Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Edumacation and the Southern Man

I promised Janiece some thoughts on the ABW article on education, so here goes. I noted that the article was dripping with condescension. Here’s what I mean:

People from rural, poor communities have been virtually programmed for generations to listen not to their own reasoning, but to whoever speaks loudest and most authoritatively on any subject. They respond to simple, emotionally charged messages — even when the the issues that the messages involve are complex and nuanced. They resent, and therefore distrust, those Americans who had greater access to education, or who were taught to question as they were not; Bageant believes this is less about anti-intellectualism/anti-elitism than it is simple schadenfreude towards the more fortunate.

OK, we hicks are emotional intellectual cripples who don’t know what’s good for us. And we resent those people who do know what’s good for us. What’s that lead to?

As Bageant notes, poor rural and small-town whites have consistently voted against their own interests for several decades now. They’ve voted against measures that might’ve increased access to college for the poor; they’ve voted in favor of measures that gave credit card companies greater power to set exhorbitant rates and exploit the poor; they’ve voted against a welfare system that — despite Pat Buchanan’s implication — mostly benefitted them; they’ve voted against labor union-sponsored efforts that might’ve saved their jobs and/or salaries.

The logical flaws in the assumption that people were voting against their own interests because of racism and religion alone here are huge. Do certain blocks of Southern voters move that way? Of course. Do most? No. We don’t vote plebiscite on most issues in this country, and on no issues at the national level. We vote for representative government. Most of us hold our nose and vote for the least offensive candidate, but find them all distasteful. In general, white Southerners vote heavily Democratic at the local and state levels. Why the reverse in the national elections? Because despite the lack of good education, Southerners are a practical people with a lot of common sense.

I’ve discussed a few of the issues in that article with some of my relatives and friends with a decidedly darker shade of red under the collar than I have. Let’s take my conversation with a UAW member about minimum wage for example. His attitude was: “Why raise the minimum wage? All the hard working people I know make well more than the minimum already. If we make the teenager sweeping the floor too expensive for management to afford, they’ll just outsource all our jobs to India. If you’re making minimum past the age of 20, there’s something wrong with you.” My people understand the nuances of the issues you Yankee condescending liberal snots. They just don’t believe you when you claim to be working in their interests.

Let’s take another issue, the welfare system. Read “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Who was the only character on public assistance? Bob Ewell. I grew up around a lot of white trash Bob Ewells sucking on the public teat. When I see how short the term of unemployment insurance is offered to hard-working people, how my 40 years of manual labor blue-collar uncle with heart failure has to use up all his savings before he’s eligible for Medicaid, while people who haven’t worked a lick in their lives get on right away, well hell, I don’t believe that the systems liberals hold so dear were set up to reward hard working people. And I won’t vote for more of that.

It’s not the slogans of the loudest politicians who convince me to shift Republican, it’s my own observations. So no, even if some small benefit from them might accrue to me and mine, I’m not all that well disposed towards the greater harm I see most social welfare programs doing. And no politician wanting to expand those programs without addressing their flaws is going to get my vote, no matter how much you promise me and mine, because as Jim Wright said :"you ain’t getting’ the soda machine".

I noted in another post that most issues have complex roots. You need to build a mental model with a lot of terms and properly weight those terms in order to solve a problem. So here’s a word of advice for Democrats looking to woo swing voters like me: quit with the simplistic “you’re racist and stupid” stuff. We understand you. We truly do. Figure out all the things that move us and you might find some common ground.

Democrats, ask yourselves: why is your party dominated at the national level by rich old money like Pelosi and Kennedy? Why do they expect so much out of the middle class in terms of wealth distribution while giving so little of their own money away? Why do they support the death tax that hits middle class ranchers, farmers and small businessmen so hard? Because, as Duke said in the Doonsbury strip about him getting replaced as ambassador to China by Leonard Woodcock: “Of course they’re sensitive to the plight of the working class. That’s how they avoid belonging to it.” They’ve got their own money locked up in untouchable trusts and untaxable bonds (note how little Theresa Heinz paid in taxes because of the latter) and they want to guide all the wealth redistribution programs in such a way so that their money is never touched.

We poor Southerners don’t trust those people. We see Democrats in the mid ranks who genuinely want to help us at the local level, and we vote for them. Rich Yankees who call us stupid on the one hand and then tell us they want to help us? Can kiss our hairy, white...

And when they start spitting on the military that our sons and daughters serve in so disproportionately relative to upper class liberals? Well, we don’t forget or forgive young John Kerry’s distortions before Congress in 1971. So, you want to bring conservative Southerners into the fold? I can see a common ground. Quit playing to the wildly liberal fringe of your party. Quit demonizing us. Is there a component of racism in the way some folks down there vote? YOU BETCHA. But, as I said, make a mental model. Go down and talk to (not at) those people and you’ll find some very shrewd, if not so polished and articulate, minds. The racial component in my model of why Southern white democrats vote Republican on the national level is about 30%. The other stuff that makes up the rest of the 70% of the reasons can overcome the racial divide in most people. Are there some incorrigible racists down there? Again you betcha. But they are not the majority.

Now I see the same thing for the party I officially belong to. I make no bones about the fact that I’m a small “L” libertarian, but I vote Republican because I agree with them more on economics than I agree with the Democrats, and economics is the single most important issue for me.

But in order to get enough votes to swing elections, the Republicans cater to the religious right – the white religious right - and I don’t blame black people who look at that and say “no way am I voting for them”. That’s why I whack the YEC with a big ol’ rational stick whenever I find them on the political stage. I am a scientist. I am a child of the enlightenment. My Ph.D. can be traced in a direct line back to the lab of Antoine Lavoisier, and to allow people like the YEC to run amok in my own party just to win elections would make me a hypocrite. So I’ve got to beat on them to remain true to myself even if it’s seen as scoring points for the other side.

I see some, but not nearly enough of that willingness to whack on the fringe on my side of the aisle. There has to be more of us doing that before the Republicans can truly become a centrist party. I despair of it ever happening, but voting for the Ayn Rand fan club that constitutes the modern Libertarian Party is a) pissing my vote away and b) lying down with dogs that have a lot of fleas. So I hold my nose and cast my vote elsewhere. But here’s the thing – I see almost NO willingness on the Democratic side to pull their fringe element in line. Until I do, I’m not crossing the aisle again. But I did in the last election for one candidate. And I’ll do it again for him.
Want my vote? Treat me like my concerns are valid. Don’t promise my poorer family members goodies without talking about the consequences. Despite my distaste for the man’s moral character, you know who did treat me like my concerns were real? Bill Clinton. I don’t think a Republican could have pushed through the 1996 Welfare Reform bill, just as I don’t think a Republican or a Northern Democrat (and that includes JFK) could have pushed though the 1964 Civil Rights bill. But Bill and LBJ were true centrists Bill too much so, in that he moved whichever way the polls were blowing, but at least the man listened.

Southerners don’t vote the way they do because they’re brainwashed. The educational system in this country was not set up to brainwash people. Never ascribe to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence. You can not BS me on this issue. I lived in the USSR. I've seen a system that was designed to brainwash people up close and personal. I talked at great length with people who were products of that system. I lived in Japan and watched that educational system, which is the closest the free world comes to brainwashing. And the US system is not even close. It's not a great system, either, and I have plenty of complaints about it, but it's not a brainwashing system.

The US educational system was set up to cram facts down throats before kids dropped out in 8th grade. It evolved from that in the 50s with the push after Sputnik, but only slightly. In point of fact, the educational system has been dominated by liberal progressive thinkers since Thomas Dewey started preaching child-centered education and denigrating content knowledge back in 1916. Businesses have been calling for better educated workers for most of the 20th Century, and never more so than now. To claim that the Dewey-inspired system of today with its emphasis on self-esteem and lack of emphasis on content is designed by business to create docile factory workers flies in the face of evidence. In fact it’s a level of thinking akin to that of conspiracy theorists. We have a term where I’m from for people who create mental models based on stuff they read in books and never question with real observations: “educated beyond your intelligence”.


Eric said...

Having been born and raised in the state that produced and elected (and re-elected) Jesse Helms to the Senate time and time again, it's hard for me to minimize racism to 30%. In front of the courthouse where I work is a statue of a Confederate soldier that was moved from the old courthouse at some great expense and trouble. And in the state due south they've had fracases over hanging the flag of traitors to the United States Of America over their statehouse despite the fact that a number of their citizens (and a large number of people across the country) see it as a symbol of racism and slavery, not states' rights or lower tariffs or whatever other issue you want to mention.

Most issues are complicated at their roots. So are most places. My South includes Chapel Hill, the town Senator Helms wanted to fence in. My South includes the Greensboro lunch counter where some young men risked taking a beating for the basic, decent principle that someone ought to be able to go into any business establishment and be treated like any other customer.

At the risk of focusing on negative things, or on obsessing on my home state too much, in my South the unions aren't dead so much because people made a rational choice against labor, but because people made a rational choice against being shot at by mill bosses after the Loray Mill riots of '29, an incident that most North Carolina historians will point to as the death knell of organized labor in this state to almost the present day. (We have long memories in the South, as you know, and it doesn't take long for something to become a stubborn tradition here.)

I'm a Southerner, and proud of it. A North Carolinian, and proud of it. An American, and--yes, despite disappointments in my country's actions and remorse for her history--proud of it. And I'm not a Democrat; like you with the Republicans, I vote for the Democrats because they reflect my ideals more often than the Other Party. I'm a liberal, and I'm proud of that. But I'm not totally sure I recognize your South--that is, I recognize it but I'm not sure you see the beams we carry in our own eyes down here. We recognize many of our flaws more than folks in our sister states--our race issues, our tendency towards low marks in education and in healthcare metrics like infant mortality--but for whatever reason we seem to do less about our flaws than other people. And yes, there is a distressing tendency towards anti-intellectualism and voting against our interests and attaching ourselves to emotional issues like flags and plaques instead of substantive issues like education and healthcare.

Anyway, I guess that's my piece. My apologies if I was a rude guest in any way.

Michelle K said...

Sorry I missed this earlier.

In some ways I see what you are saying John, but I think you have missed some of the biggest influences I've seen personally: religion and the environment.

WV is overwhelmingly Democratic in state and local politics, but has been steadily voting Republicans on a national level.

Why? Because you cannot underestimate the influence of religion on those who live in this area. I'm not talking about the right-to-life vote either, I'm talking about people from whom their faith and religion are two of the central tenets of their life, and they see those tenets disparaged by "Godless liberals" and the Democratic party.

Mind you I am saying this as a Democrat, a Liberal, and as an agnostic/monotheist.

I don't believe religion is a monolith and that is the problem. What I see is that people want someone who acts and speaks in a way that reflects their faith. They see that in the national Republican party, not in the Democratic party. Instead, we democrats openly embrace atheists (NOT that there is anything wrong with that!) and seem to belittle faith and religion--the core of the lives of many.

Well, that's just stupid.

I think there is a reason that Barak Obama is being attack through religion (Rev Wright and his middle name "Hussein") because someone recognizes that this is the way to alienate him from the core of middle class voters.

As far as the environment, the reason why Al Gore failed so miserably in WV has a good deal to do with his environmental policy.

It's all well and good to say humans are destroying the environment and something must be done, but of the somethings mentioned would all lead to the loss of jobs, you're not going to get a lot of support.

Which is really stupid, because WVians tend to be environmentalists at heart, they just don't see it because they associate environmentalist with "hippie tree huggers" who want a perfect world without considering how those changes will affect jobs.

You close the mines and you're left with service industry jobs that pay for shit and don't have any benefits.

It's all well and good to say that someone who is working a fast food job has something wrong with them, but if you're stuck in a small town where there are no other jobs, and your elderly parents or grandparents are dependent upon you for care, you're stuck.

If your choices are between a service industry job and leaving behind all your family and friends, to go somewhere you are not guaranteed a job and where you do not have a support structure--that's a big scary risk to take.

So yes, I agree that the Democratic party has huge problems relating to southerns, assuming that we consider WVians Southerners. But I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of the problem either. :)

MWT said...

Apropos the last two paragraphs of your post, I'd be interested in seeing you comment on Gatto's essay.