Devils We Know

I wrote this up quickly yesterday morning, and it hasn’t had time for much editing. Apologies for its rough nature., the occasional bane of my existence, published an interesting article yesterday. On its own, this is not particularly noteworthy—though they have fucked up massively in the past, and Matthew Yglesias isn’t worthy of the three seconds it’d take to make a joke about him, they do some good work. What was arresting, however, was not just that Vox had published a very good piece, but the content of the piece itself: “The smug style in American liberalism,” and everything such a title entails. In it, Emmett Rensin decries the attitudes of liberal elites who, for the past two decades, have adopted a form of posturing that portrays all who disagree with them as dumb rubes. In essence, it’s several thousand words bemoaning that liberalism has become performative. He’s not wrong. We all have the family members and friends on Facebook that share articles about how Fox news watchers are dumber than those who listen to NPR or truly think that sharing that funny John Oliver video about Donald Trump will change voters’ minds.[1] Let’s get this out of the way: it won’t and if anything will only reinforce the belief of Trump supporters or those who watch Fox that liberals are elitists who feel only disdain for those who disagree with them.[2]

That said, something in his argument struck me as uncharitable to disenfranchised conservatives—especially when he got to the section on Kim Davis. It brought to mind the summer after my junior year of high school. I spent much of the it travelling across Georgia for golf tournaments. Despite the reputation of the sport, people’s financial and educational backgrounds were quite varied. A lot were like me—well off, from urban centers (particularly Atlanta), and preparing to pursue college degrees at elite universities (both public and private) across the nation. Plenty however, were from incredibly rural areas across Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. They almost universally planned on joining the military—it seemed to them the only way to proceed in life.

It was someone from the latter group that got stuck in my mind as I read Rensin’s piece. He was from rural Mississippi—I don’t remember exactly where. It was the second day of the tournament, and we were both so out of the running that the greater competition was to not be last. We started talking about our plans for the future. I told him I was planning on going up north to study physics and philosophy.[3] He turned to me, a bit wide-eyed, and asked, “so you believe all that stuff?”

I looked at him quizzically (an eyebrow may have been raised) and asked, “what stuff?”

“Like, the Big Bang and all that. You think it’s real?” There was no disdain in his voice, just genuine curiosity. I wanted to respond in kind, but seventeen years of metropolitan elitism is hard to shake, and there was probably a fair amount of contempt in my voice as I responded, “yeah, of course.”

He took it in stride, and gave me a look I’ll never forget. Sincerely interested and more than a little skeptical, he knotted his brow and asked, “Can you explain it to me? They never really taught us it in school.”

I was taken aback and filled with guilt for being so dismissive. From a distance we probably looked pretty standard, two rising seniors walking down the fairway, towards the woods where’d I hit my ball, chatting away. No one would have known I was trying (and failing) to answer his cosmological (and once he found out I was culturally Jewish—religious) questions, and asking him plenty of my own about where he had grown up.

I’m sure Rensin is right about why a lot of poor and working class whites now vote against the Democratic party. Plenty of it is probably out of the anger provoked by neo-liberalism when it moves jobs out of the country, demolishes labor unions, and takes food out of their mouths. He’s right that liberals project an elitism that certainly doesn’t help and, in fact hurts, the cause. He’s right that sharing the Daily Show’s sick burn and the culture of knowing (which is different from knowing), creates a self-perpetuating cycle that will permanently alienate the metropolitan liberal from those he or she purports to care for. He’s right that liberalism should not be perfomative. But there’s an underlying current in the argument, one that never reaches the surface but at times can nonetheless be seen clearly: It’s not that conservatives in rural areas are dumb, it’s that they are borderline malevolent. It’s not that Kim Davis misunderstands Christianity, but that Christianity is bad, she knows it, and follows it anyway. It’s uncharitable to the people and region, to say the least, and certainly inaccurate. It’s also a belief not uncommon around Vox. Remember when David Roberts (aka “Dr. Vox”), called the Southeast the most “barbaric” region in any developed democracy? It’s a moral elitism instead of an intellectual one. And it’s just as harmful to paint someone as evil as it is to paint them as an idiot.

The final question the boy from Mississippi asked me was whether, as an agnostic Jew, I believed in hell. I responded no—though I’m not sure what the Torah has to say, I personally couldn’t imagine a benevolent, omniscient god would eternally punish people for the mistakes of a single earthly life. Especially, because usually, they’re just that: mistakes. We’re humans, with all that entails, not devils.

[1] Never mind how uncomfortable it should make people that our response to someone being anti-immigrant is by shaming them for having a Germanic ancestral name.

[2] Let’s also get this out of the way: my politics are murky, but I’d call myself a leftist before I’d call myself a liberal.

[3] Those who know me now understand how badly I understood myself then.