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Saturday, October 22, 2016

I stopped by the bar...

J.D. Vance is a thoughtful conservative who grew up in southern Ohio, joined the U.S. Marines, and is now a highly educated academic. He is the author of Hillbilly Elegy and has spent a lot of time thinking about the gulf that divides Americans between where he grew up and the circles he moves in now. In The New York Times this week, he wrote:

The headline from last night’s debate nearly writes itself: A major party presidential candidate refused to accept the legitimacy of the 2016 election….Yet I found myself wondering, as debate co-watchers gasped over Mr. Trump’s statements, whether any of the Trump supporters I know back home will actually care.
The answer is probably no. At the core of his appeal is a rejection of mainstream political norms, and this is just another example of Mr. Trump slaughtering a proverbial sacred cow.
The question now is …whether the segment of our country that gasps when he delegitimizes our democratic institutions can ever be reconciled to those who cheer the same.

I keep coming back to something I wrote earlier: that for all the racial animus around Barack Obama, what perhaps puts people off more is the anti-intellectual strain in U.S. politics. There is a strong tradition of peasants with pitchforks. 
American Gothic by Grant Wood (Art Institute of Chicago)

The country was born in violent revolution, and split along state lines in the Civil War.

When President Obama, an Ivy League-educated law professor, lectures the American people, many feel talked down to. They don’t just hear an African-American man, although that may irritate them even more: they hear possibly the most infuriating thing in the world, someone making them feel stupid. The fury at a cosmopolitan, highly educated elite, and the split along levels of education, is at least as much about this as it is about race or economics.

It may be that this anti-intellectual uprising is worse than it has been because of the appalling levels of literacy and reading—not just higher education. In the United States today
·         14% of adults can’t read.
·         Only 13% of adults can read at a proficient level.
·         28% of adults didn’t read a book in the last year.
·         50% of adults can’t read a book written at an 8th grade level.

But it’s not a new divide. It’s as old as the United States, which was founded by an intellectual elite. These men had high ideals for the ability of every man [sic] to read, and thus educate himself, to be a good citizen and participate in democracy. John Adams, our second president, said:

“The very Ground of our Liberties, is the freedom of Elections. Every Man has in Politicks as well as Religion, a Right to think and speak and Act for himself. No man either King or Subject, Clergyman or Layman has any Right to dictate to me the Person I shall choose for my Legislator and Ruler. I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any Man judge, unless his Mind has been opened and enlarged by Reading."

Now, we all know that the democracy founded by these male intellectuals had some huge gaps. Some of the founders were slave owners; none of them recognized the equality of the Native people of North America; and Abigail Adams had to remind her husband about the women. But that’s why democracy is a process. It didn’t happen in one revolution or one presidency. It’s ongoing, and it requires all of our participation.

Which brings me to the bar. I watched the final presidential debate of the 2016 election in a pub in London. Afterwards, I got talking to a group of young professionals who live here—no doubt we are the international educated elite! But none of us started life that way. There were two Canadian women, one black and one white; an Asian-American man; and another U.S. citizen who was born in Pakistan. It was this last man to whom I spoke the most. He reminded me that after September 11, 2001, all men from certain countries, including him, were required to register with the U.S. government. Many were deported. (You didn’t know that, did you?)

“It wasn’t a Muslim ban,” he said, “because it was based on which country we were born in. But of course almost everyone from Pakistan is Muslim. And it would have been very dangerous for me to be deported back to Pakistan. I was, and am, very openly gay.”

Homosexuality is illegal in Pakistan, as it used to be in the States. The reason most Americans now don’t have a problem with equal rights for gays is that more of us are out now, so most Americans know an openly gay person, and are fine with that.

But most Americans probably don’t know a Muslim. My friend in the pub was the first Democrat one of his neighbors in the U.S. had ever met, never mind Muslim. I believe that most Americans are good-hearted and don’t mean harm to their fellow citizens, but it’s very difficult to be reconciled when we don’t even talk to each other. When we have no idea of each other’s life experience.

Democracy, whether in the U.S., Canada or elsewhere, is work. As the Pakistani-American’s registration experience shows, it can suffer setbacks at any time. If we want it to work, we have to participate.

To quote a great country songwriter, Willie Nelson: “The world’s getting smaller and everyone in it belongs.”


Jack said...

Very thoughtful--full of troubling insights, but also with a glimmer of hope that we can do the work of democracy: learn to listen to and respect others very different from ourselves.

J. E. Knowles said...

Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment!