Living Blue in the Red States by David Starkey

It’s OK […] to be in the minority. The role of the minority is to record what the majority would rather forget or ignore.

— Robin Hemley, “Control Issues”

When I first saw this book, I was a little worried: other than a collection of conservative essays chiding and insulting liberals, the last thing the United States needs is a collection of liberal essays bashing and whining about conservatives. The only thing a book like this could possibly do, I thought, is get both sides to scootch down further in their comfy little us/them holes.

I say this as someone who grew up in a red state, Virginia, in a fairly Republican family. My hometown of Virginia Beach — and the surrounding Hampton Roads/Tidewater region — is chock full of military families and installations (read “red”), but the city of Norfolk and sizable chunks of the otherwise-touristy Oceanfront area have their share of urban/counterculture edge (read “blue”). Combine this with family from the Deep South, 12 years of my adulthood spent in and around Washington, D.C., followed by a recent move to Albany, NY, and you’ve got somebody with a decent feel for the split between these two separate dimensions of U.S. culture which, if it truly exists, makes the entire nation like warring Redskins versus Cowboys fans — except I think those teams actually have some respect for each other. Anyway, this book had the potential to contribute to that sociopolitical bullshit.

Happy news, fair readers: as a whole, it doesn’t. Minus a couple of (usually partisan) duds, Living Blue in the Red States does just the opposite: it actually reveals the sensitivity, openness, and respect which the best (blue or red) minds can offer. I think that there are at least a couple of essays that strident Republicans would appreciate and, perhaps more importantly, those same essays might teach some Democrats a thing or two about temperance and true tolerance.

The collection is divided into three sections for the three regions which are not generally locks for the Democratic vote — West (not the coast), Midwest, and South — and there is one standout-magnificent essay in each of these sections, along with editor David Starkey’s afterward. David Romtvedt’s “Red Politics and Blue in Wyoming”, Robin Hemley’s “Control Issues”, Jim Peterson’s “The Kreskin Effect”, and Starkey’s “Writing the Personal Political Essay” are all flat-out excellent writing, regardless (but not ignorant) of politics. That’s a real accomplishment.

The best of these essays — and there is a lot of great work beyond what I mention above — acknowledge the false dichotomy of red and blue, confront personal biases, and outline the disillusionment of the left at both the right and itself. Most importantly, they are vivid and eloquent. Starkey discusses the difficulty of the sub-sub-genre “personal political essay” in his afterward, which draws on contributors’ responses to Starkey’s request to define the genre in which they were working. The problems of audience, topicality, and tone are unique in this type of anthology, but my bet is that more than a few of these essays will outlast momentary passions and political tides.

David Romtvedt writes what is essentially an even-handed appreciation of his state. I think I’m supposed to want to puke at his descriptions: repairing windmills; cutting, hauling, and stacking firewood; different shades of blue in the sky, water, or shirts; pulling two apples from a tree and giving one to his horse while eating the other himself; shoveling snow; attending an open-mic poetry reading with unlikely co-participants a cowboy, a “feminist activist lesbian poet”, and a woman in her seventies claiming to be “the reincarnation of an eighteenth-century Indian maiden”. I’m supposed to roll my eyes, shake my head, and tsk-tsk-tsk, but the essay is a miracle, a beautifully balanced and seemingly effortless narrative regarding Wyoming’s overlooked code of tolerance, private conversations with the governor about Romtvedt’s use of the word “fuck” in a poem (Romtvedt is Wyoming’s poet laureate), and George Ritzer’s idea that “we live in a world increasingly shaped by the concept of nothing.”

Mark Twain would likely approve of Robin Hemley’s “Control Issues”, and not just because Hemley briefly lampoons the Illinois State Fair’s “animatronic life size figure” of a “lobotomized, soulless Mark Twain” in the Milk Expo who “told us he had a mighty hankering for milk”, or because he takes up the spirit of Twain’s essay “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.” It is an awesome blend of humor and history, addressing euphemisms, airport security, Grover Cleveland’s opposition to the Statue of Liberty, and patriotic imperialism. The subject matter is frightening, enraging; the writing is hilarious.

One of the most personal accounts is Jim Peterson’s “The Kreskin Effect” which opens with the young Peterson and his father floored by Johnny Carson’s slapstick, fascinated by the “mentalist” the Amazing Kreskin, and divided over Martin Luther King. This relationship — which is by turns combative, distant, and archetypal — continues through the escapades of Peterson’s “conservative but sexually wayward father”, Peterson’s own transformation into a “born-again Christian liberal” a la Jimmy Carter, and his father’s death in 1977. Peterson confronts (and by this he means “stands up to and accepts”) “just how complex a person’s political evolution can be” and the brilliant metaphoric realization that he cannot allow his father to produce in him “either conformity or rebellion.” When he writes, “After all I’ve said, I hope it won’t surprise you if I say that my father was primarily a good man”, I want to propose something rash — something like making the discussion of this book the subject of a national town hall meeting. Something open, sweeping, engaged, and literate. Something crazy like that.

For once, I’ll hold off on diagnosing why the duds are duds. Suffice it to say there is some ugly and boring partisan writing, some limp attempts at humor, and some potentially insulting moments for even a moderate Democrat (at least I think that’s what I am — I do have to admit I find the big government of the Northeast more than a little distasteful). There are a few essays not worth reading, and you’ll either disagree, read them, and find worth — which would be fine with me — or you’ll take folks like Romtvedt, Hemley, Peterson, Starkey, and others to heart, to mind, to community.

RATING 8 / 10


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