Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Country Boy, City Woman

Nina Burleigh does some soul-searching and comes away wishing she could believe in America’s “potential for good and brotherhood”. (Note: I'm excerpting large portions of this article because you may not be able to read it in its entirety without a subscription. h/t: Instapundit)

It’s difficult to know where to begin when I think about what she has to say. Having lived in upstate New York, I’m very familiar with the kind of town she’s describing, although, frankly, I believe you can find the same kind of town in many places throughout the heartland of America – just about anywhere, in fact, once you get away from the big city. However, as Ms. Burleigh makes clear, her intent in moving to Narrowsburg was never to really “live” there at all:

Our family first arrived in Narrowsburg in 2000, as city people hunting for a cheap house. For barely $50,000 we were able to buy the "weekend house" we thought would complete our metropolitan existence.

She goes on to add:

But soon after we closed on the home, we moved to Paris, spurred by the serendipitous arrival of a book contract. When our European idyll ended after two years, and with tenants still subletting our city apartment, we moved into the Narrowsburg house. After growing accustomed to the French social system -- with its cheap medicine, generous welfare, short workweek and plentiful child care -- life back in depressed upstate New York felt especially harsh. We'd never planned to get involved in the life of the town, nor had it ever occurred to us that we might send our son to the Narrowsburg School. But suddenly we were upstate locals, with a real stake in the community.

In essence then, a reasonably well-to-do family (let’s not call them rich, shall we?) buys a second home in a depressed, rustic, backwater part of the state not because they want to live there but in order to be able to complete their “metropolitan existence” (i.e. to be able to get out of the city and hobnob on the weekends with all their city friends) and, through an unforeseen – but mostly positive – set of circumstances, find themselves being forced to become a part of the community.

Sounds like a fate worse than death, doesn’t it?

And so our intrepid couple is forced to enroll their child in the Narrowsburg kindergarten. Despite the school not being a “traditional first step on the path to Harvard” they were, initially at least, “pleasantly surprised”:

The school had just been renovated and was clean, airy, cheerful. The nurse and the principal knew every one of the 121 children by name. Our son would be one of just 12 little white children in a sunny kindergarten class taught by an enthusiastic woman with eighteen years' experience teaching five-year-olds.

Still, uneasiness remains. Fully ¼ of the adult residents are military veterans and at least 10 recent graduates are actively serving even as she writes. The school’s “defining philosophy” is “traditional and conservative” and each day starts with a “Morning Program” which consists of the Pledge of Allegiance, a patriotic song and a discussion of the “word” of the week, with some of the words being suspiciously political, like “military”, “tour”, “nation”, and “alliance”.

But the shit doesn’t hit the proverbial fan until her son comes home one day with an invitation to attend a “released time” Bible class. Now I can certainly understand her being surprised and/or upset by this. When you send your child to a public school, the last thing you expect to discover is a Bible class mixed in with the curriculum. But her response is telling. Does she contact the principal? No. Does she contact the teacher? No. Does she speak with anyone else at the school or perhaps with one of the other parents to find out what’s going on? No. So what does she do?

We called the ACLU and learned this was an entirely legal way for evangelicals to proselytize to children during school hours. What was against the law was sending the flier home in a kid's backpack, implying school support. After our inquiry, the ACLU formally called the principal to complain. She apologized and promised never to allow it again. While we were never identified as the people who dropped the dime to the ACLU, there was clearly no one else in the school community who would have done so -- and the principal never looked at us quite as warmly again.

Gee, I can’t imagine why. Is this what this woman considers having a “real stake in the community”? Without discussing the issue with anyone involved she freaks out and calls the ACLU? Boy, how to win friends and influence enemies, huh? When she later learns that the kindergarten teacher belongs to one of the “most conservative, evangelical churches in the community”, her reaction is even more telling:

…we were careful not to challenge anyone or to express any opinion about politics or religion, out of fear our son would be singled out. Instead, to counteract any God-and-country indoctrination he received in school, we began our own informal in-home instruction about Bush, Iraq and Washington over the evening news.

Does it ever occur to Ms. Burleigh to wonder if this is how conservative parents feel when they are surrounded by people who think like her? Somehow, I doubt it. She does, however, begin to feel some guilt at being what she calls a “non-believer”:

When I was 5 years old, in 1965, did I understand what my lefty parents were saying about the Kennedy assassination, Watts and dead-soldier counts? Who was I to deprive my son, or his eleven kindergarten chums, of their faith in a nation capable of combining "good with brotherhood?" In a 5-year-old's perfect world, perhaps such places should exist.

Yet, just a few months later, while driving into the City to deliver clothes for a Christmas clothing drive for Iraqi children, she decides it’s time he knew the truth:

As we crossed the George Washington Bridge and the Manhattan skyline spread out below us, I began to give him a variation on the "Africans don't have any food, finish your dinner" talk. I wanted him to understand how privileged he was to live in a place where bombs weren't raining from the sky. It was a talk I'd tried to have before, but not one he'd ever paid much attention to until that day, trapped in the back seat of our car.

In simple language, I told my son that our president had started a war with a country called Iraq. I said that we were bombing cities and destroying buildings. And I explained that families just like ours now had no money or food because their parents didn't have offices to go to anymore or bosses to pay them. "America did this?" my son asked, incredulous. "Yes, America," I answered. He paused, a long silent pause, then burst out: "But Mommy, I love America! I want to hug America!"

After reading her “simple” talk with her son about the war in Iraq, I couldn’t help but wonder what she said to him when he asked her about God, but sadly, Ms. Burleigh does not enlighten us.

Due to a number of factors that have nothing to do with her story, the Narrowsburg elementary school is forced to close its doors at the end of the year (June, 2005). To her surprise, Ms. Burleigh finds herself “deeply sorry about it”. As she writes the article, she and her family are now back in the City and her son is:

…enrolled in a well-rated K-5 public school on Manhattan's Upper West Side; not surprisingly, the Pledge of Allegiance is no longer part of his morning routine. Come to think of it, and I could be wrong, I've never seen a flag on the premises.

At the same time, she comes to the realization that the year spent in Narrowsburg had positive side effects:

My husband and I realized, though, that Narrowsburg did more than mold our boy into a patriot. He can, it turns out -- despite the warnings of other city parents -- read at a level twice that of his new peers. Since we returned to the city, he has learned how to ride a bike, long for an Xbox, practiced a few new swear words and, somehow, learned the meaning of "sexy." He has pretty much stopped favoring red, white and blue.

So what, if anything, is the point of this article? What has she discovered during her year in exile, er, Narrowsburg that she wishes to share with us?

How soon childish national pride is shed, I sometimes think now, and not a little wistfully. Only once it was gone did I realize that, after our initial discomfort, my husband and I had begun to see our son's patriotism as a badge of innocence. His faith was a reminder to us that the reason we are devastated by the war in Iraq and the Bush presidency is that we too love America. We too want to believe in its potential for good and brotherhood.

As I said in the beginning, it’s difficult to know where to begin when I think about this article and what Ms. Burleigh has to say. I would say that I’ve never found such a combination of insular, elitist and patronizing thought except for the fact that I read similar twaddle from other leftist intellectuals almost every day. As Jane Smiley so eloquently put it in her editorial just after the 2004 election:

The error that progressives have consistently committed over the years is to underestimate the vitality of ignorance in America. Listen to what the red state citizens say about themselves, the songs they write, and the sermons they flock to. They know who they are—they are full of original sin and they have a taste for violence. The blue state citizens make the Rousseauvian mistake of thinking humans are essentially good, and so they never realize when they are about to be slugged from behind.

This ignorance on the part of red-staters – an ignorance which extends to anyone who does not fall in line with progressive or liberal dogma – is a huge source of frustration and fear on the part of the intellectual left. Frustration because the ignorance just can’t be reasoned with (it’s unteachable!) and fear because it goes hand in hand with a “taste for violence”. And underlying the ignorance and the threat of violence is a Bible-based, simplistic good and bad view of the world that you might expect from, well, a child.

Now, is it fair to say that Ms. Burleigh shares that view of red state (or, as she puts it, red dot in a blue state) people? After reading her article, I think it is. She regards her son’s patriotism as a badge of innocence – one she can’t wait to disabuse him of – or naiveté, if you will. It is a childish idea and yet one that even she yearns for: that America could actually combine good with brotherhood. And of course it’s all George W. Bush’s fault that it can't.

It’s ironic that the town she’s chosen to complete her metropolitan existence in is called Narrowsburg. With her narrow frame of mind, she should feel right at home.


Granted said...

That was a great series of comments on that piece. I had attempted the same thing on my blog, but wasn't able to come any where near your level of clarity. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

L Greg G said...

They were returning to New York and told their son "... how privileged he was to live in a place where bombs weren't raining from the sky." Sounds like some serious denial about 9/11.

And saying "... and they have a taste for violence." about their rural neighbors doesn't seem to take into account the murder and violent crime rates in 'blue' New York verses 'red' Narrowsburg. I was too lazy to look up those rates, but it would be a safe bet that New York has the much higher rates.

Gaucho said...

greg - Thanks for the comment. Yeah, it's hard to believe that someone who actually lives in New York city could feel that way after going through 9/11 up close and personal. But, as Dr. Pat has pointed out, there's a whole lot of denial going on in certain circles these days.

Interestingly enough, I'll be spending the next few days down in the City - my first visit in quite a few years - and I'm looking forward to seeing how it's changed. I'll post about it when I come back.