Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Progress and Resentment

Great comments on my last posting, ones that beg for some clarification of my pugnacious if hasty posting on the evening when I first read of Senator Obama's now infamous San Francisco comments.

Russell Arben Fox, both in a comment and on his own blawg, suggests that Obama and I fundamentally agree. On his site he writes:

"It seems to me that Patrick's suggested statement is actually the same as Obama's, only with the rhetorical advantage of being able to make a well-known point in reverse. What is that point? It's a comment about borders, and identity, and the value of such to those who are living lives closely tied to family and the land, and the rhythms of nature and scarcity invariably embedded therein. Obama's comment, condescending and crowd-pleasing as it may have been when it came out of his mouth in San Francisco, implicitly acknowledges all that, while Patrick chooses to snarkily underline those transformations and assumptions which allow certain people to go merrily along all while denying those very same essential things. So really, they're in agreement: just that one is making the point in a much more clever, yet also much more respectful way."

And Susan McWilliams in a comment chastises me for encouraging divisiveness, inasmuch as my "alternative speech" given to the people of Latrobe would only incite the reverse kind of class war that was implicitly on display in Obama's comments in San Francisco. (Susan also has smart things to say about globalization, so you should read her comment and she should start one of these stupid narcissistic web things one of these days. No, I didn't just write that).

But here's the thing: Mine wasn't meant as a literal incitement that Obama should say these things to the people of Latrobe (though, boy, wouldn't it be refreshing!). I'm not a big fan of populist demagoguery, all appearances notwithstanding. Mostly I was trying to point to the absurdity of the idea that Obama would say these things, that a Democratic front-runner, if asked how to explain about those folks living in big cities, would frame his response as one in which we could justify their beliefs in terms of a kind of economic determinism. So, imagine people in the heartland asking a Democratic frontrunner to explain their pro-choice position, saying something to the effect "I have to hold this position in spite of my personal beliefs because the elites of the party, who are our biggest donors, live in an economic condition in which the obligation to carry children of accidental pregnancies to term would prove to be economically inconvenient and a limitation on their personal freedom." This would be a moment of extraordinary frankness of just the kind that Obama demonstrated in San Francisco - and just imagine the response if that statement, made behind closed doors in Latrobe, were to get out in the same way the San Francisco comments got out. But - here's the point - it's a kind of moment one musn't remotely expect, because the current set of assumptions is that we explain the beliefs of people in Latrobe in light of the assumptions of the people in San Francisco (or New York - don't get bent out of shape, Susan!), and not vice versa.

And why is that? Well, Bill Kristol hit it on the head yesterday by dusting off his old copy of Marx's "Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right." The Democrats remain deeply caught up in the 19th century narrative of progress, and thus understand the conditions of traditional religious belief, identification with place and community, and preference for stability (or, to use John Stuart Mill's language, "Order" vs. "Progress") to be temporary conditions that will be overcome with the spread of enlightenment. Thus, in the face of economic stagnation and recession, the small town people of Pennsylvania "cling" to their traditional beliefs (which, Obama has suggested, is an understandable and even justified reaction). However, the deeper implicit assumption is that if the good people of western Pennsylvania could enjoy the same fruits of upward mobility as urban cosmopolitans, they would no longer have to "cling." They would no longer need the limiting old verities amid the enjoyment of limitless opportunity.

Why I thought it was pretty funny to write the speech that Obama didn't give in Pennsylvania was that "the reverse" is well-nigh impossible to imagine. All of our candidates, regardless of party or purported ideology, are proponents of the basic narrative of progress. In this fact, our Republicans are no different than our Democrats - and, thus, why you will find none of our candidates raising questions about the reasonableness and logic of endless "growth." (Meanwhile, we can read articles like one appearing on the front page of today's New York Times, which reports the resentments of leaders of impoverished nations toward the developed West's precipitous decision to make food into fuel, thus leading to starvation and food riots around the world.) Our ignorance of the cost of growth is a necessary underpinning for the narrative, and it's an ignorance that we all share - whether in San Francisco or Latrobe - because we all want to "cling" to the narrative.

Indeed, it could be suggested that the very animosities - the "bitterness" - of the people of Latrobe have some ground in the deeply shared belief in progress, and the resentments that they have not benefited to the same extent as various elites on the coasts. Fewer and fewer people are able to defend the goods of a less prosperous, less mobile, less opportunity-filled life for their own sake. All the candidates promise Middle Americans the return of upward mobility, and there can be little doubt that it is a message that is well-received and expected. We don't so much despise the lifestyle of glittering Californians as we envy them - certainly if the popularity of magazines like "People" and "Us" are any indication. My version of Obama's speech is finally laughable not only because it's one he would never consider delivering, but it's one that I wager the people of Latrobe would not demand that he make.

Imagine a day when we will speak of the bitterness felt by the isolated and childless individuals in our big cities who can't exactly understand why they suffer from a lack of community, meaning, and belonging like the kind experienced by people in small towns in the heartland. That would be a profoundly different narrative, and one that's better than the current one that laments or valorizes the "bitterness" of people who are arguably better off in some of the most important respects.

2 comments:

Russell Arben Fox said...

I appreciate the further thoughts and explanations, Patrick. You've presented us with more good food for thought.

I'm not a big fan of populist demagoguery, all appearances notwithstanding.

Not demagoguery, surely...but you are a bit of a populist, are you not? Just a little bit? In the Laschian sense, of course.

Fewer and fewer people are able to defend the goods of a less prosperous, less mobile, less opportunity-filled life for their own sake. All the candidates promise Middle Americans the return of upward mobility, and there can be little doubt that it is a message that is well-received and expected. We don't so much despise the lifestyle of glittering Californians as we envy them....

A hard and important point. However, I think that--while you're correct that the whole reason the narrative of "bitterness" strikes home (and consequently gives rise of political scandal) is because the desire for a specific kind of economic progress is assumed to be worthwhile (indeed, almost obligatory!) by the people of both California and Pennsylvania, and thus allows for envy and despair--one side of the equation here has something the other does not. The average resident of Latrobe, much more than the average resident of San Francisco, can see around themselves (if they've not blinded themselves to it) reasons and the opportunity to dissent from this normative presumption: they can see the land which grows food, for one thing; they can see the factories that once offered stability to families without requiring them to dislodge themselves from their local world, for another. So the resentment that many small-town Pennsylvanians feel perhaps has a special poignancy: not just because, by light of the cosmopolitans of California, they are "losers" (though according to those standards they surely are), but because on some level, they (or their parents or grandparents) can see that the whole thing is fraudulent. Which just, I guess, makes the "bitterness" that much more difficult to articulate, and much more susceptible to demagoguery and stereotypes.

Dan Miller said...

Russell, first of all, I don't want this to come off as rude; I have nothing but respect for you and Prof. Deneen. But your coments highlight the essential futility at the heart of your project. In essence, you seem to be committed to trying to tell the vast majority of people that their desires are not just unrealistic, but wrong--that the things they want will not make them happy. Doesn't it ever strike you that this is an argument that you can never win? It seems a bit tragic.