Friday, June 22, 2007

In defense of independence

My parents are seething over a report that supposedly said that Lafayette, LA is one of the most conservative cities in the United States. While looking for the report via Google, I found a site featuring Lafayette singles who tag themselves "conservative." Lots of older women, many of whom look artificially good for their age (emphasis on the "artificially"). At the top of the page was a banner ad for WealthyMen.com: "He's hot...he's single...AND LOADED!!! Meet men who make over $100K..." Well, that at least explains some of the wedding/engagement pictures in the area. But I digress.

Wikipedia cites the Bay City Center for Voting Research as placing Lafayette ninth on the list of most conservative U.S. cities. That's saying a lot, though not at all surprising, considering that the Ian Center for Voting Research figured that out years ago.

Lafayette's conservative politics are peculiar because they aren't the in-your-face variety that permeates various right-wing movements across the country. Instead, the climate is one far more sinister: it's one of ubiquity. Put another way, the city runs on the understanding that everyone's conservative. What passes for debate is often framed as a perceived fringe group (Save the Horse Farm, for example, or blacks) against the decent folk (who are framed as everyone else). Which, obviously, makes it unbelievably easy to dismiss their concerns. Such movements are seen as bumps in the road rather than as an ongoing effort to make the government and city better.

Differences in politics in Louisiana are treated the way teenagers treat differences in music tastes: "Gross! I am not listening to that crap! You should be embarrassed to like that stuff. How the hell can you stand it?"

This attitude was cemented for me once I realized that newspapers in Salt Lake City, UT and Springfield, MO frequently carried very balanced letters sections. If someone wrote a right-wing rant or a report skewed rightward, someone would call them on it - and vociferously. Some of the most biting, liberal letters I've ever seen were in the Salt Lake Tribune. Despite both cities' conservative reputations, discourse thrives because enough balance exists to keep it legit on both sides. Conversely, Lafayette has the balance but very few forums where such balance can gain a foothold.

Ever seen the StoryChat forum of the Daily Advertiser's opinion section? Every post I left there was met with more angry vitriol than I’ve ever had on this blog. And that’s a big deal, because Not Right readers come from all over the world, whereas all the most furious and personal attacks came from people in my hometown who had no idea who I was. I've been blogging for more than three years now, but I lasted about a week on StoryChat before it whipped me.

Maybe people like myself are part of the problem. Aside from an Earth Day march through a questionable neighborhood with my fourth-grade class, I never participated in a single protest in Lafayette. Indeed, I participated in virtually no political movement of any kind in my 27 years there. Was it because I was lazy? No. Was it because I didn't care about current events? You tell me. The honest answer is because I felt I did more damage with one political column than I ever could have making phone calls, holding hands or devoting my time to causes that were lost decades ago. I've always felt most effective when speaking only for myself and from myself. Lafayette's tragic intolerance of dissent probably made me that way.

Local activists are often immediately dismissed as being beholden to one party or group, a charge I hoped could not be applied to me. I've never been registered to any political party. I refused endless requests to join/helm the UL College Democrats. I routinely ignore the massive amount of campaign press releases I receive daily in my e-mail. Even now, I tend to bristle when people suggest a topic for me to write about. I'm working on curbing the solipsism. It's getting easier as I am more able to be myself in mixed company.

I'll admit I have a way to go. In Lafayette, I was once introduced to my boss' widow as "that Bush hater." At his funeral. Awkward! Something like that makes you wonder what they say in less-formal situations...

Living in another state has opened up my eyes to the frustration of Louisiana even more than I ever thought it could. One minor, yet significant, example of this is the university parallel. Here in Springfield, there used to be a campus known as Southwest Missouri State University (SMSU). In 2005, the school became Missouri State University. No regional qualifiers. No "MSU at Springfield." Just, Missouri State University. And, as far as I know, the state's largest institution, the University of Missouri-Columbia (aka Mizzou), is still thriving.

LSU, are you listening? Of course you aren't.

(And, yes, most people I've met assumed I went to LSU. When I tell them otherwise, they must wonder if I couldn't hack it there. So much for UL prestige.)

And while Missouri is far from the most enlightened state vis-a-vis politics, voters do keep prognosticators on their toes. They elected far-right Gov. Matt Blunt, sure, but they also kept John Ashcroft out of the chair by voting for a dead man. And, of course, who can forget Sen. Claire McCaskill? Even Gov. Blunt can lean away from the neocons occasionally. I haven't yet heard anyone say, "Well, Missouri politics have been and always will be corrupt." Though they do say that about Louisiana. Just as Louisianians do.

When you meet someone in Missouri, you find that they speak their mind. One girl I met at a pizzeria was very candid with me about how much the local holy-rollers irritate her. This came after only a few minutes of cursory conversation. It struck me, not only because I agreed with her, but because she didn't care if I did or not. She was not about to censor her thoughts just because the person on the next stool might not like them! Telling her that I was a liberal blogger didn't ease her mind, simply because her mind needed no easing. Her attitude was that if I agreed, great; if not, then we'll just move on. I've since shared similar unfettered conversations with locals. Even if our stances didn't always cross, I didn't walk away feeling like I made a permanently bad impression. And I felt better because I was able to be myself.

And thus, I impart this nugget to those who want to make a change in Louisiana but don't quite have the juice to do so: forget what critics think about you. It is not normal for change to be regarded with such contempt and hostility. Get out for awhile and see how people in other areas effect change. And, if you can stomach a return to the corrupt politics of Louisiana, then you'll make a fantastic thorn in their side. The biggest enemy to Louisianians is the attitude that things just are they way they are. From 700 miles north, I can tell you that they aren't.

It's all up to you.

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