Saturday, November 06, 2004
Fear and loathing in Florida
I've held off writing a postmortem of the election—first, because I'm far from certain of what has just occurred, and second, because other writers are already busy at the task. But I have picked up on something that seems worth sharing.
When I looked at CNN's exit poll for Florida, two statistics leapt out—
Respondents were asked what was the most important issue. Of the choices presented, "terrorism" won by a 24% plurality, followed by "moral values (20%).1
So what's so strange about that, you wonder. The Bush campaign promoted terrorism as the most significant concern of the election, right?
True enough. But that doesn't explain this—Florida has never suffered a terrorist attack, not even a little one, yet terrorism was the most important issue. But a percentage less of New Yorkers, living in the state that experienced the greatest terrorist attack in U.S. history, thought "terrorism" was the most important issue of the election.
This makes no sense. Not only has New York actually experienced an attack, it is a natural target. Just last August the financial district of New York City went on a heightened security alert. Tom Ridge was pumped up as he described the threat—
"This is the most significant, detailed piece of information about any particular region that we have come across in a long, long time, perhaps ever," Ridge said during his appearance at the Citigroup tower in Midtown Manhattan, named Sunday as one of several East Coast sites terrorists have scoped out as potential targets for explosives-laden trucks.
If a realistic evaluation of threat had anything to do with it, terrorism should have been a top priority for New Yorkers and of minimal concern to Floridians. There are two ways to take this—either New Yorkers are strangely unworried by a real threat, or Floridians are strangely alarmed by an unlikely threat.
The Florida native
Because Florida has been among the fastest growing states for decades, a Florida native is about as rare as a manatee to most people. That's because the population growth was along the coasts—primarily the east coast—and in South Florida, which also happens to be where the tourists visit.
But from Central Florida northward and west throughout the Panhandle, you'll find the native Floridians, the descendants of the Confederacy. A truely native Floridian is either black or a white anglo-saxon Protestant, and of the latter, most are Southern Baptists. The whites are the "Florida crackers," a term that used to be used freely, with no pejorative sense.
Though Southern Baptists predominate in the area, the fundamentalist and pentecostal groups—the Church of God, the Assemblies of God,2 and any number of independent congregations—have grown enormously. Fifty years ago these were the churches of the poor; the Baptists looked down on them. A half century later many of these churches have become wealthy and influential, and it is certainly not a negative for a politician to belong to one of them.
Meanwhile, the Southern Baptists have actually become more like their formerly poor cousins. The church that used to tout the phrase "the priesthood of all believers,"which meant it was for every person to decide what the Bible means, now has established a dogma to which everyone is expected to adhere—a development that has created a split in the denomination. Now you have your new-style dogmatic Baptists and the old-style "Jimmy Carter Baptists." My impression is that the latter are in the minority.
So what makes me such an expert? I have to confess—I am a native Floridian.
Halloween, only a few days before the election, was celebrated in many churches by holding a "Hell house." The children are brought in to be entertained by lurid tales of torture—a torture that is visited upon homosexuals, abortionists, witches and while we're at it, "anybody who doesn't accept Jesus Christ as their Savior." While hellfire and brimstone were always a part of Southern preaching, the volume has been
Half a century ago, very few children would have even known such words as "abortion" and "homosexual," much less heard them preached against. Now several generations of adults have been raised in this environment. Whatever the bugaboo of the moment, the heart of this religion is fear. And the people who feel it will do whatever it takes to be relieved of it.
In old Florida, terror is not an abstraction but an inculcated emotion. Fear is normal, these people are told. Fear (the "fear of the Lord") is good, because it's what motivates you to get "saved." And if you are saved, it is your responsibility to spread the fear around, so more people can be saved.
It must have been but a moment's work for Karl Rove to realize how easily these people could be manipulated—how easily the notion of terrorism would be linked with the terror of Hell, how easily the hope for a savior could be projected onto a Bible-quoting con-man.
For those not brought up in this culture—and thankfully there are quite a few left—such thinking must seem as remote as a tale told by an anthropologist—a bit like reading Margaret Meade on the Samoans. But, my friends, these are not Samoans; these are our fellow Americans. How do we deprogram a culture?