The deepening divide.

[Update: I have written a short addendum to this post.]
Ladies and gentlemen, we have an enormous and increasing problem in this country. With ourselves.
Last week, I was reading the Globe‘s post-election coverage, and I came across two articles which demonstrate just how divided this country has become. The first concerned Massachusetts’s isolation from the rest of the United States; the second described Cambridge’s reaction to Kerry’s loss.
The first article points out how the current administration has (successfully) turned the word “Massachusetts” into a pejorative for the so-called “liberal elite”:

A stereotype of “Taxachusetts” as home to Brie-eating, Chablis-sipping, Volvo-driving liberal elitists has gained traction nationwide. While Boston-area residents may consider that stereotype inaccurate and unfair, it proved useful to Bush, who used the word “Massachusetts” as a virtual epithet during the campaign, even though he attended prep school (Phillips Academy in Andover) and graduate school (Harvard Business School) here.

While it’s certainly true that Massachusetts is by and large a more liberal state than most, its categorization as radical and extreme is hardly fair. Rather, Massachusetts-as-insult is a convenient anti-Kerry tactic — one which seems to have worked quite well. Yes, we’re obsessed with the Kennedys (though I still can’t figure out why), but Massachusetts is hardly the depraved moral vacuum some conservatives would like the rest of the country to believe. Many Puritan ideals are still deeply rooted in the state’s laws, and the Catholic community, though suffering from the aftereffects of the recent scandals, remains a major influence on local politics and culture. The MBTA closes shortly after midnight. The bars close at 2 am. Until last year, you couldn’t buy liquor on Sundays. And if you want to pick on a “godless” city of “loose morals”, I’d suggest New York over Boston any day. If the success of Cats isn’t evidence of Satan’s presence on earth, I don’t know what is.
Of course, if we’re talking about liberal East Coast cities, New York is the clear target. It’s the center of what is broadly termed “the liberal media” — Boston’s just got WGBH and the award-winning CCTV, and we all know that public television isn’t far-reaching enough to post much of a threat. It’s home to the country’s biggest den of cutthroat capitalism and monetary greed — Boston’s financial district pales in comparison. And gay people — New York makes Boston look like Amish Country! But I guess the State of New York has a larger geographic area from which to draw its (largely ineffectual on the state and national stages) conservative constituency than does Massachusetts, despite the fact that both states have Republican governors (did you know ours is a Mormon?). And, as a college town, Greater Boston probably has that snooty intellectual thing going, and we know how well that goes over.
But, to remove my tongue from my cheek, when you read the article about Cambridge (rather indulgently titled “A City’s Liberal Reflection”), it’s easy to see why Masachusetts-as-outlier has become such a popular epithet. One of the opening paragraphs reads:

Democrats everywhere grappled with the realization yesterday that President Bush had been reelected, but perhaps nowhere was the bitterness of that truth felt more sharply than here, in the cafes, bookstores, and bakeries of Cambridge, this proudly liberal city of 100,000.

If Cambridge doesn’t already sound like a mecca for foofy intellectuals and moneyed poseurs who’ve never worked a day in their lives, read on! To which local “representative” establishments does the reporter go to interview “representative” Cantabrigians? Cardullo’s, a gourmet grocery in Harvard Square. Carberry’s, a trendy bakery cafe in Central. The 1369 Coffeehouse, with its hipster baristas and Chomsky-reading clientele. The Broadway Bicycle School, a repair shop staffed by (very helpful) striped-sneaker-shod, studded-belt-encircled-rolled-cuffed-jeans-wearing, courier-bag-toting twentysomethings (who presumaby do not own cars). Even I was put off by the self-conscious hipness of these people, and I live in Cambridge.
If that’s not enough, listen to what these “proud liberals” have to say about the rest of their countrymen:

“I wouldn’t want to live in Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, where they’re so concerned about how much you go to church and how moral you are,” Corcoran said. “At least I live here. I wouldn’t want to live anyplace else.”

And the very honest:

“I don’t have a lot of faith in my fellow Americans to do the right thing,” Coffey said.

I love this town, but after reading this article, I was angered and disgusted. I feel lucky to live in a city where I don’t need a car to get around, where I’m within walking distance of several stellar used and independent bookstores, where I can see cheap live music any night of the week, where the intellectual life is vibrant and healthy. I’m proud that the first gay marriage ceremonies were performed at Cambridge City Hall, just up the street from my undergraduate dormitory. But the sentiments expressed by and the picture painted of my fellow citizens in this article made me utterly ashamed. It makes every Cambridge (and, by association, every Massachusetts) resident seem like a hypereducated prick, and, while stereotypes are rarely without some sort of factual basis, this is hardly the message a “mourning city” should be sending to the rest of the country.
If Massachusetts liberals are perplexed by the nation’s attiude towards them, perhaps they should step back and examine themselves. If their claim is that the conservative right is blindly dismissing their lifestyle without taking the time to understand it, then they are throwing stones from the most ostentatious glass palace I’ve ever seen. One of the sentiments I frequently encounter among my fellow citizens here in the People’s Republic of Cambridge is the idea that, if one is educated and intelligent, one will invariably come around to a liberal point of view. Those with differing opinions are dismissed as stupid — a convenient brush-off if you don’t ever want to have your ideas challenged. It’s a great way to live in a safe intellectual bubble, but it’s hypocritical in the extreme. If liberals take umbrage at being deemed “without morals” by those with whom they disagree, then they have no right to blindly label those opponents as “without intelligence.”
As for the widely-expressed sentiments of dismissal and disavowal of responsibility — “I’m moving to Canada,” “The rest of the country is stupid,” &c. — which were bandied about after the election: democracy is not about packing up and leaving if things don’t exactly go your way. It’s about working together with your countrymen to better understand one another and what is best for the country as a whole, about working harder to make your voice heard if at first you don’t succeed. It’s no wonder liberals are sometimes painted as “anti-American” if the first words out of their mouths after losing an election are “I’m outta here!”
All of this seems to indicate that political discourse in this country has descended to the level of schoolyard taunting. There is no discussion, only an exchange of insults across an expanding cultural divide. The wider the gap becomes, the easier it is to classify the opposing side as an unknown and completely foreign other — which translates into finger-pointing abstractions, uninformed generalizations, vicious name-calling, and blind, overt dislike. The more different the other group seems, the easier it is to simply hate them.
[Before you comment, please read the addendum.]

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4 thoughts on “The deepening divide.

  1. Very nice and very astute. Liberals generally need to learn to hold their bile for better targets; then they should try to understand conservatives (and conservative should attempt to do the same). I think the major cause of a lot of this infighting is that neither side wants to examine its beliefs very closely, but it’s hard to articulate exactly why I think that might be the case. Maybe it’s more accurate that both sides are too quick to judge themselves the moral and philosophical superior of the other without really making honest comparisons and without attacking the foundations of their own systems to see if they’re actually stronger.

  2. The
    “in the cafes, bookstores, and bakeries of Cambridge, this proudly liberal city of 100,000”
    line from the article makes Cambridge sound like some sort of Eden for the secular liberal elite. This is a city where I heard people on the bus referring to MIT students as rich kids whose parents pay their way through college. Where walking through Central Square at night alone will still give me the willies.
    Point being: it isn’t Eden. Its a city. And though Cambridge has lots of stuff I could only wish for in Attleboro, and is a awesome city in general, there is something a little hollow to the the residents’ proud liberal feeling. Just being liberal doesn’t fix all of society’s ills.
    Also wanted to comment on the Kennedy obsession. I’m part of that, and my obsession was re-inforced recently after watching a documentary on PBS on Robert Kennedy. I think it comes down to the inspiration JFK and RFK gave to millions of people. You see RFK speak to crowds in 1968, and you start to understand where that obsession comes from. I got inspired–I’m not sure what to do with the inspiration yet–just watching this ~30 year old footage. And I was mourning his death at the end.

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