The Politics of Resentment and Derision

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published September 11, 2008, issue of September 19, 2008.
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Two unconventional convention afterthoughts:

1) We are witness to a manipulated politics of resentment. The American small town, mythic seat of uncorrupted virtue, is now, post-Palin, juxtaposed to the sinful big city. We have that from no less an authority than Rudy Giuliani, odd though it may seem coming from a cross-dressing adulterer who is so very New York. It was he who, at the Republican National Convention, included in his remarks this put-down of Obama (compared to Palin): “I’m sorry that Barack Obama feels that her hometown isn’t cosmopolitan enough. I’m sorry, Barack, that it’s not flashy enough. Maybe they cling to religion there.”

Since “clinging” to religion is not even approximately Giuliani’s thing, one wonders what prompted Mayor Nine One One to speak as he did. And the answer is not trivial. He knew before whom he stood. He stood before a horde of party activists who have been suckled on the dark dangers of The City, on its permissiveness; as Mitt Romney put it in his convention address, children must be “raised in homes and schools that are free from pornography, promiscuity and drugs; in homes that are blessed with family values and the presence of a father and a mother” — far from, no doubt, the other targets of his oratory: “the Eastern elites,” “the Times and the Post,” “the coast.” And we know, do we not, where that points.

The theme is ancient; it comes to us at least from Cicero’s time, and we see it worldwide these days. Rural versus urban, tradition versus modernity, values versus fashions, the local versus the cosmopolitan, the ever-helpful neighbor versus the sullen stranger. Or, as Mike Huckabee put it during his convention speech, American ways versus European ideas.

The folks of the actual small towns know and resonate to all these codes, in part because that’s what they’ve been raised to believe, in part because that’s what the Giulianis and the Romneys encourage them to believe, and in part — in very large part — because those Eastern elites do, in fact, treat them with dismissive condescension.

I have in mind here an especially trenchant example, drawn from the September 5 episode of Bill Maher’s television show. That particular program, characteristically uneven in its obsessive pursuit of irreverence, began with a faux commercial: “Here in Alaska, people know how to stretch a dollar, even if they don’t know how many people in their family are pregnant. That’s why families like the Palins choose Mommy & Me Home Pregnancy tests in the new family size 24-pack. And they’re so simple to use, even a fundamentalist Christian can do it. Available at Walgreens, CVS and Wasilla bait and tackle.”

This instance of smart-alec derision is not far from the idle chatter I heard from friends during the Republican convention. Alas, Barack Obama’s wrong: There is a blue state America and a red state America, an America deeply divided in its core values. (About half of all Americans reject evolution, believing instead that God created man all at once about 10,000 years ago.) I do not for a moment concede that “they” have a monopoly on virtue nor do I claim that “we” have a monopoly on intelligence — but too often, both Americas behave as if that were the case. And all that accomplishes is to empower the specialists in divisive politics. It’s time to grow up. Or shall we continue to be surprised when a citizen of, say, Wasilla, Alaska, assaults the “elites” after experiencing Bill Maher’s contempt?

2) I’m disturbed as well by the repeated depiction of America as the strongest, the most prosperous, the most hard-working, the most generous — name your superlative — nation there’s ever been. That’s just not how it is, as the following data indicate: On per capita gross national product (admittedly, a crude measure, especially in these volatile times), America scores just above Austria and substantially behind Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Ireland. We’re not in the top 10 on life expectancy, nor on low infant mortality, where we’re beaten by 41 nations. Our teenage birthrate (52.1 per 1,000 women under 20) is three times Australia’s, eight times Sweden’s, 14 times South Korea’s. Our income inequality is considerably higher than in almost all the European nations. We are the only advanced industrialized nation without a national health care system; along with Japan and Singapore, ours is the only nation where capital punishment is legally permitted. The United Nations Human Development Index, which is based on a wide variety of data — everything from human rights to drinking water — ranks America 12th in the world.

Ours is a great nation, to be sure. It is, arguably, the freest nation in world history, surely the freest society of its size. At its best, it is awesomely generous. It has come to terms with its heterogeneity in truly admirable ways, and its commitment to free speech is a world-historic achievement. Its ongoing effort to balance the rights of the individual and the claims of the community, though ever imperfect, is praiseworthy.

At its less than best — say, for example, in its sordid record in Central America or in the salaries it pays its public school teachers or in its material self-indulgence or, lately, in its meddlesome sense of entitlement — its boasts ring hollow.

There’s no shame in that; there’s challenge. True patriotism does not require a suspension of disbelief; patriotism begins with candor, with the capacity to love a place that is flawed, even deeply flawed. And then the patriot moves on to help repair the flaws, not by chest-thumping rhetoric but by — dare I say it? — community organizing or any of the other strategies for real change that are available.

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