Monday, June 28, 2004

What's The Matter With Kansas?

Great book for a journalistic screed--the rhetoric hits some high points but becomes wearing. The explanation of working class conservatism seems fundamentally correct: this is Populism with class reconstructed as a package of "lifestyle" issues and economic concerns wiped out of the picture. I suppose we all knew this--but who can resist hearing it again?

One minor flaw is the author's underestimation of the depth of anti-intellectualism in the US. It didn't start with FDR's appointment of credentialed social planners and re-emerge during the McCarthy era but was a feature of American life since the colonial period (if Hofstadter Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is correct).

The major flaw however is the author's unconvincing attempt to pin the image of political correctness that riles up working stiffs in fly-over country on advertisers and the media catering for the interests of Republican plutocrats. People magazine indeed features the rich and semi-famous campaigning for animal rights and promoting radical chic, but academics do it too. Advertisers feature tight pants teens with body piercing to sell products but they wouldn't feature them if there weren't takers.

Some academics, journalists and other intellectuals engage in "fashionable nonsense" but the real perpetrators are our semi-elite clients: groupies in the "helping professions"--teachers, social workers, therapists and liberal ministers--vegetarian housewives, Buddhist chickies and other wannabes who parody our preoccupations. Working class people never meet us, but they know them well--and are bullied by them. These are the intellectual middlemen who, from the cultural point of view, play the role of Korean shopkeepers in LA ghettos.

Still, it was we who started it as adolescents in the late '60s. We despised and lionized the working class by turn, and always patronized them. But we graduated and put away childish things: a few of us achieved authentic downward social mobility through the counterculture but most, including myself, went on to occupy the social niches that had been prepared for us from birth. It was then that the semi-elite picked up our broken toys and our "revolutionary" rhetoric, suitably modified like Beatles tunes smoothed into shopping mall muzak, became part of popular culture. Smug schoolteachers pumped cultural diversity and treated working class parents with disdain when they came as supplicants on back-to-school night begging for phonics and grammar. Self-help gurus denounced their domestic arrangements as sexist, opressive and sick. The media lampooned the suburban dream that they'd scraped and sacrificed to achieve. Working class people recognized that they were being trashed and fought back.

That they are now fighting back is uncontroversial and it seems likely that they are winning. What to do is a mystery and one that Kansas does not address, though the author hints that consciousness raising and unionization would be a good thing. Personally, I would favor genocide--cultural rather than material. We could let them in and by doing that dismantle their culture--we could wipe out the working class by assimilation. If, as the author suggests, class has become a matter of ethos rather than economics then anyone can join the elite. Ideas are free: anyone can, and should, be a liberal "intellectual."

But we excluded the working class by romanticizing their "culture" and despising their religion, by adopting passes and signs to keep them out and by consuming positional goods to set ourselves apart from them. We despised their food preferences and body fat, their fundamentalism, their leisure activities, their grammar and the little boxes made of ticky-tacky in which they lived because those were the things that set them off from us and gave us claim to elite status. We didn't want them to slim down, repudiate fundamentalism, speak grammatically or develop a preference for microbrews over Budweiser because then our status symbols would be tarnished: there's no point in eating whole grains or practicing Wicca if everyone else does.


Richard said...

Thanks for activating the comments - and nice blog, by the way!
Just thought I'd drop you a note mentioning a follow-up to this post I have on my own blog, in case you're interested.


NoTONoEagles said...

Help Mommy, there are Liberals! underneath my bed!!! (No, seriously, that's the name of the book...) Don't believe me? The dang thing's on Amazon, not some hippie-press bullcrap ;) Anyway, thought you might enjoy, pinko ;)

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