“What the hell is Harlan's problem? Each time I've seen him speak, he's a smug, elitist prick, even if he does have a point. And he does have a point, it's just that he doesn't seem to have a very good mind for distinguishing between views. Everyone around him is capable of making important distinctions while he goes on belligerently, intent on calling everyone else in the world a moron. Now, I'm passionate and often argumentative, but his attitude puts me off. … So my question is this: Have I just seen him on a few bad days?”As far as I know, no. I had the honor to meet Mr. Elison for exactly one second at a Nebula Awards dinner, where he was the GOH, and he insulted me for exactly no reason at all. I could not be offended, because I saw it was a joke, an insincere insult, merely his shtick.
So, based on that one data point, I conclude that being a smug, superior, angry, and condescending (what you call 'elitist prick') is his shtick, his act, the thing he does for attention and applause, the one trick of a dog who knows one trick. Keep in mind that it is a shtick, an act, an ad, an attention-getter.
Since I am a writer of speculative fiction, allow me now to speculate about the psychology of this. Like most psychological theories, I will make appeal to no facts.
I speculate that this "angry prick" shtick has two roots, one ancient and one modern.
In ancient times, the prophet or the court fool was allowed to say outrageous things, to mock the king, to gore the sacred cow, provided he kept to one rule: the outrageous things he said had to be true. In this way unspeakable truths, which politeness normally gagged, could be aired, but, if spoken by a clown, could be treated as humor, or, if spoken by a prophet, the prophet could be killed by stoning.
In modern times, the bored and silly postwar generation, resentful, perhaps, of the grave moral heroism of their fathers who had defeated Naziism, or galvanized, perhaps, but the hypocrisy and materialistic falsehood of the evil 'establishment' (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to deduce the true motives behind the youth movement) selected as one of their standards the idea that angry but honest denunciation of the establishment was valuable, and excused any need to be polite or restrained.
Indeed, in a weird inversion of normal courtesies (which I am sure future psychologists will study with pursed lips and frowns of puzzlement) it was assumed that the more rude, the more angry, the more outrageous the court fool was, therefore the more authentic and hence the more trustworthy his utterances.
I must also stress that the ancients, as well as the moderns, are willing to forgive artists their strange eccentricities, on the grounds that art is a divine madness, and their art speaks a truth not otherwise captured. It was Picasso, I think, who first exploited this idea in the modern day to escape criticism for his abominable lifestyle and wretched personal morals. Eccentric artists are simply off the hook.
I suppose there is some truth to the idea that you can trust a rude man to be honest, on the grounds that he clearly does not care about uttering untruths for the sake of politeness. However, since there are both other motivations to be rude, aside from prophetic indignation, and other motivations to be honest, aside from spontaneity, the truth is of remarkably limited application.
Mr. Ellison is a product of this generation, and, indeed, a standard bearer among a contingent of them. In a generation that values emotion and disvalues reason, cool and collected discourse is not admired, not trusted. Emotional outbursts are trusted because (so the myth would have it) emotional outbursts are spontaneous, spontaneity is honest, and honesty is valued whether it offends or not.
Obviously all these ideals are wrong-headed, if not wrong: I know of many a spontaneous and dishonest reaction that can burst forth from the human heart, or spill from human lips, before any kinder or more authentic impulse can check it. I have no doubt Adam himself, the exemplar and father of our race, blurted out, "I was tempted by the woman YOU gave me," before he had a chance to check himself.
Sarcasm, condescension, and anger are a means of cloaking oneself in an inexpensive and safe form of prophetic authority. They are a means stupid people use to convince themselves that they are smarter than smart people who disagree with them, or, if not, at least more authentic and hence more honest than the honest people who disagree with them.
Science Fiction authors are in a position, if they care to use it, to criticize any ills they see in current society, by extrapolating a trend and portraying the result (as REPENT HARLEQUIN extrapolates punctuality, for example). Hence SF authors have a better venue to adopt the role of prophetic anger or court fool honesty than writers, say, of Westerns or Pirate stories or Samurai Vampire novels.
And, scifffy people being proud of their open-mindedness and nonchalance, we don't really mind having an angry ill-mannered dwarf in our midst. SF folks really do seem to be more tolerant than our neighbors, at least when it comes to things like this.