Wednesday, January 9, 2008

More Lefty Self-Congratulation

"What''s the matter with Kansas?" asks Mark Kleiman. His answer: witchcraft. Kleiman purports to think that Democrats need to stop treating Republican voters with contempt if they want to, you know, win elections. And so he commends a blog post from Tim Burke at Easily Distracted which does exactly that, at some length.

Burke starts with the classic telling but not necessarily representative anecdote: an NPR interview with a woman who works as an assistant manager at a store in Texas, a woman who (according to Burke) sounded "bone-weary about both politics and life." Apparently this particular woman has a bug up her ass about illegal immigration, and -- if the NPR interview accurately depicted her views, a possibly-dubious assumption -- she blames all her woes on illegal immigrants.

According to Burke, she is like the dirt-poor African peasant in Zimbabwe who believes that witchcraft is the cause of all his woes. Seriously, he says that -- I'm going to quote at length because my summary simply cannot capture the man's arrogance:

In the early 1990s in Zimbabwe, one part of my research concerned how the visible ownership of commodities performed or communicated wealth, and therefore aroused the dangerous jealousies of neighbors. This is a different kind of “mystery of capital” than what Hernando de Soto discusses. I am completely sympathetic to how southern Africans invoke ideas about witchcraft to explain how some people obtain wealth. Obviously it isn’t my own explanation, but there’s a sense in which it’s a completely reasonable attempt to connect the visible surface of material and economic life with the largely invisible mechanisms that move resources and capital around beneath the surface. How did your neighbor get a hold of bricks to complete one wall of his township house when you can’t get any? Where did the family next door get those new shoes, when you know that they don’t have any more access to wage earnings than you do? How did that man keep his job when you lost yours?

One story struck me as particularly potent. I was curious about zvidhoma, spirit beings who are basically the same as the tokoloshe that South Africans talk about. They’re said to be the tools of witches, able to exact invisible revenge on their victims by beating, wounding or causing illness in their targets. But on a number of occasions, I was also told cautionary tales about why you should never pick up what seems to be abandoned or unowned wealth or goods (like a bag of money or a wandering goat) because often these will have zvidhoma “stuck” to them who will then infest the unlucky soul who picks them up. Money and wealth circulate mysteriously, and carry hidden dangers. The people who get rich, in this worldview, are those who’ve learned to manage malevolent spiritual powers. If you’re not one of those people, you’ll just end up a victim if you chase after phantoms.

. . . .

That woman in Texas is probably not a Democratic voter regardless of whom the candidate is. Her key issue maybe ought to be health care reform, but she’s enmeshed in another kind of narrative, one where racial resentment, among other things, is lurking very powerfully just underneath the surface. But even that is a layer covering the real depths. What I heard listening to her was someone who basically thinks that she’s in a hopeless place because some great engine is churning mysteriously in the depths of history, that life is just bad now.

Right. That's the way to win over Red-State voters: tell them they're all a bunch of ignorant savages who believe in witchcraft. Condescend to them while claiming to do the opposite.

This post could only have been written by an intellectual. Ordinary people can believe dumb things, but this level of concentrated stupidity requires a very intelligent mind. Seriously, where to start?

To begin with, there's the blithe assumption that the typical "Red State" Republican voter is so badly off that the Zimbabwe analogy makes sense. Now, I don't deny that there are some people in the United States who struggle economically, or who are economically insecure in various ways. But still, the notion that this assistant manager's plight is analogous to the most destitute resident of Zimbabwe is a bit much. As is his assumption that she is typical.

As it happens, I live in a blue portion of a red state, but I do get out of the house from time to time -- attending state fairs and country music concerts and the like. Places where I meet and see likely Republican voters of the sort that Kleiman and Burke would like to attract. And you know, in the parking lot I see plenty of $40,000 SUVs and pickup trucks. Some of them even have indoor plumbing and electricity. Yes, there are people who have real economic problems. But there are plenty doing just fine, thank you.

Nor do I deny that there are plenty of people who believe screwy things. Not all of whom are Republicans -- I once had a conversation with a retired union member and lifelong Democrat who was utterly convinced that the oil companies had suppressed an engine which runs on sea water. Heck, John Edwards is trying to convince primary voters that a free trade agreement with tiny Peru will be an economic disaster for the United States. And he's one of these "competent" Democrats who presumably believes stuff based on evidence.

This assistant manager's concerns about illegal immigrants are not analogous to the belief in zvidhoma because, unlike zvidhoma, illegal immigrants actually exist. Moreover, it's not irrational for a person with fewer job skills to think that his or her wages and benefits are driven down, at least to some small degree, by illegal immigrants. The assistant manager may well exaggerate the size of this effect, but her view that competition from illegal immigrants affects those, like herself, who are in a more precarious economic position isn't obviously superstitious or irrational.

But all this is just a warmup. Because after comparing ordinary red-state Americans to destitute African peasants who blame their bad fortune on evil spirits, Burke goes on to assert that "competence" is a cultural value of unique importance to blue state intellectuals. Competence is not something that the poor benighted folks in red states care about, you see.

He really said that. I'm not making it up. Here's the paragraph I skipped in the block quote above:

I’ve written before in my blog about how “blue state” elites in the United States continue to walk into the trap of blandly assuming that competency, skill and experience are sufficient and universally appealing attributes for a political candidate in national elections, as long as that candidate also has generally liberal views. Following the Iowa caucuses, I’m returning to this theme, because it’s one claim that seems to rub a lot of my readers the wrong way and I’m desperately hoping that this time, the message gets across to Democratic voters.

He is saying that "'blue state' elites" who assume that competency, skill, and experience are desirable attributes are wrong in so believing. He values competence, of course, because he can see its importance, unlike the red state rubes:

Competency is something I value. I believe in it, I vote for it. It is what makes a leader (institutional, national, local) both legitimate and charismatic in my eyes. But that’s significantly because I inhabit social and economic worlds where competency has a very immediate and obvious impact on whether those worlds function well or not.

Are there social and economic worlds where competency isn't important? Burke inhabits an academic world, a world of words and ideas, and so he sees "competency" as a function of one's ability to manipulate words and idea. I have no doubt that, if asked to research a historical topic and write an essay about it, he would exhibit competence.

People from working-class backgrounds may be competent at different things, but it's profoundly condescending and demeaning to suggest they don't value competence like he (and his fellow blue-state elites) do. For example, I could be wrong, but I'm guessing that if the pipe under his sink develops a leak, Burke, like me, would call a plumber. I'm guessing he takes his car to Jiffy Lube when the oil needs changing. Odds are he has no clue as to how to safely clean a gun. A man who changes his own oil, does his own home repairs, and hunts regularly might consider Professor Timothy Burke to be profoundly incompetent at a whole range of important activities.

I hate to tell Professor Burke this, (well, actually, I don't) but I cannot, offhand, think of any social or economic worlds in which competency isn't important. From the local dry cleaner to the farm, to the grocery store, smooth operations require competence.

Now, I am a frequent critic of President Bush, and I certainly believe he's been incompetent in executing his duties as President. But it's not as if he ran for President in 2000 on a platform of incompetence. In fact, hearkening back to his father and advisors such as Dick Cheney and Colin Powell, he depicted himself as the more competent candidate. Going back to 1980, Ronald Reagan sold himself as the antidote to the feckless and, yes, incompetent Jimmy Carter. If there's anything close to a universal American value, it is respect for competence -- the ability to do things well.

I have a thought: maybe "red state" voters don't vote against the preferred candidates of "blue state" intellectuals because they believe in witchcraft or don't care about competence. Maybe they vote against them because they believe that blue state intellectuals like Timothy Burke look down on them. And maybe they are right about that.