One of the footnotes of Rathergate is the disconnect between liberals and anyone to the right of, well, them. Take the general media reaction to Charles Johnson, the Los Angeles web designer and former jazz musician who typed up those CBS “memos” in Microsoft Word and still displays the damning result at the top of his Little Green Footballs blog.
At best, the reaction is patronizing and dismissive–e.g., well what can we expect from a Republican? (Although, for the record, Johnson never voted for a GOP candidate until Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor in the 2003 California recall election.) At worst–and far more common in the left-wing blogsophere–his site is described, as in this Daily Kos post, as “simply a dung heap of racist panic.”
Johnson’s “racist” crime is that prior to the CBS fiasco, he was best known for doggedly pointing out the nature of the enemy; one of his first posts returning to this theme after Rathergate was a link to a story about a Bangladesh madrassah teacher who chopped off the ears of 17 students for not reading their textbooks loudly enough.
The Left can find acknowledging this sort of thing offensive because, as I wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece earlier this month, it’s an article of faith among those who dread the president’s reelection that the Christian Right in George W. Bush’s America is at least as dangerous as international Islamic radicals. Never mind that the latter are rather more prone to violence than the former. What’s really frightening, the conventional wisdom goes, is the crudely intolerant agenda of Christian fundamentalists.
But unlike most of the media (and Hollywood) elite, I grew up surrounded by Christian fundamentalists. So I know that this is nonsense.
I was raised in a right-wing, almost entirely white, extremely boring suburb in Orange County, California called Los Alamitos, a place where even squares can have a ball. Now and then I go down there to visit my mother and stepfather, and we always eat at Hof’s Hut, home of the 3,000-calorie entrée and 300-pound customer.
Just after the Iraq invasion, I was rather shocked to see, as soon as I exited the freeway, a giant sign on some local homeowner’s cinderblock wall announcing, “We Support President Bush, Our Troops and Freedom! God Bless America.” I agreed completely with the sentiment. But since I live in the bohemian Silver Lake area of L.A., land of “No Blood For Oil” signs (and like it better here than I ever did there) the sign struck me as shocking–almost as outré as nude hour at Hof’s Hut or something.
By now I’m used to thinking differently from most people around me. Fantastically increased West Coast real-estate values mean no one would call Los Alamitos down-market today. When I was a child, though, it really was, at least by the standards of most people I hang around now.
My youth did not, alas, resemble that of the kids on The O.C. Bikinis were used not for dreamy wandering around mansions but for bodysurfing, which often ended with your face in the gravel and the bra part around your neck as boys pointed and laughed and yelled “Bitchen wipeout!” And these boys did not look like the charismatically cute Seth or Ryan on The O.C.; they looked like Meatloaf or Jughead or an adolescent, grease-stained Ozzie Osbourne–especially during my last year of high school, when for some reason I began hanging out with drag-racers.
When I was very small, admission to Knott’s Berry Farm was free and we got our first dog there. (True to the down-home theme, they had her in a cage advertising “Free Dawg.”) On one (public) elementary-school trip, we visited the chapel at Knott’s, which was sort of like “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” at Disneyland, except Jesus was onscreen instead of animatronic. The recorded narration reverently described Jesus’s blond hair and blue eyes and when it got to the part about the blue eyes, they lit up. No one ever needed to explain the word “kitsch” to me after that.
In high-school history class one afternoon the teacher mentioned that Jesus spoke Aramaic. This upset one girl so much she started to cry, insisting tearfully that “Jesus spoke English!” If you explained you didn’t celebrate Christmas because you weren’t Christian, people often looked at you uncomprehendingly–as they did if you said you wanted to live somewhere else one day, or if you described a book they hadn’t heard of, which was practically any book.
I spent my formative years in a constant state of contrarian annoyance, frustrated because everyone assumed that since I basically looked like them (I was a generically blonde, blue-eyed child), I therefore also thought like them. This was good practice for my life today.
It’s hard to remember now how lily white great stretches of southern California used to be, but they really were in those days, and by white I mean really white. My dark-eyed, brunette mother often said she felt surrounded by the Burghers of Munich. Visitors would occasionally feel free to look at her and inquire: “So are you Spanish or Portuguese or what?”
Not that I was exactly a Tragic Mulatto, but we never quite fit in. We were liberal, upper-middle-class (in attitude, not income) Jews, from Canada, surrounded by people descended from Okies from Muskogee. My mother volunteered for the George McGovern campaign in 1972 and I helped stuff envelopes.
What I only realized after I grew up and moved away was how decent and tolerant these boring, suburban neighbors were. They were certainly puzzled by our family’s exotic ways; my divorced mother ran her own business out of the house, and installed three phone lines in each room, including each bathroom, by herself.
They were also occasionally shocked by notions like Jesus speaking a foreign language, and now and then there were attempts by concerned classmates to save me from an unpleasant future in hell. One evening, a movie about the Rapture was shown at the local (public) high-school as community entertainment. Still, I never heard that distinct gasp of disbelief and hostile, shocked amazement that I often hear now, when people discover that, yep, I’m voting for Bush.
Much has been made in recent years about the lack of understanding the liberal intelligentsia, particularly the media, has for ordinary America. Although I didn’t appreciate it then, being raised in dumpy, boring red-county America (even if California is a blue state) contributed much to my education.
Journalist colleagues from classier backgrounds sometimes look uncomprehending when they hear that not everyone agrees with their received wisdom about topics such as affirmative action, abortion, and gun control–and that furthermore, people with these unusual ideas are not necessarily evil bigots, even if some of them do go to church.
Such insular cluelessness is familiar to me, since I grew up with it, although on the different side of the political spectrum. But it irritates me more than the insular cluelessness of my old neighbors. Because journalists, unlike the descendents of Dust Bowl refugees, are supposed to be curious about–or at least aware of–other people with different points of view. What’s their excuse? What’s Dan Rather’s?
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.