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The Great Paradox

Must-Read: Art Goldhammer: The Great Paradox:

In 2004, Barack Obama catapulted himself into the national limelight by denouncing the bitter antagonism between rival camps and suggesting that we heed “the better angels of our nature”...

...[But] as he prepares to leave office, the evidence is everywhere that the abyss has only grown wider and deeper. His enemies denounce him as a foreigner, a traitor, and an agent of every imaginable form of mischief and malevolence. The president’s detractors attack him not only for what he is--a black man who overcame all obstacles to become our head of state--but also for what he symbolizes: the federal government.... Obama’s enemies see the powers of the federal government as illegitimate, the taxes they pay to support it as unwarranted confiscations of their hard-earned dollars, and the regulations it imposes as job-killers.... Yet the opposition to the president and his party is most intense in states like Louisiana that rely heavily on federal dollars, in regions that have suffered most from the dismantling of federal regulations. Arlie Russell Hochschild, a distinguished Berkeley sociologist, calls this the Great Paradox....

Louisiana conservatives feel a deep connection to nature. They have been raised as fishermen and hunters. They remember the beauty of the unspoiled bayous of their childhood. Yet they do not react to the environmental devastation as a liberal like Hochschild would expect.... She develops a useful typology... team players, who put loyalty to party or faction ahead of everything else; worshippers, whose fatalistic outlook compels them to accept losses as a deserved part of God’s inscrutable plan; and cowboys, who see risk as an intrinsic part of life and stoically endure whatever hardships come their way. Underlying all three responses is an ethic of “toughness.”...

The modest whites who form the backbone of the Louisiana Tea Party... identify with the energy companies... refuse to see themselves as victims, because to do so would be unheroic and “weak”... to acquiesce in what Nietzsche would call the “slave morality” of the culture of victimhood.... The companies after all provide the jobs they need to keep from sinking into the subaltern status they fear above all. To regulate the “job creators” would only “force” the companies to look elsewhere, depriving middle- and working-class whites of the livelihoods on which their dignity depends....

One can’t help feeling that if progress is possible, a deeper probing of racial attitudes than is attempted here will be necessary. Empathy is after all such a liberal value, and a bit of the cowboy’s bravado in the face of hostile resistance will also be needed if authentic communication across the divide is ever to take place. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, but in politics forgiveness is not necessarily a cardinal virtue. 

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