20.12.16

THE LAND THE VANGUARD DESTROYED.

The phenomenon of people who should be logical constituents for socialists but vote and otherwise behave differently keeps a cottage industry in punditry, including academic punditry, perpetually busy.  Thomas Frank may be one of the better known pundits, starting with his What's the Matter With Kansas? His more recent Listen, Liberal suggested that the appletini set marinating in the smug on Martha's Vineyard and in the Hamptons were asking for trouble.  Hillary "basket of deplorables" Clinton never got the memo, and now, now, Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall twigs to how bad the trouble is.  "As much as anything there is a revolt against the increasingly urban and non-white America symbolized by the 'Obama coalition', one that combines racial backlash, economic decline and cultural marginalization. There is something there that goes far beyond anything that can be addressed by a more class based politics alone."  Put the appletini away, this may call for three fingers of Jack.

Perhaps the Deep Thinkers will be looking through Berkeley sociologist A. R. Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, a think-piece sort of Book Review No. 27.  Yes, the title has a whiff of patronizing condescension to it, but the author did take the time to go to a part of Conservative America, the Chemical Coast of southwestern Louisiana, where you'd think between dangerous work, hurricanes, and environmental laxity, there'd be a fair number of logical constituents for socialists, and yet the Tea Party and the Church and the Maverick traditions are reasons for people to have world-views in which Government is Not the Solution to our Problems, Government. Is. The. Problem.  (That despite Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal cutting public expenditures in order to offer tax inducements for businesses that often cut corners to get the oil or the salt or the sulphur out of the ground.  Oh, and Mr Jindal is not of Old Plantation Stock, but there are only so many anomalies a sociologist can tackle.)

So yes, I did enjoy reading the book.  Amazing what academicians can do when they write straightforward declarative sentences and eschew the elephantine prose that informs, or misinforms, what masquerades as scholarly writing.  It is solid social science, with lots of end-notes, and technical appendices that might be helpful, although since one of them perpetuates the 79 cents on the dollar canard, you must trust, then verify, dear reader.

But in Professor Hochschild's "deep stories," the vision of the way the world works that apparently the bayou and delta libertarians, evangelicals, traditionalists, and mavericks share in common, perhaps what she didn't pick up on is more important than what she did pick up on, once her conversations with people turned to serious matters of state.

The deep story she uses to get into the minds of her hosts and hostesses begins something like this.  The full version starts at page 136: I have tweaked it slightly so as to establish a story I think she missed.  "You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill.  There appears to be a shining city atop the hill.  It represents the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line.  The sun is hot.  And there are people cutting the line, pushed there by the national government.  Blacks.  Women.  Immigrants.  Refugees.  Brown Pelicans.  (Had Professor Hochschild gotten to know people living an hour southeast of Berkeley, or taken V. D. Hanson to lunch, it might have been delta smelt.)

It makes sense that she would frame the story that way: doesn't every populist politician whip up resentment, whether against Elites or Those People, by making his cause the cause of People Who Played By The Rules and were Hard Done By?

But after I finished the book, I then reflected on a sketch by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, "Along the Oka," which you can find in full in English on pages 3-4 of Michael Bourdeaux, Gorbachev, Glasnost, & The Gospel.  In Solzhenitsyn, it's repurposed churches, but I've adapted his story to that city atop the hill.

"But when you get there, you find that not the living but the dead greeted you from afar.  The marquees and signage has been knocked off the roof or twisted out of place long ago.  The spires have been stripped, and there are gaping holes in the rusty steelwork.  Weeds grow on the roofs and in the cracks in the walls.  The landscaping has not been kept up, and the flowerbeds are trampled.  The broken windows may have been boarded over, with obscene inscriptions scrawled over them."

If that sounds a little bit like what has happened in Democratic-controlled cities such as Detroit and to a lesser extent elsewhere around the Great Lakes and east of the Alleghenies, you begin to understand the secret of the Trumpening.

Later in the book, she offers the deep story of the appletini set.  This starts at page 235, and again, it involves a city.  "In it, people stand around a large public square inside of which are creative science museums for kids, public art and theater programs, libraries, schools -- a state-of-the-art public infrastructure available for use by all."  Then come the privatizers and limited-government types, dismantling the public square to build McMansions.  It's not quite as compelling as the shining city story, and yet, Solzhenitsyn has an accurate description of the trashed public square without the deus ex machina of John Galt.

"In the theater there is the shudder of percussion and profane voices being raised.  The art may be tendentious or strange.  Some of the schools are locked and silent.  In others, there are slogans.  'Our Strength is Our Diversity.'  See Spot Run.  'A Poem about Piece' is on the bulletin board.  A truck, guarded by police, has backed to the school loading dock to unload tablets.

"At one time those museums, those libraries, those schools, ennobled people, and prevented them from sinking on all fours.  But now sinking on all fours is a form of authenticity ...

"Buck up and stop feeling sorry for yourself.  Happy Hour is at six and the cage-match starts at eight."

Yes, there is more to the sense of decay than class-based politics alone.

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

2 comments:

Dave Tufte said...

Your "Poem About Piece" reminded me of something.

The building our College of Education is in is fairly new, and has some large classrooms used by a variety of non-Education faculty.

Even so, the Education majors have projects all over the building. This includes bulletin boards in classrooms. As if pinning stuff to a bulletin board, while no doubt one of the minor skills needed by a K-12 teacher, qualifies as college level work. Whatever.

So a friend from Biology follows me in a classroom. We noticed after my class one day that the bulletin board, no doubt done for a grade, misspelled Antarctica. Twice. My friend pinned a rather large note to the bulletin board pointing this out. The note stayed there the rest of the semester.

No one from the students or faculty who call that building home had an interest in fixing a glaring error. And yet the correction was obvious enough that it became a running joke in my class.

Oh well. It's been 3-4 years since then. The creator of that board has presumably graduated, and taken a job in our states' K-12 system.

Stephen Karlson said...

I have to wonder if Solzhenitsyn's mention of the "Increase Milk Yields" poster might not have been a similar sort of signal to his readers, invoking one of the many Khrushchev-era campaigns to give the impression of putting something right, while the milk ration was being cut.

Perhaps some of my other readers also caught the symbolism. Your story is one of the many ways in which that grand public square has been trashed.