Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Two Worlds: An Insight Into Culture Wars and Political Battles

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By Barry Rubin

When does a cliché become a major social revelation? I was reading a novel by Clive Barker, Galilee, (despite the title it has nothing to do with the Middle East) and came upon a passage that shook me up. Sure, I’ve read this kind of thing before, seen it in films and on television, heard it in songs, yet there was something special about this rendering.

Barker is introducing a character who was born in a small Ohio town and has now become incredibly wealthy, powerful, and famous. He contrasts her past and present in two paragraphs.
On the one hand is the Ohio town where she was born and grew up:

“It was a claustrophobic life she lived here: dull and repetitive. And the future had looked grim. Single women in Dansky [the town] didn’t break their hearts trying for very much. Marriage was what they wanted, and if their husbands were reasonably sober two or three nights a week and their children were born with all their limbs then they counted themselves lucky, and dug in for a long decline.”

Pretty depressing, right? But now….

“There was another life out there, which she’d seen in magazines and on the television screen: a life of possibilities, a movie-star life, a life she was determined to have for herself.” And she gets it.

I think, with suitable adaptations for those of an intellectual bent and for different countries, this is the elite vision of the two worlds. In one, life is dreadful and boring, dominated by tradition, religion (she went to church in Dansky), and a closed mentality. There is nothing positive about such a life. It is dominated by the conservative, the status quo, scary religious fundamentalists, small-town bigots, and the…well let’s have an expert explain it:

"They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Thus says Barack Obama, currently president of the United States. No wonder these people--the "common people"--are so hated and looked down on by their "betters" up at the Harvard (ivory) castle.

And of course we aren’t just talking about looking down on small towns but also small or medium-sized cities deemed provincial, whole areas of the country, and even the wrong side of the tracks--which in this case means the suburbs--in big cities. That's pretty much everything outside of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, tracts of northern California and the Pacific Northwest, and scattered academic enclaves.

That's Cambridge, Massachusetts, not Cambridge, Maryland. Washington DC, not Washington, Pa. New York, New York, not York, Pennsylvania. San Francisco, not San Jose.

No wonder young people who go to college from this background—or who are told that this is their background—want to forget their pasts and reach for the glamorous world of cosmopolitan utopia, unlimited immigration, no war, no enemies, those who cling to...what exactly? How about this:

They get bitter that their intellectual professional class hasn't been in power, they cling to gun control or atheism or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or romanticizing illegal immigration and foreign revolutionaries, or the destruction of a real sense of community and of institutions and traditions that work.

Who do you imitate and who are your role models if you want to pass from one world--which you are told, and may consider, dingy and boring and depressing--to another? The beautiful people of decades ago were movie stars, sports' heroes, the rich, and entertainers who were largely apolitical. Today's equivalent convey leftist values (perhaps disguised as liberal). You don't need to seize control of the corporations if you indoctrinate the business elite's children. Anyone who produces or sells goods is from the lower order. The way to go is government employment, law, academia, or non-profit groups, perhaps running a labor union (but not being a worker) or being a community organizer (getting money from government.

Today, teachers and professors explain why World I ideas are bad and World II ideas are great. Patriotism, religion, earning money through business are World I; cosmopolitan sneering, trashing traditional values, and making a living through government jobs or grants is World II How could one who thinks that way not vote for someone like Barack Obama?

Yet if one has contempt for most of the American people how could one possibly not have contempt for America itself? And that's precisely what has happened.

What of the sense of community? The beauty of worship? The satisfaction of hard work and being self-reliant? The closeness of the traditional family? Those things that used to be considered so essential to the virtues and values of America? How about the way that immigrants, because they knew how wonderful it was to be living in the United States, expressed patriotism and gratitude, rather than being taught to exude contempt and anger? 

I don’t want to romanticize small-town values or traditions as such. There is truth, too, of course in what Barker describes. Yet it seems to me some kind of balance is needed, a balance that has been thrown out the window in our era. Rather than try to treat people equally and to be truly open to other viewpoints--which is the pretense--the only change regards precisely who is demonized.

To me, being a liberal—in American terms, the points can be adjusted for other democratic countries--is not to think a Republican politician more frightening than anti-American demagogues, a believing Christian scarier than a revolutionary Islamist, or that most of America is more distasteful than foreign cultures whose values are alien to democracy and freedom. People who think that way aren’t liberals, they are radicals who want to transform their own societies into something very bad. And you can insert the appropriate names.

For a related article on this topic, see here.

Note: For those who don't know, Barker is British, apolitical, and widely considered the world's greatest author of horror fiction, though this book is more of an alternative history. The fact that he's so far removed from politics made the observation all the sharper in inspiring me to write this. Which reminds me of the time I was reading a really arcane academic book on medieval Spain and suddenly came on a totally out of place passage attacking Israel. 

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