On Being an East Coast Liberal Cultural Elite
I used to walk home every afternoon from school. Both my parents worked and I hated riding the bus. My friends and I would walk past body shops, churches, convenience stores, and three of the town’s five stoplights on our way back to my neighborhood. There we played baseball or two-on-two basketball (winners stayed out) until dark. Summers consisted mostly of nine hour days at the town pool running on wet pavement, diving into the shallow end, and playing barefoot soccer until someone was bleeding.
My parents hosted friends and cooked meals without asking questions even when my mom shopped for groceries by carefully tallied each item to the penny before putting it in the cart. When I was in third grade I found out things about Santa Claus I never wanted to know because he couldn’t afford any of the things on my list that year.
I went to church every Sunday and sat in the balcony burning under righteous eyes every time M&Ms rattled out of the bag and into my hand. I went to Sunday school before church and youth group after. Fellowship on Wednesday nights. Bible study on Tuesday mornings.
Since the election in November, I’ve been told repeatedly by marginally insightful newsmen that I live in “the bubble.” I am isolated with urban cosmopolitans, shocked and dismayed by the outcome, who have no knowledge of or interest in the rest of the country. The liberal coastal elite – myself evidently included – are an easy target for the casually analytic. Low hanging fruit. Dead horses for beating.
It’s all bullshit. And I know that because I write this from the largest city in the country. The liberal bastion of a stubbornly blue state. I write this from the most diverse county in the continental United States on a belly full of Thai food. I write this at a laptop computer from behind Warby Parker glasses, but my formative years could have been stolen from the lyrics of a country song (excepting the notable absence of a pet dog and the alien presence of soccer – barefoot though it may have been). I am in the bubble but I am not of the bubble.
It’s yet more pungent bullshit because “the bubble” is a terrible metaphor. Bubbles are smooth and uninterrupted by defects or openings. They are fragile and pop at the slightest provocation revealing nothing but the open air of the unobstructed world that the bubble-bound missed only because of their own isolation. The ideological poles of this country don’t live in bubbles; they live in panic rooms.
Surrounded by reinforced walls with enough provisions to survive well into the impending apocalypse. Dry goods and a shortwave radio on the shelf next to a topographical map of the surrounding area. And a door. Deadbolted, locked, and air tight. Utterly impenetrable from the outside but easily cast open from the inside with the pull of a few levers and the turn of a knob. Beyond the door are hallways and windows and living rooms with furniture, pictures, books, people. Also more doors; some open and others closed. Leaving one set of cultural or ideological confines is only as useful as the number of new doors you find open upon leaving.
It’s easy to attribute the ruthless criticism and convulsive disagreement and visceral disgust stemming from our political circumstances merely to oblivious liberal cultural elites and their bubble. To unfamiliarity and inability to empathize. It’s simpler to attribute anger and disbelief to lack of understanding or willful ignorance. It’s simpler because it allows us to pretend that the anger will wear off with the novelty and to avoid grappling with the legitimacy of that anger. It’s easier because it denies that even when disagreement and disgust are distant and critical they may have merit nonetheless and it ignores the possibility that anger and fear may stem from familiarity and take root in spite of understanding.
My new place among the 'coastal urban elite' discounts my familiarity with my rural cultural inverse, desire to empathize, and intimate understanding of the community in which I grew up. But that connection does not temper my anger. It makes it reach deeper and burn longer. It makes the disagreement more pointed and the disgust more visceral. Closer and more personal.
And while assigning fear and disbelief and anger to an out-of-touch elite fails to account for the connection that they may have to the communities they are assumed to be ignoring, doing so flat out ignores the overwhelming diversity of the people whom those emotions affect. People of color who have wrestled a government unparalleled in its disfunction and oppressive nature. Women who have daily confronted barriers to employment and casual harassment. Millions of individuals who have struggled for their entire lives with a country not only culturally but legally and structurally out of sync with their sexuality and morals. Urban poor with far more in common with the rural working class than with anyone who could reasonably be called elite.
They may come from diverse conservative or orthodox faith communities or none at all, speak other languages, know economic anxiety intimately, and experience prejudice or enjoy privilege in different ways in their own communities. But often they are people who chose to walk through the door they did because few others would open to them. Often they might leave the room if it were less dangerous or unpleasant to do so.
The urban liberal bubble is, itself, a refutation of the idea of the bubble. Inherent in a densely populated area is diversity of opinion and culture. People pass through thresholds and transect hallways seamlessly – according to how willing they are to see and hear those around them and how willing others are to let them pass – and put one foot in front of the other. Cities are made up of immigrants and transplants from near and far and of residents who spend much of their lives in the presence of those transplants. Transplants connect their friends and family in other towns, countries, states, communities, and smaller cities to somewhere different. Those friends and family visit and broaden that connection. Maybe they move somewhere else.
The idea of a bubble in which entire communities by way of some sociological phenomenon live happily and blissfully ignorant of the world around them is utter bullshit. Individuals live in rooms with walls of their own construction. Curtains that can be drawn back and tied to allow the sunlight into the darker corners. Doors that can be unlocked and opened at any time. It’s a matter of willingness to turn the knob and walk the corridor and the willingness of others to do the same.
If I can’t understand a perspective then perhaps it’s because the wall is still up. If I am blind to a problem then it may be because I refuse to allow the light in. But – no matter how willing I may be to let in the fresh air, turn the knob, cross the threshold, and meet others at their own doors – I can’t unlock them from the outside. Isolation is a two way street.