Monday, February 3, 2014

Sub-cultures and Polarization

We all identify with an array of sub-cultures, some of which we're born into and some which we enter by choice.  Those based on race, ethnicity and sexual predilections are hard to change, but to some degree even that can be done.  For example, Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, an unusually multi-racial state and raised by his white grandparents.  As a young adult, curious about his missing African father and probably baffled about being regarded as something other than a regular American, he decided to move to Chicago and become black.  It's been a useful political ploy.  It's unlikely that the Hawaiian vote would have carried Illinois and Michigan for him.  Ted Cruz has undergone a similar transformation.  Born a wealthy Cuban-Canadian, he moved to Texas and has spent his life transforming himself into a prototypical radical right wing redneck.  He no doubt hopes that his move will have similar political benefits and that operating from Tom DeLay's state will give him immunity from inconvenient laws, such as the constitutional requirement that US presidents be native born. 

Religious and political affiliations can be modified a little more easily but often trace elements remain. Lapsed Catholics tend to retain some of the qualities of charity and empathy they grew up with, although many also display a ferocious anti-clerical bias.  Most Jews that I know have little or no religious faith but their sense of Jewish identity remains strong.  We lapsed Protestants have little of that continuing tradition but underneath the skin, some instilled traits remain.  Growing up in the Dutch Reformed Church, which reformed itself into merger with the  Presbyterians, I've considered myself to be totally reformed.  The central tenets of Calvinist Protestantism are that people are predestined by God to be saved or not.  You can recognize the chosen people by their good works, a dogma which has stimulated a lot of good works as well as promoting a tendency to examine other people and try to determine if they're worthy of  Heaven or Hell.  I can recognize the persistence of the latter trait in myself.  People born into no religious affiliation whatsoever usually just settle into the large secular humanist subculture but having a relative lack of group identity, they may have a stronger tendency to be attracted to more esoteric or exotic subcultures such as such as  Objectivism, Scientology  or Buddhism.

As we grow up, we acquire tastes and preferences and we enter a field of work.  All of these choices place us in other  sub-cultures.  Identification with such groups simplifies our lives, lending us pre-fabricated values, customs and opinions, along with a sense of solidarity and comfort.  I've made a chart showing a few of the most visible sub-cultures and some of the most common links between them.  Just add a hyphen and the word culture to any of the names on the chart.  Many people may object  to the links I've shown, but they're not intended to be absolute, just trends.  Thus, while not all basketball players are black, not all opera buffs are gay, and not all people who listen to AM radio are rednecks, the convergence in each case defies statistical probability.  I've listed some groups we routinely belong to, based on race, religion, political affiliation, sexual predilection, professions, and preferences in sports, music, media and pets.  I haven't bothered with class, which may be the most important but is the least discussed.

Some sub-cultures have strong links to others but, more commonly, the groups we identify with tend to form clusters.  Sometimes the clusters derive from physical proximity, such as is found in segregated communities, ranging from inner city ghettos to gated communities for wealthy white retirees, but that's not always the case.  I've lived for many years in New York City at different stages of my life and I don't recall ever meeting, or having anything to do with, a Republican there, and New York City has had Republican mayors for the past twenty years.  Clearly, there are a lot of NY Republicans who haven't come out of the closet, or just never allow themselves to be seen among the normal people.  Similarly, I have a surprising number of friends in Texas and, as Democrats, all seem to embody the original spirit of the Alamo, i.e. an outgunned, outnumbered, but defiant, endangered species.

Most sub-cultures develop secondary characteristics which often have little real connection to their essence.  For example, in the golf culture, men often wear yellow plaid trousers, something that would be frowned upon elsewhere in polite society.  Such secondary characteristics often generate prejudice in people outside the group.  The sight of those yellow trousers can induce a strong reaction in people who have absolutely nothing against the game of golf.  Our society is polarized as never before.  We may have  issues with golf; it does use up a lot of scarce water resources and so forth, but it's a healthy game that promotes walking.  We shouldn't let ourselves get over-agitated by those yellow pants.  Likewise, lots of people enjoy guns and often belong to the NRA.  Most of the members are fine folks and just because some of their spokesmen have a habit of saying things that make them appear to be genetically modified monsters, we shouldn't assume that the members are all potential mass murderers, just waiting their chance.

The intensity of our identification with the many sub-cultures we belong to can vary considerably.  Thus a Jewish golfer may feel strongly about his Jewish heritage, while having only a casual approach to the game, or it could be the exact reverse.  He may wear the yellow pants but never a yarmulke.  It's hard to say if living comfortably nested within communities of like-minded people makes one more or less intense in one's group identities.  I tend to think it makes one more relaxed and comfortable in them, while promoting the presumption that, more or less, everybody is just like them.  My personal experience is unusual, though hardly unique, in its immersion in a number of rather dissimilar sub-cultures.  I live in a tiny Italian village, populated almost equally by wild boar hunting villagers and ex-patriots from all over the world.  Secondary characteristics of the hunters include wearing the illogical combination of camouflage fatigues and fluorescent vests, maltreatment of hunting dogs, and the almost universal tendency to drive small Suzuki jeeps.  The women  go to church (there is only the Catholic Church) while mostly the men do not, except for holidays and funerals.  Their political views range across a wide spectrum from left to right but they remain unified in a debilitating cynicism and passivity with regard to politics and politicians of every stripe. The ex-pat community used to consist mainly of artists, writers, journalists, etc. and many were Americans.  In recent years there are more retirees from a greater variety of countries and professions but the group is still mostly made up of liberal, secular humanists whose politics hue to the orthodox progressive center left.  Many are ex-smokers.  None are ex-drinkers.  A defining element of faith is that Silvio Berlusconi is the worst thing to happen to Italy since the papacy was established in Rome.  Being married to an Italian, whose only acknowledged sub-culture affiliations are with the pro-life culture and with the legion of cat lovers, helps me to bridge some of the cultural divides, although the pro-life stance has led to a number of awkward silences within the circle of progressive friends.  The cat-culture instead, is a uniter, as I am a veteran member, along with countless friends and neighbors from both factions of the community.  While Calvinist origins might seem to be in conflict with Catholic origins, we've managed to produce a reasonably large and growing Catholic family and found some common ground.  On the rare occasions that I'm dragged to a mass, I share the preferences for Latin masses and Gregorian music of the (discredited) LeFebvre  wing of the Church,  favored in the family.

Contact with other sub-cultures, which I might only hear about in the news, comes through members of the family living in the US in a tight cocoon of the radical right, linked to everything from the Tea Party to the military industrial complex, to the alternate reality of Fox News.  If my own Calvinist roots show through in a judgmental temperament, here the idea of a God's chosen people is taken to lengths that might even make Calvin blush.  Strangely, while promoting ideological doctrines of intolerance, greed and exclusivity, most of the family appears to be friendly, generous and helpful.  I'm not sure that anyone in the family even owns a gun.  However, sometimes that generosity extends to forwarding emailed items from friends who are apparently card carrying remnants of the Klan and the NRA.

Most of the polarization of the American public is generated by the class war, a sort of stealth war, in that it's rarely mentioned in the media.  Other social issues are openly polarizing the public.  Most are sex related, with about half the public advocating for freer sex and half working to constrict it.  The 60's saw the sexual revolution, with the arrival of places such as Plato's Retreat, where swinging couples or singles could connect with strangers for anonymous sex.  Gay bath houses sprung up to provide a similar function for the gay community.  Most of these establishments were shut down in the wake of  the AIDS epidemic of the 80's but it seemed that the institution of marriage was on the rocks.  More children were born out of wedlock than in it, and that situation has persisted.  One supposes that aging swingers were reabsorbed into the mainstream but, with the failure of American social policies to provide adequate health care and pensions independent of continuous employment, the gay subculture has embraced the formerly moribund institution of marriage to soften the adversities of old age.

Before coming to be known as a coalition, the LGBT coalition just seemed to be another group of people discriminated against because they didn't conform to the “norm”.  Since attaining a strong group identity and Hollywood support, the coalition's major tangible success has been gaining full acceptance in the military.  How this will work out long term is anybody's guess.  Will the military become more sensitive and nuanced or will legions of particularly aggressive lesbians be recruited to administer our on-going enhanced interrogations of “terrists” and whistle blowers?  Will veteran Marines organize into secret militia groups to overthrow the government or will barracks become the new century's equivalent of the bathhouses of SF and the Village?

Another traditional macho sub-culture is also facing some tensions.  Professional sports. Lesbians have emerged in tennis and basketball to the point where they're old news.  The occasional gay basketball or football player is trickling out into the sports pages but that will soon not be an issue.  However, in a society of rapidly accelerating divides between the rich and the poor, people of color remain disproportionately plagued by poverty, unemployment and the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  With a few exceptions, such as auto racing and hockey, in most professional sports the majority of the athletes are black, or from other minorities.  It wasn't always so.  In my youth an absurdly disproportionate number of football players were Polish kids from the steel mill and coal mining areas of Western Pennsylvania.  Today's players of all colors have adopted secondary traits of the prison culture, from music to speech to appearance, perhaps out of a sense of solidarity with their less fortunate brothers, or perhaps just reflecting their origins.  We've all learned to revere celebrity and while our reverence for money knows no limits, the trappings of the prison culture flaunted by the sports lottery winners does create a bit of tension in the remnants of the more traditional sub-cultures.  Seriously folks, if  one of two men, either Dennis Rodman or Jamie Dimon, showed up at your door one night,  which one would you be more likely to open the door to?  Both have been big winners in the lottery economy; one blessed by size and talent, the other with supernatural greed and cunning.  My guess is that in most homes the amiable but grotesque ex-basketball star would receive a less enthusiastic welcome than the slick bankster who contributed to the collapse of the economy, unless of course, Dimon was wearing yellow plaid pants.  

As players grasp their status as winners in the big lottery, whatever solidarity they display in their demeanor seems to fade when it comes to addressing the bizarre social conditions of the country from which they've emerged.  I haven't noticed a Sean Penn, a Matt Damon or a Robert Redford in their midst, but that may be because the players work for a large and powerful organization, rapidly growing into a major actor in the military industrial complex, that can terminate their services, and their careers, at will.  To be fair, many players do a lot of community service work and most high NFL draft choices buy houses for their mothers with their signing bonuses.  Indeed, the more successful retired stars do prop up another fading industry by donning bespoke suits, otherwise worn these days by only wizened oligarchs, to promote their sport on TV.  (The young silicone valley tycoons continue to favor gym suits.)  Still, one wonders when the legions of fans who spend long hours on the internet complaining that team owners aren't paying their favorite players the $10 million or so that "they're worth" discover that their own food stamps are being cut off, along with their mothers' unemployment checks, how long will it take before a backlash sets in.

The Roman Catholic Church has been a defender of the status quo and its ruling institutions for centuries.  It's hard to determine whether the Church or the CIA has been more instrumental in keeping all those Fascist regimes in power in Latin America and elsewhere for so long.   A monkey wrench has just been thrown into the gears of the Church.  A new Pope has scandalized the world by repeating the words of Jesus Christ in public.  Catholic bankers and corporate executives are growing apoplectic and congressmen are calling for investigations into our relations with the Vatican.  Some "progressives", who have never had anything do do with the Church other than to oppose it, continue to unself-consciously demand that the Pope become more progressive, more feminist, and generally more attuned to their personal anti-Catholic agendas.

We haven't noticed much of a similar shift among Protestant leaders.  There are exceptions such as Jim Wallis of the peace movement and the former right wing evangelical spokesman Frank Schaeffer, who switched to become a socially progressive Greek Orthodox writer and lecturer.  For every one like them, there seem to be ten Texas fundamentalists aligning themselves with Israeli hawks in hopes of speeding up the arrival of the Rapture by bombing Iran.

Libertarians, a sub-species of the right, are questioning frivolous and expensive military adventures and protesting the surveillance state, a position that seemingly would drive them into the arms of the Democratic Party, if it were not for the new-found love of so many Democratic leaders for Fascist values and corporate money.  At times it appears we're on the brink of a new civil war.  With luck, it may be confined to the libertarian and corporate wings  of the of the Republican Party, with the battlefields limited to Kentucky and the respective militias commanded by Generals Paul and McConnell.

Our perceptions are altered to some degree by our identification with sub-cultures and their shared values, but lately, in our polarized, stratified and segregated clusters, we've attained a disturbing flight from reality.  President Obama is regarded by hard core Republicans as a black Muslim Fascist-Marxist bent on establishing Sharia law.  Women on Fox News, the pre-eminent Republican sounding board, urge President Obama's impeachment over "Benghazi", a "scandal" manufactured by the network, and for his enactment of Obamacare, the health care plan devised by the conservative Heritage Foundation to enrich the medical insurance industry and road tested by Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts.

Progressives are appalled by these heresies.  Many of us were eager to see Bush impeached for war crimes and a long list of crimes against humanity far worse than promoting universal health care.  Objectively, Bush was every bit as bad as we thought but our liberal circle is convinced that Obama, being a well-spoken black Democrat, is better, despite his continuation, and sometimes extension of of Bush's unconstitutional policies.  He has outdone Bush in domestic spying and in the persecution of whistle blowers (while refusing to heed the whistles).  If the Supreme Court has set the stage for a Fascist takeover of the US with its Orwellian Citizens United landmark decision, Obama's TPP negotiations are working in secrecy to put the nails in the coffin of American democracy.  Nevertheless, it's mostly all quiet on the liberal front.

In the artsy, secular Democratic sub-culture I most closely identify with, everyone takes it as a matter of faith that George W. Bush was an arrogant moron who did unspeakable damage to the country and the world.  However, our knee-jerk revulsion at his mangling of the English language, challenged but never topped by Sarah Palin, has led us to undervalue his skills and his achievement.  W was a more successful con artist than even the great Bernie Madoff.  Look at their outcomes.  Bernie lost everything and is due to spend the rest of his days in prison while George paints self-portraits in his Dallas studio, only mindful to avoid speaking engagements in countries where he might be arrested.

Born into a family of privilege, the son of a future CIA director and American president, and grandson of an early Nazi sympathizer who made a smooth transition into venerable Senator from Connecticut, Bush followed his noteworthy ancestors through prep school to the stately halls of Yale, and then beyond to Harvard.  In the interests of bi-partisan fairness it must be noted that the elite group of people attracted to the harnessing of the power of monopolistic corporations to the military industrial state in the 30's included the Duke of Windsor and Democrats Averill Harriman and Joe Kennedy.   Somewhere along the way, perhaps under the heretofore unrecognized influence of Lee Strasberg, Little George took up method acting, assuming a role he would inhabit for the rest of his life, a dim-witted character, seemingly born in Dogpatch, that polar opposite of Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average.  George was more convincing in this role than Bill Clinton, who was actually born in Dogpatch.

Half of the US population believes that both evolution and climate change are hoaxes perpetrated by Marxists or other of the devil's workers.  Convincing the entire nation that he was just an innocuous good ole boy red neck who anybody could enjoy going out for a beer with, W gained undying support from the damaged half of the populace, even after his policies resulted in the loss of their jobs, their savings and sometimes their homes.  Despite his public persona, George never took his eye off the ball, furthering his grandfather's agenda with every decision he took, raising the dominance of the 1% to levels unknown since the onset of the Great Depression.  He fooled the rational half as well, convincing them that everything bad that happened was Cheney's doing.

None of our greatest actors, from Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Rod Steiger to Laurence Olivier or Alec Guinness has ever played a role so convincingly for so long.  Let's put aside our sub-culture pre-conceptions for a moment and join together to give George W. Bush an award for lifetime achievement in the field of acting, at the up-coming Oscar ceremonies.