Sunday, September 14, 2008

Thank you, Americans, for hating each other

There's a cacophony rising across the land. It's the noise generated by discord, mutual recrimination -- by insults hurled by politically inflamed hordes with fingers stuffed in their own ears.

It's the glorious sound of freedom.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Laurie Fendrich, the director of the Comparative Arts and Culture Graduate Program at Hofstra University, writes:
In this polarized election—Obama and McCain are, by most accounts, in a statistical dead heat—there are two “majorities,” if you will. Those who have made up their minds on the candidates hang around in their respective “Amen” quarters, rarely talking to anyone other than people who think the way they do—except to shout at them. Democrats for Obama and Republicans for McCain hardly ever talk with one another about their respective ideas, and instead—if my own experience is any indicator—look at one another with dismay, if not contempt.
Writing for Variety, Brian Lowry points out that even the TV shows we watch have become identifiers of our political tribes, with people proudly touting their own entertainment choices as representative of their political and cultural affiliations.
The Palin pick comes as both the TV audience and political discourse have polarized -- the former fueled by an increasingly fragmented audience, the latter magnified by loud and angry voices from talk radio, cable news and the Internet. Lacking on both fronts is much respect for conflicting views, as the conversation degenerates from "I like this and you like that" toward something more akin to "I like this, and you must be a complete moron -- or an effete snob -- for liking that."
The fact is that Americans -- through yet another election cycle -- remain bitterly divided into rival camps, and contemptuous of the ideology, culture, religion, recreational choices and even hairstyles and dinner menus of those who hold opposing loyalties. And that's excellent news for those of us who value liberty and limited government.

Unfortunately, in a democratic country, the greatest threat to personal freedom comes not solely from above, but from next door. It's ideal when our neighbors espouse tolerance, respect for the rights of others and belief in the autonomy of the individual, but that's all too rare these days. More often, the folks across the way and down the street think "liberty" is a very nice word, but it won't stop them from nodding their heads in group approval of a host of policies that bind us in laws and regulations that are enforced by a multitude of cops and inspectors -- an expensive apparatus that requires extensive bureaucracy and high taxes.

It's all for our own good, of course -- our own good that we're threatened with fines and jail time for doing harmless things that annoy the busybody majority, and for wanting to go about our lives without filling out forms in triplicate.

A lack of political division can be very dangerous, indeed, when the things that people agree upon are meddlesome and presumptuous. And that deep red/blue divide in this country may actually cover a great deal of consensus on the issues.

In a column for the Los Angeles Times, NPR's Dick Meyer claims that the great political polarization of America is much ado about nothing.
Poll after poll, focus group after focus group show that the vast majority of Americans -- the Silent Majority, perhaps? -- are pragmatic, independent and un-partisan in their basic views. They are eclectic: "liberal" on some matters, "conservative" on others. They are not slaves to that hobgoblin of small minds, consistency. On fundamental matters such as belief in equality for women and minorities, or how large a role religion and family play in individuals' lives, the consensus among voters is broad. Unlike other times in U.S. history, there simply are no issues such as slavery, Prohibition or Vietnam that inspire violent protest or social disruption.
In typical pundit fashion, Meyer ends on a "why can't we all just get along" note, hoping that we can all put aside our differences, find our inner consensus, and get to the business of governing the country.

But do we really want our neighbors to get about that business of governing for its own sake, without regard for how they want to govern?

I would argue that our freedom shouldn't be so dependent on the approval of a fickle majority. Sure, it's great if groupthink tosses up a brilliant endorsement of free speech, legalized pot, low taxes and restrained law enforcement. But what if the majority decides it doesn't like brown people -- which is pretty much the case with the anti-immigrant frenzy gripping much of the country? Or what if everybody holds hands and concludes that our taste for hunting is just too declasse?

Better to have our neighbors at each others' throats. If red and blue camps are at-daggers-drawn, at least we know that one faction will always distrust the government, considering the apparatus of the state to be nothing more than a tool for the hated and temporarily ascendant opposition.

Fortunately, that sort of division seems to be guaranteed in the current environment.

In his recent book, The Big Sort, author Bill Bishop finds that Americans have become so prosperous that they're moving from one community to another, not for jobs or family, but for proximity to like-minded people. In an interview on the book's Website, Bishop says:

The quick answer is that most places, most communities in the nation, are growing more politically one-sided — either more solidly Democratic in presidential elections or more reliably Republican. The "red" and "blue" maps of the states are totally misleading. The real differences in American politics today are found at the level of the community. We're increasingly sorting into communities that reliably vote Democratic or Republican in presidential elections.

But our political differences are really just the tip of what has been a social and economic transformation. The nation has sorted in nearly every way imaginable. Young people have congregated in some cities and left others. People with college degrees have increasingly clustered in particular places. Not only have demographic groups sorted themselves into particular places, we've also constructed our social lives so that we spend more time around like-minded others. Over the last thirty years, our civic clubs, our neighborhoods, and our churches have all grown more politically homogenous.

When we don't even live near people who hold differing opinions, we become more confirmed in our own sense of identity -- and more likely to demonize the "other." An election win by the opposing tribe isn't just a shift in political fortunes -- it's a triumph of barely understood and easily caricatured evil. Government, then, faces eternal opposition and distrust from whomever is out of power.

And in that political battleground that hobbles and thwarts government action, those of us who recognize the state as a threat to our personal autonomy can find safe haven for our freedom.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's so easy to demonize people who don't particularly want to associate with members of a different group... but in reality, a lot of people end up avoiding certain other people because of previous experiences with that group of people, its culture, its behavior, etc.

For example: It's easy to demonize people who don't want to live next door to just-swam-the-border, unassimilated Mexicans... but if you dig a little deeper, maybe people avoid those Mexicans, because, in their experience, they tend to be REALLY NOISY, join gangs, get violent, murder other people regularly with vehicles, knives, and guns, and tend not to instill good manners in their children.

If you have a home office in the living room of your apartment, when your neighbor's oh-so-adorable toddler runs up and screams in your open window while you're attempting to work, the toddler's parents won't shush him when you complain, but instead will moronically whine, "he's just a baby!"

If you attempt to eat dinner at a Chinese buffet restaurant where Mexicans also congregate, they will not prevent their spawn from running around, crawling under tables, throwing things at each other, and in general being a hazard to those of us with gimpy legs... even though the Chinese proprietors have signs in Spanish asking the parents to rein in their children.

Also, some of us gringos have literally gotten ill eating so-called "authentic" Mexican food. If I recall correctly, Victor Davis Hanson once wrote that in some Mexican restaurants, perhaps the most "authentic" thing about the food is that you may get hepatitis from it. (Funny thing, but I've never gotten ill on either Cuban, Chinese, or Thai food.)

Freedom of association, after all, works both ways.

Oh, and never forget that all these wonderful "immigrants" bring every last one of their own prejudices with them when they swim the Rio or sneak through the desert. And frequently they're hostile to members of the host culture, namely us gringos.

I lived in a part of L.A. County for three years where I was literally surrounded by Armenians, and it was the only time in my life when I got called a "dirty Jew."

BTW, I didn't move there expecting to dislike Armenians--in fact previously I had encountered a very nice Armenian professor of logic at a junior college; and I have also worked for an Armenian for over 11-1/2 years.

All of these wonderful, unassimilated ethnic groups (for another example) have their own ideas of what constitutes a woman's "place," and if an American woman doesn't fit within that "place," she will be subjected to ridicule, at the very least.

If you're a woman living alone in middle age, unmarried, not a housewifey type, and you don't look like their ideal of a submissive wifey type (preferably petite), you'll get some pretty odd stares and comments, perhaps worse if they REALLY dislike you.

September 16, 2008 5:08 PM  

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