Dispatches from the Culture Wars

No one knows what to make of Maine – they have lobsters there, and not very many people, and deep pine woods out to forever, with black-flies that will eat you alive in the short Maine summers. It snows the rest of the time, but Maine has a fine rocky coast and the Bush family has had a summer compound there for generations, at Kennebunkport. That’s all that most people have seen of the state – a pretty coast in the background of occasional press conferences long ago – and it’s not like Maine was one of the original Thirteen Colonies or anything. Maine was part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts until 1820, when it voted to secede from Massachusetts and was then admitted to the Union as the twenty-third state, as part of the Missouri Compromise. Maine, up there against Canada, was an afterthought, and it’s not like the rest of America. It’s the whitest state we have – a steady ninety-five percent white in census after census. It’s not the place to go for soul food or burritos – stick with the lobster – but there are not many people of any kind there anyway, just over a million folks in the whole state. The largest city, Portland, has a population of sixty-six thousand, a minor suburb anywhere else, and Augusta, the capital, has a population of about twenty thousand – a small neighborhood out here in Los Angeles. This makes Maine insular and homogenous, a cultural anomaly. Maine was never forced to jump in the melting pot that is the rest of America. They’ve watched the rest of the country tear itself apart over civil rights and immigration from the sidelines. The culture wars passed them by.

That may explain why they have a Tea Party governor, the curious Paul LePage – the name is French-Canadian, the only minority they’ve got there, if it is one. LePage, a Republican who is more Republican than the wimps in Washington, has been somewhat of an embarrassment – he still thinks Obama hates white people, even if Glenn Beck took that back long ago, and he hates Martin Luther King Day and refuses to meet with the few NAACP folks up there, ever, and he also hates unions. He tried to have a historic WPA mural, honoring Maine workers, removed from the capital and destroyed, because it was pro-union and thus inappropriately political. It wasn’t. The local art preservationists took him to court and he lost that one – it was a mural celebrating good hard-working people, no more than that. It stayed, and his plan to use state money to pay for religious schools, where kids would learn about Jesus, instead of using that money for public schools, where they wouldn’t, was shot down too. He was not happy, and lately he’s been meeting with the Maine People’s Alliance – part of the sovereign citizen movement – no one should have to follow any law that they think infringes on their freedom, because every man is actually a sovereign nation unto himself and so on. He has apparently suggested hanging the Maine Senate President and the Maine House Speaker, for treason. They want to pass laws about healthcare and social services and schools and public safety that infringe on people’s freedom. He doesn’t like such people and may have said this – “Praise the Lord, let’s hang a few. We’ll be done with this crap.” He maintains he never said that. The guy interviewing him did.

All of this might seem a bit absurd, or even comic, but LePage is the modern cultural-conservative movement, without any filters, and he is, appropriately, governor of the whitest state in the union. To be fair to the pleasant people of Maine, however, it should be noted that LePage won the 2010 Republican primary with thirty-eight percent of the vote, in a seven-way free-for-all, and then he was elected governor with thirty-eight percent of the vote again, running against a Democrat and three independents. Paul LePage is not Maine. He’s simply a cultural warrior of a certain type, who got lucky, which is more than you can say for the people of Maine. At least the guy keeps losing his battles in the culture wars.

Now he’s lost another, a battle against the old enemy of the modern cultural-conservative movement, science and objective facts. That nurse took him down:

In a victory for a nurse who treated Ebola patients in West Africa, a judge in Maine on Friday rejected arguments by the state that her movements should be firmly restricted, praising her “compassion” even as he acknowledged the public’s fears about the virus.

The order by Judge Charles C. LaVerdiere, the chief judge for the Maine District Courts, requires the nurse, Kaci Hickox, to submit to daily monitoring for symptoms, to coordinate her travel with public health officials and to notify them immediately if symptoms appear. But the judge rejected tighter restrictions because Ms. Hickox “currently does not show symptoms of Ebola and is therefore not infectious.”

“We need to remember as we go through this matter,” the judge wrote, “that we owe her and all professionals who give of themselves in this way a debt of gratitude.”

The order seemed likely to end the three-day standoff between Ms. Hickox and Maine, and lawyers said it could influence courts in other states where health care workers returning from West Africa face quarantines or travel restrictions.

The governor was not happy:

In a statement, Gov. Paul R. LePage, who had pushed for restricting Ms. Hickox’s movements during the virus’s 21-day incubation period, called the decision “unfortunate,” but said the state “will abide by the law.”

“My duty to protect the health of the individual, as well as the health and safety of 1.3 million Mainers, is my highest priority,” said Mr. LePage, a Republican in a tight re-election race. “Despite our best effort to work collaboratively with this individual, she has refused to cooperate with us.”

The judge didn’t see it that way:

The state, he said, had not proved “by clear and convincing evidence that limiting respondent’s movements to the degree requested” was needed to protect the public.

“We would not be here today unless respondent generously, kindly and with compassion lent her skills to aid, comfort and care for individuals stricken with a terrible disease,” the judge said of Ms. Hickox. But he also cautioned her to avoid spreading alarm in the community.

“The court is fully aware of the misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information being spread from shore to shore in our country with respect to Ebola,” the judge said. “The court is fully aware that people are acting out of fear and that this fear is not entirely rational.”

There are misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information, and then there’s clear and convincing evidence that something is so, or not so, and there is rationality – and then there is Paul LePage. His position had been this:

“Right now, she can come out of the house if she wants, but we can’t protect her when she does that. The reason there’s a police car there when she does that is to protect her more than anybody. ‘Cause the last thing I want is for her to get hurt,” he said. “But at the same token, her behavior is really riling a lot of people up, and I can only do what I can do. And we’re trying to protect her, but she’s not acting as smart as she probably should.”

Wonkette offers the subtext:

Sure would be a shame if a mob of crazed paranoids wielding torches and pitchforks attacked her. If she’s smart, Kaci Hickox will know what’s good for her. But if she insists on acting like she’s not a threat to public health – which she is not, as the Maine Medical Association pointed out Wednesday in a letter to the governor – there’s just no telling what panicked folks might do, ya know? She’s just got everyone so fearful!

Yep, and the smoking gun might come in the form of a mushroom cloud!

Ron Chusid states the obvious:

This is a victory for Hickox personally, along with a victory for both science and civil liberties.

The politicization of Ebola has demonstrated the usual divisions between left and right in this country. As on so many other issues, the right wing has rejected scientific findings, distorted scientific information which conflicted with their political goals, and ignored the rights of the individual. This also provides another example of the emptiness of Republican claims of wanting to keep government out of healthcare decisions. …

While some Republicans have played politics with the issue and, as happens far too often, some Democrats such as Andrew Cuomo initially acquiesced in fear, the guidelines from the CDC and precautions already in effect are sufficient to protect the public and, to err on the side of safety, call for greater restrictions than are necessary based upon the science. There is no need for politicians to go beyond these precautions and unjustly restrict the civil liberties of Americans.

Well, there are political needs – LePage is in that tight reelection race after all, and if some voters are irrationally afraid then he can grab their votes by showing that he understands their fears and will do something about them – but perhaps that’s too cynical. It could be that he himself is deathly afraid of what isn’t a big deal, and assumes everyone must share his fear. What he sees as a big deal must be what everyone else sees. He sees himself as quite normal. There are things everyone knows, and everyone fears. If he’s normal, that’s logical, and he knows he’s normal.

That sort of thinking plays out in other ways. The National Organization for Marriage knows everyone is fed up with gay people demanding the right to marry each other, and they looked at Massachusetts’ sixth district and the House race between Richard Tisei, a gay Republican who is all for gay rights, and Seth Moulton, a straight Democrat who also thinks gay people should have rights – so they decided to spend four grand urging conservatives to vote for Moulton, even if Moulton would rather not have them on his side. But the National Organization for Marriage has its reasons:

The National Organization for Marriage urges you to refuse to vote for Richard Tisei. In fact, we ask you to vote for the Democratic candidate, Seth Moulton, even though Moulton is also wrong on the issues. The reason for this is that Moulton can’t do any damage as a Democrat in a House of Representatives controlled by Republicans, and we can work together to elect a true conservative in two years to replace him. But Richard Tisei serving as a supposed Republican in a House controlled by Republicans can do great damage, and could end up holding the seat for decades.

That’s a little hard to follow, but somehow it’s better to elect a heterosexual Democrat, even if he stands for everything they stand against, than a homosexual Republican, who agrees with them on most everything, except for gay rights. The National Organization for Marriage assumes that everyone will understand that, because everyone sees gays the way they do, as dangerous to our culture and our nation.

Moulton is not playing along:

Asked whether Moulton would welcome or reject votes cast in his favor by NOM supporters, a spokesperson for Moulton responded, “Reject.”

“Seth Moulton fundamentally disagrees with everything NOM stands for and has long said that equality is the civil rights fight of our generation,” said Carrie Rankin, Moulton’s communications director. “Fighting against groups, like NOM, that deny equality as a basic human right will be a priority of Seth’s in Congress.” Rankin noted that Moulton has a gay brother and Moulton has said, “It’s fundamentally wrong that he and I don’t share the same rights just because of who he is.”

All the gay rights groups are staying out of this one. On policy, both guys are on their side. It really doesn’t matter who wins this one. That only matters to those who are deathly afraid of what’s no big deal to everyone else, that is, what everyone else had considered rationally. That judge in Maine should set them straight – you folks are getting all confused by misconceptions, misinformation, bad science and bad information being spread from shore to shore in our country, with respect to gay people this time. In all the cases about this, argued in all the courts, at all levels, no one once has been able to specify, in any way, the harm that gay marriage causes to anyone at all. You are acting out of fear and this fear is not entirely rational. Get over it.

At least Bill O’Reilly is honest about this sort of thing:

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly argued to PBS counterpart Tavis Smiley on Thursday that Republicans are less apathetic regarding Black voters than they are afraid of them.

“I think they’re more intimidated than uncaring,” O’Reilly said.

“Intimidated by what?” Smiley asked skeptically. “Are Black folks scary?”

That’s the key question. O’Reilly is saying it’s not that Republicans have anything against black voters and their concerns and all that. It’s just that they’re intimidated by them, and thus scared of them, which puzzles Smiley, so O’Reilly clarifies:

“No, no. The white Republican power structure is afraid of Black Americans,” O’Reilly responded. “They don’t know how to treat them, how to speak to them, they don’t know anything about the culture, and they don’t want to be called a racist bigot, so they stay away.”

O’Reilly here is begging for sympathy. The white Republican power structure is ignorant of black culture – perhaps that’s a personal admission – but there’s nothing worse than being called names. That really hurts. It’s no wonder they simply don’t try to learn more. They could be called names. That name-calling left them no choice. It’s scary to be called names by scary people you don’t understand. Black folks say things that hurt. That’s scary.

Smiley isn’t buying it, but O’Reilly wasn’t backing down:

“But why does that make you scared, as opposed to being interested in understanding, embracing,” Smiley began to ask before O’Reilly interjected, saying GOP leaders did not feel that kind of effort was “worth the trouble,” since they would likely only draw a few voters.

Here, O’Reilly jumped in to say sure, over on this side we could try to understand things over on your side, but there are not enough of you to matter to us. It’s a cost-benefit thing. You folks aren’t worth it. That’s cold, but he tried to say it nicely. Something else, however, was going on here. How do you rationalize choosing not to do something that’s scary, even if it’s the right thing to do and good for you? You tell yourself it’s not worth it. Sooner or later you might even believe it. When people call you a coward for not doing that scary thing that might make things better for you and everyone, you tell them it just wasn’t worth it, and explain that as rationally as you can, even if you know better. They never believe it. That judge in Maine didn’t believe it when Paul LePage told him following the science and the facts about Ebola and that nurse was just not worth it. It’s the same sort of thing.

The culture wars do separate the rational from the cowards, and O’Reilly and Smiley battled on:

The two later clashed when O’Reilly revisited his argument that “white privilege” is not to blame for African-Americans’ struggles to get ahead. Instead, the Factor host again argued that the “disintegration” of the Black family is the key issue.

“There are more white folk in poverty in this country than there are African-Americans,” Smiley countered. “The new poor in this country are the former middle class.”

Smiley cited Census Bureau statistics saying that one out of every two Americans is either in or close to poverty.

“That ain’t a Black or brown problem,” he said. “That’s an American catastrophe.”

O’Reilly was buying it. Black folks don’t have family values, or families, and so on. It got a bit tiresome. O’Reilly’s epic showdown with Jon Stewart on white privilege was far more interesting. The culture wars rage on, on all fronts. Delicious and useful fear is pitted against common sense and rationality, over and over, and there’s nowhere to hide, not even in Maine, up in the top right corner, where nothing ever happens, until it does.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Dispatches from the Culture Wars

  1. Rick says:

    I didn’t know all that about Maine’s governor! It certainly does put this even more in context — although I’m not sure any more context is needed than that he’s a Republican, acting out of a typical Republican politician’s unhealthy respect for the power of mass fear.

    But the fact that he’s a big Tea Party guy does highlight what seems to be a delicious case of hypocrisy — that when the rubber hits the road, someone who ordinarily would be suspicious of the full weight of big government being used on behalf of the common welfare to overrule the natural rights of an individual, might just say, “Oh, fuck it!”, and do just that.

    “Let me tell you about conservatives”, one can almost imagine F. Scott Fitzgerald saying to Ernest Hemingway in that already imaginary conversation; “They are different from you and me.” (And one can also imagine Hemingway’s alleged, but also imaginary wisecrack response; “Yes, they have more money.”) But it’s all really about something less tangible; it’s about mechanisms of the mind. It’s really true, that conservatives’ brains work differently than those of us normal people.

    One can see this in that conversation between Bill O’Reilly and Tavis Smiley, in which O’Reilly at least gives the impression of coming clean.

    In fairness, though, it should be noted that when O’Reilly says, “The white Republican power structure is afraid of Black Americans”, he’s not talking about himself, he’s talking about the Republican party’s inability to get black people to vote for them. (As I remember, O’Reilly himself claims to be an “independent”, whatever he means by that.) I didn’t hear their whole conversation, so I don’t know if they discussed this, but I suspect that this, once again, might be another case of Republicans (and also O’Reilly) thinking the problem is merely one of a failure of communication — that is, Republicans not being able to explain why Republican attitudes and policies are good for the black community — than the fact that Republican attitudes and policies are actually not really very good for the black community.

    But you can really see it in that showdown over “White Privilege” between O’Reilly and Jon Stewart a few weeks ago:

    Stewart: “I see the issue here. You don’t believe that the residual effect of — I mean, slavery and Jim Crow are dead. But the residual effects of that systemic subjugation exist today.”

    O’Reilly: “Absolutely exists today, but…”

    Stewart: “Let’s go a different way.”

    O’Reilly: “…It exists for every race, not at that extent.”

    Stewart: “Alright… Oh, boy.”

    O’Reilly: “But you don’t put forth, alright, this ‘Oh, White Privilege!’, and if you fail, that’s why you fail! Alright? America is now a place where, if you work hard, get educated, and [are] an honest person, you can succeed. That’s what should be put out there, not all this other stuff!”

    Stewart: “You are carrying, you are carrying — you are carrying more of a burden as a black person in this country, than a white person in this country.”

    O’Reilly: “From collectively, yes. But not individually!”

    (By the way, I’m not saying O’Reilly’s upbringing in Long Island’s lily-white Levittown, a place where even he admits black families were practically non-existent for decades after he lived there, necessarily set him up for the super-stardom that he enjoys today, but it should be noted that, the last I heard, O’Reilly was living in my old hometown of Manhasset, a much fancier area of Long Island, where, once again, there are hardly any African American residents.)

    But what I find interesting in this debate — something I’ve seen in many other conservatives and libertarians who express themselves on this — is that O’Reilly is thinking in the theoretical realm in which, never mind what does happen in the actual real world that Jon Stewart is talking about, what matters is what could happen, at least hypothetically, if any individual African American decides to escape the destiny of what seems to await everyone else who’s family history includes slavery and Jim Crow. If he’s an honest person who decides to work hard and get educated, he can — at least in theory — succeed, and maybe even end up as well off as all those millions of white people who, lacking the cultural disadvantages, didn’t have to work as hard at it! Yes, it may be harder for black people than it is for whites, but it can be done!

    Although he didn’t specifically say this, Stewart could have responded that, while it could happen, more importantly, it hardly ever does, and that’s because of what we call “White Privilege”.

    In fact, in his talk with Smiley, O’Reilly theorizes that the reason that blacks, as a group, don’t succeed as well as whites is the dissolution of the African American family, but one gets the feeling he assumes this failing is almost wholly of their own making. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that those residual effects of slavery, plus hundreds of years of segregation and discrimination in jobs and education, might contribute to families falling apart.

    I do find it odd that, while both O’Reilly and Stewart (and maybe even O’Reilly and Smiley) are able to stipulate the same facts in these discussions, the amount of significance given each of those facts is where the disagreement lies, and that seems to be what determines the lessons each learns.

    In fact, I’m thinking it’s actually possible that there’s less of a difference between the brain processes of men and women when they’re discussing sex than there is between conservatives and liberals discussing anything at all.


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