Friday, November 05, 2004

The Red and the Blue

This article from Jane Smiley in Slate argues that the majority of the American electorate consists of fools who have made the wrong choice. Smiley's article is part of a series of election postmortems at Slate, which "asked a number of wise liberals to take up the question of why Americans won't vote for the Democrats." She says:

I grew up in Missouri and most of my family voted for Bush, so I am going to be the one to say it: The election results reflect the decision of the right wing to cultivate and exploit ignorance in the citizenry. ... Ignorance and bloodlust have a long tradition in the United States, especially in the red states. There used to be a kind of hand-to-hand fight on the frontier called a "knock-down-drag-out," where any kind of gouging, biting, or maiming was considered fair. The ancestors of today's red-state voters used to stand around cheering and betting on these fights.

Here is how ignorance works: First, they put the fear of God into you—if you don't believe in the literal word of the Bible, you will burn in hell. ... Next, they tell you that you are the best of a bad lot (humans, that is) and that as bad as you are, if you stick with them, you are among the chosen. ... Third, and most important, when life grows difficult or fearsome, they (politicians, preachers, pundits) encourage you to cling to your ignorance with even more fervor.

The reason the Democrats have lost five of the last seven presidential elections is simple: A generation ago, the big capitalists, who have no morals, as we know, decided to make use of the religious right in their class war against the middle class and against the regulations that were protecting those whom they considered to be their rightful prey -- workers and consumers. ... Progressives have only one course of action now: React quickly to every outrage -- red state types love to cheat and intimidate, so we have to assume the worst and call them on it every time. ... Whatever their short-term appeal, they are borne of hubris and hatred, and will destroy their purveyors in the end.

One of the several ways to parse this argument is to take it on its own terms. In this account, the bulk of Ms. Smiley's enemies consist of a single, undifferentiated mass of red staters with the bestial appetites and intelligence of retarded slugs. Unfortunately for the Democrats, they are led by diabolically clever manipulators -- "the big capitalists, who have no morals" -- who employ cant, superstition and lies to lead their dimwitted mob around for the purposes of rapine and coarse gratification. We are vouchsafed a glimpse of the 'good guys',  the Progressives, the champions of the workers and consumers. These Progressives are somehow resistant to blandishments of the "big capitalists". Something -- superior intelligence or a finer moral fiber perhaps -- has made them insusceptible to ignorance and manipulation. And they alone stand in the way of the Darkness.

This is Ms. Smiley's actual intellectual model. She confidently predicts that red staters, like the Gadarene Swine, are doomed to self-destruction. "Whatever their short-term appeal, they are borne of hubris and hatred, and will destroy their purveyors in the end"; yet warns against complacency, pointing out that  liberals "have only one course of action now: React quickly to every outrage". Everything happens with the automaticity of clockwork, an historical drama whose ending has already been written in which liberals have no choice but to react indignantly and the red staters no alternative but to cast themselves over the cliff. The red staters should enjoy their triumph while they can. For Progressives, Courage, Hope is on the Way.

I should encourage her to believe it. It cannot be improved upon. As a model of simplification it is unexampled. Nothing could be clearer; nothing more proof against refutation. Yet that reply, however gratifying, would constitute an abandonment of dialogue and acceptance of the irreconcilable conflict she proposes. Against the supposition that red staters are slugs it is hardly useful to retort that people like Jane Smiley are blinkered ideologues upon whom rational argument is wasted. It isn't because time and reality are corrosive of dogmatic certitude; and even dedicated Communists may reach that stage in life when they begin to doubt the nonexistence of God. For one Marxist professor the moment came when she lost her sons to a guerilla war which burned, flickered and went out. I can't recall exactly when she began to haunt the terminal cancer ward of the island hospital, visiting the dying; but at the last she began to offer patients rosaries and holy pictures, having discovered they had no appetite for the Collected Works of Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Whether she will see her sons again in aftertime, I do not know; but I cherish the hope red staters may see Jane Smiley again -- not necessarily after watching the NASCAR races and swilling cheap beer.