Saturday, August 28, 2010

The crowded places v. the empty places

That is the dichotomy Gail Collins floats--actually she calls it a "rift"--in her exchange with David Brooks in the New York Times a few days ago, "This Just in from Montana." In it, Brooks describes his recent vacation in Montana, including various encounters with Montanans who are skeptical of Washington, noting that the "disgust was stronger than usual this year." Brooks mentions that he usually spends a summer vacation in the Rockies. Collins writes:
The folks who live in the empty parts of the country feel as if they’re taking care of themselves, and that Washington is a faraway place whose interference is always unwelcome. I get where they’re coming from, although I do need to point out that Montana gets $1.47 back for every dollar it sends to Washington, and that the folks in Montana who feel they’re so powerless, each have 36 times the representation in the U.S. Senate as a resident of California.
Recognizing that the culture wars have gotten aligned along the rural-urban axis, Collins calls the "everybody's-a-crook-in-Washington" attitude "just as much an expression of presumed cultural superiority as city dwellers being snotty about life on the farm." Of course, she also gets in a dig about the federal money Western states get from Washington. Never mind that the reason for this is that the federal government owns huge parts of these states--we call them "public lands." They are thus lands that the state and local governments cannot tax; so, perhaps it is appropriate that the feds actually provide some compensation.

Brooks then responds that, this year, he didn't even try to talk the Montanans into believing that many politicians are in Washington for the right reasons. He writes, "The gap between the meritocratic masters of the universe and the rest of the country is just too wide."

I guess he means the culture gap, but this line still puzzles me. Even if many politicians are in Washington for the right reason--and I tend to agree with him on that point--it doesn't make the political enterprise particularly meritocratic any more than the individual politicians themselves are. Further, are these politicians themselves a product of a meritocracy--or are the products of class privilege? I actually don't know the answer to that question. I'm just asking.

Also, isn't it interesting that Brooks chooses to vacation in places like Montana, if he finds the locals so scary?

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