Cops and Conservatives

My internet access has been a little shaky this past week (though I am happy to report that the local cafe that advertises free wireless now in fact has WORKING free wireless) so it's been hard to keep up with what happened in New York in the smaller, direct-action-oriented and "unpermitted" protests. There seems to have been a lot of police overreaction and very calculated flouting of laws that require people to be released in 24 hours (the point being to keep them off the streets and deal with the legal consequences later). And you thought Giuliani was the law-and-order mayor. Well, anyway, I wouldn't want my earlier post about police restraint to stand without some mention of the lack of restraint shown in subsequent days (including the really sickening police/FBI harassment of a German journalist inside the convention itself). I don't disagree with direct action on principle, but I do wonder, in this particular setting, with the Republicans primed to exploit any "disorder" to their own advantage, if it serves much tactical or strategic purpose other than venting strong emotion. (I know there are people who say this about peaceful protest too, of course.)

I took advantage of my "vacation" to finally read Tom Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas" on the plane, so I had on my mind the people he's talking about -- working-class people, ever closer to the edge economically, who (he argues) are drawn to fundamentalism and cultural conservative causes out of misplaced desire to wage class struggle. I'm not sure about Frank's argument, but if he's right, direct action certainly doesn't seem the best way to win over THESE people.

There are a number of weaknesses in the book. It's not clear by what mechanism any of this false consciousness (because that's really what it is for Frank, I think) appears or operates. He's sympathetic to working-class people, and his accounts of anti-abortion crusaders (and a guy who got himself elected Pope because Vatican II came from the Antichrist) are sensitive and generous. At the same time, he thinks they've been hoodwinked. But who's doing the hoodwinking? Do these sentiments come from ideology factories that exploit evangelical churches to enable elite Republicans to steal from the poor to give to the rich (if so, where are these factories)? Or, do these sentiments bubble up unbidden from the people (in which case it's strange to consider them inauthentic)? Can't people actually care about these issues in their own right? Not that I'd agree with them, of course, but I don't think the anti-abortion protesters who crowded the sidelines of the Women's March in DC were shouting at me because they think I'm rich. (Elitism certainly does seem to me like a problem the left needs to deal with, but that's a subject for a different post.)
My sense is that it's actually probably a little of both, and it's not that Frank is wrong so much as that he leaves me hungry for more details, and more strategy for the left.

He points interestingly to public school as a point of contact with the government/liberal "elite" for working-class Republican Kansans -- a place where they remember being humiliated, and where values they abhor are inculcated into their kids, where the separation of church and state is rammed down their God-loving throats. I wish he'd actually interviewed some schoolteachers and school administrators, visited some classrooms, to test this hypothesis. It makes some sense, but I also wonder how much of it might be a mythical creation of ideology factories (like the latte liberals who don't seem to exist in Kansas, though there are plenty of latte Republicans).

Frank also has lots to say about the strange history of Kansas -- a bastion not just of the Progressive Movement but of all manner of "freaks" in the 19th and early 20th centuries. ("What's the Matter with Kansas" was originally the title of an essay -- or was it a speech? -- about how kooky Kansas was in the late 19th c.)

I didn't mean to write a book review, but there you have it -- I recommend it, with reservations.

I've also recently read Phil Agre's essay on conservatism, which has been going around the internet. I'll have more to say about that later. Agre equates conservatism with aristocratism, and I'm not sure that's the best way to go -- I'd rather say to people in Kansas "these Bushies are NOT conservative" than "these guys are conservative, and you're not, and here's why, because Edmund Burke..."


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