Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
April 8, 2002
Duck! The Culture Wars are back
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
In a December 2001 Atlantic Monthly cover story, journalist David Brooks proposes a dichotomy between Red America (rural or small town, working class, Republican), and Blue America (urban, upwardly mobile, Democrat) as exemplified by Maryland's Montgomery County (where the author lives), and Pennsylvania's Franklin County - a down-on-its-luck blue-collar enclave.
Most of the article concentrates on Brooks' impressions of Franklin County society; his commentary reads like an anthropological study of an exotic culture. His descriptions of what he encountered there are eloquent and insightful, but he is unable to prevent his condescension from showing through in almost every paragraph.
I think a failure of his thesis lies in the simplistic dichotomy he implies; that the two social solitudes he delineates represent American society.
For example, despite the high-profile of the religiosity Brooks encountered in Franklin County, he found few dedicated conservative culture warriors.
"It is a temperamental conservatism. People there place tremendous value on being agreeable, civil, and kind," he writes. "They are hesitant to stir one another's passions."
While religion is a much more important part of the social culture in Franklin County than it is on Brooks' home turf, it is religion with a strong personal focus, and rather wishy-washy on contentious moral issues like abortion and gay rights.
What Brooks has discovered in this context is not so much a fault line dividing contemporary American society, but rather how ideologically homogenized that society has become across a spectrum of cultural nuances. The liberal humanist dogmas of indiscriminate tolerance and political correctness reign supreme in Brooks' sociological snapshot.
However, this is way too simplistic. There is indeed a significant conservative culture warrior faction in American society, and not everyone who voted for George W. Bush is bland, ultra-conformist and obsequiously self-effacing.
Brooks says he admires the humility and genuine modesty of the people he interviewed in Franklin County, but admits he wouldn't want to live among them - typical of left-liberal hypocritical elitism in its supercilious championing of "ordinary people."
The constituency Brooks entirely fails to acknowledge are real conservative traditionalists, a minority still to be reckoned with, and without whose support Bush would not be in the White House. This is a category represented by William F. Buckley, P.J. O'Rourke, George Will and Richard John Neuhaus. These people are no small-pond, anti-intellectuals.
While Brooks briefly mentions more populist-oriented conservative culture-warriors like Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson, he declines even passing acknowledgment of conservative intellectuals, who would not conveniently fit into a Two Americas construct.
As psychiatrist-author Scott Peck has observed, left-liberal intellectuals like Brooks aren't particularly threatened by religious proletarians like the folks in Franklin County, whom they can "simply toss off as superstitious idiots," but they are very threatened by conservative religious intellectuals, "who seem to be scientific-minded, and who know how to write good footnotes, yet still somehow believe in this crazy God business."
Much more comfortable to pretend they don't exist, or that they are such a tiny and extreme minority, they can be dismissed with the argument that Americans are in no mood for a culture war, and that the 9/11 attacks have "neutralized the political and cultural leaders who tend to exploit the differences between the two (Americas)."
Perhaps Brooks is correct, but the culture warriors will be back. As de Tocqueville observed: "Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great!"
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