Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Real America, If You Will. I Will Not.

Nancy Pfotenhauer:

I certainly agree that Northern Virginia has gone more Democratic. … But the rest of the state, uh real Virginia if you will, I think will be very responsive to Senator McCain's message.

It's a frustrating point to hear being made repeatedly by the McCain campaign. I can understand one person trying to make a point about the country as she's always imagined it to be and saying something about the real America in an unscripted and meandering conversation. The best forms of expression don't always come right when we need them.

But you back off when someone takes exception. Not because of a rule, but because it's worth being careful when you start flirting a little too provocatively with intolerance. And when you start to rely on a premise for argument you reveal something about yourself. And to rely on the premise of real segments of the nation is to belittle the value of voices just because they're different.

I could be accused of doing the same here. And that's why I want to make this point explicitly: what bothers me is not that the people who think this way have a voice. Speak up. Go ahead. I don't want anything to stop anyone else from making their point clear too. What does bothers me is that this way of categorizing breeds disregard and bigotry. It's an easy shorthand for racism and hatred.

And it's being used deliberately and repeatedly by a system that's running for office. From Sarah Palin's convention speech line quoting Westbrook Pegler saying We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity to her recent comments about the pro-America areas of the country, to Pfotenhauer's real Virginia comment, we're seeing that this isn't just a quick attempt to make a rhetorical point. It's a fixation on divisions that best serve the campaign when they are encouraged and endorsed. These lines provide a pivot point for the campaigns most vocal and energetic bases. Those who get excited when their prejudices are rewarded.

And so I don't accept that my frustration with these tactics is bred of a similar intolerance for diversity. I'm upset at the campaign. I don't belittle any region. I don't know the individuals who are listening and feeling reassured by the lines being drawn. If I could address one of those cheering in the audience I would probably most want to get into a conversation to understand her fear. And if I found myself unable to give any reassurance I would evaluate my ability to connect. I would adjust my approach. Because some connection is always possible.

But when I see and hear the candidates and their surrogates working against these values of mine, I don't feel at all hypocritical saying that I just don't want to hear it. I don't need to tolerate that voice. And I'm proud I can say that in order to shut them up I'm refusing to vote for them. It's pro-American.


Casey said...

I totally hear you, but I wonder if I can get you to admit that there's something a little "hmmmm" about all of this.

You've sat in 215 long enough to hear Gil, Leahy, and sometimes Casey, talk about America's influence in the world -- true, the blame is usually laid at the feet of the Republican party, but not always. If you sit in on any literature class dealing with postcolonial theory, you will hear, quite explicitly, anti-American sentiment.

Of course, that's how things go in graduate school... read a little political-Chomsky, a little Howard Zinn, and figure yourself a citizen of the world. In reality, of course, it would be impossible to get elected after saying some of the things I've heard in 215.

And yet, that doesn't make those sentiments wrong -- America does suck balls sometimes, and I can say so because I don't plan on running for office. The reference to "the shining city on a hill" in Palin's debate drew the line darker than it might normally be drawn... are we an exceptional nation, or not?

Now, I could be wrong -- maybe Obama and McCain essentially agree on that point. Maybe Obama doesn't object to our Imperialistic foreign policy... but if he doesn't, then it's hard for me to figure out why people on the "far left" support him so enthusiastically.

What I'm trying to suggest is that patriotism isn't always a good thing -- we should know this (see Germany circa 1937), but we act as if we don't.

I see why you associate the "pro-America" rhetoric with racism and bigotry, but I associate it with the Imperialistic impulse, and I wish someone would oppose it explicitly.

Isn't this just a disagreement about a definition: what is America? Is it a class-based Empire that retains power militarily? Isn't that what Pfotenhauer and people who will vote Republican in November think?

Maybe we should start writing "Amer-ca" to remind people that the "real" America is currently being contested.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Surely Pfotenhauer should have a used a capital D? Or does she really mean little-d democratic is in opposition to McCain?

fenhopper said...

A good point Ridger. Now that I look at her argument I think that might be what she meant. (snicker) I've changed it to reflect my new understanding of her comment.

Casey: There's a little hmmmm in everything. There's a point here that you seem interested in that I still don't care too much about: the question of 'pro-[What?]'

This is why the point of my post focused on the effects of a motif rather than the stark intention.

I think neither of us would say that it was McCarthey's love of [American] activities that made his soul so evil and small. We don't know exactly what [America] was to him, but it doesn't really matter. His [America] might ultimately have been the same as mine (or ours) but he tried to get there on a horrible path paved with good intentions. It was his gambit that did the harm, not the game.

And that's what I'm angry about right now with the campaign. I'm not that upset with Republicans. I still want to see Arlen Specter push his agenda of limiting executive power. I appreciate Hagel's anti-war voice. I even liked a lot of what McCain used to say about interrogation.

This is an important point. The complaints I have about what evil our country has done—here and abroad—are not directed only at the Republican party. The blame I have for the legislative branch belongs to both sides. And the executive branch only has one side so I can't be called partisan there. But this post and many of my recent judgements are not about the parties. They're about the campaigns. And every campaign has an opportunity to show character through voice. And that's the post.

I don't think there is a "real" America. It's easy to use in a speech or in a poem, but what the hell would it be. Look I'm a linguist. And I've spent enough class periods playing the semantic game of defining a dog or a bird or a leaf or a home, then throwing problematic features in there to illustrate that a list of characteristics will never get us to a complete understanding of identity and categorization. This is a country and once we get agree on the mere conventions of an established state it doesn't get any clearer or more meaningful.

I don't believe the 'true nation' can be identified whether you're using that phrase to unite or divide. But no matter what definition you use I'll use your motivation to understand you.