Monday, April 26, 2004

Red and Blue America: Culture Wars Revisited

The Atlantic | December 2001 | One Nation, Slightly Divisible | Brooks:

"We in the coastal metro Blue areas read more books and attend more plays than the people in the Red heartland. We're more sophisticated and cosmopolitan—just ask us about our alumni trips to China or Provence, or our interest in Buddhism. But don't ask us, please, what life in Red America is like. We don't know. We don't know who Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are, even though the novels they have co-written have sold about 40 million copies over the past few years. We don't know what James Dobson says on his radio program, which is listened to by millions. We don't know about Reba or Travis. We don't know what happens in mega-churches on Wednesday evenings, and some of us couldn't tell you the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical, let alone describe what it means to be a Pentecostal. Very few of us know what goes on in Branson, Missouri, even though it has seven million visitors a year, or could name even five NASCAR drivers, although stock-car races are the best-attended sporting events in the country. We don't know how to shoot or clean a rifle. We can't tell a military officer's rank by looking at his insignia. We don't know what soy beans look like when they're growing in a field.

"All we know, or all we think we know, about Red America is that millions and millions of its people live quietly underneath flight patterns, many of them are racist and homophobic, and when you see them at highway rest stops, they're often really fat and their clothes are too tight.

"And apparently we don't want to know any more than that"

Actually, I know quite a bit about Red America having lived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and, more importantly, having grown up in Paterson, NJ--Sopranos Country. Unlike David Brooks, I never had the urge to explore the heart of darkness--I was only too happy to get out. Now I watch the Sopranos and reread Updike's Rabbit books regularly for sheer pleasure of reminding myself that I am not there.

Returning from safari in Flyover Country, PA, Brooks assures Blue Atlantic Monthly readers that underneath their crudity, ill-fitting clothing and fat, Red Americans are really decent people--not the homophobes and bigots Blues imagine them to be--as Blues, irritated by some of the excesses of the coastal elite, nod at their flatscreen displays and develop an urge to visit Des Moines.

I would council them to resist the urge. Reds are boring. Their intellectual landscape is impoverished, sparse and arid--and I for one have no taste for desert landscapes. They are emotionally flat, and do not tolerate passion, except in strictly circumscribed areas, or deviation from routine. They are unreflective, uncritical and conventional. Conversation with them is difficult and unrewarding. After the rigors of making appropriate small talk, avoiding vocabulary or topics that intimidate them, stretching to find safe general interest topics and make the ritually correct noises there is nothing left: all the conversational foreplay leads to nothing.

Why do we ignore or demonize them? (Brooks is right--we do) I think it's our entrenched moralism, our guilt for disliking good people. We have to rationalize our distaste by pinning moral failings on them--otherwise we should have to face the fact that we are snobs, that our likes and dislikes aren't tied to any moral qualities people possess but rather to how entertaining they are.

Could this be why we watch the Sopranos? There is, of course, the voyeristic impulse--getting inside the lives, and inside the heads, of people very different from us. That's what's fascinating about Rabbit: Updike pulls us inside the head of a character that we would not want to meet socially. But the Sopranos also provide the perfect moral excuse for our distaste: Tony, Chris, Pauly and the rest of them kill people and their wives, mistresses and whores live off the proceeds. So, we can persuade ourselves that we don't find them repugnant because they are dull, ignorant and conventional--we find them morally repugnant. That explains it: we not only get off scott free--we can congratulate ourselves on our moral sensitivity, as we do when we condemn the bigotry, homophobia and jingoism of the white working class.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Guarding the Guard Dogs? - Are you a dog "owner"—or a dog "guardian"? By Jon Katz: "Are you a dog 'owner'—or a dog 'guardian'?
By Jon Katz

Last month, In Defense of Animals, a California-based animal rights organization, sent me some materials about its 'Guardian Campaign.' A polite letter complimented me on my most recent book, then requested that I use the term 'guardian' rather than 'owner' in future writings about dogs.

The benefits of relating to animals as guardians rather than as owners would be 'far reaching,' wrote IDA president Dr. Elliot Katz (who's no relation). Changing how we speak would help change how we act. In a world where dogs are protected rather than owned, Katz argued, it would be easier to crack down on animal abuse, end the puppy-mill trade, and stop the killing of animals at shelters.

As a dog lover, owner of a rescue dog, and member of two rescue groups, I'm not convinced there will be concrete benefits from this metaphoric, even Orwellian revolution. "

I'm a cat owner. Cats don't benefit very much from being owned--they do fine being feral. When Katherine a.k.a. Kitty escaped from the St. Francis Day Animal Blessing at St. Johns (she bolted when the rector sprinkled her with holy water) she lived off the land for two weeks while finding her way home. Dr. Carillo, my dentist, and Nancy Painter who worked at the local supermarket reported on her progress as she wended her way east on Kearney and up Second Street.

Dogs are quite another thing and can't really make a decent living in the suburbs. I haven't owned a dog since Brownie, my childhood mutt, died at 16. In those days where I lived there were no leash laws: dogs roamed freely like cats, formed packs and cavorted around the neighborhood raiding trash cans and occasionally bringing down squirrels and rabbits. It was a good life for a dog: I won't have a dog if I have to keep him confined and walk him on a leash. Still, ownership benefits dogs and there's hardly a downside since, without any possibility of grasping the concept of property, they don't mind being owned.

It's hard to understand why people put such stock in word magic. Calling secretaries "administrative assistants" and addressing them as "Ms." doesn't make the job any tedious. Euphemisms and metaeuphemisms and euphemisms to the nth degree don't give sight to the blind, heal the lame or make "senior citizens" any younger. Whatever is the point? In England Old Age Pensioners get better treatment than Senior Citizens in the US and people happily chuck loose change into boxes for charities devoted to helping spastics. The halt, lame and blind, and the elderly and infirm, do not seem to do any worse than they do in the US.

It puts me in mind of one of the few good books Atheneum published while I was working there, Dr. Bowdlers Legacy by Noel Perrin, a history of expurgated literature. When I was there we couldn't imagine how the process could have gotten started--now we know.

It's an empirical question whether euphemism, bowdlerization and and political correctness do any good. I doubt it. If anything they are a cheap substitute for costly, inconvenient material improvements. So even while women with BAs in humanities disciplines have no options beside secretarial work we style them "administrative assistants" or as my university has it, upping the ante, "executive assistants." Talk is cheap.

According to Perrin, Addison, who saw the beginning of the Bowdlerization movement, objected that calling a kept women a "mistress" rather than a strumpet, trollop or whore only obscured the reality of the arrangement and made it seem respectable. By the same token, official loquitions concerning Walmart associates, undocumented workers and the differently abled put a kind face on a nasty situation and absolve us from doing anything to fix it.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Woodword Redux

Watching the interview with Bob Woodward on 60 Minutes last night it was delicious to realize (1) that lots of non-PBS-viewing, non-NYTimes-reading Middle Americans were also watching it and (2) that Bush and his staff were also watching it.

It sounds like a pulp novel with all the characters charactured: Colin Powell, prescient and schoolmasterly, counseling prudence"--Nestor amongst the Whitehouse staff of cavorting centaurs drunk with blood; Bush on orders from his "heavenly father" to save the world. What matters is not whether it's true but that it will be believed.

Now the younger generation, who missed out on the fun of Vietnam and Watergate can enjoy the new, improved version as the Iraq bodycount ticks up and the 9/11 hearings grind on. Admittedly, it may be a little early for the election. Bush afterall has Saddam in reserve. A show trial strategically timed could give him a boost and, if the 60 minutes piece can be believed, declining gas prices will delight the American public this summer. Still, the slow grinding mill diminishes him and will make it impossible for him to appeal to his performance as a war president.

Personally, I couldn't care less about the war except insofar as it erodes Bush's electability. Wars happen--though this one was a morally outrageous blunder. - Louisiana Politics and News

Friday, April 16, 2004

Paul Krugman
You are Paul Krugman! You're a brilliant economist
with a knack for both making sense of the
current economic situation and exposing the
Bush administration's lies about it. You
somehow came out as the best anti-war writer on
the Op-Ed staff. Other economists hate your
guts for selling out to the liberals. To hell
with 'em.

Which New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The New York Times > Washington > News Analysis: President Makes a Case for
Freedom in the Middle East
: " President Makes a Case for Freedom in the Middle East

"WASHINGTON, April 13 — Facing a moment of political peril unlike any in the more than one thousand days of his presidency, George W. Bush made the case on Tuesday night for staying the course in Iraq with the language and zeal of a missionary and combined it with a stark warning that failure would embolden America's enemies around the world.

"'We're changing the world,' Mr. Bush said halfway through a speech and news conference that was largely an hourlong justification for holding fast in Iraq, no matter how the casualties mount, no matter how chaotic the process of forming a new government.

"Drawing later on a line he often slips into his campaign speeches, he reminded a global audience that 'freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom."

Ruat coeli:"no matter how the casualties mount, no matter how chaotic...we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom." I wonder what sense, if any, he gives to "freedom" or what Americans who buy this think the goal is.

I'm an imperialist too. I'd like to see the whole world made over into the image of the latte-drinking, NY Times-reading, Volvo-driving Eastern Liberal Establishment--everyone educated, reflective and critical, well-read, politically liberal and reasonable. My aim is cultural genocide: to wipe out "traditional societies" and spread the Enlightenment--but that will take a lot of doing in the US as well as abroad. And Bush's policies aren't likely to achieve it.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

A Decade After Massacres, Rwanda Outlaws Ethnicity

"This country, where ethnic tensions were whipped up into a frenzy of killing, is now trying to make ethnicity a thing of the past. There are no Hutu in the new Rwanda. There are no Tutsi either. The government, dominated by the minority Tutsi, has wiped out the distinctions by decree...

That new thinking has its critics — those who say that denying that ethnicity exists merely suppresses the painful ethnic dialogue that Rwanda requires.

But the government insists that if awareness of ethnic differences can be learned, so can the idea that ethnicity does not exist. Rwanda has an entrenched culture of obedience, and the populace has been quick to pick up on the government's no-ethnicity policy, at least in conversations with an outsider.

To hear Mr. Twahrwa put it: 'Ethnicity is bad. I want it to go away.'"

What a brilliant counter-cultural idea! You'd think that we Americans with our vast experience of ethnic diversity, or anyone following conflicts in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, India or anywhere else in the world where tribalism is a force could have figured that one out.

It isn't even clear that the Hutus and the Tutsis ever were ethnic groups in any robust sense: they speak the same language and intermarry, they're not readily distinguishible even by other Hutus and Tutsisi, they're all Catholics and the distinction between them was blurred until colonial powers decided to make it official, in some cases reclassifying individuals for its purposes. Yet even where ethnicity is conjured up it can still lead to genocide.

Ethnicity is bad. I want it go go away too.

Friday, April 09, 2004

Yes, It Is a War Against Islam

"The problem of modern terror--terror that combines an apocalyptic ideology and a yearning for destruction--demands honesty with ourselves about the nature of the threat and honesty in politics. Capturing the top leaders of Al Qaeda is a necessity, but terror is not a threat that will end with decapitation. Nor will it end with the ordinary politics of negotiation and concession... The radical Islamists are at war with modernity itself. Their sense of difference is encapsulated in the declaration of an alleged Al Qaeda spokesman: “You love life, and we love death.” Transnational terror cannot be combatted in an atmosphere of international distrust. At the very least, the terrorists have proved themselves to be as good as their word. Governments that hope to resist them must be, too."

The radical Islamists are at war with modernity itself. Meanwhile romantics and postmodernists in the West bash the Enlightenment imagining buccolic tribal villages of happy peasants in local costume producing traditional crafts.

Today is Good Friday, and I remember my own romantic fantasy: a Byzantine world saturated with religiousity, icons and chant, legends of the saints, processions in the streets, churches encrusted with mosaics, stinking of incense. Of course I wanted the sanitized Episcopalian version, without the superstition, squalor and violence.

There is no free ride. It is a pity that the only viable alternative to Jihad is MacWorld, incarnate in Southern California. The price for security, fairness and opportunity is high--the loss of aesthetic value, romance and charm--but it's worth it.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Remember Lucy Killea?

Kerry, Candidate and Catholic,
Creates Uneasiness for Church

"Senator John Kerry's support for abortion rights and stem cell research has prompted discussions among Roman Catholic bishops and Vatican officials over how to respond to a presidential candidate who professes Catholicism while taking stands contrary to church teaching...

"The Rev. John McCloskey, the director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington and a member of the conservative organization Opus Dei, said, "Senator Kerry considers himself a Catholic, but on issues that are fundamental in terms of Catholic morality, he appears to be off the reservation."

"However, Father McCloskey said, American bishops are "in a quandary" over just what to do about Catholic politicians who fail to uphold church doctrine on issues like abortion. Punitive measures like denying Mr. Kerry communion could backfire, he said."

It might be interesting if Kerry were excommunicated--when our late Bishop Maher excommunicated Lucy Killea it did such wonders for her political career (in a heavily Catholic constituency) that other local politicians clammored for excommunication.

How many members of Opus Dei are there? Of course no one knows because it's Opus Dei. How many cultural Catholics and just plain ordinary mainline Catholics are there? When I take informal surveys of my classes, probably 65% Catholic, on abortion virtually all are pro-choice (and pro-capital punishment).

The Catholic Church de facto is the last viable "mainline Protestant" denomination in the US, regardless its official position, mandates from HQ and manifestos by Opus Dei. Extra ecclesia there are only a few fulminating fundamentalists, who've appropriated the name "Christian," even fewer liberal Protestants from the old majority denominations hanging on by the fingernails and the Unchurched, the third largest "denomination" in the US and the fastest growing.

In the US, serious political candidates still have to maintain a religious affiliation. But, as Howard Dean's abortive efforts to present himself as a devout Congregationalist (oxymoron?) suggest, outside the Catholic Church these days, there are only fundamentalists and fakers.

Kudos to the Catholic Church--as it is rather than as it's supposed to be!

Thursday, April 01, 2004

News Analysis: U.S. Optimism Is Tested Again After Ambush Kills 4 in Iraq

I'm ambivalent about the pure hatred that, apparently, these citizens of Falluja bear to us.

I can see their point: we had no business getting into Iraq in the first place. We could have "contained" Saddam and more importantly could have done a whole bunch of other things globally to isolate him and other tin-pot dictators, to undermine the motive for terrorism and to make life better for people.

But I have no sympathy for the resistance. Saddam was a high-tech tribal warlord who beat up other tribes to get booty for himself and cronies, his clan and his tribe. He and his supporters exploited the rhetoric of anti-colonialism and national-self-determination to promote his agenda. I wonder how many Iraqis care, or know, what country they live in. Here are primitive people, living in mud-brick hovels who have no loyalties extending beyond their clan or tribe. They want their tribal leaders in power so that they can get the goodies. The prospect of a civil society thwarts their agenda.

What vision, if any, do the thugs who blew up Americans in Falluja and dismembered their corpses have for the future of Iraq? Most have none: they were just a mob of young, lower-class males out for a good time. Those who do want to keep Iraq the primitive tribal society it's always been, where Big Men achieve power through violence and corruption and their tribe-mates depend on their largess.

It's easy to see why Big Men like Saddam and other local warlords like the arrangement. And, where there's an excuse for violence, there will always be hoards of young, lower-class males rushing in to have a good time. But why do the majority of people go along with it? I suppose because they can't imagine what civil society would be like, or because they don't seriously believe that any alternatives to tribalism are possible. They imagine that Bush is simply another warlord out to loot and pillage so that he can dispense the proceeds to his tribe, and that attempts to establish civil society will leave them without patronage.

Maybe they're right.