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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Respect and Two-Way Streets

Continuing with Do Democrats Need To Learn Some Respect?, which commented on an article by Clive Crook and followed up a previous post making many of the points Clive Crook makes, his experience was much like mine:

What did I say?, by Clive Crook: My column yesterday prompted more emails from readers than any other article I have written. I usually get 10 or 20 letters or emails. I got hundreds about this one and they’re still coming. I expected to get a few from Republicans praising me (they would ignore the positive things I say about Democrats in general and Obama in particular) and a few from Democrats attacking me (these would be spluttering and furious: “are you kidding me? are you kidding me?”, and so on). And so I did. But these were outnumbered–vastly outnumbered–by emails from ex- or wavering Democrats who say they feel disappointed or betrayed by the party’s spokesmen and advocates. Who knew this strand of opinion even existed? ... [Crook: example letters and follow-up.]

As I said, I had already written about that. On the more recent post responding to the Crook article, I also got an unusual number of comments, mostly saying I was wrong, but that was useful. From the volume and passionate nature of the responses, I think there's something here. But what is it, exactly?

Here's Megan McArdle on the same theme:

Coastal privilege, by Megan McArdle: ...Let's be honest, coastal folks:  when you meet someone with a thick southern accent who likes NASCAR and attends a bible church, do you think, "hey, maybe this is a cool person"?  And when you encounter someone who went to Eastern Iowa State, do you accord them the same respect you give your friends from Williams?  It's okay--there's no one here but us chickens.  You don't.

Maybe you don't know you're doing it.  But I have quite brilliant friends who grew up in rural areas and went to state schools--not Michigan or UT, but ordinary state schools--who say that, indeed, when they mention where they went to school, there's often a droop in the eyelids, a certain forced quality to the smile.  Oh, Arizona State.  Great weather out there.  Don't I need a drink or something? This person couldn't possibly interest me.
 
 People from a handful of schools, most of them hailing from a handful of major metropolitan areas, dominate academia, journalism, and the entertainment industry.  Our subtle (or not-so-subtle) distaste for everything from their entertainment to their decorating choices to the vast swathes of the country in which they choose to live permeate almost everything they read, watch, or hear.  Of course we don't hear it--to us, that's simply the way the world is. 
 
 In the 1980s, I played on possibly the worst girl's basketball team in the state of New York.  Every time another Catholic school kicked our asses (I believe one memorable game ended at 48 to 2) we consoled ourselves by making fun of their big, sprayed, permed hair, and the lavish eye makeup that ran down their faces when they sweated.  We didn't know that what divided us from those girls was economic class--they were the children of plumbers and bodega owners, while we were the children of bankers and lawyers and lobbyists.  We genuinely believed that we had simply been gifted with a better fashion sense.

But I bet those girls knew exactly what we were saying as we got on the bus.  And I'm pretty sure they knew what we were really talking about.

Red America exaggerates the contempt, of course.  It's also true that if you're expecting racism and sexism, you'll probably end up misinterpreting perfectly innocent remarks.  But the fact that they aren't right in every particular does not mean that, in general, they've got it wrong.  For one thing, in both DC and New York I've spent a fair amount of time listening to liberals make jokes about red states that would horrify them if they were told about blacks.  But even if that weren't true, I wouldn't be the best person to assess whether there is prejudice or not.  I'm so close to it that I can't see it. 

At the risk of seeming too focused on myself, let me follow up on the sports analogy. My graduating class in high school had 80 people (the enrollment was less than 400 for all four years). I was far from the smartest guy in the class, one classmate is now a statistician and editor of JASA (he's written many of the SAS routines e.g.), another does analysis for the DoD using mathematical modeling, the smartest of us all didn't even go to college, he helps to tend his families almond orchard and other businesses, but mostly plays golf and enjoys himself (his brother was on the PGA tour and both were state champions, as was an older brother). And there are the usual smattering of pharmacists, CPAs, etc. Not so bad for a small rural town. I hear all about how creative big cities are, and agglomeration is useful, but there's a bit of talent in small towns too.

When I was 12, I was on our Little League All-Star team and was one of the pitchers (I grew early, I was the same size then as now, pretty much, and went from center of the basketball team in junior high to one of the guards by the time I was a senior in high school, but my son was a pitcher on the number one ranked high-school team in the state, so maybe it was more than size). We did well that year and eventually got to a game with the "big city" team, Yuba City (which is not a big city, but to us it was, and they sure acted like it). That high school had around 1,500 kids at the time (though I could be wrong on the exact size - but it was vastly larger than mine).

The golfer I talked about above was the pitcher in that game and he had a wicked curve ball. The guy we faced had an awesome fastball - I knew him from when I lived in Yuba City for a few years when my dad worked as a parts guy at a John Deere dealership - and I could barely get around on it and went one for three with a single to right.

We won that game, barely, and for our little town, for a few moments, it was a source of pride. Something about beating a school so much bigger, and particularly the kids who had the attitude that our small town couldn't possibly beat them with all their coaches with pro experience, better equipment (e.g. we didn't have anything like a pitching machine), and particularly their attitude. Perhaps we were the ones with the chip on our shoulders, I don't know, but I know it felt good at the time. You felt like you brought a moment of honor, however brief, fleeting, or purely imaginary, to your town. You knew it would be front page news on the daily paper (which was sometimes as long as four pages - it would have entries like "Mr. and Mrs. Smith have returned from a week to visit their family in Arizona," or "so-and-so graduated from college," that sort of thing) and you could walk around with your head held high for awhile.

The next game was the area championships, hopefully another pin for our caps if you remember how that worked, and I was the pitcher. I can't remember batting that game, but it seems like I can remember every pitch, and there's one I will never forget. We were ahead 2-1, in the fifth inning, and an error by our third baseman, a kid down the street whose dad ran the Standard Oil gas distributorship, allowed a runner to reach base. Then, with two outs, I threw the wrong pitch and it was hit over the left-field fence. They went ahead 3-2 and that's how it ended.

I felt as though I had let down the whole town, my teammates, the whole world. I was so embarrassed after the game when someone saw a tear roll down my cheek, that scene is still so vivid in my mind. I guess I shouldn't feel so bad, the guy who hit the home run, Joe Rose, went on to have a pretty good career for the Miami Dolphins as a tight end, so he had a bit of talent, but I had no way of knowing that then.

The first team we beat, Yuba City is on one side of the Feather river, and Marysville is on the other. It's much like Eugene and Springfield which are also separated by a river, and the class distinctions are the same. Yuba City is the upper class city, or so they think, while Marysville was poorer and much more working class (both blacks and lower class whites lived there, I lived in Olivehurst from kindergarten to second grade, a white working class area just outside of Marysville, and it was a pretty rough area, a lot of military families from Beale Air Force base lived there as well so it was very transient).

If we had to get beat, it was much better for it to be Marysville instead of Yuba City. They were working class, and mostly looked down upon by their across the river neighbors, so we could identify with them much easier.

There is a divide amongst us, I think, but I don't know what the answer is. Here's a way to think about the divide and the issue of respect. When I go home to see my mostly Republican family, politics will inevitably come up as I have to listen to the rants they pull off right wing radio or wherever they get them. So I speak up when it's about econmics and say, no, that's not how it is. I have a Ph.D., I am involved with these issues day in and day out - I think I know what I am talking about. I don't actually say that, of course, but I am the "elite", the one with the college education, and in my mind they ought to defer to that. If I say no, that's wrong, here's the truth, I expect them to listen and believe me, to change what they believe.

But that's not what generally happens. They listen intently if I let them do the asking - I can then explain and rail away to my hearts content. But the minute I "put on airs", or appear to do so in any way, if I try to correct them, I meet with resistance. And when that happens, I feel disrespected. I know this stuff I think, why aren't they listening?

But maybe they aren't as dumb about economics as I think. And maybe they think they are fully capable, even without a fancy degree, of figuring out things for themselves. Maybe I disrespect them by simply assuming that they are rubes when it comes to economics and they should just automatically fall into line with anything I say. That doesn't respect their intelligence at all. I suppose it's partly it's the approach.

So I do think that rural areas feel disrespected -- it's part of the experience, but is it valid, or just a chip on their shoulder? I keep hearing from people in cities that they feel disrespected too. Why isn't their lifestyle as valuable as "real Americans" they ask. The religious feel disenfranchised, disrespected, but there are others who feel that the religious want to impose their views on the rest of society, i.e. that their views aren't respected by the religious right. Atheists complain that nobody, but nobody respects them.

So what's the answer? We have to find a way to be able to talk to each other from a position of mutual respect. I don't mean we have to endorse or even approve of all the ideas the other person has, but we need to do a better job of understanding each other and communicating with each other.

I called for respect of rural values in a previous post, but I think the response to that post was right, respect is a two-way street. You have to give respect to get it, but who will go first? How do we break the logjam? And is "respect" even the right framing for the question? I'm starting to think it's not, that it's part of a bigger distinction that I haven't quite fully internalized.

But I really don't know what the answer is, and want to give this more thought. In the meantime, what do you think? What is the problem (because I haven't quite been able to put my finger on it yet to my satisfaction). And importantly, what is the solution?

    Posted by on Tuesday, September 9, 2008 at 01:26 PM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (93)

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