I was reading this article about Ted Nugent, which was really infuriating and frustrating. Nugent is a 1970s rock guitarist-turned-“outlandish right-wing firebrand” who is promoting his new reality show. Throughout the show, he expounds his own particular views on the world to the contestants. Here are some excerpts from the NYT article:
Nugent . . . brandished a blood-drenched liver he had just pulled from a freshly slain deer. He used the moment, during filming of his forthcoming reality show . . . to explain the meaning of life to five contestants who were in various states of awe and nausea.
“Big bangs don’t make this,” Mr. Nugent said, musing on the steaming organ he held before him. “That’s not a big bang. God made that. That’s a liver. That’s mystical. You and I can’t make livers. Things banging don’t make livers. This is mystical stuff. This is magic. This is perfection.”
“To kill a deer is perfect, and I typically will sit in the woods and I just look up and absorb the spirit and barometer, I’ll listen to the birds and just sit here and be in stunned silence for a long time,” he said, leaning against a tree, his arms to his side, the liver in one hand and a serrated blade in another. “The prayer of silence alongside the beast is powerful medicine so that you can be the best that you can be.”
He extols hunting as a way for people to get back in touch with what they’re eating, and themselves.
“Hunters, fishermen and trappers were the first and remain the ultimate environmentally responsible stewards and managers of life, quality, air, soil and water,” he said. “Biodiversity is mine, environmentalism is mine. It doesn’t belong to Pam Anderson.”
It was uncomfortable and disturbing to read about someone whose values (and, clearly, life philosophy) are so entirely different from mine. But partway through the article, I realized that some of Nugent’s modern-day statements have an odd resonance with one of my favorite history books I read over the summer, Karl Jacoby’s Squatters, Poachers, and Thieves. Jacoby argued that the history of the American conservation movement is usually told as a story of progress toward ecological enlightenment, but that there is a hidden side to this that is rarely examined. Many of the early conservationists were elite, educated men from the East Coast, who had the influence and the wherewithal to impose their vision upon everybody else. On the other hand, rural folk, who had been living in nature for generations, found their traditional activities turned into illegal acts (e.g., hunting became “poaching”). According to Jacoby, the elite environmentalists saw rural people as backward, totally ignorant of the way nature was “supposed” to be dealt with; but in reality, country people’s long history of living and working in the natural world had brought them to their own complex understanding of how to sustain and protect it. It’s an important argument, and Jacoby argued it so well in his book that it was one of my favorite reads of the summer. It was a bit jarring to read Nugent’s self-consciously belligerent remarks on hunters and trappers as “the ultimate environmentally responsible stewards of life” and realize they are a perfect echo of a book I really like.
All this has particular meaning for me, because it calls to mind a problem I’ve been wrangling with for some time now–ever since I decided to go to grad school, in fact. It’s just this: why does there have to be this divide between educated elites and ordinary people? Well, okay, I’m a historian, I know why the divide exists and how it got perpetuated. But it just bugs me so much that even while we realize it’s there, it’s so hard to do anything about it–and, so often, it feels like no one is even trying. What I hate most about graduate school and academia, what I have always hated most even in the worst of exam studying, is that it seems so self-absorbed, so totally uninterested in the nonacademic world or nonacademic people. So many academics don’t seem to care about reaching people outside of their own fields, or even being able to talk to them in language they can understand. To me, this is absurd, and I try really hard to fight against it in my own budding career. I know I don’t always succeed, but to some extent I’ve always been nerdier, wordier, and more of a know-it-all than everyone else–it has nothing to do with school, that’s just the way I am! But this discomfort with the elite-commoner divide stretches beyond just academia. It extends to environmentalism, as Nugent pointed out; it extends to politics, as Thomas Frank argued in What’s the Matter with Kansas?*; and it has all kinds of significant implications for policy and even just the way people interact with one another on a daily basis.
I guess what irks me most about this division is not so much the divide itself, which is to some extent natural and unavoidable, but the way it has been mobilized psychologically (or ideologically?) to become a weapon for certain parties. Okay fine, a weapon for certain types of right-wingers who are trying to exploit the supposed ordinary guy-vs-snobby elite conflict for their own ends. It works two ways: “ordinary guy” becomes a banner around which a lot of people are willing to rally (sometimes even when the banner-carriers’ ultimate goals are harmful to the real “ordinary people”); and “snooty liberal elite” becomes an accusation to denigrate what certain people say (“So-and-so is just another one of those leftist elites; what does he know about your day-to-day life?”). Either way, the real issues don’t get aired and real debates don’t happen.
This entry is beginning to bother me. Although it’s much smarter and more complicated (from my point of view as the writer, if not yours as the reader) than most of my entries, I still think I’m not managing to say what I wanted to. Am I just railing against stereotypes in general, and the silly rhetorical debates they engender while obscuring the need for true discussion over the truly relevant issues? Does this have something to do with my own insecurity because I’ve always been kind of a bourgie intellectual elite and I’ve never quite been able to work with people on an ordinary level? I don’t know, and I’d really like to find out, but it’s now way past the time I said I’d go to bed and I am having trouble staying up. So–this will be continued (or not) some other time.
*As I understood it from Frank’s talk at UCLA last fall, one of the notable phenomena in current American politics is that Americans who identify themselves as “regular people” (working-class or whatever), who once aligned themselves with the Democrats, have now become the constituency of the Republican Party. Somehow, over time, Republicans have become the champions of the average Joe, while Democrats, once seen as the party of the working class, are now perceived as the stronghold of snooty latte-sipping Prius-driving liberal elites.
[This post was imported on 4/10/14 from my old blog at satsumabug.livejournal.com.]