Tuesday, February 13, 2007

War, military service, working class Republicans, and liberal intellectuals

No-one from Montana Headlines was able to attend the lecture by Stanley Hauerwas, a well-known theologian and pacifist, at Rocky Mountain College’s religion symposium.

The topic of his lecture according to the reports of its contents, however, is roughly that war gives a sense of purpose and other intangibles to a people that religion can and should replace with worship.

Reading about his comments, what came immediately to mind was an insightful article by the self-described anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber that was published in the January 2007 issue of Harper’s:
“Army of Altruists – on the alienated right to do good.” (Note: the article is neither available on-line at the Harper’s website nor is it any longer on newsstands. The link above is to a blog that discusses the article – if one happens to notice and read the fully reproduced text of the article while in the process of reading the blog comments, so be it.)

While Hauerwas concentrates on the “glorification of war,” Graeber takes on the specific issue of why so many young men and women willingly serve in the military. When one serves in the military, there is always the acute awareness that one can be sent to serve in a place of danger and be killed. Even today, when that awareness is more acutely felt than at any time since Vietnam, retention rates in all branches of the armed services are amazingly high.

He postulates (correctly, in our experience) that this isn’t nearly so much a result of attractive economic and educational opportunities that military service provides (an attractiveness that could, in the left’s thinking, be replaced by better civilian job availability and educational assistance) as it is the opportunity to pursue a career in something higher and nobler than merely making money. This is close to what Hauerwas is saying, but has a crucial distinction, since the draw and appeal that Graeber discusses is present in military service whether or not our country is in a state of war.

Graeber expands the discussion into the more general, and acutely relevant, subject of why so many working-class Americans reject the left and embrace the Republican party in America.

It is impossible to do Graeber’s lengthy article justice in a brief discussion, but the fact that it is written by an activist and academic who would by any standard be considered a member of the left’s “intellectual elite” makes it all the more remarkable. Conservatives from working class or rural backgrounds who find themselves in the presence of inquisitive liberals, especially in institutions of higher learning, are often asked why the overwhelmingly non-privileged “red America” votes Republican, “against our economic interests.” (This question is probably second in frequency only to various versions of the question: “you don’t seem so terribly stupid or uneducated – why do you vote Republican?”) One gets the feeling that one could have a conversation with Graeber without having those questions asked or implied.

We would disagree with some of Graeber's conclusions, and he has some odd conspiracy-theory angles in the article that give Republicans entirely too much credit for being capable of long-term political planning. Yet, Graeber does “get it” to a degree that Montana Headlines has perhaps never heard articulated by someone on the left. Perhaps Graeber’s experiences in studying relatively primitive Madagascar cultures as an anthropologist aids him in understanding how to approach strange foreign cultures such as one might find in “red America.” Even that is really probably not fair, since Graeber is nowhere condescending.

Here are some passages that gives a flavor of the article. Again, they are no substitute for the entirety of Graeber’s argument:

…progressives cannot even seem to understand the problem. After the last presidential election, the big debate in progressive circles was the relative importance of economic issues versus what was called “the culture wars.” Did the Democrats lose because they were not able to spell out any plausible economic alternatives, or did the Republicans win because they successfully mobilized evangelical Christians around the issue of gay marriage? The very fact that progressives frame the question this way not only shows they are trapped in the right’s terms of analysis; it demonstrates that they do not understand how America really works.

Let me illustrate what I mean by considering the strange popular appeal, at least until recently, of George W. Bush. In 2004 most of the American liberal intelligentsia did not seem to be able to get their minds around it. After the election, what left so many of them reeling was their suspicion that the things they most hated about Bush were exactly what so many Bush voters liked about him. Consider the debates, for example. If statistics are to be believed, millions of Americans watched George Bush and John Kerry lock horns, concluded that Kerry won, and then went off and voted for Bush anyway. It was hard to escape the suspicion that, in the end, Kerry’s articulate presentation, his skill with words and arguments, had actually counted against him.

This sent liberals into spirals of despair. They could not understand why decisive leadership was equated with acting like an idiot. Neither could they understand how a man who comes from one of the most elite families in the country, who attended Andover, Yale, and Harvard, and whose signature facial expression is a self-satisfied smirk, ever convinced anyone he was a “man of the people.” I must admit I have struggled with this as well. As a child of working-class parents who won a scholarship to Andover in the 1970s and, eventually, a job at Yale, I have spent much of my life in the presence of men like Bush, every inch of them oozing self-satisfied privilege. But, in fact, stories like mine–stories of dramatic class mobility through academic accomplishment–are increasingly unusual in America. (Emphasis ours)

Graeber goes on to postulate that what happened on the left was that the expansion of opportunity via education imploded during the late sixties and early seventies. It “hit a dead end” and radicalized campuses “were, predictably, exploding...”:

What followed could be seen as a kind of settlement. Campus radicals were reabsorbed into the university but set to work largely at training children of the elite. As the cost of education has skyrocketed, financial aid has been cut back, and the prospect of social mobility through education–above all liberal arts education–has been rapidly diminished. The number of working-class students in major universities, which steadily grew until the Seventies, has now been declining for decades.

The matter was further complicated by the fact that this overall decline of accessibility happened at almost exactly the same time that many who had previously been excluded (the G.I. Bill of Rights, after all, had applied basically to white males) were finally being welcomed. These were the identities celebrated in the campus “identity politics” of the Eighties and Nineties–an inclusiveness that notably did not extend to, say, Baptists or “rednecks.” Unsurprisingly, many focused their rage not on government or on university administrations but on minorities, queers, and feminists.

Graeber returns to a variation of the original question of why so many working class Americans vote Republican:

Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich? It seems to me that the answer is simple. They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia.

If you think about it, this is not an unreasonable assessment. A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive. But it is possible. There is virtually no chance, however, that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become an international human-rights lawyer or a drama critic for the New York Times.

Graeber goes on to say that if this hypothetical daughter wants to do something higher and nobler, there are two choices: work for her church or join the military. There are actually a few more choices than that, but his point is a good one. He notes primarily financial factors and the institutionalized ways in which the children of academics/intellectuals are given privileges within elite academic institutions. He does not note (or perhaps notice) the role that traditional beliefs play as the children of "red America" negotiate any institution of higher learning, let alone an elite one -- beliefs generally disapproved of by most faculty and certainly rarely valued by them.

Difficulties experienced by bright but traditionally-minded students from relatively well-off families are significant enough. When one removes any financial advantages, a poor white Nebraska male with traditional Christian beliefs, no matter how bright or motivated, not only will be sorely disappointed if he dreams of being a drama critic for the New York Times -- he will likely never even review movies for the Omaha World-Herald.

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