Innocent Bystander January/February 2005

People to People

Some say that liberals and conservatives need to build bridges of understanding. Drawbridges might be better
More

Much of the punditry in the immediate aftermath of the elections involved the apparent division of the United States into mutually unintelligible camps called red America and blue America. By now we all know what these camps represent. In their consternation some of the losing blues reached out, speaking of the need to tap into and imitate red America's "values" talk. Other blues retreated into their shells, defensively proclaiming membership in a "reality-based," as opposed to a "faith-based," community. Still others joked about secession (the "two-state solution," as one friend put it), with the separated chunks of blue America resembling the old East and West Pakistan, which hung like earmuffs on predominantly Hindu India. Of course, secession would not be simple. There are many blue city-states (Aspen, Austin, Santa Fe) embedded in red America, just as there are red enclaves (central Pennsylvania, Greenwich, Fox News's Manhattan headquarters) in blue America, and full separation would require the kind of tense arrangements familiar to those living in the West Bank. Any fortified wall we might build would need numerous crossing points to let in the red workers on whom the blue economy depends, and vice versa. The security gate at the Connecticut—New York border, where Republican bankers and traders from the suburbs enter Democratic territory, passing Democratic maids and gardeners with day passes heading the other way, would be one of the most heavily trafficked in the world—America's version of the Kalandia checkpoint, north of Jerusalem.

So secession is unlikely. But that's not to say there won't be carpetbaggers. In all the recent commentary the most pervasive theme was the need for blues to stop being snooty and standoffish and get down with reds. "The Democratic Party's first priority should be to reconnect with the American heartland," wrote the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. If blues are to make a comeback, wrote Thomas L. Friedman, another Times columnist, they'll have to find "a positive message that connects with America's heartland." It is only a matter of time before we see the first well-meaning diplomatic missions into red America, spearheaded by opinion leaders in blue America. Sociologists will venture into the red homeland like Lewis and Clark (and cover much of the same ground), returning with descriptions and specimens and suggestions for exploitation. Before long, anthropological sightseeing trips into red America will become a chic new form of blue tourism, as curious urbanites forsake Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat for Hattiesburg and Topeka. Companies with too-cute names (Seeing Red Tours? Heartland of Darkness Travels?) will spring up to offer package trips.

Tourism is always stunningly quick to colonize emerging market niches, no matter how unlikely they may seem. During the Balkan civil wars, in the 1990s, specialty travel agencies offered tours of Sniper's Alley, in Sarajevo. Tour companies now take visitors into the contaminated no-man's-land around Chernobyl, right up to the concrete sarcophagus above the toxic core. In Russia the military helps make ends meet by letting foreign tourists play with weapons at the Ryazan tank range. Visitors to Dallas can tour the route of John F. Kennedy's motorcade in a Cadillac that plays sounds of crowd noise and cheering until, below the book-depository building, shots ring out and the car veers off to Parkland Memorial Hospital. People travel long distances to visit the Vietcong tunnels in Vietnam and the underpass in Paris where Princess Diana died. Outside Grutas, in Lithuania, a mushroom magnate and former wrestler named Viliumas Malinauskas has built a theme park known as Stalin World. "I wanted a place that combines the charms of Disneyland with the worst of the Soviet gulag," Malinauskas explains.

What would tourism in red America be like? It's not hard to imagine how a certain elite stratum of blues would engage in it. To begin with, they'd insist on bringing their own food. Clutching copies of Main Street, Middletown, The Grapes of Wrath, and What's the Matter With Kansas?, the travelers would set out in hybrid minivans from the Ninety-second Street Y, in Manhattan, for points west, and from Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, for points east. The itinerary might include opportunities for worship at the Willow Creek megachurch, in Illinois, and for aesthetic uplift at the Thomas Kinkade Cottage at the Creek, in Tennessee. There would be stops at Maurice's Bar-B-Q, in South Carolina, and at processing plants for the Slim Jim meat product (wherever they are). A breakfast at the Iowa 80 Truck Stop, in Walcott, the largest in the world, would be included, and an afternoon at a Hallmark Cards "partners in rhyme" brainstorming workshop, in Kansas City. Fluent local guides would offer guaranteed sightings of authentic teen beauty queens and pro-life activists (no photos, please!). Tourists could mix and mingle with natives by working as greeters at a rural Wal-Mart. The sort of person who appears in denim and turquoise after a weekend in Taos would return to Santa Monica or Cambridge in dress sweats and a Pennzoil cap.

Needless to say, the trail wouldn't have to be one way. Blues have long been enthusiastic about arranging for the betterment of others. Programs modeled on the American Field Service and Fresh Air Fund exchanges, and perhaps underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts, could send young red Americans into blue states to spend a summer with typical families—watching indie films, drinking bottled water, ordering clothes from J. Crew. The payoff from this sort of program is never immediate; the hope would be to plant the seeds of glasnost for harvest decades later in Oklahoma or Utah.

But does interaction across borders foster understanding? George Orwell, writing while on a rare vacation in Marrakech in 1938, was skeptical.

I'm not sure how much good travel does to anyone. One thing I have always believed, and that is that one really learns nothing from a foreign country unless one works in it, or does something that really involves one with the inhabitants. This trip is something quite new to me, because for the first time I am in the position of a tourist. The result is that it is quite impossible, at any rate at present, to make any contact with the Arabs, whereas if I were here, say, on a gun-running expedition, I should immediately have the entrée to all kinds of interesting society.

And there is no guarantee that any understanding that did occur would be positive. Mark Twain had his eyes opened by a trip to Palestine, and the region felt the lash of his scorn. Tobias Smollett's Travels Through France and Italy is one long complaint. Sometimes it is the travelers themselves who raise eyebrows. Think of British yobs on the Costa del Sol, or Germans pushing to the front of lines everywhere. As a schoolboy in Dublin, I used to dread the onset of summer: it brought planeloads of Americans, my countrymen, loud and friendly, vulgar and generous, reinforcing a caricature that did not always strengthen the bond of respect between our two peoples. Saul Bellow remembers hearing William Faulkner address a group of writers during the Eisenhower administration. Faulkner told the group,

The President has asked me to head the People-to-People program for writers. And I have invited you to assemble here to outline a set of suggestions—my first proposal is that we should take away all U.S. passports and prevent Americans from touring foreign countries. That will restore the good name of the U.S. abroad.

There's a long-standing constitutional precedent, as I recall, that forbids restrictions on interstate travel, so Faulkner's proposal isn't something we can consider for domestic use. Too bad, because it may be that the more extreme personifications of blue and red America need not exposure but separation, and the moderating insulation of people around them whose minds are on other things. What their relationship may need, in other words, is the kind of strategy that worked so well for Lord and Lady Curzon. "The best years of the Curzons' marriage were spent in India," the biographer David Gilmour observed. "They were often apart and, when together, were seldom alone."

Cullen Murphy is The Atlantic's managing editor.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In