Joan Didion and "the Siege Mentality"
I wrote a couple weeks ago about David Brooks's incisive examinations of deteriorating conservative white communities and came to the conclusion that they were generally lacking.
He referred to a "siege mentality" that was prevalent amongst many conservative people and bred a certain anger and reactionary mentality as a way of explaining loyalty to Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore even in the midst of allegations of pretty despicable sexual assault and misconduct. To be fair, he does mention that this siege mentality infects city-dwelling urbanites and liberals as well, but he goes out of his way to forgive and excuse only the siege mentality of small town conservative white people.
I argued that Brooks was too forgiving and, in his endeavors to empathize and understand, failed miserably to hold his subject accountable. I said:
At some point the compromises people make in service of their cause can no longer be forgiven by virtue of their ambivalent motives for making them.
... and ...
Perhaps instead of bending over backwards to legitimize the tenuous claim that Moore voters make to any serious victimization, he can look to those on the other side of that cultural issue for an example.
I've been reading Joan Didion's Where I Was From lately, wherein she traces the bizarre cultural idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of the California in which she grew up. I've been struck repeatedly by the parallels that could be drawn consistently and directly between California as she sees it and America at large as I do.
In one chapter, Didion includes a long column she wrote analyzing a sensationalized case involving a local suburban gang of white high school kids who were accused of heinous sexual assault, harassment, and abuse of girls as young as ten.
Didion begins the column as David Brooks might, analyzing the history of the suburban community. The good times and the slow spiral into unemployment and irrelevance. The influx of migrants and the surrounding urban unrest. But Didion does not allow context to twist and contort itself into excuses. She describes the boys and men themselves in unsparing terms. Their stupidity, aggression, self-pity, and prejudice. In describing the widespread skepticism of the charges themselves and the pervasive feeling that the boys who committed the crimes were the victims of a sexualized culture or that they simply didn't know any better, Didion states:
"Each of these speakers seemed to be referring to a cultural misery apprehended only recently, and then dimly [...] complaining specifically about 'the media' and its 'power,' but more generally about a sense of being besieged, set upon, at the mercy of forces beyond local control"
She ends her piece with a particularly vivid picture of public racism and a particularly striking and toxic combination of self-congratulation, entitlement, and self-pity. But just before that anecdote, she asks a series of questions:
"What does it cost to create and maintain an artificial ownership class? Who pays? Who benefits? What happens when that class stops being useful? What does it mean to drop back below the line? What does it cost to hang on above it, how do you behave, what do you say, what are the pitons you drive into the granite?"
Didion manages to ask difficult questions about culture and class, anger and resentment, victimization and entitlement, but she's able to do so without excusing abhorrent misbehavior or willful ignorance. She's able to describe these characteristics and dig after their roots without minimizing them or dismissing their consequences.
Perhaps it's not entirely fair to compare Brooks to someone like Joan Didion (she is, after all, Joan Didion), but he tackles incredibly difficult topics and would do well to tackle them with some measure of care. Though it's been the case for fifty years and this assessment is nothing new, Didion seems to have that figured out.