They’re a lot of fun, those culture wars. City folk get a chuckle over the cretins out in Kansas passing laws against evolution. The Fox News crowd enjoys fulminating about feminazis. Good ratings, good rantings, good times.
Dividing the electorate into rural-heartland/ignorant-rubes vs. civilization/East-Coast-eggheads is as old as the Republic, starting with Jefferson’s yeoman farmer pitted against Hamilton’s urbane merchant. And although the Civil War split the country along different lines, by the end of Reconstruction we were back pitting cowboys against suits, Mr. Smith against Washington, D.C.
But when real disaster strikes, that’s all over. I’m a transplanted Westerner who married a guy from New York City. We live in Brooklyn. One of the few good things that came out of 9/11 is that for a while I could walk into bars in Idaho and Nevada and Montana and not have to mumble when asked where I’m from. In fact, people would tear up, ask me where I was “that day,” shake my hand and even buy me a beer.
Well, disaster is here again. It’s not just stocks that are down: It’s oil; it’s commodities; it’s factory orders; it’s retail. The culture warriors are still at it, but the message isn’t resonating. Blame Wall Street? No one works there anymore. Blame Washington? We need the Treasury Department, and we need it bad.
And we all know it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
It is time to get serious, or, as some might say, cowboy up. We are in this together, and we have to face facts: The red states and the blue states are not divorced. Bankers can be allowed to fail. The United States is not an island unto itself—capital, goods, people and jobs fly around this globe in staggering quantities. Saying we have the best-educated workforce in the world is not patriotic if it isn’t true; it’s dangerous. So is denying global warming, which somehow got into the culture wars. Did it get mixed up with evolution? If so, someone might double-check the Bible—I think there’s something in there about the fire next time.
Most importantly, we must demand effective federal government. The anti-government movement began as a sensible attempt to curb bureaucratic waste and overreach. Then the cry for “small government,” which should be about practicality and good governance, became an ideology of no regulation and strangled government. The pendulum swung so far it broke the banks.
We can cut taxes to the bone; just don’t think folks are going to come together on Saturdays to resurface the highway or build a landing strip at the airport. The market hasn’t brought us affordable health care because it can’t. We, the people, need to work on this through the form of our representative government.
Individual initiative is great. Local civic organizations are terrific. Religious charities do wonderful work. But for the really big problems, you need a government.
America’s fundamentals are strong, but not our economy, not our education system, not our health care system, and not our infrastructure. Nope, those all need work. But fundamentally, we are a pragmatic country. We don’t cling to tradition when it doesn’t serve. We have been in jams like this before. Go back and look at the Panics of 1837, 1873 and 1893. Look at the “Long Depression” of the 1880s and the “Great Depression” of the 1930s. Some of those events were handled better than others. But when the chips are down, we jettison ideology and find practical solutions to our problems. We even saw it this month as George Bush—of all people—did the right thing and moved to partially nationalize the banking system.
Embracing effective government doesn’t mean the end of regional debate. We can still make fun of the east and “left” coast. We can still drive along the lonely highways singing “A Country Boy Can Survive.” We can still fantasize about living off backstrap and bull trout. But the survivalist fantasy is only fun in fantasy. If you really want to try it, be my guest.
Just please stay off the public highways and avoid the use of the common sewage system. If your house burns down, don’t call 911. Those pragmatic amenities are for those who are proud to share the burden of a strong and effective government. A personal sense of responsibility for the common good—that’s ground zero for a culture that works.
Mary Greenfield is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.