Culture Fears

I’m completely in agreement with Claire Potter, writing at her blog Tenured Radical, that mocking Governor Rick Perry for his college grades and using them to explain Perry’s policies on education is a bad idea on several levels. As Potter points out, for one, it personalizes and psychologizes an argument that is more powerful if it’s about politics and not just Perry’s. Perry is not engaged in an obsessive, solitary attack on public education, after all. If you’re a professor, attacking him on this point also breaches professionalism. As Potter points out, faculty should know that a mixed transcript can mean many things, and should have enough decorum to refrain from mocking anyone in public over their grades unless that person is making untrue claims about their earlier work. Weak grades for an 18-22 year old can mean any number of things, and tell you very little about the capabilities and character of a public figure twenty or thirty years later.

The deeper issue is something I keep coming back to as this blog. Precisely because I so deeply oppose both what the leaders and rank-and-file of the Tea Party and their allies are trying to accomplish I think it’s absolutely crucial to spend time trying to understand their motivations. That means inquiry rather than dashing off some bargain-basement invective about racism or standard-issue rhetoric about how they’re being manipulated by the steering committee of global capitalism.

I have two areas that I personally focus on in that inquiry. In this post, I’ll focus on the Tea Party as culture warriors retaliating for a long series of perceived intrusions and trespasses against them. The thing is that kneejerk mockery of Perry as an ignoramus based on his college grades shows that this perception is based on some kind of reality.

I’ll refrain from once again going through my “Gramscian repurposing of institutions once legalistic reform hit the wall in the early 1970s was a tactical mistake” argument in full. In short, the last forty years have provided deep and shallow reinforcements of the proposition that educated Americans who have some ability to prosper in the service economy that they played some role in bringing about have a lot of contempt for anyone left in their wake.

I know there are completely legitimate policy questions as well as moral ones trailing in the wake of issues like gun rights or public forms of religious practice. It’s troubling, still, viewed from a historical distance, how quick a lot of people were to rush in and entangle those policy questions with cultural ones. Honestly, as soon as gun rights questions come up, if I’m in a crowd where everyone is the “right kind of person”, it’s not long before the issue isn’t the right to own a gun but pick-up trucks with gun racks and nude female silhouettes on the mud flaps. And I grant equally that there’s a legitimate politics where that truck is an issue, too, but the mixing of the two has been fairly incendiary.

The consequence is a situation where when Palin, Bachman, Huckabee or Perry says something laughably wrong about either the past or the present there is nothing that we the eggheads can say that doesn’t get written into that record, one more bad grade in a class that we do not control and that the students refuse to accept as valid. If you’re a teacher you know it’s a hopeless situation from the moment that dynamic takes hold. In this case, in no small measure because the moment you set yourself up as the teacher to your peers on all things, rather than the small and narrow range of things you really know better than they, you’ve lost yourself as much as anyone you’d help to teach.

I don’t know better than anyone how to minister to all children or how to deal with all criminals or how to save all the dying or fix all the economies or have all the right governmental processes or have soldiers kill only those who ought to be killed. The olive branch to offer anyone who wants to be my sibling and citizen and peer is not, “You’re always wrong and stupid and you get a C”. It’s also not, “The whole of the law is do as you will: tear down my country and I’ll still always offer to negotiate with you and compromise with you”. Drawing a line in the sand isn’t about what we know: it’s about what’s right and wrong.

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2 Responses to Culture Fears

  1. jgoodwin says:

    Did you read that piece by Jonathan Raban in the NYR about the Tea Party?

    My primary source of contact with the mud-flap demographic is a forum devoted to Louisiana fishing that I read. (I fish, but in a kayak.) There’s a politics/religion section. It’s a pretty simple story there for the frequent posters: they are overtaxed, and immigrants and black people spend all their money on welfare and affirmative action. If a household has to balance its budget (never mind the doubtless stupendous debts owed on F150s and fiberglass power boats), then the government has to as well. It’s a standard “what’s the matter with Kansas?” situation. And what’s expected of me? I just want to know how muddy the water is in Shark Bayou or what kind of topwaters the trout are hitting in Lake Calcasieu. Do I have to intervene? I can’t imagine a situation where I’d have less rhetorical authority.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    On a forum? Yeah, I agree, about as little as possible. But I guess my intuition (I read a surf fishing forum occasionally that goes to some of the same places) is that there are a lot of lurkers in those places who aren’t biting at the lures. And yet I think we see the lurkers when we go out into the world and cast off our lines.

    I keep feeling that the right bet is on the decency of most people. That when the Tea Party is indecent, as it is much of the time, it rankles quietly those who have to live with it most, as it rankles aggressively those of us most different from it and yet farthest away. I think some day, maybe this day, they’re going to overstep as badly or worse anything that the most cluelessly well-meaning progressive ever did in a small town. Now this is a terrible faith to have because there are people in other small places who have made the same bet, that most people are pretty decent, and when the knives and clubs got passed out found out they were wrong. I don’t see that there are any other wagers to place at the table we’re sitting at.

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