Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Scrap Credulity

John Mellencamp, populist Hoosier rocker, confessed to Bill Maher that he prefers Americans to be naive. After all, who wants to live among millions of cynics? Bill looked at Mellencamp with binocular eyes. What the fuck are you talking about? he essentially replied. We could use some grassroots cynicism, like, uh, yesterday. Mellencamp wearily shook his head and frowned. Clearly, Bill was missing the down-home point.

Mellencamp was trying explain why it was that working class/blue collar people continually vote for those who rob them blind, and march their children into imperial meatgrinders. The common folk are simply too trusting. They believe what people tell them at face value, for they would never think to lie to or cheat for personal gain. Thus, they are easy marks for political hustlers who wave the flag, pet the fetus, and pray to America's God.

While I appreciate Mellencamp's populism, some of which I share and believe is vital, he's dangerously naive himself if he seriously believes most of what he said. Like Mellencamp, I too was raised in Indiana, and although I knew some decent, honest people growing up, I also ran across numerous racists, queer-haters, misogynists, bullies, assholes, and semi-literate dipshits who were proud of their ignorance. Times change, of course, but in Indiana, they don't change that much, and there remain countless rightwing rednecks who display Bush/Cheney stickers on their pick-ups. Have they all been fooled? To a degree, perhaps, especially on economic grounds; but overall I'd say they knew exactly what they voted for, assuming they bothered to vote. The GOP has long appealed to base cultural instincts, appeals that are obvious and unmistakable. To contend that commoners have to be tricked into loathing fags or boosting war excuses those who seek no excuse. I've talked to, worked and drank beer with more than my share of this kind, and they are quite open about what they despise.

Step back, red boy! How do you propose to reach these types when you find them so distasteful?

That's always the key question put to proggies: What's your plan of engagement? Honestly speaking, I don't have one -- certainly not some grand, social vision. Talking to people one-on-one, or in small groups, has usually worked for me, to the degree that my arguments are understood or even accepted. It's not a matter of intellect so much as it is cultural conditioning. When I talk to a young, blue collar relative who contemplates going to Iraq, or who tells me that the Republicans reflect his or her worldview, such as it is, I have to take a deep breath and proceed slowly. Do you really believe that GOP elites give one shit for you and yours? Have you ever taken the time to study how wealth is distributed among the higher-ups? Believe it or not, the class angle works, if only momentarily. Someone who can barely pay their bills has no sane reason to identify with, much less empower, those who wipe their asses with Benjamins. But the concepts of working class solidarity and political agitation do little to stir their souls, at least in my experience over the years. American consumer culture has many working people believing that maybe, someday, they too will be rich, and besides, there are more important things to worry about, like keeping queers from recruiting their kids, or making sure that the Mexicans stay on their side of town, and don't you know that you can save money by shopping at Wal-Mart?

You have to hand it to the overclass and their relentless propaganda -- they have atomized whole sections of America, turning average people into walking, talking commercials for their view of the world. Not that the people are innocent, but really, what alternate social or political choice do they have? The Democrats? Sure. I would love to see all those fresh-scrubbed white liberals who attended YearlyKos get down in the grease pits to make their case, whatever it is. Then again, much of the netroots are pretty naive (or willfully dumb) themselves when it comes to their mule party, scratching their heads, wondering why the Dems show no political spine, do nothing on Iraq, and wave sabers in the direction of Iran. What the fuck are they gonna tell the guy who fixes their car's transmission? They can't figure out which end is up in their own party, much less critically engage those who've never heard of Josh Marshall or Atrios.

So, friends, where does this leave us? Yes, there are many exceptions to the reality outlined above, but how significant are these exceptions? How forceful? How persuasive? I won't pretend to know the answers to these and the dozens of other, pressing questions, but I will say this to John Mellencamp: naiveté in the face of powerful, murderous cynics is not only ignoble, it is slow, self-strangulation. The real world is not a pop song. If it were, I'd be Judy in Disguise (with glasses).