Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Some observations

I went to an aquarium the other day, and on a wall inside the building they had huge drawings of mythic sea-creatures that must have been reproduced from some old map of the sea, or some exploration-era, hoaxed zoology/geography work. It just occurred to me today that this is a good metaphor for how red-state Republicans see the rest of the country: they believe a lot of scary, unreal "beasts" so to speak are all around "blue" America, because there is a hobby of spreading unreal stories around in red America, including stories about us, and accepting these stories uncritically as fact, and then passing them on. By the time red Americans get around to dealing with blue America, they have a totally mistaken idea of what goes on here and what we are like, which they think is the pragmatic, cynical truth that must maturely be accepted.

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I am reading Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal and There's Nothing In This Book I Meant To Say by the comedian Paula Poundstone now. Often when I read two or more books at the same time, I find there is a surprising correlation between topics covered in them. Conscience of a Liberal is worth picking up if you haven't had a look at it yet. Krugman explains in much of his book how pre-New Deal America became New Deal America, to argue that America today is similar to pre-New Deal America in certain ways, such that a sort of modern version of the New Deal could be done in America today (focused around natiolnalized health care just as Social Security was the centerpiece of the New Deal), and could produce a similar positive economic result.

On the way there, Krugman talks about how in both modern America and pre-New Deal America, conservative forces were / have been able to win electorally, even though their platforms were against people's interests, partly because they were / have been successfully able to divide the people that New Deal-style programs would help by using other issues the people can't agree on. As a pre-New Deal era example, he tells of how William Jennings Bryan, a pre-New Deal politician, failed as a populist emancipator because he was unable to unite City Mouse and Country Mouse to form a political coalition against the wealthy corporate interests. Rural working-class and poor people were simply disempowered and exploited in different ways than were urban working-class and poor people, and apparently the relief the two groups needed was just different enough, and the voters were just unsophisticated enough, so that the urban voters could not easily see how Bryan's platform, based mostly around helping farmers, would also help them. This was all besides the vast cultural differences between the rural and urban (heavily immigrant) populations that made it hard for them to see eye-to-eye. Issues like Prohibition and civil rights also divided both political parties, in an analog to issues like the Teri Schiavo case and stem cell research nowadays. For example, fo urban Catholics, drinking was more a part of life and speak-easys flourished during Prohibition, while for rural Americans Prohibition was more of a crusade.

Paula Poundstone is a clever comedian I have always enjoyed and she has written kind of an autobiographical humor book. A few years ago she was (in my opinion probably somewhat inaccurately) charged with and convicted of some felony charges that supposedly involved endangering her adopted children, but she can't discuss all the details of the case because some of it has been sealed by the court, as is routine for matters involving children. But the court put her through a really terrible, Catch-22ish regime of court-ordered therapy, that seems anything but kosher, and she talks a lot about that in the first chapter of her book. But, she's a liberal, and she can't help mentioning some things that are interesting to us along the way. It turns out Paula Poundstone knows about the problem with electronic voting machines that do not produce a voter-verified paper ballot, and she opposes them. Another thing she points out is that one of the steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is to turn your life over to God, so it's unconstitutional for courts to order people to AA (Paula was ordered to AA; according to her, AA tries to cheese their way out of how wrong what they're doing is by telling people that "It doesn't have to be God; it can be any 'higher power,' like the ocean or something"- but we all know how BS this is- sounds like a cultish effort to force people to accept Christianity, to me. And what better way to get people to irrationally submit to your authority than by getting them when they feel guilty and vulnerable and like you're holding the keys to their success in life, freedom, or ability to raise their kids?).

More topically, Paula was invited to do a LiveAid benefit (the benefit that helps impverished American farmers) years ago. Her story about this is a good example of how the kinds of divisions Krugman talks about in his book live on to this day. Acoording to Poundstone, another comedian named Paul Rodrigues performed at the same LiveAid concert in New Orleans Poundstone did. I don't know what may have upset Rodrigues before he performed, but Poundstone writes that when he went on, he made jokes about hanging out in New Orleans the night before the concert and sexually harassing the women, complete with gestures imitating breast-groping, and the crowd did not appreciate those jokes at all. I can only guess at what was going on in Rodrigues' mind- maybe he felt like the hicks in the audience were a bunch of crackers who would hate his guts no matter what, so he wanted to antagonize them. I doubt he was really out sexually harassing or assaulting anyone. But I know behavior like his at the concert does not help bridge divides between urban and rural liberals. And I know that if I as a white man were to go to Puerto Rico or Miami or some place like that, and try my hand at comedy, including jokes where I talked about sexually harassing and groping women from their town, the audience would probably like it just as little as the New Orleans' audience liked Rodrigues' jokes. Maybe for some people racism plays a part in that displeasure, and maybe for others it doesn't- my guess is it's a mixture of both.

Besides just city-and-country divides, Krugman also talks about racial divides, and how they fail to lead us to success in politics. I think one of the big dilemmas for us nowadays is that to some extent, bridging the divides is going to depend on minorities realizing that they have to modify their behavior, and not have such a big chip on their shoulders and be defensive about perceived racial slights when liberal whites are trying to heal those divides. To provide an example, if there were many cool, non-racist whites in that New Orleans audience (I'm not saying this was so, but let's just pretend) and, for the South at least, not so many intolerant, stupid racist ones, and Rodrigues just got roughly talked to or handled by some racist just before the performance and then assumed that the one or two people he just met represented the whole crowd, then Rodrigues' actions on-stage may have been a big mistake. His words could have ended up alienating a lot of cool white people in the audience who otherwise tended to be more sympathetic to him. I'm not, of course, saying that every time a minority says or does something like this and a not-too-racist white person witnesses it, that white person will be instantly converted to not being a liberal on race, and that it will be all-and-only the minority person's fault that happened. But it could be the "straw that broke the camel's back" for some white people, and a person who would otherwise have been saying anti-racist things to their white peers every once in a while for the rest of their lives, when race came up, may not be saying it now.

It can sound uncomfortable, because as liberals our general orientation is not to jump to blaming the minorities for things, and because it's a conservative tactic to try to make it sound as if society puts no unfair burdens on minorities or women at all. But a common problem in the liberal movement as regards women and minorities is that at some point, if they are not doing it already, women and minorities have to realize that they have a role to play in bridging the racial/gender divide, and they have to accept mens' or whites' good-faith attempts to try to heal our rifts, and try to encourage those attempts to grow. I know it's a tricky subject, and that conservaties will surely use empty gestures and pleasant talk to try to make themselves look as if they are non-racist or non-sexist. I think though that if minorities and feminists don't make a little more of an effort to see the liberal, for-real part of this new egalitarianism as for-real, though, it will simply leave liberals politically in the dust.