Thursday, July 20, 2017

American Division?

Are you familiar with the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon? You've probably experienced it, even if you don't recognize this name. It's that feeling that happens when you encounter something new, and then suddenly you start seeing it everywhere. For example, when we got my wife a new car a few years ago, I suddenly started noticing that make and model of vehicle absolutely everywhere we went. Weird, isn't it? (If you want to learn more, go a-googlin' and I'm sure you'll find out plenty about this.)

I bring it up because I had a bit of this feeling just this week. I'm still thinking about how impossibly divided the American public seems to be along political lines. Every time I check my Facebook I see some political posts either decrying our President or defending him. It's bizarre to me how divided things are.

And then, I had two very different media experiences in short succession that have me thinking about the implications, and possible causes for this division in a new light. (And a little Baader-Meinhof feeling, because I encountered these things back to back...)

The first was reading a novel. The book is American War, by Omar El Akkad. It is a story of a dystopian future set in late 21st Century America, and tells the story of the "second civil war." It was vaguely unsettling, actually, because I can imagine the things told in the book actually happening, given the current political climate. OF COURSE it is a work of fiction...but good fiction is often grounded in reality, right?

What really got me about the book was the demarcation in the book of the secessionist southern states (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina) being labeled "the Reds," with the unionist northern states being "the Blues." And, of course, border states like Louisiana, Tennessee, and North Carolina are "Purple." Of course, this idea came from someplace, right? Think about where you are most likely to find "Red states" and "Blue states" in the US today...

El Akkad pulls in the idea that there is more than just geography that is dividing these regions. There are different ideologies at work. Part of what kicks off the war in the book is a difference of opinions about fossil fuels. Those liberals in the "Blue North" are going solar, and pushing legislation outlawing fossil fuels all together. In reaction, the conservatives in the "Red South" push back, proudly driving gas guzzlers, and refusing to follow the new laws of the land, beginning a rebellion. Now, that's too simple to say it's just because of the restriction on fossil fuels that there was a civil war. It was a difference in ideology in general. The difference between "Reds" and "Blues" was a stark difference in worldview. I won't spoil the book for you, but if this sounds intriguing...I'd encourage you to read it.


Just this morning, I was listening to my favorite podcast: Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History. Gladwell is a journalist and critic of culture, and the stories he shares on the podcast are all about uncovering "events, people, or ideas that are overlooked or misunderstood." He is a masterful storyteller, and while he tells his stories with a slant, I appreciate the fairness with which he tries to share all aspects of each story.

Today's episode was entitled "The King of Tears." The key question he raises in this episode is, "Why does country music make you cry, when rock-and-roll doesn't?" And in the way he dives in to this topic, it quickly becomes clear that there are different worldviews at work in these two musical styles that goes beyond the instrumentation choices. I'd encourage you to give it a listen, if you have 45 minutes to spare.

I highly recommend that you give this podcast a try...

In a nutshell, Gladwell argues that Rock is more diverse, and as a genre is caters to a broader segment of society--and is also made by a broader segment of society. People from a variety of religious, racial, and ethnic backgrounds and from all over America contribute to Rock. It appeals more broadly, but is also "shallower"...and therefore less likely to make you cry. Country, on the other hand, is a narrower genre. Gladwell goes so far as to list the home states of the musicians who recorded the top 20 country songs (according to Rolling Stone magazine) and almost all of them are from...the South. Mississippi. Texas. Tennessee. Georgia. "Red states," if you will.

I'm grossly simplifying this--you have to listen to the episode in it's entirety to get the full nuance--but to put it baldly: Country is music by white, Christian folks from the south that is most strongly embraced by other white folks, mostly Christians, mostly in southern states. Now, is that a stretch? I mean, sure...there are plenty of people in other parts of the US who listen to Country. I spent a summer in Montana about 25 years ago, and that rural community was largely comprised of Country fans. But...they were white, conservative, and Christian, even though they weren't from the south. Interesting that they would be quick to embrace this particular genre? It makes me wonder if there is something about that particular mindset or ideological approach, that draws people to Country?

Gladwell suggests that you are more likely to cry listening to Country than Rock, because the songs are written differently. Country singers--and listeners--have a lot in common with each other, and out of their shared commonality (leading to a particular mindset or ideology?) they tell deeper stories about their times of woe, with more details about the sorrow. Rock, he suggests, feels shallower, because it's played to a more diverse audience with less of a shared common experience, or less of a shared worldview. It was an interesting argument to hear laid out, if nothing else.

Can you tell someone's political leanings, based just on the music they prefer? If you prefer Country, are you more likely to be Conservative? If you prefer Rock, are you more likely to be Progressive? My gut reaction is...well...this doesn't sound wrong to me. But just because there's a correlation certainly doesn't mean there is a causation here!

But now, I'm left wondering about this...

What if the real American division so palpable in our society today isn't just about our politics, or views on energy policy (fictional or otherwise), or our music preferences, but about a worldview underlying these?

And, further, how do we move forward? Can we get beyond division? What if we all tried to listen more than we tried to shout over each other? What if we changed the radio station once in a while, and really listened?

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