A recent piece in The New Criterion—I can’t even remember which one now—mentioned in passing that the writer had seen advertised in the New York Times t-shirts which read “I Fear Americans.” I thought that was a pretty striking sign of how deeply estranged some of our urban sophisticates are from the rest of the country. I don’t know to what degree they really believe this sort of thing, but it seems to make them feel good to say it. I think a more accurate word than “fear” would be “loath;” that seems pretty clearly the case, but it wouldn’t give the t-shirt-wearer the same sense of moral superiority.
New York City of course has plenty of its own “Americans,” in the sense of this t-shirt, but I suppose they’re used to this sort of thing
This weekend I heard a story of something similar, only this time it was person-to-person, and not an anonymous slogan. Someone I know, an Alabamian, had occasion to be at a gathering of affluent, educated New Yorkers, many of them involved in show business. The gathering was at a Manhattan club for Yale graduates, which should tell you what the socio-economic as well as political profile of the group was. All was friendly except that the Alabamian began to realize that most of the people there thought that Alabama had not changed since the 1930s or so. The revelatory moment came when the Alabamian said to a dinner companion, with whom she had had previous dealings and become pretty friendly, “You should come down and visit us sometime.”
“Oh no,” came the horrified response. “I couldn’t do that. I’m Jewish. I would be killed.”
My informant was hurt and offended, as I probably would have been had I been in her place. As it was, I laughed out loud, and my next reaction was “Didn’t she ever see Driving Miss Daisy?” (which, if you haven’t seen it or don’t remember, involved a Southern Jewish family). That merely to exist as a Jew in the South constitutes mortal danger would come as great news to those Jewish families who have been living here quietly for generations. I don’t say they never suffered prejudice or mistreatment, but for all its faults the southern United States is not a land of pogroms.
This sort of insularity is instructive as well as maddening (or funny, depending on your mood or temperament). What was so striking about this story was not just that the holders of a deep and stubborn prejudice were precisely the people who pride themselves on their tolerance and openness, but that they were utterly unconscious of it, and closed to any challenge to it. I venture to say that the average Alabamian knows more about New York City than the average New Yorker knows about Alabama—after all, we in the provinces have television and movies and journalism from New York coming at us continually—and the average educated Alabamian probably knows far more. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the Alabamian may well be more conscious of what he does not know. He knows that he doesn’t know all about New York, but does the New Yorker know that he doesn’t know all about Alabama?
After reflecting on this for a while, though, I began to take it more seriously. As a sub-rational fear and hostility, it may be having a more serious and destructive effect on the country than is immediately apparent. The point has been made more than once that too many of our elites, too many people with wide influence and power, really do not like the country in which they occupy a highly privileged position, viewing the masses outside a few big cities as savages who must, above all, be restrained, and prevented from practicing the violence and oppression which is their natural impulse. This must account in part for the impression one gets from, for instance, the ACLU, that, where southerners, Christians, and other unenlightened persons are concerned, the Constitution exists mainly to suppress freedom rather than to enable it, and that a Christian prayer at a high school graduation is one small step toward genocide. If these un-liberal liberals were to see such prejudice exercised against a group with which they had any sympathy, they would see it for the bigotry it is.