Joel Garreau, in his bestselling book, famously identified the “nine nations of North America,” separating each nation not according to geographical borders, but cultural and economic characteristics.
Within the United States, there are now two dominant nations — America and Murica. My next-door neighbor, an immigrant from Japan, lives and aspires to raise her and her husband’s 9-year-old son in America — a country with a public code of conduct for decent behavior, shimmering with the promise of opportunity, and even prosperity, for those who demonstrate intelligence, diligence and respect for themselves and their communities.
One afternoon my neighbor took her son to a park in America, and found herself fending off the invasion of hostile aliens. Two women, both smoking cigarettes, spoke loudly, firing obscenities into the atmosphere like flatulence. They observed without comment when their respective sons began to pelt her boy with rocks and creatively crafted, handmade balls of dirt.
My neighbor asked them to intervene so as to prevent their kids from harassing and assaulting her child. One of the women took a momentary break from poisoning her lungs with carcinogens to scold not her own son, but my neighbor. “Mind your f**king business,” she said, and then brought her display of her own nation’s values to a climax with an exaggerated impersonation of an Asian accent.
My neighbor called for her son, and immediately led him to their vehicle. As she turned the key in the ignition, and prepared to return to America, she noticed the sticker across the bumper of one of the other women’s car in the parking lot: “Murica!”
I live in a small town of Northern Indiana, full of provincial charm and plenty of opportunities for genuine pleasure, but also illustrative of the parochial narrowness of the American mind-set resistant to diversity and defensive of mediocrity.
It has become routine for Chicago liberals, when I visit the city to speak in a bookstore, to join a gathering at a friend’s condo, or attend a cultural event, to ask “why” I live where I live. They look at me as if I have voluntarily excised an ear, in the style of Vincent Van Gogh, and have brought it in a glass jar to display to anyone I meet. They identify me as one of them — a liberal, an "American" who, unlike the Muricans, celebrates multiculturalism, and given an interest in the fine arts, would fail to find satisfaction in a suburban home of Indiana.
I enjoy my home and prefer it to living in Chicago, but the larger issue is one of misidentification. Since college, I have thought of myself as a man of the moderate left — a liberal in the tradition of Jimmy Carter or Jesse Jackson — but it turns out that I am a conservative. I am a conservative because I want to defend America against the hostile parties of Murica. I am a conservative because I believe in personal responsibility, family values, patriotism, the U.S. Constitution and the expectation that citizens, and even more so political leaders, should conduct themselves with decency, eloquence and basic etiquette.
These positions, in the contemporary political climate of eternal outrage, deviancy and irrationality, qualify me for the insult “elitist.” One of the rich ironies of American life is that it was once conservatives who aimed to enforce standards of entry into the American mainstream. Allan Bloom, in his bestseller "The Closing of the American Mind," wrote, “We are like ignorant shepherds on a site where great civilizations once flourished. The shepherds play with the fragments that pop up to the surface, having no notion of the beautiful structures of which they were once a part.”
Bloom infamously ridiculed rock ‘n’ roll music as an injector of poison into the minds of children. So, how have I — a liberal who wrote a book on Metallica — become an heir to Bloom’s healthy snobbery?
Bloom, a fellow Midwesterner, denied that he was a conservative, but soon after the publication of his polemic against the influence of multiculturalism, liberalism and pop culture on American education, became a folk hero to travelers on the right who feared that a continual lowering of standards in public institutions, along with a culture of permissiveness, threatened the very foundation of American society, if not the totality of Western Civilization.
The answer to the question of how I am now Allan Bloom’s foster child is wrapped inside the same heavy package as the answer to an obvious inquiry: How did the same political tribe that propelled Bloom to the bestseller list get on all fours to crawl around the dirt with the likes of Donald Trump?
Conservatives have abandoned their post, and in their zeal to defame and demean the “liberal elite,” have surrendered the civilization not to the enemies they once feared — ethnic studies professors who aspired to add Langston Hughes and Alice Walker to the canon — but the interlopers from Murica, the romanticized “white working class” who, according to contemporary convention, should have to meet no expectations or adhere to any standards of civil society.
Conservative theorists promoted personal responsibility as a bulwark against the “Leviathan” of the social welfare state, arguing that people are in management of their own lives, and that their own individual achievements or failures are the primary causes of their success or misery. Now, the guy who hasn’t applied for a job in five years, waiting for one of several industries that began dying in the 1970s to resurrect on the third day, rejects any opportunity for education and job training, believes colleges do more harm than good, and spends his miserly income on video games and Mountain Dew instead of child support, is a victim of an international economic conspiracy. It is not his own laziness and cowardice, as conservatives argued for years about black welfare recipients, but the clever schemes of a globalist cabal committing “economic hate crimes,” in the words of Stephen Bannon, which are responsible for the undesirable position of his life.
“Family values” were the inane rallying cry of the right wing for decades, as its Christian conservative devotees reduced the urgent matter of protection and promotion of familial stability not to affordable health care, child care, or paid family medical leave, but the “sanctity of marriage” (translation: keep the queers out!), regulation of women’s sexual lives and reproductive options, and prayer in schools. What an oddity in 2017 to find buttoned-up and zipped-up church ushers like Vice President Mike Pence and Jerry Falwell Jr. acting as scriptural bodyguards for the man who boasted of committing sexual assault, routinely objectifies women, and apparently feels there is no sin for which he needs God’s forgiveness.
In their endless game of limbo to test how low they can go, many Republicans, most especially evangelicals, continue to support Roy Moore, a cartoon hypocrite who is the subject of several accusations of child molestation.
One of Karl Marx’s more useful insights is that “history repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce.” During the tragedy of the Bush administration, Democrats had to endure endless sanctimony about putting country above partisan concerns, always with the implication that critics of Bush’s aggressive and foolish foreign policy were unpatriotic. In the farcical age of Donald Trump, the Republican president insults former prisoners of war, denigrates Gold Star families, and indicts the United States — the same country Ronald Reagan, mangling John Winthrop, mythologized as a “shining city on a hill” — as “one giant crime scene.”
The “strict constructionists” who once enjoyed turning the U.S. Constitution into a sexual fetish souvenir while practicing necrophilia with the Founding Fathers applauded when Trump compared Thomas Jefferson to Robert E. Lee, and with wild, bloodshot eyes, scream support for the president’s unconstitutional proposals to ban Muslims from entry into the United States, bring back tactics of torture, and even remove the operating licenses of television news stations that broadcast content he finds objectionable. Concerns from legal scholars regarding Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause fall on ears stuffed with cotton balls.
To revisit Republican criticism of President Barack Obama is the equivalent of walking through the quaint, unpowered surrounding of an Amish village. Through what other frame could anyone recall alarm that Obama was stripping away the dignity of the office by appearing on late-night television or sitting for a comical photo shoot with BuzzFeed?
Norman Mailer, in a vastly different context, referred to himself as a “left-conservative.” Mailer’s seemingly paradoxical term of identification is now perfect for the progressive who believes that the impoverished residents of former factory and mining towns bear some responsibility for their lives, even if external decisions outside their control have made their economic future more challenging. The left-conservative supports a public health care program, affordable or tuition-free college education, and universal access to abortion, but also seeks to honor and uphold the Constitution, prioritize “country first,” to use the slogan of John McCain, one of the few remaining Republicans of sound mind and moral fiber, and defend the family from lecherous men who behave as if they live as characters in a low-budget, pornographic movie.
Left-conservatives are as beleaguered and besieged as the appellation would imply. Their most immediate enemy is the camp of “Leninists,” to use another Bannon term, who seek mainly to destroy the spooky “Deep State system” of liberal democracy, meritocratic capitalism and secular governance, but they also fight an internal war against well-intentioned policy allies who have become cultural foes.
The emergence of right-wing anarchists has allowed for the mutation of a peculiar new species in the American ecology — progressive relativists. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, along with writers like Mark Lilla, maintain that the Muricans are not even near a “basket of deplorables.” Instead, just as Donald Trump would argue, they are the forgotten men and women, who due to “economic anxiety” receive a lifetime hall pass as they wander around the country, making a wreck and mockery out of any notion of American virtue.
Katy Tur, the outstanding reporter of MSNBC, recently condemned Hillary Clinton for her characterization of half of Trump’s voters as deplorable, issuing the incoherent edict, “We don’t go after voters in this country.” The privilege of democracy comes with responsibility, and if voters exist outside the bounds of criticism, then there is little hope to comprehend, much less correct, the results of any election. Would Tur — and Sanders and Biden — apply the same policy if Republicans vote for a cross-burning Klansman, or in the case of Moore, an accused pedophile?
Progressive relativists are prepared to surrender American culture to crude nativists and know-nothings in order not to appear “elitist” or because they are incapable of simultaneously maintaining two contradictory thoughts. Yes, the conditions for the rural poor and the working class of any color are lamentable and in dire need of improvement. The United States health care system, despite the improvements of Obamacare, remains the shame and scam of the world, and the mere existence of the once oxymoronic term “working poor” in the lexicon demonstrates the failures of American society. Should a member of that class have a sick or disabled child, upward mobility, even stability, is all but impossible.
All that is true, and yet it is equally true that many of those in the metaphorical deplorable basket are not acting as though they are fit for participation in a democratic society. They embrace crackpot conspiracy theories, ranging from Barack Obama’s birthplace to “Pizzagate,” they are increasingly hostile to communal coexistence with Mexican immigrants and Muslims, and they continue to cheer as President Trump, their own Ayatollah, endangers the world, makes a mockery of American traditions and institutions, and encourages neo-Nazis to use the presidential seal as a shield against condemnation.
Not long ago, it was those on the left who were most willing and able to negotiate the complexities, even contradictions, of the human experience, even as they relate to the blunt and direct battles of political debate. Now, progressive relativists act as if economic struggle is an ideological license to kill. The reality is that they condescend to the poor by acting as if they are incapable of intellectual ambition and moral excellence. To excuse the Roy Moore voter’s comfort with sexual assault of children, or to overlook the Trump supporter’s vulgar misogyny, simply because he is unemployed is to mindlessly embrace and exercise what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
If it is resistance to the “elitist” charge that motivates the sloppy moral relativism of contemporary progressives, then they have all their work in democratic studies ahead of them. The safeguards against swift change in the U.S. Constitution exist because the framers feared majority and mob rule. Alexander Hamilton, before inspiring hip-hop musicals, said that the character of direct democracy would be tyranny, and its figure, deformity.
An industrious reporter asked Benjamin Franklin what form of government he and his colleagues created, and he answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
The toxic permeation of cultural democracy into politics has created a chaotic atmosphere in which everyone’s opinion matters, meaning that, in essence, no one’s opinion matters. Citizens who brag that they believe nothing the media or government claims believe they are brandishing a sophisticated form of impenetrable skepticism, but they are actually advertising ignorance. They have adopted a position that does all their thinking for them. If nothing that the mainstream media reports is true, why pay attention at all?
Walt Whitman feared, in 1871, that Americans did not have the knowledge and skills necessary for participatory democracy. He cautioned that they must spend sufficient time in “freedom’s gymnasium,” doing the heavy intellectual, emotional and spiritual lifting to strengthen them for the task of self-governance. The election of Donald Trump, and the ongoing degradation of political culture, demonstrates that a large percentage of the population has become the equivalent of an obese man with osteoporosis showing up for a track and field competition.
Only a reemergence of the old standards of responsibility, family, education and cultural competence will get Americans back in shape, and only the left-conservatives, along with a tiny minority of ethical and patriotic Republicans, appear to care.
How and if left-conservatives will make progress against the progressive relativists, Leninists and Muricans is anyone’s guess. It seems as if we are trying to put out a fire with a water pistol, but to submit is to give away the country. In yet another irony, the left is now dependent upon the exercise of the most ancient of virtues — patience, persistence and, finally, faith.