Ethnography of Liberalism: I

There used to be an academic discipline called “Ethnography.” It was an inherently humble endeavor, the description of others, of usually exotic, far away, little-known groups. I mean head-hunters of Borneo, and Pygmies from central Africa. Ethnography had little pretension to “explain” as does modern Anthropology for example. I am engaged in a continuous study of the Left. I am doing daily, indefatigable ethnography of that quaint but interesting tribe.

In spite of my public identity as a conservative, I am proud to say I have good entries into the liberal world of my small ultra-liberal and “progressive” town. I don’t know the liberal establishment and I think it does not know me, or it ignores me. I am in daily touch with the rank-and-file though. (I will not blow my cover by telling you how. You will have to take my word for it.) Because of my previous life in academia, I also know liberals. and even progressives, outside of my immediate area. I am talking of people with whom I have personal contacts at will, not National Public Radio.

Old-fashioned ethnographers used to exploit “native informants.” Those were local indigenous people who were willing to talk, trustworthy and who, the ethnographer had reasons to believe, were well-informed. Lately, I have been having short and long-distance conversations with a younger man, a very moderate liberal, a liberal-leaning centrist, you might say. I have known the man for a long time. He is intelligent, very hard-working and resourceful. He has even demonstrated an entrepreneurial bent. More importantly, I know him well enough to be sure that he prizes his personal credibility. My liberal friend is a valid native informant. I am not building a straw-man to burn later in triumph.

I asked him to give me the real reasons why he voted for Obama. He gave me many. We had several longish email exchanges. At first, he had trouble understanding “reasons,” confusing them with “motivations.” Then his reasons did not stand up to superficial examination. It turns out, he voted as he did because he wanted to believe in “change we can believe in.” He also spoke a great deal of President Bush’s “idiocy.” Upon closer examination, there was no “idiotic” act or pronouncements he could think of. There were only several statements of moral distaste for war and hesitant confessions of run-of-the-mill snobbery (See my essay on this blog: “Are Liberals Just Snobs?”) My friend did not say so himself but I got the feeling that he allowed the late-night shows, with their squeaky, creaky humor, to summarize his political positions. (I am not sneering; remember that I described him as hard-working person. He has a lot on his plate) Hence the non-sequitur regarding Pres. Bush’s alleged “idiocy.”

My native informant – who may have voted for Bush earlier – seemed to have voted as much against the non-running Bush as for Obama. He is quite capable intellectually to parse the difference between Bush Republicanism and the McCain brand. I am certain he did not do it. When the chips were doing, he chose to not think things through.

Then, the conversation drifts to health care, of course. He tells me point-blank that he is for the public option. That’s because his younger brother cannot afford health insurance. My native informant is a self-made man, I know this for a fact. I am obviously a self-made man, I know for a fact that he knows it. He should know that his reasoning has no moral currency. I tell him I think he should buy insurance for his brother. I ask him what reason he could possibly have to ask me to pay for his brother’s insurance. The conversation stops. I think I know why but I am just guessing: He does not want to take the giant step that consists in recognizing that the government has no money except what it takes from us, from me, among others, and from the coffee-shop waitress who earns nine dollars an hour.

In the end, I think it all boils down to feeling good irrespective of consequences. My friend is not short of intelligence; he is educated well above average; he is well-informed about the way business works. He just insists on listening to his inner child more than to his reason.

I know what it’s like although I am conservative and a libertarian. I have an inner child too. It’s just that, every so often, I take the little wimp out and beat his ass.

Watch for more Ethnography of Liberalism on this blog soon.

Please keep it civil

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