Sunday, December 13, 2009

What a bunch of rubes!

Here is another video (after the jump) that I've seen linked all over Internet Hell and back, and which I suppose people are getting a kick out of. As usual, I'm a big prig here and the video makes me more uncomfortable than amused. I don't like this arguing tactic, which just strikes me as tacky and counterproductive. Let me try to articulate why that is.

Okay, so the guy is interviewing Sarah Palin fans outside of one of her book signings, and asking them about which of her positions on what specific political issues they support. Here's how they respond:

Get it? The punchline is that they're almost totally uninformed about any issues, any platforms, or any particular programs. And, in general, what they do seem to know is either easy slogans or incorrect facts. Haw, haw! What a bunch of rubes! Excuse me for asking, but the point here being?

Well, the point apparently is to make fun of these people. And, I'm not saying that they shouldn't be better informed. But it seems to me that you could do this with the hard core fans of any major public figure. Why, in fact, you could probably do it with supporters of, say, Barack Obama:

But, again, what exactly is accomplished here? Basically, people who voted for Obama can watch the interviews with the most clueless Palin supporters, make fun of them, and feel superior. People who voted for John McCain can watch interviews with the most clueless Obama supporters, make fun of them and feel superior. Forget about trying to persuade other people of the rightness of your positions on various topics- or trying to understand their perspective; that's what politics is all about, and this is more like a club, a tribe, or a team. It's cliques really.

Now, I don't really care about Sarah Palin; I don't really care about Barack Obama either. In terms of politics, I look at what the political organizations hope to accomplish, decide how I feel about that, and am not interested at all in "looking into the soul" of the candidate. But, I have some idea why these people (and half my family) like Sarah Palin, which makes me especially uncomfortable with making fun of them.

Let's look at that huge class in America that could be roughly defined as middle/working class. They do things like drive buses, work in retail stores, build houses, pave roads, manage small businesses, fix cars, work in IT, drive trucks, and so forth. Basically, just about everybody in the country, right? Economically, we call them middle class, but many of them are struggling towards the lower end of that income bracket. Because, what's happened over the last three or four decades is that middle income jobs have not seen a real increase in wages, while prices in everything have risen. Which means that those people are struggling, week by week, to get by. That requires a great deal of savvy, intelligence, and perseverance. It doesn't leave a lot of time to study political science.

Meanwhile, in that time, no political figure has really done anything to improve those people's lot. At one time, liberals in the United States were politically tied to the working class. However, they have become alienated from the "hard hats". People like to blame this on "the 60s"; however, it really came earlier with the McCarthy era. It's not that liberals were communists, of course, but many of them were sympathetic to socialism and found the public hysteria terrifying. McCarthyism isn't really so easily categorized as "right wing", since Truman started the business with the loyalty oaths. But, it had the effect of convincing a lot of liberals that middle class people were the "boobsoisie" in Mencken's term. See also: Archie Bunker, the "establishment", "Joe Six Pack", "Joe Lunch pail", et cetera. The Other. In the 60s, as we all know, the cultural split widened.

Many working class people, of course, hate the rich. The real accomplishment of the Republicans was to capitalize off of that resentment by directing it towards more vaguely defined "cultural elites". Not so much the capitalist class as the ivory tower academics. Middle American resentment towards liberals, meanwhile, wasn't entirely wrong. Liberals didn't fully deserve it, but they did in fact define themselves, quite often, as being at odds with the average middle American, somehow more enlightened or "educated", and even a bit resentful towards American culture. The real accomplishment of Obama, therefore, was to ignite long dormant left-wing patriotism, something Bill Clinton could not do. It was a short-lived accomplishment.

Now Reagan was a snake oil salesman. But, this doesn't change the fact that liberals still hope to change a culture that they still have some lingering resentment towards. Certainly, that resentment is not always wrong- for example, it was right to detest middle American racism. But, often it amounts to a sort of cultural snobbishness- writing off housewives as "unfulfilled", rejecting faith as "bigotry", making higher degrees the sole marker of intelligence, and so forth. There's a tendency to talk down to people instead of talking to them. After all, they're "backwards" and "uneducated".

But, one thing I've learned in a decade in higher ed is that academics simply have one specific intelligence out of many. It has nothing to do with smarts.- I simply like to read old books and documents in foreign languages a lot more than other people do. It's got nothing more to do with intelligence than being a baseball card collector. Sure, I have some training, but so what? Lots of people have training.

Do you have any idea how much you have to know to drive a truck? Not only do you have to know how to operate the vehicle; you also have to maintain the truck, which includes doing regular inspections and repairs. You have to know all of the parts of the engine to make sure they're in good shape before you actually hit the road. The book you have to learn in order to get the CDL is, therefore, about as thick as a Bible, and this doesn't get into learning what sounds, smells, and sensations mean engine trouble. My point here is that being a truck driver requires a specific intelligence. Just as being a homemaker requires a specific intelligence. As installing plumbing requires a specific intelligence. Actually, they all require a host of intellgences- a skill set. Working people are many things; but "uneducated" is not one of them.

Nevertheless, many of them feel and resent being looked down upon by the larger culture. Now, sometimes they are patronized and sometimes they aren't. I know many academics who have a deep respect for working people, in their life and scholarship. And the media really presents a fairly mixed image of these people, simultaneously trying to sell products to small town working Americans, and telling stories that are primarily about urban white collar Americans. Politicians, meanwhile, flatter and cajole middle Americans, while doing nothing for them.

What I think working people (including half my family) respond to in Sarah Palin is the sense that she comes from a similar background and can relate to their concerns and their lives. They describe her as "genuine" and "one of us". Are they right? Probably no more than progressives who see Obama as an urbane champion of progressive causes. But the underlying hope- that someone will represent those people who have reason to feel ignored and disdained- is very real, and very understandable.

Now, I don't want to oversell these people, just because I'm from that background. Many of my family members, old friends, and former co-workers can be overly resentful and defensive about things that most people don't really care about. (I also get the "we must save Christmas!" emails!) And some of them are painfully self-aggrandizing about their lives; and really convinced that people in the cities are The Other. I have a relative who will strongly defend his right to eat at McDonald's in the face of an imagined overwhelming anti-McDonald's prejudice, for example. Let's just say that I've known plenty of people in middle America who are especially enamored with the smell of their own farts. Just like everywhere else really.

And, just like the people who make these videos! The underlying message to these things is "People with a different take on the world have an illegitimate viewpoint". I agree that most people should be a lot better informed than they are, but the aim here isn't to inform; it's to democratize contempt. The main reason I quit watching television a few years ago was that I got sick of reality programs whose message is "Hey, look at how dumb these people are!" broadcast to alienated and atomized consumers in their tiny cocoons. I see a lot of the same contempt on the Internet.

I'm starting to feel like I've absorbed toxic levels of it.
Terrence famously wrote: "Homo sum; humanī nil ā mē alienum putō."
Roughly: "I am a man; I reckon nothing human is alien to me." (My mediocre translation.)

I'm not at the point in which I can say the same. And I'm not sure any of the communications media are getting me any closer to that point. It's hard to understand where other people are coming from anyway. But there's a dangerous delusion in convincing yourself that, wherever they're coming from, it's probably a lot lower down than your elevated vantage point.


The Pagan Temple said...

This was an excellent post, maybe your best ever.

I pretty much agree with everything you said here, except for the part about Reagan being a snake oil salesman, and even there, I have to admit the adulation given the man is greatly misplaced in certain regards. It is easy for someone to become so lionized, and even all-but deified, that he becomes a historical caricature of the person he really was.

I can see the same danger down the road for Palin, as well. People who support her have to try really hard to keep from going to the opposite extreme when they read and hear all the unwarranted vitriol and scorn flung her way.

Sometimes it pays dividends to hang back and take a deep breath. I frankly doubt she will be president, at least not in 2012, for the simple fact that the Republican establishment seems to be as much or maybe even more against her as Democrats.

Overall, you did a great job of delineating the difference between the different segments of society and the cause of the antagonisms between them, and of pointing out how politicians of both sides cynically play off of those dislikes.

I especially liked the line about the way television programs advertise to the middle class while presenting idealized versions of the white collar crowd. I noticed a long time ago how certain jobs that are actually quite responsible, and even vital, are seen as the province of slackers in some cases. They may be hard workers, but truck drivers and plumbers just aren't quite as good, it seems, as doctors and lawyers.

Rufus said...

Ah, you're just saying that because I'm picking on liberals instead of conservatives for once!

The thing about Reagan is that he gets a lot of praise for things he campaigned on but never really did. Also, in canonizing him a lot of people have turned things he did that made sense in, say, 1982 into doctrinal law. Sometimes the answer really is not to cut taxes or increase defense spending, even if St. Ronnie did it.

In terms of progressives, it's hard for me to be a "progressive" because I understand actual human progress to be piecemeal, contingent, reversable, sometimes very destructive, and always the result of long struggle and gradual change. I don't believe in historical inevitability or human perfectability. I am pretty ambivalent about progress. I want things to improve, but humbly, slowly, and intelligently.

Progressive politics are based in an Enlightenment era idea that progress is ongoing, inevitable, wholly beneficial, and the result of man's continual liberation from outmoded ways of thinking. The more we know, the better run our societies will be. I am pretty ambivalent about all of that. I find that most people's vision of progress amounts to a world in which more people are like them. I'm all for changing course when necessary. I'm all for science too! I'm just really skeptical that the future will be better than the past.

Moreover, I understand mankind as living within limits: economically, intellectually, morally, politically, and ecologically: or at least, I think that's the only sane way to understand our condition. We're ultimately tragic because out ambition always outstrips our abilities and limits. Democrats often seem to see no moral, intellectual, or political limits; while Republicans seem to see no economic or ecological limits. I think they're both wrong. Increasingly, it's really hard for me to identify with either group.

As for Palin, I don't think she'll be President. Maybe a talk show.

I do think that liberals should think about why people support her because that supprt will eventually go to a candidate more liikely to win. When you want the people who feel shut out and alienated from the centers of power in the country, as well as feeling looked down upon and ridiculed, to change their minds and vote for your guy, it's probably not the best idea to make fun of them.

Moreover, liberals need to think a lot more about the working class in general, and start actually listening to them. To be honest, I suspect it's impossible to cultivate any sort of civic virtue or maintain any social order in a society in which there's such massive economic inequality, and I think we're increasingly seeing evidence of that. A lot of people really aren't getting a fair shake- my father being one of them. There's only so long that you can tell them to keep playing along with a system that is rigged to their detriment. Eventually, they get out the guillotines. Progressives really are best suited to do something about that, and they haven't, at all, even in such dire times. Frankly, I doubt that Republicans give a shit about the economic problems of working people. But Democrats try to talk for those people instead of talking to them, which makes all of their programs seem like bureaucratic impositions, and prevents those programs from really being designed to help the people who most need them.

In four decades, the lot of people like my father has gotten worse while Republicans and Democrats were cheering on "economic growth without limits". At least the oligarchy was happy.

Nevertheless, there are limits and we've hit them. Now, we have to start talking to each other about how to change course- and learn to listen to each other. People like my dad have a lot to offer, aside from just cheap lobsters!

The Pagan Temple said...

Actually, I thought your post was well-balanced. I didn't read it as pro-conservative and anti-liberal.

I did misspeak, though. Reagan was a snake-oil salesman after all, but then again, so are the vast majority of politicians.

Remember, deep down I believe political parties should be outlawed, even the best of them. I see them as criminal conspiracies whose major goal is attainment of power and holding power. Most people in them could probably be legitimately prosecuted under the RICO statutes.

Realistically, though, that's not going to happen, so you have to play the game as is.

But that does probably go a long way towards explaining the appeal of people like Palin and Reagan for conservatives, and I guess at one point even Obama for the liberals. They are not or were not seen as your typical party "wiseguys", and as such inspire hope the system can be reformed.

rufus said...

Right, that's about how I look at them. I see "Sarah Palin" more as a character than a person. Same with "Barack Obama". But they do represent real hopes on the part of the public. Maybe if they were only able to serve for 2-4 years at minimum wage, that might help.

I think the danger you were alluding to is that the people who support these candidates seem to forget that, whether they run from the left or the right, they generally have to govern from the center. I hear a lot of die hard progressives and conservatives who get angry at the people they elected for being too moderate because they figure- we won, so do what we want! But that's not really how a democracy works. When it's working that is.

Thanks for the kind words, incidentally. I was really just joking about bashing liberals or conservatives.

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