Tuesday, February 08, 2011
THOSE WHO KNOW BETTER. I was going to write about this with maps, showing the incredibly tiny geographic percentage of the country that voted for Obama, but my Marine friend dissuaded me. "Nobody cares about maps," he said. "Election demographics are a snooze. Besides, you've already done that. It was a snooze."
He's right. To an extent few people realize, being a regular blogger means learning constantly how wrong you are about what moves people. So I'm forced to a more obscure and ambitious differentiation.
My point being that it's the Obama supporters who are the ignoramuses, not the much ridiculed people who oppose him.
Yes, there are people throughout the length and breadth of America who support Obama. In every state, city, and township. Why maps don't work. At least not geographical maps. But when I was in college, I learned that the definition of place is not entirely geographical. I learned, for example...
Well, let me back up for a moment. Before college I had realized that the concept of "place" is an incredibly plastic and malleable thing. I have spent most of my life less than ten miles from the New Jersey Turnpike. Most people who do not live in New Jersey tend to conflate the Turnpike with the state itself. Funny to those of us who live here but intensely relevant to my larger point. What we all know without having to articulate it is that the Turnpike is its own place, separate from the places where we actually live our lives, even if those places are less than a hundred yards from one of the portals called exits.
The Turnpike has its own police force, its own governance and administration, its own maintenance crews, its own diminutive cities and icons. While the loci called rest stops have names drawn from New Jersey history -- Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, Frank Farley (?!), et al -- there is no cultural diversity to speak of and no external connection that isn't a pretense. Except for their names, all rest stops are the same rest stop, the fuel attendants all wear the same uniform, and the gas pump and fast food prices are equally, well, uniform. In short, the New Jersey Turnpike is an incredibly skinny, incredibly long, incredibly homogeneous, incredibly segregated subset of New Jersey. It does not interact with its neighbors; it simply sits alongside them, confident of its own superiority to the customs and chaotic variety of whatever it transects. For when you enter the Turnpike, the toll card is like a visa to a foreign nation, revokeable at any time, even if your visits are a daily occurrence.
Back to college. Where I learned that there's an elite distributed across the country who are a lot like the Turnpike. They have more in common with one another than they do with the geographical places they're supposedly located in. Lake Forest, Illinois, is Grosse Point, Michigan, is Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, is Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, is Rumsen, New Jersey, is, well, you get the picture. The children go to the same prep schools and colleges, the daughters are debutantes shopping for the same dresses, and -- as much as any conclave of Armenians -- they all know each other before the first day of orientation at Pine Manor, Smith, Middlebury, or Yale. They're their own place, their own country. And they're pretty sure they own the rest of us.
But they're a tolerant bunch and they also grant visas to the token commoners who are prepared to play ball. Hell, a turnpike doesn't make money without consumer traffic and payers of the tolls. Obama Nation from the top down perspective. Just imagine what it's really like to be them, though. You go to your restaurants and you don't know where the food comes from or how. The same with your clothes, your electricity, your cab rides, even the elevator you take to your highrise office. Absolutely everything in life that makes life work is a mystery you're superior to, until it gets broken. At which point you demand the proles see to it. The same way the Turnpike knows nothing of the real economic engine which feeds it drivers. As long as everyone bows at the toll gate, they are the masters of all they survey.
Not the only turnpike-style enclave however. There are also the takers in the urban realm, who are likewise all from the same place, hands out and empty except for their fistfuls of grievances and demands. And the government employees who grow up in a culture entirely alien from real American life, where time in grade trumps competition and talent in the whole nationwide school system, as well as municipal, state and federal employees of every stripe. Yes, they may live next door and drive exactly the same SUV and minivan you do, but they have less in common with you than they do with their fellow featherbedders in every other state and commonwealth in the nation. They just don't see life the same way you do. You're the Turnpike travellers. They're the toll booth attendants, exacting their (more than) fair share of every mile you travel.
Does interacting with us change them, elevate them, ennoble them? No. Does the New Jersey Turnpike visit and gain illumination from Moorestown, Gloucester, or Paramus? No. All the defining transactions are different. Homogeneity and heterogeneity are fundamental enemies. The former possesses a sense of unconscious, non-introspective entitlement. The latter is too, well, heterogeneous even to observe that a distinction exists. They're our next-door neighbors, aren't they?
And so we, the ones who are actually out here living in a dazzlingly variegated world of individuals, unique circumstances, and affecting human dramas have no conception whatever of the tiny, narrow world in which our 'superiors' exist.
For example, the racial comfort of the Lake Forest-Rumsen-Chestnut Hill set prospers, as do all their ideals, through non-contact with any unsettling reality. There are no temptations to be racist on Nantucket Island or Malibu. They live inside the Turnpike sound barriers and hear nothing that could disturb their certainties.
The same goes for even the suburban, middle-class denizens of this other, 'unexceptional' America. The competitive strife and urgency of the real-world market is merely quaint when it is visited by people who can never be fired for incompetence and who are looking forward to automatic promotions based on showing up somewhat regularly.
And so they miss it all. All the good, wondrous, beautiful, moving stuff. That a tractor in the field isn't a calendar picture-in-waiting but a multi-generational, multi-dimensional manifestation of the meaning of life. That there are soldiers who actually serve their nation in the full knowledge that they might perish in that service and still regard the transaction as worthwhile. That tradesmen of all sorts -- from candle shops to car repair garages to plumbers and purveyors of affordable furniture -- are betting their homes and families on their ability to outstrip the competition. These benighted ones -- from debutantes to shop instructors -- don't have to get it.
They see government the way they do because they are the indistinguishable statistical units they don't understand our resentment about being seen as.
If everyone you know went to Groton and Princeton, who are the "people" the constitution maunders on about? Nothings and nobodies. Literally. You're already a commodity. Why shouldn't everybody else be, too?
Which maybe explains why teachers in New Jersey simply can't begin to understand why they should give up anything when the state that's paying their salaries in perpetuity is utterly bankrupt. What's the problem? Where's my ice cream cone? I've been waiting for more than two minutes now...
My Marine friend warned me against making the 'Two Americas' argument. I accept his admonition. But I think the America I grew up in needs to understand exactly who and what they're dealing with.
And I didn't show you a single map. But have you figured out my title?
I'm a Country Mouse. I live at present more than ten miles below the bottom of the Turnpike. (Talk about low on the totem pole... Or should that be low on the Turnpike toll?) AND I'm a...