Monday, October 04, 2004

Sophistication Versus Wisdom: Democrats versus Republicans

This post is an amplification on a theme I wrote about on on August 30th, with some additional commentary (I'm obsessed), so, if you already read it, you might want to jump to the next (it's kind of political, thin on snarky pop-culture gruel -- but there is a little) blog posting, otherwise, here we go again:

Tina Brown has, in the past, made an dead-on analysis on American politics (as, perhaps, only the foreign born --titled? -- can make) about the differences between what she characterizes as the "Daddy Party," i.e. the Republicans, with their emphasis on competition, loyalty, a strong military (domestic security and a "firm hand abroad" -- no pun intended), fiscal responsibility and the importance of growth and the acquisition of wealth, over and against what she calls "Mommy Party" -- i.e. the Democrats -- who emphasize nuance and sophistication in rhetoric, the more traditionally "feminine wiles (nuance)," and, policy wise: the importance of the caring of children and the elderly, a sound educational system, international cooperation (play well, boys), moderation with regards to the environment and reasonable drug pricing (and all relating to heath care), as main concerns.

It is precisely this emphasis on rhetorical "nuance" that Karl Rove and the Republican Party are playing upon, picking apart John Kerry at will -- what, with Kerry's "French" sense of diplomacy, which, not only suggests that his tastes are out of sync with America at large, that The Brahmin appears to be unsure of his identity, confused of his masculinity, but also -- fatally -- a thing of cognitive clay, an aesthetic man devoid of any moral certitude -- an evil "lib" (For what is France in the greater context of the history of the world if not the symbolic zenith of Aestheticism and the triumph of the Aesthete?).

What John Kerry called nuance, the GOP mad to appear to be prevaricating, hence the "flip-flops," so ably tied to those cheap shoes, so very available at any Wall Mart, in the South, in the thick of the summer, at the goddamn flip-flopping height of their exigency. Of course, in the sophisticated precincts such Gramercy Park, Burning Man Festival, Embassy Row in DC, among the ethnic restaurants frequented by U ot T film majors in Austin, on the slopes of Aspen, while breathing the rarified air of the environmentalists in Portland, and, to be sure, noshing at the Ivy in Hollywood, where everyone accepts the philosophical contingency of existence as commonplace as Zinfandel with dinner, private nursery schools on the Upper West Side of New York, electric cars, the pleasures of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the nightly dose of Charlie Rose "before-one-goes-to-bed." For a group devoted to sophistication and social freedom, liberals are a remarkably homogeneous tribe.

The pendulum swings. John Kerry's performance at the debate last week has staunched the blood flow from the Republican Summer 2004 Feeding Frenzy (TM). Kerry acquitted himself nicely in Miami, showing that sophistication and nuance can indeed appear (air quotes) "Presidential"; because Kerry can see a problem multidimensionally does not mean that he is not a "manly-man." As an unintended consequence (Do I underestimate Shrum? He contains multitudes) the process appears to have inoculated Team Kerry against Streptococcus FlipFlop.

But the Bushies are on top of things, so the jury is still out on whether or not if Kerry is forever immune to a reinfection. In fact, polls --in individual states, not nationwide -- have Bush still in the lead.

But in the rest of the country, you know (The Corsair does his best David Brooks impersonation), those other unmentionable regions where people have never heard of The Observer and have never eaten arugula, and -- quelle horreur! -- lack a decent organic grocery store or Farmer's Market in their vicinity, the very idea of the "contingency of human existence" is regarded, at once, as a negative force unleashed by angel headed hipster Pandora in those psychedelic 60s, and, on the other hand as a nihilism so dark, so unfathomable that it would render the very social fabric of the Western Reality -- a reality that values (yes, they actually believe in such quaint concepts as values) "heritage," tradition, the actuality of absolute truths such as Beauty and Knowledge and Love and Honor and Duty(even -- gasp -- the possibility of an Eternal Life, however primitive their conception of It, what with their "Mr. God" concept, with his crisp white granfatherly beard, his milky white skin and his twinkly Santa Clause eyes) to be wholly irrelevant, unwound:

"But I cannot deny my part to which my self is wed, / The woven figure cannot undo its thread." -- Valediction, Louis McNeice.

And, to be honest, I have some affinities with that conservative view. I believe in love as something more than a biochemical reaction, I believe in the possibility of Eternal Life (although that would be considered as a highly embarrassing belief among my buddies on the left) and I believe in Truths and the classical sense of beauty and the fact that learning about the Platonic Eidos is of greater value to me and everyone than learning about Booker T Washington, or Gertrude Stein, or Che Guevara (although that doesn't mean that I do not drink those authors with pleasure, I just do not find them of equal to Shakespeare: one cannot ask Up From Slavery the same questions that one can ask of Hamlet). I do believe in hierarchical structure, I have a notion of "the best", a concept alien to the left where all ideas are created equal.

I (not The Corsair) was especially struck by it yesterday when I saw how effectively recently George Bush spoke in West Virginia Steel Country. How does someone with such a silver spoon in his family tree pull that little fiasco off? Bush hit the perfect pitch, even throwing off lines that resonated "nurtured in the trailer park." George Bush finally found his crowd.

How did he manage it, how did he bring it off? Years of talking to the unwashed masses at baseball games? Is that how he knows what the red states and, quite frankly, much of the undecided blues need to hear? It's spooky.

By now we are all aware of the particularly intense partisanship on The Hill at this time, as a result, in part, by the ultraconservative governance of this nation by a President who was elected -- just barely -- without the popular vote, and, thus, without a proper mandate for radical reform, one which he coveted, one which might revenge his father's loss in '92. The prudent course of action in weighing the consequences of the tenuous election of 2000 would have been to govern the nation center-right, and, if Bush were re-elected with a substantial margin, to tack the ship of state farther Right (wing). No one would have faulted Bush for this.

Then 9/11 happened, throwing all traditional political behavior topsy turvy. Everything went sideways. "The rules have changed," said the Editorials from the OP Ed sections to the cable news stations and blogs (which, recently, Tom Brokaw so tellingly called "the next Big Bang). K-Street is now divided down the middle, as Log Cabin Republicans, pro-preemption human rights advocates, neoconservatives, stem cell research advocates (some scientists, some swing state pro-scientific advancement types), former Naderites, Air America types and conservatives all rally to their respective sides, many of them traditionally alien. Whatever happened to taking the best of both sides? As a typical Gemini (don't hold it against me), I have to say, I truly believe both sides have their pluses.

Frankly, I have some respect the conservative search for wisdom, with it's emphasis on a hierarchical structure of existence -- that some ideas are intrinsically better than others. Liberals just cannot wrap their minds around the idea, for example, that public schools are essentially governed by a quasi-educated bureaucracy, and that if anyone actually were to learn from them, anything of life altering value beyond "a smattering of economics" or "woodwork," or "sex ed," or, "integrated math (a tasteless pudding made by a committee of chefs with PhD's in something called 'Secondary Math Education)," it is probably by accident.

Okay, that was a great oversimplification of reality, but you get the point. The liberal theory of education is that there are no ultimate truths, life is like a tumultuous wave, contingent, and, therefore, education ought to be tailored to help the learner navigate the student on his or her particular surfboard -- with compassion, always compassion, the marriage of Dewey and Whitman; there are no permanent things. Public schools exist to train the next generation of servants (another great generalization, I admit), the possibility that a public school might teach, say, that sepia-dark Homeric Greek, the foundation of Western languages with a labyrinthine and infinitely useful inherent logic, or an advanced study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates on slavery in civics class, or the African St. Augustine's Confessions (too religious, not politically correct) or classical mechanics (the astronomy of Ptolemy or Newton -- difficult, to be sure, but not impossible to navigate their internal logistical structure, so revealing of the history of Western thought), or Elizabethan poetry is absurd as, well -- that won't get you a job, and, besides, it's all by dead white men who offered a truth for their time, but, with contingency -- and, wink-wink, we are all "pragmatic" aren't we? -- we need an education for this new historical moment. Something disposable.

There is an almost congenital aversion among public schools to teach via first sources, I cannot fathom where this comes from. Perhaps it comes from Pragmatism, the greatest American home grown philosophy. Pragmatism echoes in the writings and lives of every great American, from the Autobiographies of Booker T Washington and Ben Franklin, to Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia and Fenimore Cooper and Crevcoeur's lush Early Romanticism to The Robber Barons and Railroad Magnates to Bill Clinton, author of himself, the bold self made man via impromptu tools of his creation. There is a reason improvisational jazz is an American invention."Boldness" is the great teacher of Americans, not the history of civilization; in that sense, the unilateral philosophy of neoconservatism is not alien to the American Mind. But back to education.

I will not entertain the possibility that a lot of useless hacks at the Board of Eds and publishing houses across the country would be out of work if their mishmash textbooks -- created by bureaucratic committee -- didn't receive lucrative publishing contracts *Scholastic, ahem, cough, cough* to unintentionally dilute the wisdom of The Great Authors. Public school trains kids to get jobs, to survive, to be off the street, to contribute taxes, to not rob and maim and kill the better educated, this is considered a necessity that one doesn't talk about -- it is impossible to discuss public education without mentioning jobs; private schools teach kids to be free thinkers, to have a private vocabulary, to name their pets out of classical literature, to understand several languages, to be witty and bright, granted, of course, many grads of the better private schools have a tidy inheritance coming to them, but that is not the point, they are educated to be educated, to be active participants in our democratic experiment, to advance learning, to, quite possibly, create a new fortune, to be wise, not simply educated to get a nifty tech job.

A liberally educated individual would not only be bright enough to get that job, but also, to crave after lifelong learning, search for justice in the world, in politics, in daily life. Give me a couple of Cutty Sarks and I could argue that the hottness of the legal profession to people who come from bad public schools (they want money and power without any notion of a Platonic ideal of "justice," or, "the good" and they watch enough prime time tv to know that law is the way to do it) is one of the prime sources of rot in American society. And, of course, you get what you pay for, education-wise. And the teachers unions in public schools are mostly out for pay raises. And any political dialogue on the subject usually degenerates into chat of "repairing buildings," or "putting cops in schools," or, my favorite, "installing metal detectors," and "testing." Ever wonder why pols -- from liberals like Bill Clinton (Chelsea went to Sidwell Friends) and Mark Greene to conservatives to Bill Buckley (Christo went to Portsmouth Abbey) and Taki (son went to Le Rosey)-- send their kids to private schools? At least conservatives aren't hypocrites on the matter. Conservatives have strong curriculum proposals, because they believe in ultimate truths. But, of course, when this search for wisdom ("ultimate truths"), or, at least, the belief that they actually exist -- as opposed to liberals -- degenerates, disintegrates, you get gasbags and moral scolds, like the schoolmarm from Missouri, who believes that all liberals are addicted to "porn and filth."

But, in the end, of course, this evangelical moralizing stems from resentment at the sophisticated fast life of those same "Godless, immoral liberals." (The schoolmarm may not make as much money, have as much sex, or have as much fun, but -- by God -- she knows in her heart that Jesus loves her, how can I take that away from her?)

Now: lest everyone on the left abandon me, thinking me a crypto-fascist (I can see the comments coming like a September hurricane in Bermuda), I started out at The Nation, and I also respect, quite frankly, deeply: the liberal yearning for worldly sophistication. The fragrance of existence is intoxicating, large beyond all measure, and everything is possible in nature's experiment, perhaps, even, everything is permitted: progress is infinite, says the liberals, with characteristic grace, charm, wit, freedom and beauty. Visit the Upper West Side, the world's capitol of liberalism and you can see -- especially in summer -- just how existentially beautiful it is to be a liberal. There are ethnic restaurants everywhere (as opposed to the frosty Upper East Side, where ethnic diversity is limited to ethnic servants going in the service entrances; there is a barrenness of diversity in conservative bastions, like Sewanee, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Idaho, Montana and South Dakota).

A liberal neighborhood means, among other things, lots of kinetic energy on a Friday night -- snap, crackle and pop -- lots of kids (liberals tend to center their neighborhoods around kids, literally urban plan around kids -- ice cream trucks, public parks, kiddie foodstuffs, diaper changing stations, &c), liberals love kids and youth just as conservatives respect and worship senectitude. The Upper East Side -- a conservative section of Manhattan -- is almost entirely catered, urban planning wise, to the elderly -- private nursing operations, buildings with entrances for the infirm's automated traveling devices, &c)

On the other hand, lots of large and happy dogs with bandanas frolic in lefty climes, with happy laughing children in tow (I believe that the children help prolong the sense of 60s freedom among lefties), and a sort of air of Buddhist detatchment and "accepting," like, say, the one in Northampton, Massachusetts, or Burlington, Vermont, or even Denver, Colorado is predominant. There is no ultimate truth, just the existentialist surfer reality with improvisation and love. So, you're wife had an affair -- no biggie, it was just a one-time thing. Keep riding the wave. Travel to strange and mysterious cultures and partake of their particular "realities" is big with liberals, it is like church to the red-staters.

Naive, yes, all this is very naive, but pretty, and, of course, sophisticated. Being a liberal is like Odysseus eating the Lotus leaves, it is intoxicating. Liberals are far more sophisticated than conservatives, socially, intellectually and in every which way. I'd much rather party with lefties, to be frank. But in my life I try to take the good from both sides of the political spectrum and call each on on their bullshit ... when I'm not blogging about trite but fun celebrity gossip, that is (Toss me in the shallow water before I get too deep).

Bush was be sold as a Harry Trumanesque figure, at the end of a convention, resolute, the last man in the arena after the moderates have appealed to the single women and security moms and Swing State centrists. And, already, anticipating this Truman characterization, Senator John Edwards is asking Bush to take responsibility for the mishandling of the war -- this will be repeated all this week -- to make "the buck stop here."

Bush's primary weakness is that his political maneuvers are unintentionally responding to every mistake of his father, George Bush the Elder, a decade earlier; it's as if he were caught in some psychic continuum against the ruins of the past. Note the 2004 Convention, brimming moderates, a stunning contrast to his father's '92 Convention catered to the too far right, with Pat Buchanan and Marilyn Quayle tossing vinegar, turning off women voters; note the decision at the outset to cut taxes, in stunning contrast to Bush the Elder's reneging on his "No New Taxes" pledge, and, of course, the coup de grace, note the decision to finish off the war his fathers administration began ... One wonders how devastating a blow to Bush's psyche the loss of his father in '92 must have been if, all these years later, his psyche is still governed almost entirely by making amends, restoring family honor -- ahh, but then, such are the mysteries between fathers and sons.

But this very fact, this psychological compulsion on the part of Bush the Younger, makes him predictable even, and allows (Bob) Shrum, if he has indeed the political wit, to discern the patterns of his pathology and devise a trap, best unleashed in the heat of debates, delivered with said "nuance." And Bush's best bet is to hammer Kerry on that "nuance," painting him as something French, sophisticated, and alien to the American shores. The swing staters and the industrial belt will favor a man who speaks his mind, in the tradition of Lincoln and Daniel Boone. There is a reason why a nuanced aristocrat like Adlai Stevenson was never elected President.


starzstylista said...

That was so good I want a cigarette. Do you know about that linguistics guy in Berkley -- if you linked to him at some point my apologies for being redundant.

This comment somehow got posted in my blog in a frolic and detour about Risotto. In explanation I declaim your brilliance.

Allison Bojarski said...

yeah, La D really did do that, but it led me here to read this post, so it was a fortuitous error.

great critique, ron.

Anonymous said...

The linguistics guy in Berkeley has some pretty sharp observations on the certainty vs. nuance thing.

The Corsair said...

Thankk you Ali, La D, I live for your comments.