Sunday, March 26, 2006

Reverse Elitism

In a column that later veers into hyper-sarcasm bordering on the unintelligible, Jonathan Chait begins by noticing a trend that's bothered me for some time:

I blame George W. Bush's election for many ills, and, to that list, I can now add the fact that I have been publicly shamed for not owning a gun. My unwilling confession took place a month ago, while I was being interviewed by the right-wing radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt. He asked me whether I owned a gun and whether I had ever owned a gun (in what seemed to be consciously McCarthyite language). Later, he proceeded with a lengthier inquisition into whether I had friends or relatives in the military. He asked a version of this question some half-dozen times. ("Is there anyone that you want to bring up, like your aunt or your uncle, or the guy down the street?") I volunteered that my next-door neighbor and friend is a naval reservist, but this failed to mollify him. "Do you know anyone who's been back and forth to Iraq and been deployed there?" he asked. Sadly, I was unable to produce any evidence for my defense. In the court of right-wing talk radio, I was convicted of being a blue-state elitist.

This is a very odd cultural moment we find ourselves in, where there is a stigma attached to not owning a gun or not having friends shipped out to Iraq. This isn't a moral question; military service is obviously admirable, but knowing people who serve is no more admirable than knowing people who donate to charity. It's a cultural question. Since Bush's election, and especially since his reelection, liberals have grown painfully aware of the cultural gap with the white working class. The approved liberal posture is cringing self-flagellation. We brought the catastrophe of the Bush administration upon ourselves with our latte-sipping ways, and we must repent. Conservatives are gleefully pressing their advantage. Did you mourn Dale Earnhardt? Do you sport a mullet? Well, why not?

I've never understood why Hewitt asks questions like these of the journalists that appear on his show. Especially when he grills them on their votes for president, the practice does have at least the vaguest hint of McCarthyism. Aside from the fact that questions about gun ownership, knowing members of the military, and voting habits say nothing about a person's intellectual integrity or objectivity, these types of questions evince a sort of reverse elitism. For people like Hewitt, Chait and his fellows in the media are elitist snobs, disconnected from "fly-over" America, who look down at the military, at gun owners, at Bush voters. But isn't Hewitt doing the same, looking down at liberals, at journalists, at Kerry voters? Chait is right: this is snobbery.

It is telling that Hewitt has no response except to insult Chait for having no talent and the New Republic for running the column.

(For the record: I am a conservative who voted for Bush twice. I own two guns and have actually fired them, although I last went hunting almost ten years ago, and none of the outings bore fruit -- er, well, meat. While my dad served in the military briefly in the late 1970s, I can count no current servicemen or veterans of Iraq among my friends and family. Two acquaintances are veterans of the war on terror -- an Army lieutenant in Afghanistan and a Marine captain in Iraq. I'm honored to know them, but I can't claim to know them better than casually.)

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