endeavor to enter the new one.

And you will always find them hard to enter, for a reason you very well know. You yourself, once you are in, want to make it hard for the next entrant, just as those who are already in made it hard for you

…The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow. If in your working hours you make the work your end, you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle in your profession that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it.

I have tried to follow this advice for many years, and it’s very difficult in the world of personal branding made available by social media, especially Twitter. I don’t retweet things people say about me, because, well, who cares? Yet, the desire to be “in” is powerful, and fighting it takes conscious effort.

When I refer to this “ring,” I call it the velvet rope, and I’ve found that even mentioning it in the company of those who are within some form of its plushness brings anger and character assault. Defensive are those, who by fortune, fate or otherwise, find themselves with the “in crowd.”

I’m thinking about this today, because I just watched Jay Rosen’s “late night chat” about Fox News, and it raised the matter of Fox playing revolutionary to the cultural élite. Jay feels that Fox is exploiting the resentment that those outside the rope feel towards those within (Many thanks to Balloon Juice for the quotes).

On Fox, the news exists in order to generate controversy. Controversy exists in order to generate resentment. And the resentment is what generates ratings. […] Resentment of whom? A cultural élite that is corrupt and maneuvering and manipulating behind the scenes to exercise power. It’s resentment against this élite that provides the motion, the passion, the commitment, the fireworks at Fox.

…Many provocations, one lesson: the liberals, the cultural élite, are at it again. This is the essence of myth. No matter what happens, the story stays the same. This is one reason why the whole notion of Fox as a news channel is a little dubious, because nothing ever changes in Fox land.

I put these two together, because resentment is, indeed, a reaction to those inside the velvet rope who work so hard to keep others out. You can argue that this is justified or not, but my own life experience confirms my intuition and that the words of C. S. Lewis about this are true. Once becoming a member of any élite, it becomes the duty of that individual to keep others out, ‘lest it not be known as an élite.

I think this does engender resentment, and resentment is the energy behind any social movement. In that sense, Fox is indeed tapping the energy of this resentment. You can also argue that this is disingenuous, that the use of the word “resentment” is a convenient jab at people merely trying to attain access to a life they view as being inside the velvet rope, the one they see on TV every night.

The view that there really is no cultural élite, no “inner ring” whatsoever, is naïve. The view that it isn’t largely on the left is one that is seldom discussed, because those complaining about Fox’s bent to the right come entirely from the left. If it isn’t so, explain it.

And the view that Fox isn’t trying to change things for those outside the rope, is dangerous, because it underestimates its power and influence. The mainstream press and social commenters — by dwelling primarily on the perceived intelligence level of Fox’s viewers — does a vast disservice to reporting on the culture war itself, and that, more than anything, assures a close race for political power in 2012. Mockery fuels the resentment, and so it goes.

Our culture’s most visible elitist bigot is Bill Maher, who noted that the Comedy Central rally at the mall in Washington had twice as many people in attendance as Glenn Beck’s rally, but that “they weighed about the same.”

In the view of C. S. Lewis, none of this matters anyway, for no inner ring anywhere can bring true joy and happiness in this world. That’s left to the bonds and kinship found in a human experience that pursues work as an end to itself and not a means to some higher goal. This is important; the other, not so much.

The “inner ring” of which C. S. Lewis spoke to those college graduates so long ago is a big part of all that’s taking place today in our culture. Read his speech, and you’ll find the dynamics at play in your own life, the lives of those around you, and in our national and international lives as well.

Wisdom is like that.


  1. Terry: I think you are moving too quickly from one thing to another. My analysis was about how Fox frames the news and presents itself. It frames the news as a drama starring a manipulative cultural élite that is liberal, corrupt and in charge of things. It presents itself as the truth teller that will stand up to this élite and expose its machinations.

    You seemed to move from this analysis of how Fox presents things to a description of an actual culture élite that sees itself as an élite and is generating resentment by keeping people out. I don’t get why you would do that. The élite Fox talks about is (mostly) fictional. It is white wine sipping and brie-eating liberals who allegedly run the country and corrupt the culture. This élite is cleansed of the power that the Robert Rubins, Alan Greenspans, Brent Scowcrofts and Dick Cheneys of the world have.

    There is an élite, of course, with power and it is in several important ways corrupt, but the élite Fox News goes after is a fictional (and ideological) construct. It is Soros funding Acorn and Acorn determining elections by registering people illegally. It is Jane Fonda losing the war in Vietnam. A paranoid fantasy created to keep viewers in a state of pop-eyed rage. It resonates for reasons that have to do with reality, but it is not itself a statement of reality.

  2. Glenn Beck: “The government and their friends are indoctrinating our children for the control of their minds, your freedom, our choice and our future.” He was talking about Al Gore.

    Roger Ailes: “They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism.” He was talking about NPR executives.

    So that is what I mean by fictions and “a paranoid fantasy created to keep viewers in a state of pop-eyed rage.”

  3. Jay, I don’t disagree with any of that, but it’s not that which gives Fox its ratings and support. This is the blind spot that those from the left have in viewing Fox as only a propaganda machine of the right. Attacking this does nothing to eliminate its popularity, and its popularity is what makes it so dangerous. If the left truly wants to educate the right, to open minds, it will have to begin listening instead of judging. People hear the outrageous and dismiss it, because the rest resonates with them so well, and, yes, I actually believe that. A study of Fox’s audience would surprise you, because you’d think, based on demographics, that they would be in the column of the needy. They’re not, due to one significant difference.

    Ground level politics in the United States takes place in its churches, mosques and synagogues, which the left regularly belittles. It’s okay for liberal pastors, most of whom are black, to preach politics from the pulpit, but it’s not okay for conservative pastors to do the same. It’s the old “give a man a fish versus teach a man to fish” argument. This is a problem, Jay, and the extent to which the observers of culture permit it, they are seen as in league with this “liberal élite,” fictitious or otherwise. If we want to take away the danger that the nutjobs represent, we’re going to have to stop ridiculing and start listening, because that’s what Fox does so well.

    My whole point in delving into this mess (and I really, really hate to do so) is that the left is playing into the hands of the right in all of this, and it grieves me to just stand by as a witness. I’m sorry for the umbrage, but I’m very passionate about this.

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