My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Kansas and the Other Jean Paul (or, Which Side is Really More French?)

"In the cosmology of bigotry Jews are not just another despised minority. The stereotype with which they are always smeared is a very partidcular one: they are held to be affluent, alien, cosmopolitan, liberal, and above all, intellectual."

So writes Thomas Frank in his new classic, What's the Matter with Kansas? I finished the book over Thanksgiving, surprised more than anything to find it readable - I had been avoiding it precisely because his previous work, One Market Under God, was so godawful boring. Kansas, however, is an insightful tour de force. Reading this book, I was struck by the familiarity of the line of argument advanced by the conservative "backlash" movement he describes, especially the way it ascribes all power in society to liberal elites who are somehow destroying the noble values of little people using their awesome power over the cover of Maxim magazine and the after-lunch repartee at University cafeterias.

It struck me that this type of thinking, the triumph of community values over modernity, evidence and reason, seemed familiar because it closely resembles the French anti-Semitism described by Sartre in Anti-Semite and Jew, a book I read long ago when I was supposed to be studying something else. I am not here to argue that today's Christian Conservatives are themselves all or even mostly anti-Semites. I am merely saying that the pattern of their thinking, the shape of their worldview, resembles that of the haters and fascist sympathisers Sartre described. The anti-liberal, anti-secular hate and rage of the backlash plays a similar role in the lives of its followers and the anti-Jewish hate and rage of the anti-Semites. Frank continues:

Anti-intellectualism is one of the grand unifying themes of the backlash, the mutant strain of class war that underpins so many of Kansas's otherwise random-seeming grievances. . .
Today this kind of anti-intellectualism is a central component of conservative doctrine, expressing in glorious brevity the
unifying theme of nature beset by overweening artifice. The corporate world, for its part, uses anti-intellectualism to depict any suggestion that humanity might be better served by some order other than the free-market system as nothing but
arrogance, an implied desire to redesign life itself. The social conservatives, on the other hand, use anti-intellectualism to assail any deviation from a system of values that they alternatively identify with God and the earth-people of Red America. Just who the hell do these conceited eggheads think they are?

Hijacked from an anti-intellectual tradition on the historical left: "As Barbara Ehrenreich has pointed out, "nonviolent social control" was the founding rationale for many of the American professions. The professional middle class sold itself as the group that would keep the workers in line, whether with efficiency studies, with public relations experts, or with the pseudoscience of corporate management. And workers responded to its claims, naturally, with skepticism and derision. "For working-class people, relations with the middle class are usually a one-way dialogue," Ehrenreich continues. "From above come commands, diagnoses, instructions, judgements, definitions - even, through the media, suggestions as to how to think, feel, spend money, and relax.

That this would cause resentment should come as no surprise. The long tradition of elites using the mumbo-jumbo of technical expertise to exploit working people more efficiently is a long tradition, carried on in today's workplace battles over whether information technology will be used to make staff time more efficient or will be used for blogging.

But here, as throughout Frank's Kansas, economic context is removed from class issues, transforming them into cultural conflicts between what amount to newly created ethnic groups. On the sad, dying suburb of Shawnee, Frank writes:

The implacable ideological bitterness that one finds throughout the state has here achieved a sort of saturation. The eastern part of Shawnee is still a blue-collar suburb, but after three decades of deunionization and stagnant wage growth, blue-collar suburbs like this one look and act very differently than before. Shawnee today burns hotter than nearly any place in the state to defund public education, to stamp out stem-cell research, to roll back taxes, and to abase itself before the throne of big business. The suburb is famous for having sent the mosted determined of the anti-evolutionists to the State Board of Education and for having chosen the most conservative or all Kansas state legislators, a woman who uses her hard-knock life story to dress up her constant demandes that the state do whatever is necessary to lessen burdens on corporate enterprise.

. . . the backlash offers more than this ready-made class identity. It also gives people a general way of understanding the buzzing mass-cultural stereotype of liberals that comes up so often in the backlash ouver: arrogant, rich, tasteful, fashionable, and all-powerful. in my real-world experience liberals are nothing of the kind. They are an assortement of complainers - who wield about as much influence over American politics as the cashier at Home Depot does over the company's business strategy. This is not a secret, either; read any issue of The Nation or In These Times or the magazine sent to memberts of the United Steelworkers, and you figure out pretty quickly that liberals don't speak for the powerful or the wealthy.

But when you flip through People magazine, you come away with a very different impression of what liberals are like. Here you read about movie stars who go to charity balls for causes like animal rights and the "underprivileged"{ . . and beautiful people of every description don expensive transgressive fashions, buy expensive trandgressive art, eat at expensive transgressive restaurants, and get edgy with an expensive punk sensibility or an expensive earth-friendly look.

Here liberalism is a matter of shallow appearances, of fatuous self-rightousness; it is arrogant and condescending, a politics in which the beautiful and the wellborn tell the unwashed and the beaten-down and the funny-looking how they aught to behave, how they should stop being racist or homophobic, how they should be better people . . .

So you have working-class people in communities which have fallen behind, people who have worked hard but do not have access to the glamorous world of the elite, in their view. What we have, of course, is an economic system that guarantees nothing, under which you can work hard all your life and not end up with much, if the market value of your skills is not very high. This situation creates a feeling of failure and desperation among people who realize they are never going to make it to the top of the heap, a social resentment against those who deem themselves their betters. The path they have found to self-justification is to claim that value comes not from accomplishment or merit but from sharing in the traditional culture, thus it is the good, honest, Christian common folk who possess virtue. This kind of cultural or ethnic self-justification should sound familiar to any student of social history, because around the world it was used to find meaning, value and self-worth by people who were dazed by the rapid modernization and social change that characterized the early twentieth century world.

And so we come to my boy Sartre:

The anti-Semite readily admits that the Jew is intelligent and hard-working; he will even confess himself inferior in these respects. This concession costs him nothing, for he has, as it were, put those qualities in parenthesis. or rather they derive their value from the one who possesses them: the more virtues the Jew has the more dangerous he will be. The anti-Semite has no illusions about what he is. He considers himself an average man, modestly average, basically mediocre. There is no example of an anti-Semite's claiming individual superiority over the Jews. But you must not think that he is ashamed of his mediocrity; he takes pleasure in it; I will even assert that he has chosen it. This man fears every kind of solitariness, that of hte genius as much as that of the murderer; he is the man of the crowd. however small his stature, he takes every precaustion to make it smaller, lest he stand out from the herd and find himself face to face wiht himself. He has made himself an anti-Semite because that is something one cannot be alone. The phrase, "I hate the Jews," is one that is uttered in chorus; in pronouncing it, one attaches himself to a tradition and to community - the tradition and community of the mediocre.

We must remember that a man is not necessarily humble or even modest because he ahs consented to mediocrity. On the contraty, there is a passionate pride among the mediocre, and anti-Semitism is an attempt to give value to mediocreity as such, to create an elite of the ordinary. To the anti-Semite, intelligence is Jewish; he can thus disdain it in all tranquility, like all the other virtues which the Jew possesses. They are so many ersatz attributes that the Jew cultivates in place of that balanced mediocrity which he will never have. The true Frenchman, rooted in his province, in his country, borne along by a tradition twenty centuries old, benefiting from ancestral wisdom, guided by tried customs, does not need intelligence."

In opposition, Sartre points out the contributions that out-groups bring to a society. In France it was the Jewish minority, in the U.S. I would say Jews, blacks, homosexuals, secular people and many immigrant groups all share a situation in which they are outside the dominant cultural mainstream, not sharing the irrational values one must hold without proof to be a member of the mediocre elite. Because of this situation:
The Jew demands proof for everything that his adversary advances, because thus he proves himself. He distrusts intouition because it is not open to discussion and because, in consequence, it ends by saparating men. If he reasons and disputes with his adversary, it is to establish the unity of intelligence. Before any debate he wishes agreement on the principles wiht which the disputants start; by menas of this preliminary agreement he offers to construct a human order based on the universality of human nature. The perpetual criticism with which he is reproached conceals a naive love for a communion in reason wiht his adversaries, and the still more naive belif that violence is in no way necessary in human relations. Where the anti-Semite, the fascist, etc., starting out with intuitions that are incommunicable and that he wishes to be incommunicable, must use force in order to impose the illuminations he cannot impart, the [outgroup struggling to assimilate]* seeks to dissolve by critical analysis all that may separate men and lead them to violence, since it is he who will be the first victim of that violence.
So the presence of the alien and the outsider in society triggers the birth of a "reality-based community," as ousiders seek to justify their existence by searching for universal truth deduced from evidence.

But mediocrity you say? Isn't that [gasp] a value judgement?

The sad thing is, of course, that for all their faults, elite culture is superior to that of the common folk. I don't just mean that elites have better taste in music, art, film, food, and clothing - although that much is true. Art films are better than pop-cultural drek, Disneyfied sugary pablum, brainless plastic vehicles to launch the media-company-driven stardom of brainless plastic pop stars etc, and that's not just "my opinion," or personal taste. I am no postmodernist. I believe that there is such a thing as absolute truth, beauty, and good taste.

But there's more to it than that. Evolution is sound scientific theory, "Intelligent Design" is not. Homosexual couples are just as likely to make good parents as are heterosexual couples. "Abstinence-based" sex "education" does not protect teenagers from sexually transmitted infections. These are not just my opinions or elite tastes. There is such a thing as scientific method, all "opinions" are not equally valid. Research is done, evidence is collected and analyzed, theories are tested. The truth can be determined by exploring the world. If the things you discover disagree with a treasured book, whether the Bible or the Communist Manifesto, so be it. The book was wrong. The rational mind must be prepared to accept the consequences of the evidence.

Basically, the desire for society's losers for validation is, well, valid. When you set up a society in which everyone is "free" to succeed or fail according to their own abilities, inheritance or luck, you inevitably get a lot of failures. They rail against a world that does not give equal weight to their contributions and opinions, against the enormous experienced injustice of modern life. Of course, in many ways they are not equal to the elite, and to argue that they are is to devalue science, art, study, creativity and human striving for knowledge, justice and progress.

In order to feel good about themselves and have more satisfying lives, these failures look to an identity which gives them value based on group membership rather than individual accomplishment. This tendency to define value through community membership rather than accomplishment is an important part of what I mean when I talk about fascism. Yet such a definition has been progressive in some circumstances. In European countries, the motivating factor behind the establishment of strong welfare states has been ethnic solidarity, not wanting to allow one's countrymen fall behind. But here, the response to the feeling of ostracism and marginalization felt by non-elites has too often been channeled into hate and fear of the other.

Why? Racism, as usual, is a key factor (It's the American original sin, after all). In a diverse society like ours, such community-based identification can have the opposite effect than the cohesiveness it brings to an ethically homogenous nation: in the US, mainstream whites have come to opposed the redistribution of wealth to the poor, out of concern that this may represent the transfer of wealth from one racial group to another. This means that non-elite whites often end up opposing policies that might benefit themselves, out of fear that they migh benefit blacks more.

So what is to be done about Kansas? How can the desire of white trash for validation and approval be channeled towards egalitarianism rather than fascism? For the moment, I have no idea. But listen up, you elites (and anyone who actually read to the end of a post about the relevance of French Existentialism to American politics is pretty much an elite) - I've heard quite enough bashing the "Red-Staters" already. Should we tell the truth? Yes. Should we mock faith-based illogic and stand up for Reason? Absolutely. Should we confront gay-bashing, racism, and sexism? Always. Should we listen to country music radio? Death first! But I've heard some very hateful vitriol over the past month, as well as some truly bad policy proposals like insisting that money not get redistributed from Blue States to Red States through Federal spending. I mean, sure we should stop subsidizing the building of new subdivisions in uninhabitable desert. But redistribution of wealth is a fundamental progressive principle, and not one I'm willing to give up in a fit of pique. The South gets more money than they pay in taxes because they're poor. Most of these "values voters" are struggling to keep their families housed and fed. And making fun of their ignorance does nothing to end it and only pisses them off more. Would you make fun of the retarded kid? (You did, too. I know you did. Don't lie. But don't you feel ashamed about it now?) Educate, don't humiliate. They know you're smart. That's why they're so jealous.

*Yes, I deliberately changed Sarte's phrase from "inauthentic Jew." The whole issue of authenticity and how Sartre felt about how minorities should go about dealing with their situation was something I just didn't want to get into here. It's another long-winded discussion, and it comes perilously close to all that postmodernist identity-politics crap. A moment's thought should be enough for anyone to see how all that PoMo junk denying objective reality only encourages the fundies, who are after all attacking the same objective reality, for different reasons. Another essay, for another day. So I just fudged it.

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