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HE COULDN’T IMAGINE MCCORMACK! Jon Fasman tried to imagine what Tea Party people are like: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, AUGUST 29, 2011

A professor and a support group/Higher re-education: Paul Krugman is basically right today, though we’d say his perspective is somewhat limited.

Increasingly, the Republican Party is “anti-science, indeed anti-knowledge,” he writes. We wouldn’t put it precisely that way ourselves, but his points are all well-taken, especially at the leadership/policy/pandering level.

(Just for the record: In a December 2010 Gallup survey, 34 percent of Democrats agreed with this statement: “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” This compared with 52 percent of Republicans. Failure to believe in evolution is one of the two “anti-science” views Krugman discusses today. It’s worth remembering that many Democratic voters believe in creation.)

Republican leadership is now anti-science. But then, the liberal world increasingly strikes us as being a bit “anti-knowledge” itself. Before the week is done, we’ll speak again about the work done by Professors Putnam and Campbell in their recent New York Times op-ed column. And did you read the hopeless work at Salon last week, in which Tracy Clark-Flory and Steve Kornacki imposed absurd dogmatic belief on the things of the world?

(As many commenters noted, Kornacki’s attempt to expose Mitt Romney as a sexist was just pathetically silly. In this piece, Clark-Flory reversed herself on the DSK case, explaining why she took her initial, prosecute-him-anyway stand. Good lord: Clark-Flory said she took her original position because she “felt guilty” about saying what she actually thought!)

It’s hard for a blinkered, dogmatic liberal world to gain traction with the wider electorate. For the latest example of “liberal” dogmatics, we have the puzzling column which sits next to Krugman’s piece today.

The column was written by Patricia Turner, a professor of African American studies and the vice provost for undergraduate studies at Cal Davis. Turner’s column extends the puzzling critique of the movie, The Help, which has emanated from parts of the white liberal world and from parts of the black professoriate. By the time we reached Turner’s third paragraph, we were already semi-kerflubbled. But her fourth paragraph is astounding:

TURNER (8/29/11): Not all blacks are unmoved by “The Help.” Indeed, among my friends, relatives and colleagues a wide range of views have been shared, including comments that some of us might want to establish a support group for strong black women who liked “The Help.”

Perhaps the professor is speaking tongue in cheek. In context, that isn’t real obvious.

Turner goes on to present a bewildering account of this film. As we have read “liberal” attacks on the film, we have often wondered if the writer actually saw it. So it was by the time we reached the highlighted juncture:

TURNER: It is unfair to the filmmakers and cast to expect a work of fiction to adhere to the standards of authenticity we would want for a documentary. But we also recognize that precious few works of art tackle the Civil Rights era, and what people coming of age in the 21st century learn about this era often stems from fictive rather than nonfictive sources.

Forty-eight years after Martin Luther King Jr. was accompanied by tens of thousands of black domestic workers to the National Mall in Washington to demand economic justice, it is not all that difficult to render black fictional characters with appealing attributes and praiseworthy talents. What is more difficult to accomplish is a verisimilar rendering of the white characters.

This movie deploys the standard formula. With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable, and not just because of their racism. Like the housewives portrayed in reality television shows, the housewives of Jackson treat each other, their parents and their husbands with total callousness. In short, they are bad people, therefore they are racists.

There’s a problem, though, with that message. To suggest that bad people were racist implies that good people were not.

We’ll let you puzzle out the professor’s logic. (Can “good people” be “racist?” She doesn’t seem to see the problem lodged in this recurrent construct.) But how about that highlighted sentence? “With one possible exception, the white women are remarkably unlikable?” Presumably, the possible exception to which Turner refers is the Emma Stone character—a character which is meant to be massively likable, of course. (Elsewhere, that’s one of the basic complaints.) But is that character’s mother “remarkably unlikable?” Is the Sissy Spacek character “remarkably unlikable?” As the column rumbles along, it gets harder and harder to believe that Turner has seen the film:

TURNER: Jim Crow segregation survived long into the 20th century because it was kept alive by white Southerners with value systems and personalities we would applaud. It’s the fallacy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a movie that never fails to move me but that advances a troubling falsehood: the notion that well-educated Christian whites were somehow victimized by white trash and forced to live within a social system that exploited and denigrated its black citizens, and that the privileged white upper class was somehow held hostage to these struggling individuals.

But that wasn’t the case. The White Citizens Councils, the thinking man’s Ku Klux Klan, were made up of white middle-class people, people whose company you would enjoy. An analogue can be seen in the way popular culture treats Germans up to and during World War II. Good people were never anti-Semites; only detestable people participated in Hitler’s cause.

Cultures function and persist by consensus. In Jackson and other bastions of the Jim Crow South, the pervasive notion, among poor whites and rich, that blacks were unworthy of full citizenship was as unquestioned as the sanctity of church on Sunday. “The Help” tells a compelling and gripping story, but it fails to tell that one.

What the heck is Turner talking about? It’s true—in To Kill a Mockingbird, we pretty much never see upstanding, upper-middle-class people expressing racist sentiments. But The Help is crawling with such portrayals; it specifically shows you upper-class white Jackson behaving in various unlovely ways. As with other critiques of this film, it’s rather hard to figure what Turner is talking about.

Alas! Our professors and our “liberal journalists” are often full of dogmatic notions—ideas they are prepared to impose on all manner of outside reality. For an example of what we mean, consider what happened when another professor, Ida Jones, appeared on NPR’s Talk of the Nation to help us pitiful rubes understand what’s so wrong with The Help.

To read the transcript, just click here. (You can also listen to the program.) As with Turner, Professor Jones was expounding about all that is wrong with the troubling film—until black viewers started to call.

The first caller disagreed with Jones’ basic outlook. This was the second call:

ROBERTS (8/18/11): Let's hear from Lisa in Oakland. Lisa, welcome to Talk of the Nation.

LISA: Hi there. I'm a black woman who spent my summers down in the Jim Crow South, went back in the '60s. So I didn't live there, but I experienced enough of the segregated beaches and everything else to leave a real nasty taste in my mouth. My grandmother was a live-in seamstress. She wasn't a maid. She did all the sewing for a white family. And some of her stories were mirrored in the movie. I loved this movie. I walked to the theater, and when I walked home, I was grinning from ear to ear. It was so uplifting to finally hear these stories. It doesn't matter from whose voice they came.

The fact that the stories were told, that we got to see that these women, despite everything, they kept their dignity, they kept their families intact, they did what they had to do, was inspiring to me.

And what was most interesting, though, as I was leaving the theater, all the white women were crying, and all the black women were smiling, uplifted. I have never seen a movie that cut like that. The experiences were so markedly different as those reactions as I saw to The Help. It blew me away.

Apparently, Lisa had failed to get the memo from the nation’s professors. But then, so had the next caller, who discussed the book on which the movie is based:

ROBERTS: This is Toni in Cincinnati on the line. Toni, welcome to Talk of the Nation.

TONI: Hi. I just wanted to say that I am a 41-year-old African-American woman. And I read the book and I loved it. I think the book was a great book. And my grandmother was a maid for many years down South. And the stories she told me mirror the stories that were similar to some of the stories in the book. I think the big discrepancy is, I think that—and I can say this as a black person. I think that sometimes we, as people, we feel that white people telling our story just can't simply relate. And I know. I used to be one of those black people. But I feel, through education, I feel differently.

I feel that there are so many white people out there that educate themselves, that they study and they study black history and they can relate to us. So I don't feel that this white woman writing this book, I really feel that she was dead-on. The book was a great. I haven't seen the movie. I will love to see the movie, but I have to give credit to the author. The stories were dead-on. And I just really enjoyed the book.

Toni is floundering too! Presumably, Turner’s support group will help these women with their re-education.

We’ll restate our personal experience. We saw the film in a jam-packed theater full of black Baltimoreans. The audience loved the movie. Professor Turner will have to raise a lot of dough if she hopes to brainwash this many people into accepting her claims.

Campbell, Putnam, Fiore, Kornacki, Turner, Jones? As the liberal world re-emerges from decades of sleep, it is often crawling with dogma, dogma it likes to impose on the world. As liberals express these dogmatic views, they make it harder for progressive values to gain purchase among the wider electorate. And they help us understand a sad fact—dogmatic cluelessness is found all over, not just in the other tribe.

“Not all blacks are unmoved by The Help!” So the professor instructs us today, showing the power of understatement. Meanwhile, planning for that support group is underway—helping us see the way the professors, and the Times itself, teach average people to scorn us.

Special report: Imagine all the people!

PART 1—HE COULDN’T IMAGINE MCCORMACK (permalink): We humans tend to get in trouble when we imagine all the people—more precisely, when we try to imagine what “those people” in the other tribe must be like.

Consider what happened when Jon Fasman tried to imagine what those tea party people are like.

Fasman engaged in his large-scale musing for the Economist. As he started, he acknowledged that conservatives don’t have to be slobbering racists. He even noted one of Ed Schultz’s latest racism-pimping blunders, an absurd group attack for which Big Ed apologized the next night. Still and all, Fasman just couldn’t help wondering: What the heck are those people like?

What do those people think and feel? Pondering forty million people, Fasman imagined them thusly:

FASMAN (8/23/11): Nostalgia for mid-century America and racism are not synonymous. But what exactly do these voters want? Do older white conservatives miss the high taxes and powerful unions of mid-century America? Dismissing Soviet power is easy today; then it was not. The threat of global nuclear war was real. Would they prefer a nuclear-armed foe that controls much of Europe? Like Matthew Yglesias, I also find it hard not to think that when older white conservatives lament the loss of "the America they grew up in", they are lamenting the loss of their own social privilege. It's true that America today is in some ways profoundly different from the one into which John Boehner was born in 1949. And I am willing to concede that life may well have been better for Mr Boehner, and for many other white, Christian heterosexual Americans back then (although I wonder what chance a 60-year-old Catholic son of a bartender from Reading, Ohio would have had at becoming Speaker of the House in 1949). Quotas kept immigration from Asia, Latin America and Africa low, and of course blacks, Jews, Catholics, women and gays knew their place. Is that what older white conservatives miss? And if not, what, exactly, do they want their politicians to "champion"?

Frankly, Fasman was puzzled. He wondered about what “these voters” want—but instead of attempting to ask some voters, he simply began to imagine. He found one possibility “hard not to think;” soon he was imagining the worst about those people. (Do they want to keep blacks, Jews, Catholics, women and gays in their place?) But by the time his rumination was through, he was still deeply puzzled:

“If not, what, exactly, do they want their politicians to ‘champion?’ ”

Fasman had tried to imagine all the people. It seemed that he had struck out.

Alas! When we start imagining things, we tend to get in trouble. Just consider one of the things Fasman couldn’t seem to imagine. Magnanimously, Fasman was willing to concede that life may well have been better for John Boehner, and for many other white, Christian heterosexual Americans, back in 1949. (Boehner was a newborn then, but you get the idea.) At the same time, he “wondered what chance a 60-year-old Catholic son of a bartender from Reading, Ohio would have had at becoming Speaker of the House” in that benighted year.

Fasman knew that the American people were slobbering racists back then. He also seemed to imagine that they would never have tolerated a Catholic son of the working class in a position of high respect. Fasman was imagining grandly know, stroking his inner thigh as he did.

Here at THE HOWLER, we looked up the bio of Boston’s own, Speaker John McCormack. It’s true—McCormack didn’t become speaker of the House until 1962. But he was House majority leader as early as 1940, and this is the way Wikipedia describes his religion and class background:

WIKIPEDIA: McCormack was born to Joseph H. McCormack, a hod carrier, and Ellen (née O'Brien) McCormack. His parents were both the children of Irish immigrants who had arrived during the Irish potato famine in 1848. There were 12 children, of whom three survived to adulthood. McCormack was 13 when his father died; he quit school after the eighth grade to help support his widowed mother and family as a $3-a-week errand boy for a brokerage firm. His career began when he shifted to a law firm for a 50-cent raise and studied law on the side. Attending law school at night, he passed the Massachusetts bar exam in 1913 at age 21 without having completed high school.

[…]

In 1920, McCormack married Harriet Joyce, a former singer; the couple had no children. While Congress was in session, they lived at the Washington Hotel. Their devotion to each other was legendary; it was said that they never spent a night apart until she died. If the Speaker was kept late on business, his wife always went up to have dinner with him. She died in December 1971, aged 87. For more than a year, he had spent every night in an adjoining hospital room. He then went home to Boston the following month, after his retirement.

McCormack had few hobbies except politics. In earlier days, he was known as a good high stakes poker player. He had never flown in an airplane until 1961, when he attended Rayburn's funeral. He drove the 450 miles from Washington to Boston or went up on the night sleeper train.

The Speaker and his wife were devout Roman Catholics. Both were honored by the Vatican. He was the first Catholic to be elected Speaker, and some critics complained that this religion sometimes showed in his leadership qualities. An example cited was the 1961 school aid debacle when McCormack insisted that church schools should share in a federal aid program. The bill died on this issue. But in 1963 McCormack helped push through the largest education program in history, much of which went to public institutions only.

For the record, those “12 children, of whom three survived to adulthood,” were in fact McCormack and his siblings. According to newspaper reports at the time he died, McCormack was one of twelve kids, three of whom survived.

Is there some distinction we’re missing here? As Fasman imagined the world of the past, it seems he couldn’t imagine McCormack. But then, when we let ourselves start to imagine, we often find ourselves painting pictures which don’t correspond to real life.

Kevin Drum took a bit of offense to Fasman’s post (just click here). We agree with the basic thrust of Drum’s reaction, though we thought he took a few liberties too, doing a bit of imagining. But so it goes when we, The Good and True Tribe, decide to imagine all the people, forty million at a time.

What are “those people” actually like? Bigots have always been able to imagine the answer, down through the annals of time.

Tomorrow: Kevin’s reaction