Monday, May 12, 2003

Back in the Provinces

It's been a while since I've written. Final exams--giving them and grading them--took up a bit of my time, but so did a job interview at school that, in many ways, I'd really set my heart on. Well, that interview didn't pan out, and so I'll remain at Arkansas State University for the time being. Dealing with the results of that interview, and assessing my present situation (and what it offers, and what I need to do to make more satisfying and fulfilling, both for myself and my students), have led me to do a fair amount of soul-searching of late, the bulk of which I won't bother to blog about. But there was one small exchange in the blogosphere, from late last week, which I want to write on, if only because it, to a small degree, threw into sharp relief some of what I am presently thinking about.

I refer to John Derbyshire's column "Confessions of a Metropolitan Conservative," in which he relates having dinner with some ardent conservative lady from Virginia, who proceded to expose him as a "milk and water conservative"--the sort of person who talked about and praised the values of the red-state, conservative heartland (in this case, specifically the state of Texas, where--until and unless the Supreme Court rules otherwise--laws prohibiting sodomy remain on the books), but who when it comes right down to it wouldn't, in fact, personally vote for such "authentically" conservative policies and doesn't, frankly, want to live in such "authentically" conservative environments. Derbyshire agrees with this woman's assessment of him, and is terribly honest about where his personal feelings about homosexuality and host of other hot-button conservative issues leave him:

"I have not the slightest doubt that I am a conservative by thought, feeling and instinct, yet on a lot of the issues that define American conservatism, I barely move the needle from the zero mark on the dial. I have guns but only fire them down at the range once a month, for the satisfaction of it, and to develop confidence in handling them. I have never hunted with guns. I am only feebly religious — feebly Episcopalian, in fact, which is feebleness squared! Homosexuality? I don't like it, and have got myself in a lot of trouble for saying so rather bluntly, but I wouldn't criminalize it. Abortion? Pretty much the same. Creationism? Sorry, I think it's pseudoscience. I'm fine with evolution. So — What kind of conservative am I?"

Derbyshire decides that he is a "metropolitan conservative," the sort of conservative who has spent "most of my adult life in big cities or their shadows" and has a "mostly metropolitan cast of mind"--which means that, as much as his political opinions may set him apart, he is "at ease in a roomful of New York liberals in a way that, to be truthful about it, I am not in a gathering of red-state evangelicals." In short, he is a conservative Bobo (much like his Weekly Standard counterpart David Brooks, who coined the term), a creature of the modern (postmodern?) capitalist (postcapitalist?) upper- or near-upper-class and all its "metropolitan" trappings who just happens to accept a sufficient number of libertarian and/or social conservative nostrums to make it reasonable to vote Republican. He is not, as he makes perfectly clear, really particularly comfortable with those provincial environments and worldviews which engender the greatest fervor in the American conservative movement, but he admirers those who do live in those environments or profess those worldviews from afar: "the red-state conservative with his Bible, his hunting rifle and his sodomy laws," Derbyshire writes, "is authentic, in a way I am not."

I neither consider myself a conservative (though there is a strong streak of social and moral conservatism in me), nor am I particularly troubled about how I would vote if given the opportunity to criminalize or de-criminalize sodomy (for the record: it shouldn't be against the law). So what is it about Derbyshire's comments which complicate my thinking? His willingness to own up to--and yet then blithely dismiss--a reality which undergirds so much of our society and our psychology, a reality which is often profoundly (and often purposefully) obscured and/or misused by those engaged in political conversation. What Derbyshire calls the "metropolitan-provincial divide" is reflected in matters pertaining to class, to region, to temperment. It is a divide rife with condescension, false judgments, and bitter resentments, fueled by everything from Hollywood's presentation of certain elite and scandalous social mores as "popular entertainment" to the Constitution's comparative over-representation (through the Electoral College and the Senate) of vast, underpopulated and by most economic measures "backward" parts of the nation. And it is a divide which I personally have never been able to fully or satisfyingly negotiate. Derbyshire may himself feel able to own up to and then set aside the strange mix of condescension and admiration he feels for the provincials out there in the heartland, but perhaps that's because he has a place on one side of the divide. But a great many people do not; I don't, for instance. I'm deeply religious Mormon (provincial!) who received his Ph.D. in political philosophy (metropolitan!) from a religious university (provincial!) in Washington D.C. (metropolitan!). I'm a professional academic (metropolitan!) who teaches at Arkansas State University (provincial? yes, mostly) in Jonesboro, AR, a conservative town in a conservative state which, just recently, followed the leadership of city clergy (mostly Southern Baptist and Church of Christ) to make sure it stayed alcohol-free (provincial, provincial, provincial!). It would be easy to fall into the cliche about "liberal college professors" making a home in some unenlightened backwoods at this point, and crank out all the predictable horror stories which academics like to share with one another at conferences about students who fly Confederate flags or pray in the classroom or haven't ever shopped anywhere besides Wal-Mart or actually like Lee Greenwood's music or some other metropolitan horror....but as sympathetic as I am to much of that, I don't think that represents the real tangle of issues here. It's not just living a divided life; it's recognizing and dealing with the social and psychological reality of the divide in forming one's life. Jacob Levy, to his credit, acknowledges some of this, reflecting that "everyone should sometimes wonder whether their preferred political order mightn't rest on cultural foundations that aren't to their liking." My ability to live the sort of life I do, and defend the sort of society I want, may very well depend upon distinctions I'm uncomfortable with. For example: as a professor who grades my students on the basis of their ability to read, understand and appreciate Kant, I am imposing a profoundly elite standard, one that will be--I cannot deny--of almost no use to the overwhelming majority of those who come through my classrooms. All academics are elitists, of course, but I am an elitist in Arkansas, which has to mean something different than being an elitist in Cambridge, MA. Does that mean I should change the way I do things? Or that I should expect (in vain, no doubt) Arkansas to? Maybe this would be easier if I were simply a philosophical liberal; then I could just measure communities and find them wanting (namely, when they didn't share my enlightened liberal ideals). But I'm a communitarian, and so I have to take--and I want to take--this provincial community as every bit as necessary to my own personal world as the community of ideas I come up with in my head and share (at too great length, no doubt) with my peers and on this blog (and indeed, as Derbyshire allows, the provincial community is probably even more necessary).

This question of boundaries and expectations, of what compromises are necessary to ensure the survival of "metropolitan standards" or "provincial authenticity" in our ever-more interconnected world, is the defining question, the defining negotiation, of the modern (postmodern?) West. And I guess, even if I don't have any better answers, I just don't like it when anyone closes down that negotiation, even for the most prudent of reasons, because the reality itself still remains, continuing to fester. After his sympathetic assessment of what Derbyshire wrote, Levy still decided he had to make it clear that, of course, "it's simply indecent to even be in a broad-tent coalition with" some provincials (in this case, referring to some white kids in Georgia who decided to hold a whites-only prom). Though I don't know all the facts in this case, I basically agree with him. And yet....well, ok, they're indecent--what then? Rural Georgia is still there. These kids will still vote, still take jobs, still tune into talk radio, and a lot of them will still go college (maybe my university; maybe they'll take my class). We can say how they're beyond the pale, how backward, how limited we metropolitans are in our ability to enlighten them, and oh how we wish that other job (the one nearer to an IKEA and a Starbucks, dammit!) had worked out, etc., etc.--but that doesn't settle the issue of what to do when we live next door to one another. Derbyshire is going to be all right; he lives in New York City, and if he doesn't like the sort of "milk-and-water-conservative" bitch-slapping which started him off on the metropolitan conservative tangent in the first place, he just has to watch more carefully which dinner parties he goes to. That same option doesn't exist for most of us on the divide--and I suspect that all our efforts to resolve it (whether through the perfect set of arguments or finding the perfect job), until and unless something allows us to change the terms of the debate entirely, won't ultimately help us much either.