I thought Sara’s speech was awesome, and I like her a great deal. She just did great in nearly every possible way. One theme of hers was particularly striking to me. She said:
“We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity.” I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman.
I grew up with those people.
They are the ones who do some of the hardest work in America … who grow our food, run our factories, and fight our wars.
They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town.
This sense of pride, but also of fear, animates much of the “Red State” attitude about Blue Staters. Where does it come from? It is an age old tension of what Yuri Slezkine calls Mercurians and Apollonians. America’s right-wing populism has much the same flavor as other reactions to the changes wrought by modernism. Once upon a time, itinerant merchants were a minority swimming in an ocean of peasants. They lived alongside societies in which they barely fit in or only occasionally visited; they were often suspected of being unproductive or disloyal. Often they were from distinct ethnic or religious sub-groups. Jews. Armenians. Chinese. They had to play it cool and generally made efforts not to appear to threaten the community’s prevailing mores.
Today, the Mercurians are in charge. The Ivy Leagues, Wall Streeters, verbally intelligent, quick-to-move, urban cosmopolitans. What Steve Sailer calls “Davos People.” In other words, today the world is the opposite of that of even 100 years ago, when a third or more of Americans still lived on farms. Today’s elite is everything that Sara Palin is not and has never been.
Palin represents those left behind, people not altogether devoid of the “bitterness” Obama was castigated for taking notice of. Thankfully, in America, this prejudice has been less ethnically discriminatory, less nasty, and more forgiving and ecumenical than elsewhere. In America, this populism is also dampened by our strong cultural respect for free enterprise. We’re willing as a people to make exceptions. That said, the Red Staters are willing to be overinclusive too. Consider the right-wing’s visceral hatred for a turn-coat WASP character like Bill Clinton.
In spite of its various limits and American peculiarities, this tension is still there. It has cultural, geographic, and ethnic dimensions. In spite of entreaties, we’re not solely a land of people making money or a creedal nation or some other modern symbol like a Big Shopping Mall of a Country where it does not matter who lives here, for how long, or what they think and do. This should matter to conservatives. The Mercurian ideas that “everyone should go to college,” “diversity is our strength,” physical strength and courage are irrelevant and barbaric, and other platitudes of cosmopolitan globalism are corrosive of the traditional values and virtues of the peasant-patriot, the natural conservative rooted to the soil and suspicious of change and outsiders.
When such people see gazillionaire banks getting bailed out by the feds, prayer being taken out of schools, regional and religious disparities in military service, and people in NYC making tons of money by gambling other peoples’ meager savings–their pensions in some cases–in impenetrably complex transactions even while these same workers get tossed about or outsourced by globalization, it stings and then enrages. In hard times in particular, these dichotomies and suspicions come into play.
Slezkine understands this mutual suspicion as a broader phenomenon than mere American populism or mere anti-Semitism but rather as a permanent distinction in human types in nearly every society on
earth. I think Palin tapped into this dichotomy in a very effective way. She and her land are the quintessential American Apollonian outpost. She knows these people and channels their frustrations, frustrations that can never be fully alleviated by the emasculating offer of hand-outs from the Democrats.
Working class rural people don’t want a handout; they want to be understood and respected; and, if not, they want to remind the Mercurians of the latter’s practical dependence on the Apollonian. Often this takes place in iconic symbols. Consider the brief social elevation of NYC firefighters after 9/11. For so long it had been the Enrons, techno-geeks, heiresses, artists, lawyers, and Wall-Streeters who reigned supreme there. For a brief moment, the utter fear and terror and vulnerability of the financial classes was made manifest, and their fear and helplessness contrasted so sharply with the sacrificial bravery of those very different men who marched into the burning towers.
Here’s what Slezkine says of these human types:
At different times and in different places, there were tribes–ethnic groups–that specialized exclusively in providing services to the surrounding food-producing societies. They include Roma-Gypsies, various so-called “Travelers” or “Tinkers,” the Fuga in Ethiopia, the Sheikh Mohammadi in Afghanistan, and of course the Armenians, the Overseas Chinese, the Indians in East Africa, the Lebanese in West Africa and Latin America, and so on. I call them all “Mercurians,” as opposed to their “Apollonian” hosts.
What do you mean by those terms?
Apollo was the god of both livestock and agriculture. “Apollonian” societies, the way I use the term, are societies organized around food production, societies that consist mostly of peasants, plus various combinations of warriors and priests who appropriate peasant labor by controlling access to land or salvation.
Mercury, or Hermes, was the god of messengers, merchants, interpreters, craftsmen, guides, healers, and other border-crossers. “Mercurians,” the way I use the term, are ethnic groups, demographically complete societies, that do not engage in food production, but live by providing services to the surrounding Apollonians.
In the modern world, Apollonians have to become more Mercurian–more Jewish, if you will; but Apollonian values, peasant and warrior values, essentially, live on, of course. The two attitudes, two ideal types, are still with us today, and the Jews, the most accomplished of all Mercurians, are still playing a very special role in the modern world–as the models of both success and victimization.
There are striking similarities in the way all Mercurians think of themselves and of their non-Mercurian neighbors, and in the way they actually behave. . . .
There were a lot of groups performing such functions. And, throughout the world, they share certain features and are regarded in similar ways. Think of Jews and Gypsies. Both were traditionally seen as dangerous internal aliens, homeless for reasons of divine punishment, and engaged in harmful, morally suspect activities. They were always seen as mirror images of their host communities: Their men weren’t warriors, their women seemed aggressive–and, perhaps for that reason, attractive; they remained strangers by staying aloof, not intermarrying, not fighting, not sharing meals–just making, exchanging, selling, and possibly stealing, things and concepts. And so they were feared and hated accordingly, with the Holocaust as the culmination of that long history of fear and hatred.
And I think they were seen in similar ways because they were, in many ways, similar. Both were exclusive, nomadic service providers; both had rigid taboos regarding unclean food and intermarriage; both could only survive by remaining strangers–hence the prohibitions against sharing food and blood with their neighbors, and the obsession with cleanliness. . . .
Including the Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia?
Yes. The Overseas Chinese too are supposed to be clever–too clever, perhaps. You can call on the usual anti-Semitic list: they are aloof, devious, unmanly, and so on. This is the way Apollonians describe Mercurians throughout the world.
And of course one could interpret these same qualities in a positive light. “Cunning” and “deviousness” may become “intelligence” and “a general commitment to the life of the mind.” Gypsies are proud of being smarter than the non-Gypsies they deal with, as Jews are, or were in the traditional Jewish world. Mercurian views of Apollonians tend to be negative too: “soulfulness,” “courage,” and “earthiness” may become “stupidity,” “belligerence,” and “uncleanliness.”
In other words, the oppositions mind/body, intelligence/physicality, impermanence/permanence, non-belligerence/belligerence remain the same and are agreed upon by everyone involved. Everyone knows which traits are associated with which group; the difference is in the interpretation.
While I have a great deal of sympathy for the working men left behind or abused in a global era, admire their virtues, and believe our society has become unbalanced, Palin and the GOP’s contempt for “Mercurians” of all types is a potentially dangerous indulgence. Modern societies need both human types and their respective vocations to be balanced and powerful. As a conservative, I want to tilt the scales, the honors, and benefits of society back towards the forgotten Apollonians. At the same time, I do not want to see us devolve into a primitive, hateful, envious, and dull race devoid of contemplation, gentleness, or ability, as so many Apollonian societies have become or always remained.
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