Commentary: Seeing Red about Blue America

By LOU MARANO  |  Feb. 19, 2002 at 6:49 PM
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WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Perhaps the most astute observer of American political culture is being unfairly attacked.

In an article titled "Seeing Red," Blake Hurst takes David Brooks to task for his penetrating essay "One Nation, Slightly Divisible," which appeared in the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly. "Seeing Red" was published on the Feb. 11 op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal and is featured in the March issue of the American Enterprise magazine.

Brooks is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard. Hurst identifies himself as a farmer from Tarkio, Mo., and a contributor to the American Enterprise.

What makes it such nasty business is that the two writers do not really disagree, except on matters of emphasis. Hurst just doesn't like what he perceives as Brooks' attitude, which he calls "patronizing" to his neighbors and him.

Some context is required. Begin by recalling the adage that an academic now learns more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing. The professorate punishes "popularizers" who can observe the big picture and come up with the integrative explanatory theories that social scientists of earlier eras used to generate. This task has fallen to intellectuals outside the university, some of them journalists, such as Brooks.

The color in Hurst's title refers to "Red America," or "Middle America," which was depicted on election night maps as the part of the United States that went for President George W. Bush. "Blue America," which centers around big coastal cities, favored former Vice President Al Gore.

Brooks set out to see how voting patterns correlate with economic conditions and cultural values. It was clear that Gore's appeal to "the people" to rally with him against "the powerful" had fallen flat. America has few "have nots," but envy is relative. For generations, scholars have wondered why those who "have less" in the United States are not very resentful of their countrymen who "have more."

This question was implicit in Brooks' investigations. Explicitly, he asked: Do our differences effectively split us into two nations, or are they just cracks in a still-united whole? This is a fair question, and one more important than ever since Sept. 11.

To find an answer he ventured across "the meatloaf line" and traveled to rural Franklin County, Pa., about 25 miles west of Gettysburg, a land with "no Starbucks, no Pottery Barn, no Borders or Barnes & Noble."

"The joke that Pennsylvanians tell about their state is that it has Philadelphia on one end, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in the middle," Brooks writes, noting that even as he drives north across the Mason-Dixon line, he feels as if he were going south.

He contrasted what he saw there with conditions in his own Montgomery County, Md., which contains some affluent suburbs of Washington, including Bethesda, Md., where Brooks lives.

Brooks is a droll writer, and he pokes gentle fun at the denizens of both Americas. For example he writes: "Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors. We sail; they powerboat. We cross-country ski; they snowmobile. We hike; they drive ATVs. We have vineyard tours; they have tractor pulls. When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens."

But he makes it clear that he is true Blue, and he visits Red America as an anthropologist would explore the highlands of New Guinea.

Brooks described Blue America brilliantly, but with perhaps an excess of self-celebration, in his 2000 book "Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There." In it he described a tectonic shift in U.S. culture: the ascendancy of a new highly educated elite whose membership is based on individual merit, which eclipsed a complacent, narrow-minded Anglo Saxon aristocracy whose membership was based mainly on inherited wealth.

The "Bobos" of his title are "bourgeois bohemians" -- people who enjoy their high social status but remain nostalgic for the bohemianism of their university days.

In the information age, Brooks wrote, social classes define themselves by their means of consumption. He trenchantly describes the logic of Bobo consumption patterns. They "feel free to invest huge amounts of capital in things that are categorized as needs, but it is not acceptable to spend on mere wants. For example, it's virtuous to spend $25,000 on your bathroom, but it's vulgar to spend $15,000 on a sound system and a wide-screen TV." Bobos can justify any expense on something that can be rationalized as a tool, and tools must be of professional quality, even if you use them only once.

Under the heading, "You can never have too much texture," Brooks observes, "Everything the educated person drinks will leave sediment in the bottom of the glass: yeasty microbrews, unfiltered fruit juices, organic coffees."

As for transcendent faith, "It is acceptable to display sacred items in an educated person's home so long as they are from a religion neither the host nor any of his or her guests is likely to profess." In the Atlantic, Brooks wrote: "In Red America churches are everywhere. In Blue America Thai restaurants are everywhere."

Brooks admits: "We don't know how to shoot or clean a rifle. We can't tell a military officer's rank by looking at his insignia." Red America, on the other hand, is "the home of patriotism and military service." He contrasts the big recruiting center in downtown Chambersburg, Pa., with the big gourmet dog bakery in downtown Bethesda.

Brooks writes that members of the elite "think we know" that many Middle Americans "are racist and homophobic, and when you see them at highway rest stops, they're often really fat and their clothes are too tight. And apparently we don't want to know any more than that."

People in Montgomery County have more education than those who live in Franklin County, and because the information age rewards education with money, the former area is much richer than the latter. But Brooks found no class resentments in the corner of Red America he visited.

"Even people with incomes well below the median thought of themselves as haves," he wrote. In fact, wage inequality seems to be a preoccupation of the rich. Brooks cites a Pew survey that "found that views on economic issues do not explain the different voting patterns in the two regions."

One reason seems to be that living expenses, especially real estate prices, are lower in Red America. Brooks failed in his goal of spending $20 on a restaurant meal in Franklin County.

Brooks had deflating news for his fellow Bobos in Blue America: the rest of the country doesn't admire or envy them. Although the professional class in the cosmopolitan corridors may feel superior to the tacky, overweight heartlanders they encounter at highway rest stops, the Middle Americans consider them shallow, materialistic and spiritually impoverished.

"The people I met commonly told me that although those in affluent places like Manhattan and Bethesda might make more money and have more exciting jobs, they are the unlucky ones, because they don't get to live in Franklin County. They don't get to enjoy the beautiful green hillsides, the friendly people, the wonderful church groups and volunteer organizations."

And even though cultural values varied widely between Red and Blue America, Brooks found that almost nobody he talked with in Franklin County understood, let alone embraced, the concept of a culture war. "Building community and preserving local ways are far more important to them than any culture war," he writes.

Brooks found the biggest difference to be: "In Red America, the self is small. People declare in a million ways, 'I am normal. Nobody is better, nobody is worse. I am humble before God.' In Blue America, the self is more commonly large. People say in a million ways, 'I am special. I have carved out my unique way of life. I am independent. I make up my own mind.'"

This big difference notwithstanding, Brooks found no fundamental conflict between the two Americas, but rather a common love for the United States.

That is an ecumenical outlook, but Hurst is nevertheless indignant -- and defensive. "We are, for sure, fatter than the rest of America," he writes. "But there's a certain freedom in a paunch ... and a little extra weight helps when you have to 'grab aholt' of heavy things and make them move."

Asked to comment on "Seeing Red," Brooks said he thought it was unfair.

"I thought I was making fun of certain Blue America stereotypes about Red America," he told United Press International. "But he argues as if I'm the one holding the views I'm making fun of.

He picks up on a lot of my points and argues for them as if I argued the opposite."

An examination of the two texts bears this out.

"I'm conservative. I vote the way Red America votes," Brooks said.

If Hurst has one legitimate beef, it is that Brooks is far too arch in his observations of Blue America's indifference to and evasion of military service. "Red Americans and Blue Americans volunteer for military service at radically divergent rates," Hurst notes correctly, "and we honor those who have served in the armed forces differently."

I told Brooks that if Blue America corrected this one deficiency, they could tell the rest of the world to go to hell.

Brooks replied that he was making that point in his comparison of the recruiting station and the dog bakery.

"But you were not prepared to say this is an area in which Blue America really needs to shape up," I said.

"You've got to understand when you're writing for the Atlantic, you're writing for an overwhelmingly Blue American audience. I think you can come off preachy and condemnatory, in which case you'll lose your readers, or you can try to persuade them more subtly."

Is there any amount of subtlety that will get the message across that it's harder to send your son to war than to go yourself?

"It's not an argument," Brooks answered. "Most people in Blue America agree with you. They feel vaguely guilty about not doing it. They just aren't going to do it."

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