Sunday, March 6, 2016

Red and Blue America

Scott Alexander ponders America's social and political divisions:
There are certain theories of dark matter where it barely interacts with the regular world at all, such that we could have a dark matter planet exactly co-incident with Earth and never know. Maybe dark matter people are walking all around us and through us, maybe my house is in the Times Square of a great dark matter city, maybe a few meters away from me a dark matter blogger is writing on his dark matter computer about how weird it would be if there was a light matter person he couldn’t see right next to him.

This is sort of how I feel about conservatives.

I don’t mean the sort of light-matter conservatives who go around complaining about Big Government and occasionally voting for Romney. I see those guys all the time. What I mean is – well, take creationists. According to Gallup polls, about 46% of Americans are creationists. Not just in the sense of believing God helped guide evolution. I mean they think evolution is a vile atheist lie and God created humans exactly as they exist right now. That’s half the country.

And I don’t have a single one of those people in my social circle. It’s not because I’m deliberately avoiding them; I’m pretty live-and-let-live politically, I wouldn’t ostracize someone just for some weird beliefs. And yet, even though I probably know about a hundred fifty people, I am pretty confident that not one of them is creationist. Odds of this happening by chance? 1/2^150 = 1/10^45 = approximately the chance of picking a particular atom if you are randomly selecting among all the atoms on Earth.
Alexander goes on to say other interesting things. For example, he mocks all those white journalists who write articles with titles like "What White People Don't Understand about Ferguson." These authors don't really mean "white people," otherwise they would have to admit that they don't know what they are talking about. They mean conservatives. This shorthand of "white" for "white, conservative, probably southern" irks me for a couple of reasons. For one, I've never seen being white as something I should be ashamed of; after all, it happened to me before I was born, without my knowledge or consent. For another, it subtly reinforces racial stereotyping, which is one of the things we ought to be struggling against. And, it violates one of the most important dictates of clear speech, which is say what you mean. When you say one thing but count on your audience to catch your nods and winks, you reinforce the sort of social divisions that are the problem here.

But although I think Alexander is right about a number of things, he is not entirely right. The worlds of Liberals and Conservatives are not really as sealed as he implies, nor is it true that most people get their news entirely from one sort of source. To take the example closest at hand, I read conservative bloggers every day, and many of the comments on those blogs obviously come from liberals and libertarians. Most importantly, The worlds of red and blue America are not nearly so monolithic nor so distinct as Alexander's scheme would require. For example, red America is full of people strongly devoted to Social Security and Medicare, and blue America contains many people strongly devoted to their guns.

Our political divide is real and important, but not absolute or unbreachable. It is very important to remember this, when our worrying about those divisions drives us toward despair.


Shadow said...

Pauline Kael, the famous film critic, is inaccurately reported as having said she knew no one who had voted for Richard Nixon. This is what she actually said:

“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

The person who corrected the record thought he was defending her. I think he damned her. That last statement gets to the heart of the matter, I think. She can feel them? Really? Are they that odious? What could be more descriptive of a Blue or a Red?

I didn't take Alexander that literally. I'm as sure Blues and Reds interact with one another as I am sure that not all out-groups are more like us than not or that not all in-groups are a convenience to be used. Even so, I think he has a point. For most people like-interests, class, culture, and geography determine associations. For most people political views come in a distant 5th at best and are not discussed often. So Blues and Reds do interact though they may not know it.

But not so those consumed by politics -- politicians, candidates, party strategists, pundits -- who do seem to chose sides based on politics. But it is those very relatively few consumed by politics who take up all the bandwidth and do the most to create anger, even hatred, and point a finger. Although I don't recall him using the word, much of what Alexander describes is scapegoating. All that out-group, in-group stuff is expanded on by Renee Girard, and that out-group that lives among us serves as the scapegoat.

Anonymous said...

G., I think you're right about Alexander. He's not saying that there is literally no contact or overlap. He cites his own Red-like satisfaction at Bin Ladin's death. But his point is that many Blues seemed unable to fathom why he might take such satisfaction, and thought he was inhuman for feeling that way about another human's death--and then they later rejoiced at Thatcher's passing.

Another point is a reiteration of the observation--probably oft-made without much effect--that Blues are not so much tolerant in principle as tolerant of things they don't think are bad to begin with. He's saying the Red-Blue divide isn't about, say, tolerance of difference or attitudes toward change, but tribal loyalties. There are some Blues who would have to think about it before they condemned MOVE, for example, just as there are some Reds who would have to gather themselves before denouncing the KKK, and both might give a "While I don't condone their methods" response. This *may* not describe most Blues or most Reds, but, well, is anyone truly surprised when it happens?

Anonymous said...

Whoops, sorry, Shadow Flutter. I should read a comment more carefully before I reply to it.

Anonymous said...

I mean, I should read who the comment is from. :-)

Shadow said...

"Tribal loyalties." YES! That's it, the other point. The point that while a blue or a red is quick to point a finger at the other group, they are reluctant and dismissive of pointing a finger at their own, even when a pointed finger is well deserved. Thanks, David.