It’s the Blues vs. Reds in a T.V. House Divided

My son Francis’ favorite movie is Gettysburg . I suppose we’ve watched it together a half-dozen times straight through–not bad for a three-hour film. In our family, we’re gluttons for the quality stuff; I must have 300 hours of Law & Order reruns on the clock already, and now that I have a TiVo recorder, I’m completely out of control, L.&O. -wise.

Gettysburg is actually a wonderful picture, provided you can get used to the completely odd beard Tom Berenger is stuck with as Longstreet. Jeff Daniels is terrific as Joshua Chamberlain, whose 11th Maine held the Little Round Top, and Martin Sheen as Lee previews the winning, winsome characterization he has developed as President Josiah Bartlet on West Wing , a show whose perfectly judged pitch (not necessarily the same as “perfect pitch”) was never better than on its Christmas Eve episode. That was when Bartlet decreed formal dress–what people like me call “evening clothes,” what people like, oh, Shelby Bryant probably call “white tie”–for the White House party, at which the feature attraction was Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach.

As you might expect, most of the outfits–being rented for the occasion–were improperly tailored, with an inch of white vest showing beneath the tailcoat in front (at least there were none of those unspeakable white cummerbunds that the late Herbert von Karajan affected on the podium), but–wonder of wonders–the veteran Broadway actor Paxton Whitehead, who plays the part of the Bartlet White House’s Clement Conger, showed up in as perfectly fitting a set of evening clothes, very possibly his own, as I’ve seen since the outfit I wore to squire Jane Stebbins to the Debutante Cotillion in what feels like ’07.

Bach and proper kit on a network TV show! It was almost too much for this old heart to take. It also shows, H.L. Mencken to the contrary, that one need not go broke respecting the intelligence and taste of enough of the American people to constitute a decent ratings share.

But back to Gettysburg . I’ve been thinking a certain amount about Blue vs. Gray because I’ve been thinking (and worrying) a lot about Blue vs. Red.

These are, of course, the colors which the TV networks used for their Electoral College graphics on election night. But the more I ponder them, the more I see the symbolism of something vastly more troubling. For the last page of the year-end issue of The New Yorker , the cartoonist Art Spiegelman did a wonderful drawing that makes the same point I’m about to, but in a less ponderous way. I wonder how many people paid serious attention.

I think we had better look at the last election as something that cut deeper than partisan politics as we normally think of them. That’s not easy to do right now, because the media are mostly in a state of denial-hysteria that has created a fog of absolute nonsense in which even the faintest outline of truth is difficult to discern. I didn’t vote for W. (which is not to say that I wouldn’t have were I domiciled in another jurisdiction), and like everyone else I have my doubts about the vote counts, but I’ve learned from experience that sometimes the best results emerge from the most dubious circumstances. More and more, with each passing day, I am convinced this is such an instance. My conviction is underscored by the whimpers and yelps from the media that Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft is a Nazi and that the dot-com collapse and the California power crisis are somehow the fault of Secretaries-designate Donald Rumsfeld and Paul O’Neill. One can’t escape the feeling that the reviling of Mr. Ashcroft et al. is these media idiots’ cowardly way of defusing public awareness of their support, for eight years, of a President who perjured himself in public; who displayed, in almost every instance, conduct unbecoming almost anyone; whose administration gleefully accepted contributions from the Red Chinese Army; whose own successor-designate refused to campaign with him; and so on.

Now, here’s the thing: Suppose we look at Blue America and Red America as two different sub-nations, much as Disraeli looked at England when he gave his 1845 novel Sybil the subtitle “The Two Nations.” Disraeli’s division was based on rich vs. poor. I think the Blue-Red divide in America in 2001 is something different.

To put it baldly, I think the single axis around which the swarming differences between Blue and Red are organized, like particles in a potentially unstable system, has to do with their respective attitudes toward the American past. Red reveres it; Blue seems to fear it. To the former, the past–call it “tradition” if you will–has present and future value; to the latter, it has little or none.

Blue America is New America. It lies, geographically, along our non-Anglophone frontiers. It is where dot-com economics–the New Economy–has taken root. It is where English is a second language and “assimilation” is a pejorative. It is where population growth and shifts (a function of immigration and state-to-state mobility, birth rate and better life expectancy) tend to be more pronounced. It embraces the big media and communications centers, it is the home of social causes promoted by people with few social worries of their own; it is Hollywood; it is Wall Street; it thrives on “process”; it is domicile to the great public and private power systems that exist to be manipulated and exploited. It is fugitive, shifting, relativist, “trendentious” (sic). It is where the action is, and the action there is today, it is now! Blue America is Clinton country. There are a lot of people in Blue America who look at the Statue of Liberty and see a cash register instead of a torch in her right hand. Many of these are immigrants and you can’t blame them and you shouldn’t; they come from unbelievable, unbearable privation (Francis is in India with his mother for this vacation; for the first time in his young life, he is encountering people with literally nothing to their names save breath, and I can report he has found the experience sobering), and to such people the notion of an American Past can have no practical utility or ideological bite. For them, as for their comparatively better-advantaged Blue Americans, life is about me .

Red America is different. I guess you could call it “Old America.” Every place in America has statues in its squares, but in Red America you may actually meet someone who knows who that bronze figure over there on the village green is. The past lies heavier on Red America–too heavily, some might say, but there you are. In other words, Red America accepts that the best route to a decent future may well run through a respectable past. The heavy lifting, industrially speaking, in this country is done mostly in Red America. Red America may want to get with the program and toss out the bathwater and re-plumb the joint the way its Blue counterpart has, but every time it looks in the tub it sees a baby there and stays its hand. Red America tends to be “traditional.” Martha Stewart banks her money in Blue America but she earns a good deal of it in Red America, which is also Oprah’s principal theater of operations. Red Americans aren’t offended if someone wants to pray in school or at the start of a high-school football game, which is something else that still matters in Red America, where team sports are played as well as watched. Red America speaks English and venerates certain ideals that have held up for centuries, even if these were framed by dead white males.

Right now, things seem pretty evenly split between Red and Blue America. Like handguns, for instance. In the last election, Red America eked out a draw and captured the White House on an 18th-century electoral technicality and an actuarial quiddity that left the Supreme Court with more Red American justices than Blue ones. The new cabinet, reviled by the Blue America nomenklatura , is drawn from Red America. I suspect this may be the most media-deaf administration in some time, which is as fine with me as it is with most other Red Americans (yes, we exist in émigré pockets in deepest Blue America, like remittance men), because the typical Blue America mediadroid knows nothing, has never had a real job, can’t read a balance sheet, has never played on a team and only recognizes the sound of one voice: his own.

The point of this isn’t to complain; it’s to urge that all good persons do a little thinking. Blue vs. Gray was enough. We don’t need a Blue vs. Red repeat.