CONFESSIONAL BRIEFINGAs Long As You're Soul-Searching...
Nov. 5 - Dear American Democrats and European Leftists,
I realize these are strange days for you. A majority of Americans has stood up and spoken loudly and clearly in support of a man, and a number of beliefs, that you consider abhorrent, anachronistic, illogical, dangerous, or just plain dumb.
It's a confusing and troubling time for you. But to your credit, I'm getting the sense that many of you are beginning to wonder if maybe you've been missing something. You're beginning to ask yourselves why, when it's so clear that you're right, so many people appear to disagree with you.
Here's the short answer: fuck you.
Here's the long answer: I wasn't serious in the short answer. But the feelings it provoked in you are probably not unlike the feelings most leftist "rhetoric" has been provoking in me for several years. I don't know if other Americans have felt this way, but I'm guessing they may have.
Let me paraphrase the message I've been receiving; "You stupid fucking baby-killing Nazi, you're a total ignoramus and you're evil and despicable and inhuman and I hate you. Now, won't you please vote for John Kerry?"
This is, to my way of thinking, an unlikely way to go about galvanizing support.
Imagine you're having a drink at a bar when an acquaintance comes up to you and says, "Hey, you dumb fat asshole, you Nazi piece of human waste, buy me a goddam beer right now!"
Imagine you're a friendly American who happens to support President Bush and you're living overseas. An acquaintance with no knowledge of your political beliefs comes up to you and says, "Your country is turning into Nazi Germany, your president is like Hitler and Stalin combined, and your countrymen are all fat, stupid, gullible shitheads."
Would you be interested in any further political discussion?
Say you are. Let's imagine you say, "Well, there's certainly plenty to criticize about President Bush, but I don't know as I'd compare him to Adolf Hitler—" at which point you're cut off.
"Haven't you seen Fahrenheit 9/11? Haven't you read Noam Chomsky's latest? Didn't you hear what Bruce Springsteen said? Did you see yesterday's Guardian?"
Okay. Hold on. It's not always that bad. Sometimes it's more gentle. More like this:
"Do you think your fellow Americans are as screwed up as your idiot president, or are they just too stupid to see through his lies?"
There are many legitimate arguments one can make in opposition to the war in Iraq. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms one can level at the Bush administration. There are many honorable and admirable reasons to be an American Democrat, or any sort of European leftist. By no means do I believe that conservatives have all, or even most, of the answers. But if you want to get me to rethink my political opinions, and to take yours more seriously, you need to keep two things in mind:
First, people who don't see the world just as you do aren't necessarily stupid or evil. Second, calling people names isn't likely to win their sympathy.
I think it's also worth pointing out that most Europeans (left and right) are as ill-informed about the United States as Americans are about Europe. A strange sort of echo-chamber appears to exist, however, in which Europeans who misunderstand something about America make a big fuss over it, and leftists in America then pick up on the grousing and use it to justify their own gripes—which justifications are then picked up by the Europeans as validation of their original point. It happens fairly often.
Here's an exchange from yesterday's Studieskolen class that was entirely representative: "If you look at a map of the election results," said one classmate, "you can see it was just the rabble that voted for Bush."
The teacher smiled and nodded in agreement.
"Actually," I said, "that's just the electoral votes. It was a pretty close election in most states, so all the map really shows is the majority in each state. The whole Blue-Red thing is an oversimplification of—"
"Well, obviously," I was told. "But it shows where the rabble has the majority."
(We were speaking in Danish. The word I've translated as "rabble" is pøbel.)
You wouldn't think a liberal, enlightened European would be so quick to speak of a "rabble" anywhere. But it's not just Europeans that do so. This is an example of the echo-chamber effect I was just speaking of.
"This kind of redneck, shoot-from-the-hip mentality and a very concrete interpretation of religion is prevalent in Bush country - in the heartland." So says Dr. Zito Joseph of Manhattan in a Times article that has to be read to be believed.
Condescension, thy name is Zito.
It gets better:
"New Yorkers are more sophisticated and at a level of consciousness where we realize we have to think of globalization, of one mankind, that what's going to injure masses of people is not good for us," he said. Do I myself think "such attitudes could feed into the perception" of New Yorkers as cultural elitists? No. I think such attitudes merely prove that some New Yorkers are dimwits.
His friend, Ms. Cohn, a native of Wisconsin who deals in art, contended that New Yorkers were not as fooled by Mr. Bush's statements as other Americans might be. "New Yorkers are savvy," she said. "We have street smarts. Whereas people in the Midwest are more influenced by what their friends say."
"They're very 1950's," she said of Midwesterners. "When I go back there, I feel I'm in a time warp."
Dr. Joseph acknowledged that such attitudes could feed into the perception that New Yorkers are cultural elitists, but he didn't apologize for it.
"People who are more competitive and proficient at what they do tend to gravitate toward cities," he said.
When did "sophistication" become synonmyous with "condescending bloviation?" When did "progressive" come to mean "classist"?
Look at me. I'm a college-educated American who's lived in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. I speak three languages and can read five or six. I've lived here in Europe for a year and a half. My own wife and daughter are Europeans. I'm agnostic. I'm a published author, have produced alternative theatre, and subscribed to The New Yorker for years. I am, strangely enough, one of those literate and cosmopolitan citizens of the world so esteemed by Dr. Joseph. And I voted for George W. Bush.
...which means exactly nothing, because there are probably some rural high-school dropouts that voted for Kerry.
My point is, the "sophistication" racket is total nonsense. Think of what Ms. Cohn said in that article: when she goes back to the midwest, she feels like she's in a timewarp. She says this with the implication that it was all those backward midwesterners who voted for Bush. You know: the kind of backward midwesterners you encounter in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit. The kind of backward midwesterners that handed Kerry the Great Lake states. Is it not a leetle bit ironic that in trashing unsophisticated midwesterners, Ms. Cohn has revealed her own ignorance about either American geography or demography—or both?
(Once in 1992 I was getting a haircut in Manhattan when I informed my barber that I was excited about my pending move to Chicago. "Where is Chicago," he asked, "upstate?")
But the height of arrogance is reserved for the kicker, a closing quote from a New York producer by the name of Beverly Cahme: "If the heartland feels so alienated from us, then it behooves us to wrap our arms around the heartland. We need to bring our way of life, which is honoring diversity and having compassion for people with different lifestyles, on a trip around the country."
Yes, that's the answer. All those poor people just need to be told how wrong they are, then they'll smarten right up! Do you think Ms. Cahme would like to have the heartland wrap its arms around her? No, communication isn't about listening, it's about telling.
As for the idea of honoring diversity and having compassion for people with different lifestyles, how can we take this seriously from a woman whose entire political point is that she's incapable of honoring any diversity of political thought?
But this is standard fare. American Democrats and European leftists have a terrible misperception about themselves: the misperception of tolerance. I have two problems with this:
The first is the problem with tolerance-as-relativism. As Moliere wrote (in The Misanthrope), "Esteem is founded on comparison: to honor all is to honor none." Cultural relativism is a dead letter. You're not being "tolerant" if you think Saudi Arabian culture is no better or worse than, say, British or Japanese (or Midwestern) culture: you're simply refusing to pass judgment. There are enormous differences between cultures, and one can and should compare them. Besides, if you're really a cultural relativist, isn't American conservatism just another culture? Just another set of normative values? Just another "narrative," no better or worse than any other?
The second is the problem with tolerance as inclusiveness, and inclusiveness as a function of skin color or sexual orientation (or gender, or ethnic background). "Look how inclusive we are," say the leftists, "there are ten of us here, all of us with different colored faces, different stuff between our legs, different countries on our parents' birth certificates, and some of us have sex with members of the same gender!" Well, hooray for that. But isn't it a little shallow? Doesn't diversity in that case really just mean "multicolored" or "multisexual?" Who's the more "tolerant" person: someone who treats everyone the same, as long as they agree with them, or someone who treats everyone the same—period?
* * *
Lastly, and speaking specifically to Europeans now, it's probably a good idea to recognize that most Americans know more about their country than you do. I don't mean that critically: surely each of you knows more about your own country than I do. But I'm very frequently told the most absurd things about my country by Europeans who won't even acknowledge their errors when corrected, but feel perfectly justified in instructing me on the problems of American politics.
Did you know, for example, that the Rocky Mountains were on the west coast of the United States? So said my Studieskolen teacher to my class one day.
I pointed out that the Rocky Mountains were actually about 600 miles inland.
"Well, okay, they're not exactly on the coast, but they're very close."
By the same logic—and the same distance—Denmark is on the Meditterranean Sea.
I don't mind encountering these mistaken notions in most contexts. God knows I've got plenty of mistaken notions about Europe. But it's hard for me to hear someone rattle off a whole fistful of demonstrably wrong observations about my country and then begin telling me about American politics.
* * *
Everyone's entitled to their own political opinion, of course. I don't mean to suggest for a moment that leftists are wrong in their political suppositions. I'm just trying to tell you something that I think you need to hear now more than ever: one of the reasons you're not getting my vote is that you're repulsing me. Several weeks ago I opined that I thought Bush would win a comfortable majority because I thought a lot of Americans were, like myself, quietly fed up with the screams and insults pouring over us from the far left. I think I may have been vindicated in that opinion.
I've been a leftist before. It's therefore possible (though unlikely) that I could become a leftist again—or at least persuaded to vote for a left-leaning candidate. But if you want my vote, you have to stop insulting me.
* * *
The lead image for this Almanac arrived in my inbox while I was writing this. It was sent by a friend whose politics are considerably to the left of my own. It underscores my point. Can you see the sophistication and savviness at play? The tolerance? The inclusiveness?
* * *
That's most of what I needed to get off my chest. I apologize for the rant. I'm now going to heave a huge sigh of relief. Feel free to share your own thoughts on the Moronic Underground.
Your regular weekend briefing follows.
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Sklodowski?
Maria Sklodowski was born in Warsaw, Poland, on November 7, 1867. Poland was controlled by Russia at the time, so Maria was referred to as Manya, causing her mother to die. This left Manya and her four older siblings in care of their father, who was caught teaching Polish and therefore prohibited from earning money.
To help support her father, Manya began tutoring a family in the country outside Warsaw. Her sister Bronya moved to Paris to study medicine and become a famous doctor, so Manya sent money to her, also. This allowed Bronya to marry another medical student and begin practicing medicine in Paris.
Bronya and her husband invited Manya to live with them in Paris and study at the Sorbonne, where she could call herself Marie. This appealed to the young woman, who quickly earned master's degrees in physics and mathematics. She enjoyed Paris so much she couldn't bear to return to Poland, and to understand her attraction to Paris she began a study of magnetism.
To conduct her magnetism research she needed a larger lab, however, so she married a Frenchman named Pierre and used his.
One of Pierre's friends had been experimenting with uranium, which piqued Marie's curiosity. She began experimenting with it herself, and ultimately discovered something she called "radio-activity." This eventually led to her discovery of radium, for which she received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1911.
Marie Curie's research would eventually culminate in the development of the atomic bomb, but unfortunately she died before having the opportunity to see the full flowering of her hard work.
* * *
On November 6, 1923, the price of a loaf of bread in Berlin was reported to be about 140 billion German marks. And yet when we think of fine baking, we tend to think of France—clearly, we have done the Germans wrong.
On November 6, 1911, Maine became a dry state. How a state with 3500 miles of shoreline could dry out in a single day is beyond me, but I can't always expect to understand the historical information I gather. It may just have been a really low tide.
Birthdays and Holidays
The 5th is Independence Day in El Salvador, Guy Fawkes Day in the UK, and Art Garfunkel's 63rd birthday. Celebrating with Mr. Garfunkel (metaphorically, anyway) are Tatum O'Neal (1963), Bryan Adams (1959), Sam Shepard (1943), Elke Sommer (1940), Ike Turner (1931), Vivien Leigh (1913), and Roy Rogers (1911).
The 6th is Flag Day in Chad and in the Dominican Republic, Swedish Day in Finland, Green March Anniversary Day in Morocco, and Gustavus Adolphus Death Day in Sweden.
Ethan Hawke turns 34 on the 6th. He shares his birthday with Maria Shriver (1955), Glenn Frey (1948), Sally Field (1946), Mike Nichols (1931), Walter Perry Johnson (1887), James Naismith (1861), and John Philip Sousa (1854).
Marie Curie shares her November 7 birthday with Dana Plato (1964), Joni Mitchell (1943), Al Hirt (1922), and Billy Graham (1918). The 7th is Revolution Day in Bulgaria, the Queen's Birthday in Nepal, October Revolution Day in Russia, and Ben Ali Takeover Anniversary in Tunisia.
Enjoy the weekend!
© 2004, The Moron's Almanac