Saturday, February 07, 2015

There's a Little Bit of Truth...

The best lies sail as close to the truth as they can; the best demagoguery creates canyons out of cracks. And politicians, of course, use any tools they can to rally their supporters, making them feel good about themselves while demeaning the opposition.

When Mike Huckabee, in his new book God, Guns, Grits, and  Gravy, sails close to a truth, his means of turning a crack into a canyon is a cultural divide that I also have written about--in my 2012 book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth.

Yes, he is right: there are two Americas, one descended from the Enlightenment culture the older colonial settlers participated in, particularly in the Northeast, and the other descended from the Scots-Irish who came to the colonies a little later, often fleeing Ulster Plantation in northern Ireland, many arriving as indentured servants. They weren't welcomed by the descendants of the Puritans or by the Quakers; many of them quickly headed to the wilds of western Pennsylvania and Virginia or headed down the Great Wagon Road into the Carolinas.

It was in the Carolinas that the divide sparked organized violence, in a pre-Revolution conflict called "The War of the Regulation" that pitted the Scots-Irish and those who had joined them against the coastal "elite" of the southern colonies. They were also the disgruntled people of the Whiskey Rebellion shortly after the new nation  had been established. The Scots-Irish, along with the ragtag groups of Germans, Irish and even English who couldn't abide the coastal colonies and who had joined them, were the first Europeans to head west in substantial migration. Except for California and the northern tier of Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, they were the first European settlers of most of the nation after the Revolution.

The red-state/blue-state divisions of America go back a long, long time. The Scots-Irish even took over some of the older colonials' areas, the defeated South, where the so-called Cavalier culture had been destroyed, became a mainstay of this particular American culture.

The divide, though, isn't nearly as wide as Huckabee makes it out to be. Electoral majorities are not consensus; in few places, do the winners in our political contests gain more than 60% of the vote and, even then, the percentage of people who actually vote is rather small. There are plenty of liberal Democrats in Mississippi and New York City, where I live, is home to many conservative Republicans.

There are also many who, like me, are descended from Scots-Irish ancestors, whose families settled in the Appalachian Mountains, who grew up with grits and gravy but whose inclinations are not toward god or guns.

Huckabee writes:
The three major “nerve centers” of our culture are New York City, Washington,  D.C.,  and Los Angeles.... They are the three “bubbles” of influence in our modern culture and they are indeed “bub- bles.” I call these cities “Bubble-ville.” I intentionally live in what I call “Bubba-ville.” It’s where “Bubbas” live, and where a lot of people are called by two names: Mary Elizabeth, Katherine Grace, Jim Bob, and Darryl Wayne. 
I travel to New York City every week to host my TV show on the Fox News Channel.  Because the  show originates from there,  most people think that I surely must live there. I’m quick to say, “I don’t live there and won’t unless they will let me duck hunt in Central Park.” I’m quite certain that isn’t going to happen since it’s all but impossible to own a gun in New York City, much less legally use it. Unless you’re a cop or a crook, you probably don’t possess a firearm in New York City. In fact, you’ve probably never seen one in person.
But it’s more than guns. Have you ever tried to order grits in a fancy Manhattan restaurant? Good luck. Not even for breakfast! And you’ll get some real weird looks if you ask for “sawmill gravy” on your potatoes or biscuits—that is if you can find real biscuits. And I’m sorry, but gravy on a bagel just doesn’t work for me. If I want to chew that hard, I’ll take up chewing tobacco, which I won’t. I’m not even that rural! I can somewhat understand that New York restaurants might not typically have red-eye gravy or chocolate gravy as those might be a bit regional, but how can an eating place that fancies itself fancy have the audacity to open its doors and not have biscuits and gravy or grits on the breakfast menu?
Huckabee sees only the New York of the very rich, and he's simply flattering himself that he's not part of them, using superficial badges of what he imagines (incorrectly) is the core of the Scots-Irish based culture that he demeans (unintentionally) as the "Bubbas."

One of the key words in this passage is "fancy." You won't find grits in a "fancy" restaurant almost anywhere in the United States... but that doesn't mean you can't get them elsewhere--even in New York City. Toomey's Diner on the edge of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where the Dodgers ate breakfast in the days of Ebbet's Field, serves grits (or did... I moved out of the neighborhood five years ago so haven't recently checked) as do the diners around my current Marine Park neighborhood.

Though guns may be illegal in New York City, Huckabee would probably be shocked by the number that can be found here in Marine Park, once the home mainly of Irish and Italians, now with a large influx of Orthodox Jews, Asians and people of all sorts. But Huckabee is not likely to come here; his New York is only Manhattan, and a small part of even that.

Huckabee is creating caricatures of the two major American cultures, doing so for his own political purposes. There are real differences between the cultures: The Scots-Irish were never affected by the Enlightenment of the 18th century in the way New England was, and that created a quite distinct vision of the world. What Huckabee does point out are simply things that anyone can don or shed--as politicians often do when wanting to appear, one day, to be part of "the people" and, then next, of the "elite."

Huckabee is adding nothing to what should be national discussions of significant issues. All he is doing is exploiting cultural distinctions to create a political force that, though it will never move him into the White House, will certainly make him tons of money.

Good for him; bad for the rest of us.

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