Small Town Folk: Clarifying My Views–A Reply to Adam Mansbach

Thanks to everyone who has responded to my latest piece, “This is how fascism comes,” and for the thought-provoking feedback, especially begun by Adam Mansbach, who I consider to be a wonderful writer and strong antiracist ally. (if you haven’t seen the conversation, check out the thread below the essay on my facebook homepage).

Given Adam’s concerns about what I wrote–concerns with which I disagree in this case, but which I think are validly raised and worth discussion–I wanted to take the chance to reply, so as to clarify what the piece was (and was not) saying about folks in small towns, religious folks, etc., so as not to be misunderstood.

In a message sent to me, Adam spelled out a series of concerns with the piece, which, though stated slightly differently from the way he wrote them in the public thread (in the public thread he basically split the argument into two posts), are mostly the same. Because they are substantively the same, I will post the one private message (or portions of it) here, in order to reply in as cohesive a fashion as possible.

Among Adam’s concerns was his sense that I had been willing to “engage in broad stereotyping and outright demonization” of the people I was critiquing. To this, I might have to plead both guilty and not guilty, depending on who it is one views me as demonizing. If the accusation is that I am stereotyping and demonizing the specific bunch of people who are engaging in thuggish behavior at McCain rallies, giving unhinged interviews to reporters about Obama, spreading poisonous e-mails about him, etc., then I plead guilty. I am stereotyping fascists: they are fascists, they are dangerous, and I worry not a bit about calling them out. If it is believed that I was stereotyping and demonizing all people from small towns, or who like beer, or something like that, I was not. In the piece, not only did I note that small towns do occasionally breed both good people and crazy ones (which means, by definition, that most people in such places, as with large cities, are fairly average and neither particularly good nor bad), but I merely said that if fascism comes it will be ushered in by people such as those at these rallies (mostly from small towns, mostly gun-fanatics, mostly by their own admission anti-intellectual and suspicious of too much education, mostly far-right Christians), because it is indeed the folks in such places whose isolation and insularity (and provincialism, both geographic and intellectual) has always been the breeding ground for fascism. This is among the reason that the children of such places, when they go away to college, or even for work, in a larger community, often tell me how ill-prepared they felt for the real world, and how grateful they are to have gotten a chance to see a bigger world than what they had seen growing up.

Adam then suggests that while it is ok to attack the politics engendered by the religion of the folks I mention, attacking their beliefs themselves is not ok, if for no other reason than practical: where does vilifying their faith get us, he asks? Fair enough, it probably doesn’t get us very far in some regards. But I have to respectfully disagree that a person’s faith beliefs are off limits for critique. People who believe we are in the “end of days” and who believe that they are going to raptured into the sky (and very soon at that) and that the rest of us are going to hell, are dangerous. They are dangerous to the emotional health of those they terrorize with that stuff (their own children, and those of us who they terrorized for years with their tales of fire and brimstone for not believing what they believed). They are guilty of spiritual child abuse. And if they gain access to the presidency (which is what Palin represents, which even Reagan and W didn’t–they were convenient evangelicals: she is a full blown charismatic), then the world is literally at risk. I will not hold my tongue about people’s beliefs when those beliefs could threaten my children, my nation and the world. Our ecumenism sometimes blinds us to the way in which such persons really are gearing up for a spiritual and literal war against those who do not think as they think. I would be glad to let them be if they would return the favor. But they won’t: that is the problem. Honestly, people who believe in a literal rapture and think the earth was created 6000 years ago by a white sky God are beyond the reach of our rational, calm analysis. They are not going to ever become even remotely on-board in the fight for justice, and if I’m wrong about this, I still assure you that the time it would take to get even one of them to think more broadly and openly would not be worth the investment. Some folks you just have to go around, by organizing those who are in their crosshairs, for resistance.

Then Adam makes what I think is a very strong point. He notes, regarding these folks I’ve been discussing:

“If you want to discomfort them, acknowledging their humanity and understanding the basis of their (fucked up) worldviews is a far better, far rarer, and far more unexpected tactic. And what’s more, it’s a morally sound one.”

Fair enough: if there was one thing about the piece I would have done differently in retrospect, it would be to include a paragraph that did this explicitly. Adam is right of course, these folks’ humanity has been distorted by many forces throughout their lives. After all, no one comes out of the womb like this. In dozens of pieces I’ve written before, and in my books, I have gone out of my way to make this point (see the collaboration and loss sections of White Like Me, for instance). Perhaps because I’ve said it so often, I felt I didn’t need to this time. And that was probably a mistake. The only thing I think must be said here is this: there does come a point where people’s fucked up world views are no longer in need of direct manipulation by others, but where they are very much on auto-pilot and a danger in their own right. There comes a point where trying to reconnect people to their humanity becomes a recipe for disaster. Most of the time the effort is worth it, but with certain folks it is not (and I would say the kind of people who are enraptured by Palin for instance and vitriolic in their hatred for Obama are in this latter group). For some folks, they will have to have their own “come to Jesus” moment, so to speak in order to wake up, and neither you or I will be the ones to give it to them.

Then Adam notes, quite appropriately:

“…what about the racism, homophobia and fascism coming from people whose homes are filled with as few guns and as many books as yours or mine, the people actually calling the shots and manipulating the Joe Sixpacks of the world into thinking their lives are mediocre because of gays/blacks/immigrants/etc? You let them off the hook by focusing on the ground troops, it seems to me – but more than that, you erase their existence, rather than pulling back the curtain behind which they hide.”

This is a fine point of course. And I usually reserve my critiques for just these people. But I have started to think, as of late, that there is something slightly paternalistic and condescending about the way those of us on the left let “average folks” off the hook sometimes, while reserving our ire for the elite. It’s almost as if we are saying that “average” folks are unable to think for themselves, and exercise agency for themselves, and rather, are just being led around by the nose, by those at the top. It’s as if we think that were it not for the machinations of capitalists, or whomever, the masses would be a progressive body. I just do not believe this any more. I know how dangerous and venal the elite is, and like I said, they still get the balance of my condemnation. The problem is, with folks like Palin threatening to become the elite (and thereby empowering a lot of the “average folks” who previously were not the elite) the lines are becoming blurred, and the masses are threatening to hold power, in a way that actually should scare the shit out of us. Average folks are not unable to think, to make decisions, to choose a different path. They are not merely sheep being led around by those at the top. They have the capacity for rational thought, and after a while they are simply choosing not to use it, and proudly (thus, the bumper sticker that says: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”…well, there you have it).

The elites are dangerous for other reasons: because they are manipulating information to serve their own narrow interests, for instance. That is horrible, and dangerous too. But because the elite are seeking to manipulate *information* and data, and such, to prop themselves up, they are vulnerable to *other* information, to other data, to rational argument. Because the elite feel the need to at least enter the community of ideas with their bullshit, they open themselves up to a critique from the rest of us. As such, we can convince others that they are wrong–that becomes at least possible. But with the masses in this case like the ones I’m discussing, they do not rest their beliefs on facts that are rebuttable: how do I rebut the rapture logically? With science? Yes, except these folks don’t believe in science. They use purely emotion and non-rebuttable faith proofs to move their agenda…which makes them more dangerous in some ways because such things are not open to rational discussion and debate. They speak to much more problematic psychological needs and as such are more given to fascist leanings, or so it seems to me.

I should also make clear, although Adam did not accuse me of this, that I am not condemning all believers, or all Christians. I was only speaking of those who believe in the white God/Jesus, and who believe in the rapture and literal lake of fire stuff (which is not all Christians by a long shot).

And given that I placed equal or even greater blame for the mess we’re in on us–those who are liberal, progressive, or left–for not doing more to challenge those who would usher in fascism, I also think it should be obvious that I am not particularly trusting of book-reading lefties either. We all have a couple of nickels in this particular quarter, for sure. I just refuse to let certain folks slide or to assume that they are the salt of the earth or whatever, or merely pawns in someone else’s game. There comes a point when pawns play the game willingly and have to be checked by the rest of us, even when we have our own flaws to work on, as we all do.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who has joined this discussion thus far. I think it’s helpful to think this stuff through, either way one concludes.

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