12 November 2008

The power of apathy

In the course of a rumination on Missouri's voting in the presidential election, Brad Hicks talks about St Louis' unique, disengaged political culture.
Aside from the economic differences brilliantly documented by political geographer Joel Garreau in his old best-seller The Nine Nations of North America, St. Louis has one huge important cultural difference with the southwestern corner of the state: a bizarre kind of apathy about what other people are doing that borders on tolerance. There really is no such thing as an extremist for any political cause here in St. Louis. The local descendants of the Ku Klux Klan, the Mystic Knights of the Veiled Prophet, are a charitable organization. The local chapter of ACT-UP changed the national group's motto to, “We're here, we're queer ... and we'd like to get to know you better.” The local chapter of Earth First!'s biggest act of defiance was hanging banners over the highway.

I'd love to hear from local Obama organizers, and even more from Obama organizers who were parachuted into the state with Axelrod & Plouffe's brilliant book on political organizing to check one of my guesses: my bet is that they got roughly 1/3rd the turnout of other organizers anywhere else in the country using the same system, and got roughly half the volunteer hours out of the people they did get that volunteers gave in every other city that used the same system. What makes me say that? Because that's what every volunteer organization that comes to St. Louis reports. Even when a volunteer-run movement starts in St. Louis, like Neopagan Wicca did, the locals put in a third of the numbers and half the volunteer hours per person of anywhere else in the country. It's just how we are. Do you know about the biggest “battle” anywhere near St. Louis during the American Civil War? Pro-slavery and anti-slavery militias both stormed the US Army arsenal in St. Louis, on a rumor that the other side was about to seize it. The side that got there first waited for the other side to show up. Other than a few warning shots and some shoving, they then settled down on opposite sides of the nearest street and just waited patiently, maintaining watch for several days; it was enough for them to make sure that the other side wasn't going to grab all those weapons and do something with them. For just about as long as there's been a St. Louis, our natural defense against violent political extremists has been apathy, usually polite apathy with a hint of disdain, but occasionally shading into enforced apathy.

He goes on to talk about how that the rest of Missouri has a very different attitude ...

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