If it’s a tribe, how come you can’t be born into it?
I was slobberingly grateful yesterday that Jesse wrote about Ross Douthat’s latest ode to the oh-so-sexy (because you think they’re too scatterbrained to use contraception) red state ladies and their leader Sarah Palin, but alas, after reading Matt’s rejoinder, I’m forced to jump into the game. Matt singles out this quote from Ross’s attempt to play the Palin-the-victim card.
Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.
As yes. As much as people like to compare her to the Shrub, in actuality, Palin is Richard Nixon reborn. Her strategy of playing the poor, put-upon victim—just like you, white people, who are sick of hippies and black people that want to share your lunch counter!—is right out of the Richard Nixon “Southern Strategy” handbook. Matt’s answer is funny:
I think the implicit idea here that the real class struggle in the United States is between graduates of fancy colleges and graduates of less-fancy colleges is pretty blinkered.
You say “blinkered”, I say “intellectually dishonest”. Douthat is playing the same tired game that Ivy League-educated East Coast conservative commentators have been playing for a long time—praising the white middle class that viciously and racistly dominates the red states like they’re the only truly oppressed people in the country, oppressed because of their pureness, goodness, and ability to have rowdy sex without protection, the only kind that really gets you off. We’re treated to pity-the-rednecks-and-wannabe-rednecks essays about how snooty liberal elite sneer at hunting and fishing, at religious beliefs that are built strictly around wishful thinking that would make your average kindergartner blush, at big hair, at over-the-top patriarchal fantasizing about zygote life, and now at state schools. Well, all that and we get to hear about how the willfully fucking stupid are morally purer than the rest of us.
But the implication is clear—the red states are the salt of the earth, and the goodness and light of the dominant class shows why the liberal elite are bad people. They hate Sarah Palin not because she’s a nasty person with nasty beliefs and a nasty ideology. No, it’s because she’s a shiny female specimen with good hair, because she has 5 kids and acts like pregnancy was a big shock (instead of what happens when you do it without using contraception), because she went to State U., and because she’s a gleeful redneck. Because liberal elitists have this irrational hatred of this specific tribe of white people, a hatred that has nothing to do with political differences and everything to do with an irrational hatred of pick-up trucks, country western music, and the word “y’all”.
The thick layer of bullshit on this narrative is never lost on me, because the more that pundits like Douthat dwell on incidental regional cultural differences, the more acutely aware I am that my relationship to those cultural markers will never actually mean that the Douthats of the world will put me in the salt-of-the-earth category with people like the Palins. Which means that Douthat & Co. are full of shit. Hey, I can turn on the shiny female specimen act if I have to—broaden the grin, thicken the accent, send of signals of total harmlessness to get past the radars of angsty rednecks who are always alert to a woman who’s acting out of line. Sure, Palin lives the act, and I mostly use it to minimize hostility when pulled over by state troopers, but I know what she’s doing. I wear cowboy boots, have owned pick-up trucks, eaten and helped prepare food shot by family members, drink cheap beer while standing barefoot in the yard, say “y’all”, and even have a weakness for some country music. I’ve danced in honky tonks and took a shot straight out of a bottle of Jack while standing in front of a rednecky small town bar that has a bonfire in the parking lot during the winter. I know how to two-step, and can probably sing every word to “The Chair“. I’ve shot beer cans off fences, slept on trampolines, and I’ve had friends that don’t have indoor flushable toilets. I use the phrase “pepper belly” without a trace of irony. I was born in Texas, and have lived my whole life in Texas, and the two months I spent in small town Virginia drove me nuts in no small part because I thought most people put on too many airs. I went to a small university and not only that, am with someone who is such a big fan of the local state university that I painted our office burnt orange to make him happy. I’ve known actual cowboys. Not just people who dress like cowboys, but men (and a few women) who make a living working cattle ranches. Despite possessing all the stated markers for being a member of the salt-of-the-earth tribe, I doubt Douthat would consider me a member like he does Sarah Palin, even though I think I beat her on many counts, including the fact that neither my parents nor some of my exes even have college degrees.*
In other words, I was born into the tribe that he’s exalting, but for some reason I don’t belong. Funny tribe that is that you can be born into it, still carry a lot of its cultural markers, and not be in it, even though you have the cultural markers that supposedly mean you’re a member.
The reason is obvious, if politely unstated: I’m not in because I’m not a believer in sexism, racism, or American imperialism. I don’t believe white people are better than everyone else, I don’t think that it’s such a great idea to force women to bear children against their will, and I don’t rally round the flag when some politician starts coming up with excuses to invade another country to steal their resources and/or start a libertarian experiment. I don’t bitch about Mexican immigrants, think that Title IX is an act against the god of football, or go on self-pitying trips about how affirmative action is out of control because I saw a black person holding a professional job. I don’t make cracks about woman drivers or black athletes. And I didn’t vote for Bush.
These are the differences that punt you surely from the salt-of-the-earth category to the liberal elite category. True, being officially transitioned has been incredibly freeing, and I’m allowed to indulge pleasures that are seen as suspect if you want to remain a member in good standing of the asshole tribe, pleasures like getting to listen to whatever music you like and getting to eat whatever you want, and not always be on the lookout for liberal contamination in my entertainment. Being able to watch sitcoms like “30 Rock” without my back up is an indulgence my conservative brethren don’t get to have for themselves.** And above all, not always making sure that any and everything is cleared of homosexual influence before enjoying it. The best part of being in the liberal elite is that contrary to the claims of concern troll pundits like Douthat, I’m not mistreated for wearing cowboy boots, saying “y’all”, or otherwise hanging onto innocuous cultural elements of Texana. In general, the shit I get comes all from one direction, and it’s not the liberal elite tribe giving it.
And that’s what’s so fucking stupid about the “woe is Palin” narrative. She’s not a hapless victim of classist liberal contempt for people who like rural vistas and state schools. People don’t like her because she’s an asshole, through and through, and her political ideology is just one manifestation of that. They don’t hate her for having 5 kids; they hate her for parading that around like she’s the martyr of fertility, to making pandering appeals based on her own family to people who would deny other women their basic rights. They don’t hate her because she’s a woman, but they do hate her because she makes unsubtle appeals to vote for her because she flirted with you during the VP debates.
*Okay, we don’t have the Bible-thumping streak (THANK GOD), though it has started to creep in around the edges of my family, with mysterious things like dinner prayers being demanded at some gatherings and chastity rings popping up here and there.
**It’s not that “30 Rock” has especially liberal or illiberal politics. Just the entrance requirements to watch it—accepting that two of the three stars are either a single woman in a leadership position or a black guy who is pretty much always fucking with you—are unnerving.