Watching the film Phantom Thread, I kept wondering why I was supposed to be interested in a control freak who is consistently unpleasant to all the people around him. I kept looking at the other characters—his sister who manages his couture business, his seamstresses, eventually the furniture (as a child, I read a very nice story about the romance between two chairs)—wondering why we couldn’t have a story about one of them instead.
Who gets to be the subject of the story is an immensely political question, and feminism has given us a host of books that shift the focus from the original protagonist—from Jane Eyre to Mr. Rochester’s Caribbean first wife, from Dorothy to the Wicked Witch, and so forth. But in the news and political life, we’re still struggling over whose story it is, who matters, and who our compassion and interest should be directed at.
The common denominator of so many of the strange and troubling cultural narratives coming our way is a set of assumptions about who matters, whose story it is, who deserves the pity and the treats and the presumptions of innocence, the kid gloves and the red carpet, and ultimately the kingdom, the power, and the glory. You already know who. It’s white people in general and white men in particular, and especially white Protestant men, some of whom are apparently dismayed to find out that there is going to be, as your mom might have put it, sharing. The history of this country has been written as their story, and the news sometimes still tells it this way—one of the battles of our time is about who the story is about, who matters and who decides.
It is this population we are constantly asked to pay more attention to and forgive even when they hate us or seek to harm us. It is toward them we are all supposed to direct our empathy. The exhortations are everywhere. PBS News Hour featured a quiz by Charles Murray in March that asked “Do You Live in a Bubble?” The questions assumed that if you didn’t know people who drank cheap beer and drove pick-up trucks and worked in factories you lived in an elitist bubble. Among the questions: “Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community with a population under 50,000 that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college? Have you ever walked on a factory floor? Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian?”
The quiz is essentially about whether you are in touch with working-class small-town white Christian America, as though everyone who’s not Joe the Plumber is Maurice the Elitist. We should know them, the logic goes; they do not need to know us. Less than 20 percent of Americans are white evangelicals, only slightly more than are Latino. Most Americans are urban. The quiz delivers, yet again, the message that the 80 percent of us who live in urban areas are not America, treats non-Protestant (including the quarter of this country that is Catholic) and non-white people as not America, treats many kinds of underpaid working people (salespeople, service workers, farmworkers) who are not male industrial workers as not America. More Americans work in museums than work in coal, but coalminers are treated as sacred beings owed huge subsidies and the sacrifice of the climate, and museum workers—well, no one is talking about their jobs as a totem of our national identity.
PBS added a little note at the end of the bubble quiz, “The introduction has been edited to clarify Charles Murray’s expertise, which focuses on white American culture.” They don’t mention that he’s the author of the notorious Bell Curve or explain why someone widely considered racist was welcomed onto a publicly funded program. Perhaps the actual problem is that white Christian suburban, small-town, and rural America includes too many people who want to live in a bubble and think they’re entitled to, and that all of us who are not like them are menaces and intrusions who needs to be cleared out of the way.
“More Americans work in museums than work in coal, but coalminers are treated as sacred beings owed huge subsidies.”
After all, there was a march in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year full of white men with tiki torches chanting “You will not replace us.” Which translates as get the fuck out of my bubble, a bubble that is a state of mind and a sentimental attachment to a largely fictional former America. It’s not everyone in this America; for example, Syed Ahmed Jamal’s neighbors in Lawrence, Kansas, rallied to defend him when ICE arrested and tried to deport the chemistry teacher and father who had lived in the area for 30 years. It’s not all white men; perpetration of the narrative centered on them is something too many women buy into and some admirable men are trying to break out of.
And the meanest voices aren’t necessarily those of the actual rural and small-town. In a story about a Pennsylvania coal town named Hazelton, Fox’s Tucker Carlson recently declared that immigration brings “more change than human beings are designed to digest,” the human beings in this scenario being the white Hazeltonians who are not immigrants, with perhaps an intimation that immigrants are not human beings, let alone human beings who have already had to digest a lot of change. Once again a small-town white American narrative is being treated as though it’s about all of us or all of us who count, as though the gentrification of immigrant neighborhoods is not also a story that matters, as though Los Angeles and New York City, both of which have larger populations than many American states, are not America. In New York City, the immigrant population alone exceeds the total population of Kansas (or Nebraska or Idaho or West Virginia, where all those coal miners are). Continue reading “Rebecca Solnit: Whose Story (and Country) Is This? “