Some Comfort

March 25, 2007

Amanda Marcotte:

If anything comforts me in the face of the increasingly agitated fundamentalism in America, it’s that they have no clue how to compete with the pleasures of living available to most of us, pleasures that help assist us in telling them all to fuck off.

Quite.  This is an interesting thing about the culture wars in the United States – conservatives, those same people who are always going on about “free markets” and extending market metaphors and, indeed, markets into places they simply don’t belong (e.g., basic health care) simply cannot cope with the idea of a free market for culture. Which is mostly what we have, now, and is pretty much why they’re losing the culture wars, generation after generation: there’s a market for culture, and “conservative” culture is mostly crap. At some level, they’re aware of this, and so rather than trying to produce culture that is appealing to others (which is difficult for a variety of reasons), they just agitate against…pretty much all popular cultural products. Or sometimes, unpopular or marginal cultural products (e.g., “Piss Christ”) as an avenue for seeking to undermine the idea of culture.

It’s annoying, of course, but as Marcotte notes – in this arena, anyways, they really don’t know how to compete. So that’s nice for us heathens.


No Default Setting

October 30, 2006

Yesterday on NPR’s “All Things Considered” there was the first part in a continuing series, “Understanding the Veil in Islam, Western Societies.” The report used as its jumping-off point a Detroit Muslim woman whose small-claims case a judge refused to hear when the woman would not remove her veil in his presence; similar controversies have occurred recently in France and in the United Kingdom.

As the NPR piece points out, there are many factors at work here, not least of which is the recent increase in hostile feelings and actions between the Muslim and Western worlds. But at base, this is a very basic outgrowth of the Four or Five Americas (or Britains; or Frances). In the past, (e.g., late-19th- and early-20th-C.) there was a relatively strong national consensus not only on the idea that immigrants to the United States ought to assimilate – to “become American” – but also and most importantly on the idea that American was a single thing which they could become [yes, many minority groups were excluded from this consensus – blacks and Asians especially – but it was a strong and overwhelming consensus nonetheless]. The establishment of universal public schooling in the United States was largely an exercise in reinforcing this idea of Americanness.

For immigrants and outsiders, it was easy to point to what it meant to be an American, and there was substantial social pressure – both from non-immigrant Americans and also within immigrant communities – to conform to these standards.

Now, there is no single American identity but rather many, which operate in isolation and combination; which exclude and overlap; which are interchangeable and infinitely re-define-able.  And that’s great.

But it’s also not so much a problem as problematic for contemporary immigrant communities. There are pressures for conformity with their new nation, but no clear single identity with which to conform, and in fact competing and contradictory signals on this count; and at the same time, the immigrants themselves are more able than ever to maintain contact with their home countries and cultures.

There’s no satisfying “what to do” answer here, only more questions, but questions worth asking. The NPR series I mentioned at the outset will be continuing all week on “All Things Considered,” and I recommend checking it out, as it’s a rare instance of a major media outlet actually asking these questions.

Chrisitan Conservatives, Evangelicals – and Mormons

August 21, 2006

I’m’a’gonna try not to talk altogether too much about the horse-race aspect of contemporary politics, as it’s a black sucking hole that consumes my brain, given too much encouragement.

But. A story in this morning’s New York Times deserves comment. John M. Broder, writing about John McCain’s early efforts to recruit supporters and advisers for his 2008 GOP presidential nomination bid, says the following:

He is reaching out to Christian conservatives, who helped sink his 2000 presidential bid, by enlisting the aid of figures like Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah and former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, both of whom have strong evangelical followings.

There’s actually a lot going on there, in that one sentence. Bullet points!

  • While it’s certainly true that “Christian conservatives” helped sink McCain’s 2000 bid for the GOP presidential nomination, it would be hard for them not to have done so. Most Americans, and nearly all Republicans, are Christians; most Republicans are conservatives (nearly all conservatives are Republican), and this is especially true of primary voters in the party. Ergo – nearly all Republicans can be fairly described as “Christian conservatives” – be they Protestant, Catholic, Mormon, or what have you. It’s just not particularly descriptive – or accurate, but more on that below.
  • The use of “…strong evangelical followings” at the end of the same sentence indicates that Broder is using the term “evangelical” interchangably with “Christian conservative,” and that is, at best, highly misleading. “Evangelical” is a very particular stripe of American Christianity, and in the contemporary political context, almost always refers to a very particular kind of political activist. While almost all “evangelicals” are “Christian conservatives,” the reverse is most decidedly not true, because…
  • Until recently, many evangelicals considered Catholics – Papists, as they called them derisively – to be rather heretical, what with that Pope-and-saint-worship, to say nothing of the Latin and the incense. And it’s still the case that many evangelicals consider Mormons to not really be Christians at all, what with the Jesus-coming-to-Americ-after-crucifixion and so on. This is important, because…
  • John Huntsman, Jr. is Governor of Utah and, unsurprisingly given that office, a devout Mormon.
  • Do you see where I’m going with this?

Okay. so while it’s certainly not impossible that Huntsman has a “strong evangelical following” (I’ll admit to not knowing all the ins and outs of Republican Christian conservative evangelical politics), it’s my strong, strong suspicion that he, in fact, has almost zero evangelical following – what with being Mormon and all – and having, instead, a strong Mormon following. And Mormons are quite often Christian (depending who you ask – being Jewish I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt) conservatives – but they’re just not evangelicals.

As Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post pointed out when Huntsman made his support for McCain public,

Huntsman’s support for McCain strikes deep into the political base of [Mormon] Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, another of the potential contenders for the Republican nomination.

Huntsman is a member of one of Utah’s most prominent Mormon families.

So, my criticism of Broder might seem nit-picky, but it’s not. These are distinctions with a difference, and change the meaning of things, just as a reporter covering Iraq would change the meaning ofthings by conflating and using interchangably “Muslim,” “Shi’a” and “Sunni.”

And, finally – I will return to this issue in greater detail later, but Broder’s mischaracterizations are exactly the sort of cultural ignorance and miscommunication that leads to charges of the NYT and others having “liberal bias.” That’s wrong, at least if you’re talking about a liberal political bias, but it’s dead right if you’re talking about the separation between the identities of cultural liberalism (present at the NYT, and NYC generally) and cultural conservatism (present, among other places, in Utah, Indiana, and elsewhere).