We versus They
I’m one of those people who can barely understand lyrics to popular music. To mix metaphors, it’s as though I’m listening in a fog. Or, I can’t see through the noise.
But recently some lyrics caught my attention.
“Ants Go Marching” was a big hit for the Dave Matthews Band in the mid-90s. As I hear it, it’s a song about conformity. The climax of the song references a workday in urban and suburban America:
“Driving in on this highway/ All these cars and up on the sidewalk/ People in every direction/ No words exchanged, no time to exchange/
When all the little ants are marching/ Red and black antennae waving/ They all do it the same/ They all do it the same way.”
This is the song as I knew it twenty-five years ago, as much as I could understand it. The heart of the song, though—the last part—is pretty easy to make out, even for me: “they all do it the same way.”
But recently I heard a live version of the song. In that performance, Matthews switched one word: he said “we” instead of “they”: “We all do it the same way.”
This may have been an accident, even if he did say it twice. And I’m not postmodern enough to read into such things too deeply—for our purposes, it doesn’t matter what his intent was, or wasn’t. But that word changes things, nonetheless.
The original lyric, “They all do it the same,” is snotty criticism, what hipsters say about the system. “They” are working for the man, those ants with their antennae waving, driving their crossover SUVs on the highway to their workaday, soulless jobs. Somewhere else is the “we,” I would guess, who know better. “They” do this; “we” know better. And criticize.
Of course, a lot of critical hipsters are on college campuses, where they have seven-digit ID numbers and register for courses in classrooms with hundreds of others. But the morning commute is conformist, mind you.
Anyway, the other version of the lyric, “We all do it the same,” is less criticism, and more observation. We do these things. Why do we do them? It’s more analytical, less judgmental. More interested in the truth, less interested in labels. More invested in finding the answer, as it applies to us.
What a difference a word makes.
A lot of what I read about our politics takes the former form. It’s us versus them, or, more appropriate for our purposes here, we versus they. The criticism is lobbed elsewhere. Everyone, seemingly, wants to be the blameless, self-righteous hipster.
As someone who has subscribed to dozens of political magazines, both left- and right-leaning, over the past decade, I can say that the Left and Right criticize differently. The contrasts are obvious when you go to the mailbox and see the left-leaning The Nation and right-leaning National Review next to each other. Sometimes it’s comically different.
Now, exactly how they differ could be an article, or a book, on its own. But suffice it to say that each group is guilty of caricaturizing the other, but there is an asymmetry here, and an important one: the Left claims to be the side of tolerance, of inclusion. And, having read the Left and Right for years, I’d say they’re actually less tolerant. And not just about social issues of diversity today, where this manifests as hypocrisy, but about most domestic policy, including economics (“everything” the Right does is for corporations) and social issues (“everything” stems from the Religious Right). The Left drops some bombs, and I read them in their own magazines, and supposedly the more intellectually sound magazines. The Right, or at least the more intellectual Right, is much more measured, in my opinion.
The point here is not to compare the Left and Right—that’s just a fun bonus. Instead, it’s to highlight an irony: the Internet has increased polarization because we all have more access to what we already believe, but the Internet—believe it or not—also allows people to access what the other side is saying. For free. And do we do that?
So, here comes a recommendation for my liberal-leaning friends. It is an honest recommendation, and there is no conflict of interest. If you wanted to go to one place to get a reasoned, measured account of what the intellectual Right is thinking, consider this name:
I don’t know David French. He’s out of my league: he is a senior writer for National Review, and the Never Trump crowd even briefly floated his name for president in 2016. I’ve never met him, never written to him. He certainly has no idea who I am. But when I have a question about what the Right thinks—and more importantly, why—I turn to him (@DavidAFrench on Twitter).
Now, I often disagree with Mr. French. As a primary example, he seems to be a fundamentalist Christian, which I am not. He’s a (literally) gun-toting veteran who lives in Tennessee. He’s also a grad of Harvard Law, is married to another writer, and wrote a piece for The Atlantic (no haven for conservatives, obviously) about the blowback his family received for adopting his daughter from overseas.
More generally, I appreciate him even though I disagree with him, and mainly because his reasoning seems sound, even if I would question a premise here and there. His coverage of the Kavanaugh mess, for example, separated a lot of the wheat from the chaff that was floating around. Every time the Supreme Court says “boo” (or “yay?”), he’s on it, and in a way that someone who writes amicus briefs and taught at Cornell would be.
When I read The Nation, for example, I wonder how they could possibly have written what they wrote if they had read David French first.
So, you don’t need a conservative neighbor, or a conservative friend, or a conservative zip code to understand conservatism. You need an Internet connection, or a smartphone. That’s all. That’s the first step to learning that, when it comes to politics, “we”—not “they”—all do it the same.
On this website I try say “we,” not “they.” I’ve lived in cities whose populations span four orders of magnitude: I grew up in a town of well less than 1,000, and I lived in a city of about 10,000, in cities of about 100,000, and in the heart of a major metropolitan area of well over 1,000,000. As you can imagine, my political views were informed differently by each of these places, which is kind of the root of this website as a whole, actually. Rural or urban, conservative or progressive, I feel comfortable saying “we.”
Sure, I stereotype to poke fun, but often acknowledge that I’m doing so. And there’s too little of that acknowledgement today. When we live in corners of the Internet where we’re all the same, it’s tough to know who “they” are.
“People in every direction/ No words exchanged…”
Ants marching, indeed. No matter which way our antennae wave, we—not they—all do it the same way.
P. A. Jensen is editor of RuralityCheck.com.
He lives in northern Minnesota with his wife and son.