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.

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