Saturday, April 3, 2010

Red State-Blue State: The Visceral Vs. The Cerebral

At least since the early 1950s, the right has proudly painted the left with a brush labeled "too intellectual to be American." 

Conservative press pinned the word "egghead" on Adlai Stevenson, mocking not only Stevenson's intellectual bent, but his balding pate. (Ironically, this label was more or less coined by columnist Joseph Alsop, a graduate of the Groton school and Harvard University.)

Eventually, Stevenson's true mettle would become apparent when, during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, he bull-whipped Soviet UN representative Valerian Zorin in front of the Security Council and the whole world regarding the presence of the rockets. 

Almost exactly one year later Stevenson was spat on by anti-UN protesters in Dallas, a month before JFK was assassinated there. Stevenson said something very telling: "I don't want to send them to jail. I want to send them to school." 

Notably, and in contrast to the likes of Michelle Bachmann and Eric Kantor's reactions to the disgusting behavior of fellow extremist travelers in their party, politicians on both sides of the aisle condemned the spitting and epithets that flew around Dallas. (Click here for Time Magazine article, November 1, 1963)

A few years later, as Richard Nixon began fighting it out with Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election of 1968, Nixon's VP candidate, Spiro Agnew, began using monickers for Democrats such as "pointy heads." 

This was a path Agnew would stay on, even through one of the most serious challenges to our constitutional system a few years later, Watergate: "Nattering nabobs of negativism," "Effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals," "the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history," and so many more, many of them created by that now-kindly old right wing fanatic you so often see on MSNBC, Pat Bucchanan. A graduate of of Georgetown University and Columbia University, one can see how grotesquely cynical Bucchanan's anti-intellectualism has been.

Ronald Reagan picked up the "proud to be a dumb bell" banner for the right wing when he declared, among other pithy statements, that "Facts are stupid things," "A tree's a tree. How many more do you need to look at?" and in the best Orwellian tradition, "There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right."

So, the right wing lurches forward on the strength of the conviction in its own intellectual failures. Yet... yet... this seems to have an almost perpetual attraction for roughly 25% of Americans.

Why? Because it is visceral. Someone can feel angry, feel put upon, feel over-taxed, feel as if the person of color has jumped over him unjustly, feel that women get preferential treatment over men, feel fear, feel they played by the rules when others gamed the system. Reality often has nothing to do with feelings.

It's red meat for the spiritually lost and politically hungry. It's comfort for those who haven't been able to lay down their hatreds. It's balm for those who fear modernity. It's a bed for those who don't want to re-train for re-employment.

It's the classic "I and Thou" set up. The right wing is playing it like a fine old fiddle.

"I am authentic," the internal song runs. "While you are somehow cheating me through your complicated, educated, inscrutable, urbanized ways."  Indeed: didn't we see Wall Street do that to virtually the entire world?

So, what is the liberal's "red meat?" 

In a word, at this moment, I say it's "celebration." Perhaps not a word one associates with uncertain economic times while two wars are being prosecuted overseas. But it's the right word right now. 

Why do we take such great delight in Joe Biden's F-bomb at the presidential lectern? He was celebrating. Celebrating the way everyone does when our team wins the World Series, or when we pull down a big contract or buy a new car. When our kids are born. When we get married to the person of our choice. When our kids graduate. When we get a little bigger bonus. When we let loose at a concert. When we got our groove on.

Biden's reaction was natural, humorous, non-decorous, authentic. 

So why aren't we happier? Why aren't we celebrating? Why are we sitting back while the Party of I-Don't-Know keeps grabbing headlines? 

Because we are the party of the cerebral, the carefully measured. We have been since the raucous, contentious spirit of the 1960s came in for a crash landing. Good boys and girls don't dance on anyone's grave. They don't get drunk and howl at the moon.

When you look back at the mass peace rallies of 40 years ago, the speeches of Reverend King, Bobby Kennedy, the crazily exuberant Hubert Humphrey, or even the besieged LBJ, you see the passion of the era. You immediately grasp what we have lost. 

We traded soul for the cerebral. We traded the fire down below for what is above the shoulders. We continue to think that the right will somehow play nice. They haven't ever, they aren't, and they won't. Dismiss the notion from your mind. Purge it from your gut.

Have you seen ONE demonstration against a Senator or Representative who voted against health care reform? Nope, not one. Pathetic. The right votes to perpetuate illness and death, we vote to promote health and well-being, and we can't muster one supporting gesture on the grass roots level?

Joe Biden said "This is a big fucking deal," but I'm not sure any of us really get it.

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