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Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed!

by Katharine DeBrecht; illustrations by Jim Hummel

(World Ahead Publishing / 54pp. / $9)

Review by Sarah Churchwell

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Gah! Nothing specific right now. Sitting here in these chairs that I’m going to be proposing but in working with these governors who again on the front lines are forced to and it’s our privileged obligation to find solutions to the challenges facing our own states every day being held accountable, not being just one of many just casting votes or voting present every once in a while, we don’t get away with that. We have to balance budgets and we’re dealing with multibillion dollar budgets and tens of thousands of employees in our organizations.

Losing control of her logic and language made her lose control of the discourse, rather like Dogberry from Much Ado About Nothing: “Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves”.        

At the beginning of the election, however, Palin was permitted to wear her ignorance as a badge of honour. Conservatives like Charles Murray, the author of The Bell Curve, declared his undying love for Palin, because “The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government”. Since 1994, Murray has sought to rescue America from its oppression by the “ominous cognitive elite”:

Isolated from the rest of society, associating only with their own kind, exposed to a uniform intellectual conventional wisdom about everything from ethics to aesthetics to politics, this new class ... has over the [last] half century moved into positions of influence throughout American society.

It is unclear which pointy-headed intellectuals Murray had in mind, precisely: pointy-headed President Bush? It did not matter: in the code of the culture wars, a syllogistic chain controls meaning: the people in power are elites; elites are intellectuals; intellectuals are over-educated; the over-educated are pedantic; the pedantic split semantic hairs; writers split semantic hairs; people who have time to split semantic hairs are over-educated; the over-educated are liberals; liberals are over-educated are elite. (The order of the syllogism can, of course, be changed at will). They come from big cities; they have big heads; they use big words; they like big government.        

The reverse held true as well, of course. “We grow good people in our small towns”, as Palin famously announced when she accepted the vice presidential nomination. Small towns have good people; big cities have bad people. Small words are good; big words are bad. As the force of this logic multiplied, Palin took it to the next level, and announced that the parts of America that were good (i.e. small), were also real: “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working, very patriotic, very pro-America areas of this great nation”. The implications were not lost on unreal America, who demanded, and received, an apology. But not before Rep. Michelle Bachmann had made the ideological stakes clear, in demanding an investigation into anti-American – code for un-American – sympathies.

But the backlash gathering force was in part a backlash against exactly this coercive appropriation of meaning. In the election postmortem, a number of prominent commentators, including Nicholas Kristof, David Brooks and David Frum, pointed out that alienating the educated, the urban, and the affluent was not going to be a winning strategy for the Republicans. “Granted”, Kristof acknow-ledged, “Mr. Obama may have been protected from accusations of excessive intelligence by his race. That distracted everyone, and as a black man he didn’t fit the stereotype of a pointy-head ivory tower elitist. But it may also be that President Bush has discredited superficiality”. And Palin showed all too clearly what a candidate who did not employ cognition would actually look like – a vision so horrifying and corrosive to so many Americans, including conservatives, that it has left the party of conservatism in disarray and seems finally to have brought about a truce in the culture wars.

In retrospect, the most instructive text about this period may not be Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind or Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (revealingly published in the UK as What’s the Matter with America?), but  a small picture book, putatively for children, entitled Help! Mom! There are Liberals Under My Bed! This story, published in 2006 by a self-professed ‘Security Mom for Bush’, is a small parable of the American culture wars from the conservative perspective – and it may just show why they failed.

The plot and message of Help! Mom! are as simple as its reasoning: Tommy and Lou are brothers who live “in a small house, on a small street, in a small neighborhood, in a small city, in the great USA”. Tommy and Lou are good little boys who would like a swing set. Their parents, believing in the work ethic, tell them to earn the money themselves. The boys complain, and Mom offers a bit of folksy down-home wisdom: “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade”. So the boys decide to take Mom’s cliché literally – and luckily for them, God has put a lemon tree in the backyard, so they can set up a lemonade stand. They go to sleep, “like the good little boys they were” – the book’s refrain – and have a (collective, evidently) nightmare.

In this dream, they are in a “strange place” called Liberaland, where they work hard at their lemonade stand, succeed because of their “hard work” and “responsibility”.  But as they start gloating over their riches, Tommy remembers that their parents have instructed them to save money “for less fortunate kids, without shoes”, so they save a little money each day to give to the shoeless children.

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