18.9.17

HONORED FOR TRASHING THEIR NEIGHBORS.

My recent excursion through the 94th latitude of Minnesota took me through Sauk Center, hometown of Sinclair Lewis.  Despite his role in giving generations of pajama boys a vocabulary to sneer at the yeomanry, his old town recognizes his work.


Yes, that's a reference to the famous Main Street.  (Read the plot summary and imagine Hillary Rodham in Arkansas, circa 1975.)

But what Mr Lewis and other now-celebrated writers of that era emphasized set the tone for the political divisions we see today.  Here's Michael Barone.
The immediate effect of [World War I] was characterized by enormous disorder and disillusion ... This disillusion, as Jon Lauck has written in From Warm Center to Ragged Edge and Fred Siegel in The Revolt Against the Masses, resulted in a revulsion among intellectuals and writers against middle-class America and against the progressivism they had only recently believed in, notable especially in the journalism of ... H. L. Mencken and in popular postwar fiction.  Sinclair Lewis made sport of the midwestern small town in Main Street and Babbitt, while F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway almost totally ignored the midwestern places where they grew up as rich kids ... .
We could toss Sherwood Anderson into the mix, and perhaps a few other novelists and poets of the era, without losing the generality of Mr Barone's continuation.
This revolt showed a contempt for many of the advances of Midwest civilization set in motion by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Yankee reformist impulse ... In effect the intellectuals were spurning the midwestern culture promoting education, advancing equal rights for blacks and women, and encouraging family stability, hard work, delayed gratification, and civic involvement.  There was also a mostly forgotten encouragement of high culture.
Yes, some of that passage sounds contradictory, and parts dated; read Mr Barone's essay in full to see his logic, or where he might go astray.

It is on that spurning of the midwestern culture that I wish to concentrate.  If the disillusioned writers of the Lost Generation provided a vocabulary for the posturing and preening to sneer at the yeomanry, that posturing and preening might have given the yeomanry reason to mock their presumptive betters.  And there might be an entire year of this Lost Generation virtue-signalling in high school literature class: what better way to antagonize the future farmers and mechanics and shopkeepers?

Thus, that the yeomanry might, as Joan C. Williams notes, have animus against "professionals" without being per se against becoming wealthy reflects simply this antagonism.  "Professionals" refers to the teachers pushing that Lost Generation stuff, as well as the people who went off to the fancy colleges and came back all full of themselves and putting on airs.  Becoming wealthy is what a responsible farmer or mechanic or shopkeeper does.

And there are plenty of ways for people who are full of themselves to put on airs.  Let Benjamin Schwarz list a few:
This consumption comes in two forms. One is tangible (the right greens purchased at the right market, the right street food purchased from the right food truck, the right handbag purchased at the right boutique, the right house purchased in the right neighborhood). The intangible form includes the right indie music, day school, college, and grad program. Either way, consumption becomes the dominant means of self-definition. So it’s not as surprising as it first appears that studies scholarly and satirical—such as Sharon Zukin’s Point of Purchase, Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise, Christian Lander’s Stuff White People Like, Lisa Birnbach’s True Prep, and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart — have largely defined this educated elite by probing what it buys and what those purchases signify.

In The Sum of Small Things, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, has refined this exercise by synthesizing up-to-date information on elite spending in a handful of cities—including New York, Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—which she defines as “the geographical lens through which we can observe the consumption habits of the new elites.” Subjecting those spending preferences to fine-grained analysis, she has, partially unintentionally, presented a dark picture of this elite (which she calls the “aspirational class”).
Why "dark?"
That cup of Intelligentsia coffee may “only” cost five dollars, but learning about it in the first place depends on prizing the judgment of certain cultural tastemakers (again, say, the New York Times and those right-thinking podcasts), and on possessing a worldview that attaches a particular value and virtue to a particular container of hot liquid. Acquiring that cultural capital is, itself, a rarefied and usually expensive endeavor, because it involves a lengthy and complex process of what the sociologists call cultural and social formation: The peculiar cachet that the educated class attaches to that cup of coffee is far more likely to elude the daughter of an insurance adjuster brought up in Lansing, Kansas (a middle-class suburb of Kansas City), who attended the local high school and Kansas State, than it is the daughter of a screenwriter raised in uber-achieving north-of-Montana-Avenue Santa Monica, who attended the Harvard-Westlake School and Yale. Thus, buying that cup of coffee—or that organic cotton t-shirt, or that subscription to Harper’s — signifies a class identity that the purchase, in turn, reinforces.

Currid-Halkett’s analysis of the means of forming that identity reveals its superficiality. For example, as The Sum of Small Things establishes, many of the elite’s purchases are made in the name of protecting the environment. But the notion that self-denial—rather than buying things to gratify oneself—might better serve that end seems absent from the elite worldview.
Put another way: when a Thorstein Veblen or a Ken Galbraith writes about conspicuous consumption, all must understand that it's the Babbitts (or, to use a Mencken term, the "booboisie") being mocked.

And Sauk Center honors another local boy who made his reputation mocking, perhaps more gently, his former neighbors.


That's the Cold Spring Shops staff car at the trail crossing.  The buildings to the left background are for the county fair, which is not fenced.  The yeomanry show off their animals there.

The trail itself uses a former Great Northern Railway line that carried passenger trains almost to the coming of Amtrak.  (The ferroequinology post is still in preparation.)


But in Mr Keillor's mockery is the mind-set of his audience.  What point is there to living in Edina, or Eden Prairie, or Santa Monica, if the women aren't all strong, the men aren't all good looking, and the children aren't all above average?  That's why we have Milwaukee or Muncie or Sioux Falls.

And therein lies the continuing quest for the Confederacy of the Frustrated.  Smug begets anger, and anger perhaps begets Donald Trump, and the cosmopolitans become ever more alienated from the provincials, and perhaps, as Mark Bauerlein argues, it's one more re-litigation of the 1960s.
Liberalism has waged combat in this way ever since the Culture Wars erupted in the 1960s. Liberals and leftists forever altered sex roles, marriage, and childrearing, changed the meaning of patriotism, and expelled religion from the public square. When traditionalists stood up and shouted “Stop!” liberals accused them of benighted or cynical gamesmanship, of ginning up another Culture War. Their own radical actions they regarded as the steady march of history, the natural advance of freedom.

The strategy is simple. Broken marriages, unwed mothers, abortion, sex change operations, all of that is normal. It’s the religious believers, the Trump voters, who are the attackers, when they identify social pathologies, and even when they simply want to be left alone.

This is classic passive-aggression. Starting a battle does not fit the liberal self-image of tolerance, and so each skirmish had to be the other side’s fault.

But the game has run its course. Too many people have felt the sting of liberal censure, and they don’t believe they deserved it. They know whom the aggressors really are, and right now their favorite recourse is to vote for Donald Trump.
I suspect the condescension and the censure of the yeomanry began well before the 1960s: only the intensity of the censure changed.  Babbitt becomes Neanderthal becomes bitter clingers becomes basket of deplorables, and bourgeois becomes a general purpose insult: but the our-aspirations-are-better is still the same.

And so the insurgency goes on.  I've been to a number of threshing events, and it's rare to see a participant in the parade of vintage vehicles making an explicitly political statement.  Here is one, though, from the Lake Region Pioneer Threshermens' Association gathering in Dalton, Minnesota.


The show is a long way from Fargo or Sioux Falls, and yet it might be worth the trip.  Among other things, they re-enact a proper thresherman's dinner (the noon meal, for you clueless coasties) of hot dish and jello salad with store coffe, and there's a steam train calling at an honest to Yim Hill Great Northern depot.

Then there's a straw poll I saw at the Sheboygan County Fair.


That's a Republican fund-raiser.  The Democrats also had a booth, but their fund-raising was a cookie jar labelled "Donations" ("contributions" being too fraught a term, and "favors" being too Illinois a term) and their message was a rewrite of a famous Barry Goldwater passage (as if anyone under sixty even remembers the original) that, translated into insurgent-speak reads "Extremism in defense of public assistance is no vice; moderation in pursuit of other people's money is no virtue."

But that was at least within the bounds of normal political discourse.  Here's what the state Democrats had at the Wisconsin State Fair.


"Decency" is too bourgeois a thing.  Well, credit Leah Singer for saying something positive about life in Terre Haute (where Indiana State University were hiring.)
Never does one ask about the low cost of living that is allowing us to pay off the mountain of debt we accrued in California. And never does one ask about my fellow community members, who are running successful businesses, enriching the city's arts and making a difference for the local environment.

As I got to know my new Midwest home, I realize how living in a bubble and subscribing to the Middle America stereotypes is truly damaging to this country.
Indeed.

Makes me wonder how much of that stereotyping comes from an uncritical reading of Main Street or binge-listening to Prairie Home Companion monologues.

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