Heading South


Photo Credit: Business Insider

The sudden fall of Paula Deen is, if anything, breath-taking.  And to fall because of a an ancient racial slur — surely injustice is at work?  Bill Vis comments

Paula Deen is older than me and was born and raised in the south.  The furor by younger people shows a profound lack of understanding of the world she and I grew up in.  Was it right?  Something I am proud of?  Of course not!  But to condemn someone in her mid-sixties for being a product of the society in which she was a child is grossly unfair.

Was it unfair what happened to Paula Deen? In a sense, absolutely, the same way it was unfair what happened to Detroit autoworkers. She got caught in an ebbing tide.

Her problem is not that she was brought up a certain way, but that she could not adapt to the present rapidly changing make-up of US society.  David Brooks’ column , A Nation of Mutts captures much of the new dynamic, about the shift from Euro-America to a New America. In this landscape, the older folkways are now peculiar, particular to the individual. And perhaps especially those of the South,with its own complicated history on race. To participate in cultural leadership or take a culturally visible role such as Deen had done requires that one be able to present oneself as culturally open. Her inarticulateness — her real sin —  then doomed her.

But it may not have been just a few ill-chosen words.

Adding to the conflagration may be our own politics. The national political scene is dominated not only by an open hostility to a representative of this new America, President Obama, but also by a retrenchment of conservative ideals.  There’s a dynamic there between the political and cultural concerns of the conservative base so firmly anchored in the white Baby Boom generation and the New American mixed identity of the President. In this mix, Deen’s comments however old, even her southern identity give her the appearance of some one on that conservative side. There’s already enough heat in the politics, her misstep provided the oxygen that consumed her.

A Cast of Thousands

Bill Vis posted a link to an ad, wondering if it is”the best ad in 30 years?” As Bill would say, you decide. The ad is  part of the conservative push back against President Obama’s words the other day, that no one builds a business by themselves. A truism, one would think. It certainly brought to mind this quote from Adam Smith:

Were we to examine, in the same manner, all the different parts of his dress and household furniture, the coarse linen shirt which he wears next his skin, the shoes which cover his feet, the bed which he lies on, and all the different parts which compose it, the kitchen-grate at which he prepares his victuals, the coals which he makes use of for that purpose, dug from the bowels of the earth, and brought to him perhaps by a long sea and a long land carriage, all the other utensils of his kitchen, all the furniture of his table, the knives and forks, the earthen or pewter plates upon which he serves up and divides his victuals, the different hands employed in preparing his bread and his beer, the glass window which lets in the heat and the light, and keeps out the wind and the rain, with all the knowledge and art requisite for preparing that beautiful and happy invention, without which these northern parts of the world could scarce have afforded a very comfortable habitation, together with the tools of all the different workmen employed in producing those different conveniencies; if we examine, I say, all these things, and consider what a variety of labour is employed about each of them, we shall be sensible that without the assistance and co-operation of many thousands, the very meanest person in a civilized country could not be provided, even according to what we very falsely imagine, the easy and simple manner in which he is commonly accommodated.

Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 1, “Division of Labour”

Gender Selection and Abortion

Bill Vis passes along a report on video sting of abortion clinics: would thy support a gender specific abortion? The video of course, serves up its point, but with reservations.

Specifically, I can think of three:

1) Statistics do not support that any such discrimination is taking place in the United States. M/F sex ratios have slightly declined in the past 30 years from 1052/1000 to 1048/1000.

2) Sex determination takes place relatively late in a pregnancy. In terms of abortions, more than 95% of all abortions take place before that point, that is, women are aborting for other reasons, not sex selection.

3) What they do abort are special needs children. There is an important report from the liberal American Prospect on this. It notes (naturally) that some politicians who claim to be pro-life on abortion issues are quite willing to cut funding for services for special needs children. The fly in the ointment? States that have relatively low funding for services also report higher abortion rates for Down syndrome kids. You can guess how the pro-lifer in me gets rankled, so let me pull up a pro-life Republican instead:

“I’m sorry to say that a lot of my fellow pro-life people are tax-cuts-at-any-cost people,” says Bill Otto, who represents Kansas’ Ninth House District, in the rural east-central part of the state. “There are lots of people who believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth. It’s really beginning to rub here. If you’re pro-life, you need to be whole life.”

Schools, poverty and achievement

Five districts in Kent County drop ball on preparing students for college — at least, according to statistics. But is that the story?  Bill Vis asks,

any observations on this list?
Other than the obvious differences between suburban and core city districts?

I think this shows a pretty straight forward correlation between achievement and socio-economic status. Indirectly, you may also be seeing something of the impact of charter schools on the general school enrollments. That is, scores might be marginally higher in a number of districts were there no charters.

Raw numbers like this can also be so depressing. Often on MLive one can read a lot of “blame the victim” comments about poor lifestyle choices etc., all assumed to be behind the poverty. That, or blame the teachers.What these numbers do hide is the work of actual people in the system. There are classrooms even buildings where inspiring stories are getting made.

One of the biggest roles for the church is simply that of promoting a fundamental optimism about these schools. The parents, the teachers, the students are all in need of a basic frame, that this work matters. These are often schools that could also use a fair amount of direct love and engagement from the local church. This is another side of what it means when we say we are pro-life, that we are pro-hope, pro-possibility. Start knowing the kids, and you can’t give up.

On 5/1/12 8:20 PM, Bill Vis wrote:

So far today we’ve heard it implied by two Voicers that whites that vote against Obama may very well be closet racists.


My point was that for  some — those I would consider as radicals out on the fringe — do bring a racial animosity into their rejection of the president. Moreover, that race issue has a historic link in certain types of populism. This issue is simply uncontestable.

This racial tinge is not universal, but arises for a narrow set of anti-Obama types (I would not even presume that they vote).

Even then, I do not consider race to be the dominant theme among this radical wing. Rather, the politics seem to be driven by other emotional understandings. The best explanation that I’ve read has suggested that this underlying emotional energy comes from a perceived threat to a way of life, perhaps even a loss of a certain way of life, a loss of a way of understanding ones place in the culture.  Actually, that’s fairly understandable. Folks my/our age, who grew up in the 60s, grew up in a nation that was overwhelmingly white, one where ideals seemed to be fixed. The changes of the last 40+ years have been disorienting, not only with ideals/beliefs, but what happens on our streets, and what our economy looks like.

This is a real loss, and so it would not surprise me if that loss also had a certain rear guard, or reactionary politics associated with it.

Related to this is perhaps a loss of common connection. Once perhaps, we thought of the ideals as applying to everyone, covertly assuming that our viewpoint (white, middle class) was the normative one. Others participated as a sort of mercy, or noblesse oblige. This loss of cultural pride of place can fuel resentment. An interesting blog post on this turn from empathy to disdain is from Ed Kilgore.

On Negative Advertising

Bill Vis calls attention to Peggy Noonan’s essay, this ending line especially stood out:

I wish someone would make this ad and show it across the country and say at the end: “Cheer up, have faith, greatness is possible, sometimes it’s there but you only see it in retrospect. Not everyone’s a bum.”

“It’s halftime, America.”

Here is the ad community’s thinking.

“Negative” ads are part of the drawing of bright lines between the two sides. They can be done with fun or not (most of us prefer the fun ones).

What Noonan does not get to directly, or only touches on, is the structure that generates such ads. When you have your Super PACs out there, funded by a rather small set of extremely wealthy individuals (a fraction of the fabled 1 % ), you end up with pretty much this sort of stuff. Why? Because a PAC cannot go out and advocate FOR a candidate, thus its easiest media path is to go after the other guy.

This is the genie Citizens United let out of the bottle.

As to the antidote? Well those with skin in the game want to keep their voice, so I am doubtful of any legislative action. But for the christian community that does mean that we can be part of building civic and civil discourses. This turn will be seen by activists as one to the apolitical, a pulling back from cultural engagement. It probably is. A second difficulty will be nurturing communities that provide local civic leadership. Once this was relatively easy, when Calvin essentially served a regional audience. her poli-sci grads then went off and worked in their communities. The national shift at Calvin has meant that those same poli-sci grads aspire to more national status and so zombie-like, get infected.

In short, if we want a better community, then we will need to be about the task of creating a better culture.