Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Book Review: Shut Up & Sing

Right off the bat I should tell you, I did not have high hopes for Laura Ingraham's anti-liberal book Shut Up & Sing (not to be confused with the Dixie Chicks documentary of the same name). The premise of the book is that so-called "elites" are stupid, evil, and ruining America. Seriously, the premise is that simple. Ingraham actually uses the word "stupid" several times.

Knowing her premise, I expected to be angry and/or annoyed much of the time I was reading it. However, upon reading the book, I relaxed. Ingraham's case against "elites," whomever they are, is nothing but a mostly unsubstantiated rant. A rant, rather than being a scholarly piece of work, is really sorta just propaganda. Which, again, made me nervous. Because propaganda is often more persuasive than cold, hard facts.

For instance, Ingraham bases almost all of her claims on her own stereotypes and assumptions about liberals, Democrats, and educated people. She is telling her audience of (presumably) conservative, Republican, un-educated, rural Americans exactly what they want, and are eager, to hear about the "elites." (I say presumably, because the only people Ingraham does not bash in her book are for the most part conservative, Republican, un-educated, rural Americans).

In short, in Ingraham, "the masses" have found an educated, conservative, Republican (elite?) who will validate their concerns regarding liberalism, Democrats, and educated people.

1. The premise of Shut Up & Sing is that so-called "elites" are ruining America. Concerned with this latest (vague) threat to the country, I immediately set out to discover what an "elite" is.

Is it someone who is highly educated? Yes. That seems to be one feature. In which case it is unclear as to why Ingraham (Dartmouth-Bachelor's, University of Virginia- Juris Doctor) does not meet her definition of elite (more on that in a minute).

Of these highly-educated "elites," Ingraham writes,

"The most left-wing of the elites hang their hats, or should I say berets, at our finest universities and colleges.... they are the establishment on campus" (15).

And mark another believer in the great liberal conspiracy theory of our educational institutions. (Although I have to admit that the beret bit was kinda funny). Ultimately, it's just not faaaa-ir that so many liberals are in academia. It's not faaaaaa-ir that Women's Studies programs, African-American studies programs, and LGBT studies programs exist in colleges. (It's also not faaaaa-ir that some Americans are hyphenated-Americans, because aren't we all Americans?). Much like conservatives will not be satisfied until creationism is taught alongside evolution in classrooms, the likes of Ingraham will not be satisfied until conservatives are equally represented in academia. Regardless of the merits of their positions.

Okay, so elites are "highly-educated" (yet "stupid," of course).

Yet there are also "media elites," "cultural elites," "business elites," and "world citizen elites." Although she admits that elites run across the political spectrum, she really only bashes Democrats and liberals- perhaps proving that it is okay to be "elite" as long as you agree with Ingraham. Media and cultural elites essentially are famous people, like Susan Sarandon and the Dixie Chicks, who are liberal (it's also essential, when denouncing these liberals, to include the most unflattering pictures of these people as you can). As the title of her book suggests, these entertainers should just shut up about politics and entertain us. Well, the ones with whom Ingraham disagrees should shut up, anyway. "World citizen elites" are those who believe in the outrageous, preposterous, outlandish notion that we are all citizens of the world (rather than just American citizens).

In the end, I was left unsatisfied by her definition of "elite." Ingraham has created a straw-group of people that she abstractly calls the "elites," whose sole common bond is essentially any person who holds a position that she does not agree with. For, even though she's influential, wealthy, and highly-educated, she is not an elite. Throughout her book, she claims that the "elites" do not reflect the values of "we the people" or "Americanism" or "democracy." Even though she has conducted no poll, she believes she speaks for America. Citing no evidence whatsoever, she believes that conservative views are the views of "the masses," of the real America. Does anyone else find it troubling that she views the beliefs of an admittedly uneducated group of people as "real American values." Or that ignorant viewpoints represent the real America? It is here that I must note that she not once tried to prove the correctness of her conservative beliefs. Her "case" is essentially this: Elites are educated but they're stupid so we shouldn't listen to them. The masses are uneducated but they know what's best because there is more of them.

Not exactly the case I would make for saying my position is correct. But then again, logic is surely a highfalutin' "elite" notion.

The group she uses to contrast with the "elites" are "the masses"- also known as the common people, the little people, or Americans. Yes. Americans. [*Brief pause to check my passport to make sure I'm still an American* ] See, Ingraham implicitly defines an American as those people who agree with her: conservative, Republican, rural, religious, and uneducated people (white, heterosexual ones, of course). The "other," the "anti-American," is anything that falls outside of this narrow group. Conveniently. By defining a true American as those who agree with Ingraham, Shut Up & Sing is an exercise in political, religious, and social intolerance.

In short, Ingraham's novel is a case study in how conservatives have hijacked the phrase "American values" by instilling their beliefs in that phrase- allowing conservatives to claim that anything other than a conservative outlook is by definition un-American.

2. When speaking about the Iraq War, Ingraham (who was writing in 2003) continually and almost-embarrassingly does a premature victory dance. For instance, she quotes Senator Ted Kennedy as warning in 2003 that a war with Iraq,

"will not advance the defeat of Al Qaeda, but undermine it. It will antagonize critical allies and crack the global coalition that came together after September 11. It will feed the rising tide of anti-Americanism overseas, and swell the ranks of al Qaeda recruits and sympathizers. It will strain our diplomatic, military, and intelligence resources and reduce our ability to root out terrorists...."

After this quote, Ingraham taunts that Kennedy was "Wrong, wrong, wrong" on all counts.

When, of course, we know now that Kennedy ended up being right. According to this GAO report, Iraq is worse off in many measures than before the war. What is disturbing is that Ingraham fell, hook, line, and sinker for Bush's "Mission Accomplished" victory speech regarding the war in Iraq and implied that Senator Kennedy, by warning us about the war, was an "elite" who hates America. With the benefit of hindsight, we can look back and see that this war is still occurring and has not been as successful as Ingraham unquestionably believed it to be (and was based on lies propagated by the Bush Administration).

Ingraham, as the title of her book does more than suggest, would prefer for critics of Ameican foreign policy and people with whom she disagrees, to just keep quiet. To silence liberals, she uses the age-old jibe that those who vocally disagree with her or conservatives "hate America" or that liberals are somehow America's enemies. And, even though free speech is a quintessential American value, liberals should just shut up. If they don't shut up, they hate America. If you don't agree with her, you hate America. See how that little trick works? It's really a quite common tactic (eh Fitzy?) and entirely deserving of a Red Scare Award! (Congratulations).

3. Ingraham writes, "By definition, elites can never outnumber common folk" and with the ever-increasing population (thanks to huge families and megachurches) of "the common folk," elites will some day be "effectively contained." (41)

With her message that powerful "elites" are evil combined with her acknowledgment that the "common" people are more numerous and, therefore, more powerful than the "elites," Ingraham's message is at its core sorta socialist. (Don't tell her that, as she lambasts liberal commies and Marxists throughout her book!). I agree with Ingraham that the one thing the masses have over "elites" (whoever they are) is that they heavily outnumber the "elites."

It's just too bad that so many of the masses fall for conservative rubbish exemplified by Ingraham's novel than they believe in liberal polices that could actually benefit them. By continuing to vote Republican and "family values," the blue-collar masses continue voting directly against their financial self-interest. While "the masses" obsess over which candidate will not allow gay people to marry, their elected politicians help widen the gap between the very rich and the poor, vote to extend a perpetual war that makes a few people richer and poor kids dead, and extend tax breaks that mostly benefit millionaires. (Hello recession, by the way!)

It makes the very rich happy, you see, when the little people vote against their own interests. It makes the very rich happy when blue-collar working stiffs denounce liberals and progressives as "reds" and "commies." The working class so prides itself on its "Americanism" and "American values" that it will automatically denounce anything that has an "un-American" label on it, no matter what the merits of the idea are.

In sum, I found this "New York Times Bestseller" to be a collection of stereotypes and personal attacks on a group of people defined mostly by Ingraham's dislike of them than on anything they have in common with each other. And, that such a negative book would be a bestseller in this country is depressing. Do people really believe what Ingraham believes? Does this book pass as an accurate diagnosis of America's social ills amongst the conservative crowd and the masses? Do they really believe that America's problems are brought on by a vaguely-defined group of liberal "elites"?

While denouncing an alleged victim mentality of "elites," Ingraham has created the perfect justification for conservatives to turn themselves into victims: Liberal elites are attempting to oppress the "the masses" and (conservative) "American values."

At the risk of sounding elitist, I must end on this note: After reading Ingraham's book, it's apparent to anyone with any sort of brains that the Empress is not wearing clothes. Now it's just a question of when Ingraham's audience will figure it out.

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