The Know Nothing Appeal
I dislike the celebration of the common man in present politics, not from a rejection of the common man, but for the demeaning of the common man that is embraced in the supposedly celebratory tropes. Real Americans in the parlance of conservative politics seem to be a rather small group, congratulated for the virtue of ignorance, of willful blindness, of confined and confining thought and emotion. They are celebrated in part for not thinking, for refusing to analyze, for obeying their gut and for feeling the truth, not finding it.
The intellectual, the thinking political participant and citizen, is denigrated and made un-American in this discourse, with all evidence of an "egghead" nature, of a will to reach out and analyze, is made proof of a compromised patriotism. To think, to engage with the world and with one's fellow citizens outside of the catch-phrases of appropriate patriotic slogans and pro-Christian catch-phrases, is a social negative, a liability that makes one suspect and less truly American than dull obedience and blindly supportive statements of the "my country right or wrong" pattern.
Why does this anti-intellectual, and worse than anti-intellectual, anti-thinking, anti-social, and anti-freedom, rhetoric have such appeal? Why has it become the go-to portrait of the good American? I don't know. Whether one goes to college or not, receives a degree or not, the possibilities of intellectual expansion, investigation, and active analysis of one's society, its present and its future, our relationships with one another and their meaning, remains possible and available. Thinking is a skill developed by use, but not an exclusive possession of intellectuals and academics. In fact, our democracy will only be functional if we, as citizens, think, analyse, and make the understanding of our world, political policies, and possible consequences of political action our duty, and thus pursue an engagement with the political, social, and intellectual streams of society. Citizens, in order to act in a responsible manner, must be men and women of brain as well as persons of feeling. Citizens in a democracy with a polity drawn from multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds and beliefs must be tolerant, must be willing to allow others the freedom to pursue their own lives and morals, save in those few areas where the action of one harms another. Harm is a specific, serious concept. One is not harmed by being disturbed, by disagreement, or by revulsion. One is harmed by violence to one's dignity or person. Where harm is ambiguous or absent, we must, as believers in freedom, in liberty, in human rights, allow that to which we do not give our assent or support.
It is easier to celebrate as tolerance the permission we give to those ideas and expressions with which we agree, that which we recognize as having a positive value expressed in a comfortable form. However, this is not truly tolerance. Tolerance exists where ideas and expressions which are antithetical or challenging to one's own view are permitted in the public and private space. One tries to understand them. There are disagreements, some serious and deeply held, others less emotional and tense, but there is no elimination of the unpopular from view or discussion. The content of 'American' remains open to interpretation and adjustment, it remains a fluid area of contest, debate, and questioning. As citizens, we recognize that we are not done, that the end of history and the end of the human are not yet.
Liberty is not safe, nor comfortable. This is not liberty's purpose, nor its virtue. Safety and order are better served by other forms of government, though even under those governmental forms they can be assured only to a minority of insiders, elites, and subjects. This is an important distinction--that between the subject and the citizen. Subjects obey; regardless of the form of government under which the subject exists, the relative virtues or vices of the individual dictator, compulsion lies at the center of the political and social reality. A subject has no direct responsibility for what the dictator wills or does; the action of the government is not inherently limited by the will of the subjects. A citizen has a wholly different relationship with the political and social reality of the leader and the state. The citizen is responsible, even when he/she does not desire that responsibility, for the actions and intentions, the will and the consequences, of its leadership.
I didn't vote for George Bush II. I did not trust him. I did not like him. I did not like his policies. I was disturbed by his desire not to think combined with his commitment to act. I am, nevertheless, despite my personal rejection of him, as a citizen of this country, responsible for those things my country did under his leadership, under the leadership of the Congress that served with him. It is my country. I cannot escape it, nor the consequences for belonging to it, Sometimes I would like to escape, to find some easy scapegoat to be wholly responsible in my place--someone like Cheney, for example--but I know the comfort of the scapegoat is illusory and does not solve, nor really address, the issues involved in my disappointments and regrets.
I do not understand, and I cannot respect, the drive to promote ignorance, emotion, and jingoism as suitable, indeed laudable, characteristics of the voter and the citizen. It is composed of a rhetoric that does more than accept the presence of ignorance and fanaticism. This rhetoric actively promotes it. It says that being ignorant, being uneducated, following one's feelings without thought, and responding to people based on assumptions, often racist and/or culturally blind, are positive qualities, signs of good values and solid American-ness.
I have looked at the Republican women who hold positions on the national stage as representatives of that gender in Republican politics. Are these women--Palin, Bachman, Ann Coulter--the best conservatives can attract? Are these the women conservatives want to present to Americans as the best and brightest of American females? Certainly, they are not the best, nor the brightest. Many women I have met outside of the national spotlight are brighter and present a better image of the American woman than do they. Why, then, is it these women that we watch and whose opinions and mis-statements, often malicious deceptions, become part of our daily ration of political blathering? Where are the other Republican women--Republican women who are not hiding behind cute phrases like 'grizzly mom' or waiting for God to tell them what to do? Where are the Republican women who can form complete, cogent sentences? If we take feminism to mean a position which celebrates women as equal members of the human species, then where are the Republican feminists who could present themselves as conservative women, equal in dignity, intelligence, and coherence to their male counterparts?
I do not know where we are going as a country. I know, however, that we will not feel our way there; guts are not a good mapping tool.