Bigger, Realer America

I generally do my best to ignore political commentary and rhetoric, especially of the right wing variety, because all it does is annoy, not to say infuriate. But once in awhile I bump into some by accident, and it’s invariably even worse than I had imagined. A few evenings ago for instance I tripped over some absurd person on tv (and not even on Murdoch’s Fox channel, but on Gates’ msnbc) ranting about those liberal elitists who dare to disagree with President Bush. That’s the definition of elitism? Disagreeing with Bush? Because…what? Bush was born in a mud hut? Bush is the twelfth child of Mississippi sharecroppers who got where he is today by sheer force of brains and talent? Bush wouldn’t know an elite if it sat down next to him and thanked him for eliminating the estate tax? Is that how that is?

And then last night I heard Geoff Nunberg on Fresh Air discussing a piece by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal that was even more ridiculous, not to say downright sinister in places. All about the ‘stunning’ patriotism of good old ‘bigger and realer’ America.

American journalists still fear that, being called biased in favor of America. So do intellectuals, academics, local clever people who talk loudly in restaurants, and leftist mandarins of Washington, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities. For all cities have them. But there was always another America, and boy has it endured…They came from a bigger America and a realer one–a healthy and vibrant place full of religious feeling and cultural energy and Bible study and garage bands and sports-love and mom-love and sophistication and normality.

It gets even worse, with a lot of drivel about the pope, but I’ll spare you. I’ll spare you so that I can give myself plenty of room to look at Noonan’s sly, nasty, and frankly sick-making rhetoric. Note that intellectuals and clever people are from a smaller and less real America than the one those other, Good people inhabit. Note that cities are bad places. And note (if you can without turning pale and having to rush for a basin) the cheerleading for religious feeling and ‘Bible study’ and…sports-love? and…mom-love? mom-love?? Philip Wylie where are you when we need you. Chatting with Norman Bates, probably. And then of course the clincher. Normality. Ah yes. Normality. Because of course all those other, bad, wicked, urban, eddicated people with their mandarin leftism and their fear of patriotism, they are not normal. They are weird. Odd. Strange. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, abnormal and perverted and sick.

And there is, again, the question of why it is intellectuals who are mandarins, whereas overpaid CEOs who pocket huge bonuses while cutting the pay of their workers are the salt of the earth. There is the even more pressing question, do Republicans never talk loudly in restaurants? I’m not absolutely sure that conforms to my experience of the world. There is the slightly Talibanish air of the desired bigger America – religious feeling and Bible study? One wouldn’t have been enough?

But most of all there is the horrible blinkered narrowness of it, the suffocating parochial smallness, and the disgusting message to the readers: stay as sweet as you are, be little, don’t try to be more, don’t leave, don’t learn, don’t become curious, don’t expand, don’t aspire. Just stay right there in your healthy, vibrant, religious world and never change, or else you will become abnormal and unhealthy. This is particularly repellent coming from someone who herself writes for the Wall Street Journal and other big city publications. She seems to be having an interesting and (sort of) intellectual life, so why all this sneering, why the attempt to discourage other people from broadening their horizons beyond dear mom and the garage? If Peggy Noonan, former White House speechwriter and now columnist for the WSJ, is not a mandarin, who is? Intellectuals and academics? Please.

I wonder how long this is going to go on before all those bigger realer Murkans start to see through it. Start to wonder why it’s intellectuals who are the elitists and mandarins, while rich people are the salt of the earth. Why buying and selling elections and allowing lobbyists and corporate lawyers to write legislation is perfectly fine but disagreeing with George W. Bush about anything is corrupt mandarin city behavior. But then I would wonder, wouldn’t I, because I’m just a sick abnormal citified mandarin myself. Where’s my Bible…

A different, and very minor point that Nunberg made in his commentary is that Noonan uses a rhetorical device in this piece that is more popular with rightists than with leftists. It is that string of ‘ands’ (and Bible study and garage bands and). It’s called polysyndeton. This interests me because it’s a device I use a lot myself, as a friend and editor of mine likes to point out. It could even be said, he hints, that I overuse it. I am now more convinced than I was. I looked it up in a literary dictionary, which said that Hemingway ‘was particularly addicted to this device’ and that ‘in the more extreme instances of his pseudo-biblical style (ouch!) it becomes the equivalent of a verbal tic’. Oh dear.

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