Thursday, December 30, 2004

My Red Phase


Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly . SPECIAL REPORT . Exploring Religious America . April 26, 2002 | PBS

For the most part, Americans are accepting and tolerant of people who have religious beliefs that are different than theirs. They think all religions have elements of truth, and a large majority does not think of their own religion as the only true religion... Christians see themselves as very tolerant of people of other faiths, with 81% of Christians saying that Christians in the United States are "very" or "somewhat" tolerant of people of other faiths. People who are not Christians agree with this view for the most part, but not nearly as many of them are fully convinced of Christian tolerance. Only 54% of non-Christians see Christians as being tolerant.

Most of the pundits I read are secularists who appear to believe that Christians are grossly intolerant and, if not a standing menace to civil society, so exotic that it would take an expedition to Red Country and a full-scale anthropological study to figure out what they were up to. As a Christian I find this, to say the least, irritating: it's easy enough to find out what Christians are up to if you just go to church.

I spent most of the past decade "involved" at St. John's Episcopal Church. Our kids went to the parish day school; I sang in the choir, served on vestry and took my turn reading the lessons. Located in Chula Vista, an unfashionable suburb of San Diego which has been charitably described as "a trailer park without the trailers," St. John's was heavily lower middle class and almost solidly Red. About half the members were military--active duty, retired and families.

The people I met at St. John's were, as a group, the best people I have ever known. They were decent, committed, charitable and tolerant. When St. Martha's Guild divvied up it's take for the year, without prompting from Blue clergy, members chose to give a substantial contribution to a charity that cared for gay AIDS victims. The congregation was as "diverse" as you could please and inter-racial families were pillars of the church.

But their world was not my world and coping with their customs and folkways was more than I could handle. There were rules for small talk that had to be followed and topics that were taboo. Serious argument was taboo and any conversation that could be construed as pretentious was unacceptable. There were elaborate rules for appropriate sex role behavior: women could paint but could not dig; women cooked indoors but men barbequed. There were restrictions on the weight of items women could move or lift. There was a dress code that I only circumvented by singing in choir, in cassock and cotta. There was a whole code of social conduct that demanded constant thought, effort and acting--and I couldn't cut it.

On the other side, I couldn't stand much of what the place was all about. I resented the fussiness and busywork: conjuring up exact change for kids' school pizza day and girl scout meetings, bringing cookies, sandwiches and casseroles, sitting through endless discussions of the minutiae of planning and catering social events. I hated the clip art in the parish newsletter, the sentimental pieties and cliches. The church's mission statement, a string of pious platitudes and trite vagueries, set my teeth on edge. And, once the novelty wore off, talking to most church members at any length was painfully boring as well as stressful.

That is what church-going Red Americans are like--decent, honest, charitable, tolerant, unpretentious, anti-intellectual, dull, sentimental, unreflective, uncritical and utterly, utterly conventional. They aren't on jihad, they aren't out to ban abortion, persecute gays or establish a theocracy, but they also aren't receptive to argument or amenable to reason. I do not know how people like this could be persuaded to come back to the Democratic party however a first step might be to recognize that they aren't either monsters or bigots, exotic specimens or an oppressed proletariat ripe for revolution, but dull, ignorant people who want a safe, clean world, where people play appropriate roles and everything looks right.

9 comments:

Eddie said...

"That is what church-going Red Americans are like--decent, honest, charitable, tolerant, unpretentious, anti-intellectual, dull, sentimental, unreflective, uncritical and utterly, utterly conventional."

I suspect that this description could be made about anyone, including academics. My fellow faculty members strike me as utterly conventional also, only the conventions are different from the ones you encountered in your church. They have their own groupthink which is all the more insidious because of their belief that they belong to an intellectual elite. Beyond their limited fields of study, however, and sometimes even within them, they show, to my mind, little evidence of thoughtful inquiry. You would think, for example, that critical and reflective people would seek out points of view at odds with their own, but that has not been my experience. Has it really been yours?

H. E. said...

Frankly yes. It's a matter of degree and proportions. From my experience there's a minority of academics who are caught up in politically correct group-think--and I'll refrain from mentioning which fields most are in--and an overlapping subculture of bureaucrats and sycophants who obsess about course numbering, "evaluation instruments" and committee work but the majority are more critical and reflective than folks in the Real World and much, much more tolerant of personal eccentricity, heterodoxy and deviance. There are also church-going Red Americans who are smart, critical and reflective but far, far fewer and the whole culture militates against it.

It's like the difference between undergraduate culture in elite colleges and lower tier state factory schools. There are dumb jocks and party girls everywhere--it's a question of how many, and the extent to which their preoccupations and folkways dominate.

Education--the traditional, old-fashioned expensive "wasteful" sort that only a minority of Americans are lucky enough to get--makes a difference. The further up the socio-economic scale you go the more likely you are to meet people who are critical and reflective because it takes money and leisure to get a real education in the US.

Everyone can be educated but most Americans aren't and lots, for all their money, fancy stuff and exposure to mass media, are as unreflective, socially conservative, gullible, ignorant and conventional as peasants in "traditional societies." And now they have political clout.

Eddie said...

"Everyone can be educated but most Americans aren't and lots, for all their money, fancy stuff and exposure to mass media, are as unreflective, socially conservative, gullible, ignorant and conventional as peasants in 'traditional societies.' And now they have political clout."

First, this is much too extreme. I don't have an very high regard for public high schools, but most anyone with a high school education is far beyond a peasant in a traditional society. The 19th century Russian novelists I'm familiar with have a difficult time even recognizing the Russian peasant as of the same species, given the differences in education between the peasants and themselves. I can't imagine that you think the problem is this bad.

Second, your list of adjectives suggests that "socially conservative" is synonymous with "unreflective, "gullible," and the rest. This too would be unfair. There is nothing inherently irrational about being resistant to change or wanting change to happen slowly. It is also not irrational, nor anti-intellectual, to not put much trust in our ability to articulate good reasons for what we do. I'll rest upon Montaigne, Vico, Rousseau, and Hume as my authorities here, although I can elaborate if you desire.

My students are nearly all Red Staters, and most of them fit your description to some extent. Most of them do not leave my university as intellectuals, but I am happy to say also that they are rarely corrupted by their university education either. They do not generally walk away with the impression that a reflexive distrust or despair with their society is somehow more critical, and less gullible, than a reflexive trust and satisfaction with it. They did not need a university education to ease their existential angst.

Finally, democracy is always a crap-shoot, and the less-educated have always had political clout. When I was younger, the less-educated generally voted for the Democrats, which is where the populists were, and people who said things like you've said were written off as undemocratic, elitist snobs. Now, the Republican party has successfully tapped into the populist rhetoric, and somehow the country is going to Hell.

H. E. said...

Point yours--"social conservatism" as such isn't synonymous with ignorance, gullability, etc. I'm thinking of social conservatism understood as the idea that what makes a practice or social arrangement right and good is it's being the way things are done and have been done. That's pretty common and it's symptomatic of a failure to understand that you can't deduce "ought" from "is" speak of Hume.

I don't think academics (in most fields) are corrupting youth with the notion that reflexive contempt for their own society shows critical acumen, or that liberal is smart and conservative is dumb regardless of why you hold these views. This is the kind of garbage that's current amongst intellectual wannabes in the "helping professions"--teachers, liberal clergy and the like. Most working class Americans don't read the Times or watch PBS or have any contact with academics, but have plenty of dealings with teachers who are patronizing and dismissive of their interests, have kids who are getting "values clarification" and "cultural" garbage at school, go to "diversity training" on the job, etc. That's where they get their ideas about what latte-drinking liberal "intellectuals" are like and I don't blame them for being disgusted.

Now let's be fair--unless you're in a school of ed or sociology department (might as well say it)--are your colleagues really in this business? What leads you to believe that they're promoting the idea that reflexive distrust or despair with their society is smart? Are they making the kids read Rawls but not Nozick or what?

Eddie said...

"I'm thinking of social conservatism understood as the idea that what makes a practice or social arrangement right and good is it's being the way things are done and have been done."

I agree that this isn't a very attractive position, and it is one of the jobs of the university to challenge it. But trusting in something because it is the way things have been done is different than claiming that something is right because that is the way things have been done. The former position need not claim to understand what makes something right; it only needs to affirm the world which seems to come forth from it.

As a philosopher, I am drawn to peer into the heavens and below the earth, but I also am sympathetic with the common suspicion that such efforts are likely to be in vain, and could even be dangerous. As you've said, most people have encountered teachers who are dismissive and patronizing, which makes it less likely that they will pursue learning beyond the needs of their profession. I would add that they see these teachers (sophists) as trying to sell them something that they instinctively turn away from. We might both wish that they would pursue their education to the point of being able to call the sophists out, but I am content with the quality of their instincts.

A resistance to argument then is the opposite of gullibility. It is a stubbornness that is sometimes unfortunate and sometimes healthy. It is not exactly ignorant either, even if it is inarticulate, because it is grounded in a deep familiarity with one's own.

Just as there is a conservative prejudice against change, there is also a progressive prejudice that assumes every innovation to be an improvement. What disturbs me most about this prejudice is how much it takes for granted; it acts as if the accomplishments of the past will simply remain in place while we rearrange our social beliefs and practices. This is the flaw I find in the so-called Blue Staters (better would be something like Blue Urbanites), and I consider it no better than the flaws you find in the Red Staters.

As to my colleagues, I do not think that they are terribly corrupting, but I also teach at a campus that is conservative by academic standards, i.e., most of them probably voted for Kerry, but without the sentiment that he needed to be more to the Left. Nonetheless, I find most of them to be remarkably dull and ignorant (to use your words) when it comes to politics. Most of them, for example, have little grasp of economics, liberal or conservative. They also have little sense of European political history, including the history of liberalism. They read the New York Times and listen to NPR and consider themselves informed.

They also lack piety toward the culture that sustains them. They are happy to be the gadfly, but would not recognize the argument of the Laws in the Crito concerning the obedience that they owe.

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