Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Lunch Chat

As anyone can tell from my "authoritarian" post below, I tend to take a somewhat tongue-in-cheek approach to the beliefs on the other side of the political fence. That's not to say that I don't think the Bush cultists ought to be drummed out of political power. I certainly do believe that. But I also realize that the average rank-and-file conservative is not a rabid Bush worshipper like many rightwing bloggers, pundits and elected officials. I think most conservatives are just average folks like myself; folks who want good government, effective leadership, safe schools and towns, a decent job and so on.

In that sense, it was interesting for me today to listen in on an informal lunch chat that really helped flesh out a little bit of the conservative Midwestern mind. To set the stage: the company I work for recently divested itself of a plant in Brazil and has moved the head beancounter there and his family to Mississippi. Said Brazilian beancounter has been here in Wisconsin at our corporate office this week getting up to speed on how American accounting is done (lucky man was only subjected to about 20 minutes of Samurai Sam pedantry). As a welcome today, he and all of us various financial eggheads enjoyed a catered lunch, where we chatted up about the differences between Brazil and the United States. That was interesting in and of itself, but what really made me take notice in the conversation was when it turned to certain social issues. The talk around the room was a fascinating insight into how the small-town, Christian conservative view really plays out in every day life and I think it's something that is worth understanding.

First, a little background information is in order. For one, I am one of the few openly liberal folks working here, at least in my area. Second, a few of my co-workers know about this blog, but I don't believe any of them have ever read it. Also, none of my co-workers know that I am an atheist, secular humanist and Naturalist by way of moral philosophy. It's not something I've ever talked about, nor would I feel terribly comfortable talking about it at work. Finally, it's worth noting that this is a very, very conservative part of Wisconsin; a heady mix of NRA members and religious social conservatives. Which is what made the conversation so interesting.

The first topic that I really took interest in was when the Brazilian fellow began talking about the culture of Brazil. The other folks in the room repeatedly asked him about how safe and secure it was in Brazil. One even mentioned that they had heard that kidnappings and theft were fairly common. It really painted a picture of Brazil as a lawless place, which, of course, the Brazilian accountant was able to easily debunk. I thought it said a lot about what really concerns the conservative mind, especially in regard to other nations.

For whatever the fear rhetoric by the Bush administration may be worth, it's hard to argue that it hasn't been effective in seeding itself into the conservative mind. Many conservatives are largely convinced that the U.S. is the last safe place on Earth, and even that safety is tenuous at best. Listening to the breathless questions about the dangers of life abroad during the lunch chat made me realize why these conservatives support Bush's illegal wiretapping and greater "War on Terror": they crave the promise of safety and security. And they're willing to sacrifice much to get it. It's easy for me, as a liberal, to talk about violations of civil rights and the law until I'm blue in the face, but I suspect that would have little impact on these folks. Reasoned arguments about Constitutional law and civil rights just don't ameliorate the irrational fear of foreigners cultivated by Bush and the Republicans, which has taken root in the conservative mind.

Along those same lines, questions about the rural life versus urban life also surfaced, to much the same reception. The Brazilian guy explained how cities in Brazil are massively populated in small areas, and rural homes are fairly uncommon. I couldn't help but get an impression of how strange and foreign this seemed to many of the conservatives in the room, all of whom are rural citizens. In fact, several of them are from Milwaukee originally and moved this way for the very purpose of getting away from anything resembling urban life. There is a prevailing belief among rural Midwesterners in the purity of rural life; that there is something corrupt and undesirable about city life that doesn't exist "out in the country". I think this is a very important sentiment, especially in light of the fact that major cities tend to be strongholds of liberalism (except Indianapolis, for some weird reason). I believe this tends to make conservatives blame any ill they see as a problem of urban corruption on liberalism and Democratic party ideals. It's a mismatched causal relationship; that "big city values" corrupt and since most liberals congregate in cities, liberal beliefs must be corrupt as well. I think that causes many rural conservatives to wall themselves off from liberal ideas that might gain traction if only they were considered on their merits.

Along those same lines, the discussion turned inevitably to the drug trade, drug use and how to protect children from such. It comes as no surprise that, to a person from Brazil, drug trafficking and the problems it causes are an important concern. That concern extends especially into the schools, much the same as it does here. The talk turned to drug searches in schools and that's where I felt the conversation really go off the rails of what I would consider acceptable public policy. The conservatives at the table were all in agreement that school drug searches were a good thing and, in fact, were not done nearly enough. They were in agreement that it was good policy to search student lockers, student cars and administer drug tests, all with no probable cause other than the generally expected presence of some drugs in schools. Such an idea seems so alien to my liberal sensibilities.

I believe that civil rights don't begin when someone turns 18, though I agree that some rights must be curtailed for minors. However, I think high school students should have the same 4th Amendment rights that adults enjoy (as well as the same protections from assault and sexual harassment, though that's a different post). The notion from the conservative folks at the table that the rights of individual students could be completely ignored in the interest of keeping them safe rang eerily familiar. Again, it's easy to see why they support Bush's national security policies: they wish for safety above all other concerns.

Further along the drug line, it's interesting how, in these small rural communities, smoking and drinking, while discouraged, are at least socially acceptable under the "kids will be kids" cliche. But once the talk turned to pot and crystal meth, both common in rural Wisconsin, the conservative hardline was drawn. No measure was too intrusive or draconian to keep such substances out of schools and away from the kids. While I think keeping drugs away from kids is a good idea, I also can't help but wonder what kind of democratic citizens we're creating when we teach high school kids that their rights can be revoked at any time for any reason. It's small wonder that so few have a good understanding of the Bill of Rights; in many facets of their lives, it simply doesn't apply. And the conservatives seem to be perfectly comfortable with that.

The final turn of the conversation was to religion, which is not really that uncommon at this office or others at which I've worked. However, here, in the part of Wisconsin affectionately called "God's Country" by the locals, the idea that someone is not a Christian never even enters the conversation, which is awkward for an atheist like myself. Normally I keep my religious beliefs very close, both because mine are such a rarity around here and because I get bored of defending my beliefs against phony comparisons to Hitler and Stalin. However, this time I joined in and actually admitted that I probably hadn't attended church since I was in high school. This led to all kinds of suggestions at how to work myself back into the congregation, as well as jokes about the dangers of standing near me in a thunderstorm. I don't take offense to this as some atheists might; Christianity is so pervasive here that a non-Christian is a rarity (though there are Wiccans and Pagans about, if you look carefully). When the subject of faith comes up in political debate, I think the fact of Christianity's saturation level in the rural Midwest is often under-stated. It's so much a part of everyday life that it rarely becomes newsworthy, until issues like abortion and gay marriage stir the pot.

Anyway, no huge profound point in this post. Just a quick look at the conservative mindset as an attempt to understand why certain social policies that seem so egregious on their face may actually appeal to conservative voters. The desire for safety trumps so many other concerns in conservative Wisconsin that it's not hard to understand why Bush is able to rally what little support for them he can. That makes it all that much more important for local Democrats and Greens to better tailor their platform to the needs of a conservative Christian constituency. It's the key to victory in the conservative Midwest.

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