Thursday, January 15, 2009

TPT, or Fighting the Stereotype

Via commenter "Orange Mike" Lowrey at Sadly,No:

January 15, 2009 at 17:29 Seriously, I want to protest the class-biased cheapshot about trailer parks. Not all of us out here are yuppies in condos; for some of us, trailer parks are the only affordable housing.
Bigoted nonsense like that is one reason some working-class Americans don’t vote for Democrats: because somehow some of us lost track of the idea that poor whites aren’t all ignorant crackers, and decided that taking potshots at rednecks wasn’t prejudiced the way Republicans are when they take cheap shots at, well, the entire human race

I couldn't agree more, and this is more than a little pet peeve of mine. We joke a lot about the Rethugs calling liberals "elitists," and it's true that it's a bit more than ridiculous when they start calling Obama an "elitist" while giving gazillionaire John McCain a pass. Of course, this is because they think that all red-blooded Amurkans are uneducated ignoramuses and that Obama's status as Harvard Law graduate and editor of the Law Review fully qualifies him for elitist status, but that is a subject for another day.

No, today I am talking about the frequent prejudiced references to people, traditionally the people who benefit most from liberal social policies, as rednecks and mouthbreathers and pigfarmers, and the places that these folk come from as hillbilly country and flyover land. This does not endear us to these people, the very people we should be attempting to reach not only for the benefit of the Democratic Party but for the benefit of the workers! This is why the Republican frothing about "elitists" can be very effective, because there is truth in it.

The Republicans have exploited gaffes made by Democrats with some success. Who can forget the anger over John Kerry's "stuck in Iraq" comment? The unfortunate thing is that there is truth in Kerry's statement - when you have no hope for the future, a stint in the armed forces might look like a step up from poverty, even in a time of war. Same thing applies to the "bitter god guns" comment. True, true, true, but come on! Is insulting people really the best way to win them over?

I hear people who should know better claim we don't really need to win them back, these disaffected union Democrats, the poor southern Whites whose lives were bettered immeasurably by Johnson's Great Society, the small farmers who were never ours but should have been, if only they'd been reached in the right way. No, just let them go, let them vote Republican, these wise upper middle class liberals say, just jettison these ignorant, superstitious, religious fools.

I grew up with these folks, although my family was never of them, precisely. We were well-read people and politically aware, although no one in our immediate family went to college and no one worked at a desk job until the most recent generation. We came from Irish ancestors who were Catholic in Northern Ireland but were utterly secular in the United States. My grandparents were leftists and if Roosevelt hadn't come along might have been violently so. They suffered during the Depression, trying to farm some hilly, shitty land south of Ottumwa, Iowa. Then my grandfather got a government job and became, as so many Irish in America did, a good Democratic Irish American Civil Servant.

My grandfather and my mother argued a lot during the sixties. My grandfather did not like the radical Blacks and the "hippies" and my mother wholeheartedly did. However, my gramps never considered leaving the left because he knew, and frequently said, that the Republicans had never done a thing for the working people. I remember how angry he used to get about farmers who voted Republican, shouting at the top of his voice, "The goddamned Republicans never did a thing for farmers!"

But many Democrats of my grandparents' and parents' generations did leave the party. They left it for all kinds of reasons, but largely because they felt that they were marginalized and squeezed out, left behind, in fact. Indeed, one the worst of the evil things that the Republicans have done and had the greatest success with was breeding hatred of labor unions. Democrats began to disassociate themselves from labor because of negative public opinion, a really stupid move and one that paved the way for Reagan's union busting success.

(As an aside, the unions are not entirely blameless in this, particularly with the less-than-welcoming attitude exhibited in the past towards female and minority workers, but the welfare of organized labor is so crucial to the success of left policy that it should never have been marginalized. The focus should have been on fixing the problems with the unions - particularly the hierarchy - not on scrapping the goddamned concept, a prime example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.)

Well, we all have our prejudices, and they are hard to leave behind. Many Democrats, particularly those of us from the working class, have had to overcome cultural bias against gays and Blacks and atheists, although I was happily spared this thanks to my mother. But when certain well-educated, financially secure Democrats put down working class people and the poor, they are acting on prejudices, no different than any other prejudices. I've long tried to fight these stereotypes; for example, I used to try to correct wrong-headed perceptions of Iowa. Sometimes I still engage. The vast majority of the good people on the liberal blogs I frequent get it, and know that the stereotypes are simply that, but there are more people than you'd like to think who simply refuse to believe that their dearly held prejudices might be, well, wrong. (I've seen the same phenomenon among supposedly enlightened liberal Southerners who hate Catholics and believe the worst about them, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. To them, there are no Catholics but Bill Donahue Catholics, and the liberal-birth-control-using-evolution-understanding-science-respecting-Andrew Greeley-Phil Donahue Catholics don't exist at all! You'll never convince them otherwise, either. As far as they are concerned, all priests are child molesters, and that's that. I've given up on arguing that, too.)

I'm guilty of stereotypes as well. I'll admit to having to fight my suppositions about Southerners and folks from Utah, Nevada, Montana, and eastern Washington as a bunch of militia-joining neo-Nazis, and nevermind the prejudices I have against Texas. (As an example, my only interest in organized sports is to always hope with all my heart for the defeat of Texas A & M and the Dallas Cowboys.) I do know that my stereotypes are wrong, that those perceived "typical" residents of those states are no more universally true than are the stereotypes of residents of my much maligned state. I fight these suppositions, and I think I've become mostly successful at bringing myself up short when I find myself strolling along those same tired paths. It's important, I believe, to do so.

We've got to stop this divisiveness and cut off this snobbery. We've got to do better at making poor and working class White people see that the policies of the left are of benefit to them, that they don't have to view Latinos or Blacks as the competition for America's scraps. Until we can get all the poor and working class to see that there is power in unity and that the right wing seeks to create division for its own ends, we will never have an egalitarian society. We will never succeed at this if working class people see us* as a bunch of snobs who sneer at them and their concerns, not only because they are encouraged to do so by the right wing but because we help reinforce that view by snidely referring to the Midwest and the South as big ol' blocks o' morons.

*I include myself in the "us" category only because of my very leftist politics, my love of learning and my atheism. I consider myself an anarcho-syndicalist by inclination, a socialist for practical purposes, and am a member of the Democratic party only because I am also a pragmatist. I am, however, a member of the working class in all respects: I've never made more than $34,000 a year, dropped out of high school, got a GED, am on my second run at an associate's degree at the tender age of 47, am a single parent, and, friends and neighbors, I have actually lived in an honest to god trailer park.


  1. Dear Candy

    This past election, I travelled to Indianapolis for a couple of days and did door-to-door stuff for Obama. I did this with one guy named Bert, who among other things, is a long-time Democratic volunteer there. We went through two trailer parks on our route- areas tucked away from the road, one of the parks sharing an address with a muffler shop. Bert remarked, "We're going into areas I've never seen before in all my years doing this." I took this as an encouraging sign.

    I too get annoyed when liberals/leftists start going on about dumb Rednecks, or even "white trash". Thankfully it's not too common. I can certainly understand why someone would get mad, but it's not only stupid for someone who wants to bring the classes closer together to start ragging on the working class, there's also an inherent cheapness to criticizing people who beleive differently from you because they have had a totally different set of experiences. How do you know whether, if you were in their shoes, you would not just act the same? If I, raised upper-middle-class, can see this, why do others find it so confusing? I don't understand.

    The Democrats jettisoning the Labor bloc, though, holy crap was that a shitty idea. It is now two presidential elections where I have been going to other states, and in each case the heart of the Democratic organization which accepted us and gave us our marching orders was in some kind of union hall. Seems to me that without the Unions the Decmocrats would be completely SOL, but what do I know, right?

    Anyhow, I'm glad to see that you have started your own blog. I look forward to coming by!


  2. Shorter me: snobbery is cheap.

  3. Since I've chosen the handle 'atheist', one area where I particularly notice this is with religion. I'm somewhat amazed by how ready some commenters are to accuse all Christians, for instance, of being a horde of identically-minded idiots. I sometimes feel odd being the one to suggest that not all Christians are in fact like this. Don't get me wrong, I'd certainly welcome a diminishing of the power of religion in the world, but I'm always too into realpolitik to be interested in this kind of identity politics.


  4. Since I've chosen the handle 'atheist', one area where I particularly notice this is with religion. I'm somewhat amazed by how ready some commenters are to accuse all Christians, for instance, of being a horde of identically-minded idiots.

    Yes, this is very much something I notice as well. As much as I enjoy PZ Myers's posts most of the time,there is a lot of that attitude on Pharyngula. I realize that it makes science people crazy when creationist groups try to get religion in the classroom and science thrown out, but not all religious people are like that. In fact, I would go so far as to say most are not like that.

    It's always good to see you, Aaron. Glad to have you stop by my humble abode any time.

  5. In fact, I would go so far as to say most are not like that.

    I know a Southern, Catholic, Republican lady who beleives in evolution, teaches science, and thinks the whole "intelligent design" thing is dumb. I've known an Evangelical Leftist. There are so many braided, looping streams of philosophical/religious/doubting thought twisting in an out and around in this world that it seems to me we should refrain from categorical statements about any of them. I know that I'm an atheist, and I think the less religion in the world, the better. But that's just a starting place.

    Glad to have you stop by my humble abode any time.