Book Review: Living Blue in the Red States edited by David Starkey

By virtue of the title alone, Living Blue in the Red States — a collection of 21 “creative nonfiction” essays — seems right up my alley. Here I am about the darkest blue liberal you can get but a a lifelong resident of one of the deepest red states, one which, since supporting FDR in 1936 , only voted Democrat in a presidential election in the Johnson-Goldwater race in 1964 — and even then Goldwater got more votes than John Kennedy four years before. Is there any doubt what gave rise to the subtitle of this blog?

Ultimately, though, the reason Living Blue in the Red States tends to succeed is because it tries to rise above politics and political labels. Many of the essays directly or indirectly emphasize the first word of the title. As such, the book may not only provide succor to the “blue” but insight for the “red.”

While editor David Starkey breaks the essays down into the broad regions of West, Midwest and The South, his overarching aim was to pull together essays that “would be just as readable and relevant fifty years from now as they were the day the book was published.” As a result, aside from the introduction, words such as George W. Bush, Iraq, neocon or New Orleans don’t appear for more than 100 pages (although two of the last three essays specifically address Katrina and New Orleans). Perhaps because a number of the contributors are primarily poets, “blue” ideas and philosophies arise in contexts such as observing wild bears in Alaska, raccoon trapping in Nebraska and the life and death of a swamp in South Carolina.

This approach demonstrates that personal beliefs that make one blue in an artificially dichromatic America don’t — or shouldn’t — exist simply in the context of political campaigns. Rather, for better or worse, they also help shape our approaches to daily life without ever being in the forefront or a battering ram. In fact, several contributors challenge or find fault with the concept of a blue-red distinction.

As Wyoming poet laureate David Romtvedt points out in “Red Politics and Blue in Wyoming,” such categorization “tells us very little about the people with whom we are passing our lives. This kind of simpleminded labeling is degrading. It isolates us from one another and forces us to lead lives that are intellectually and emotionally impoverished.” Likewise, in “Rescue the Drowning, Tie Your Shoe-Strings,” Sidney Burris observes that those of us who live in red states don’t necessarily feel overwhelmed or like a species on the verge of extinction. Why? Because when it comes to everyday life, political parties and politics tend to be abstractions.

[W]hile I’d like to believe that certain abstract principles like liberty, justice, and equality govern my life, I know that I am perfectly capable of going through an ordinary day without once considering those principles. I also know that not thinking about these principles is a luxury — it is only because these principles are already in place that I’m able to disregard them.

Many “blues” who live in red states are well aware that daily life and contributing to our communities does not require sharing with everyone we meet the political positions that may result from our personal application of such principles. Politics simply are not relevant to the overwhelming majority of everyday tasks and events we share with people who may hold diametrically opposed political views.

This is also a theme of Jim Peterson’s “The Kreskin Effect,” to me the standout amidst some top-notch writing. Peterson will speak to many — myself included — simply with his examination of the role of father-son relationships and conflict in the formation of our political beliefs and the need to no longer rely simply on that history but to evaluate our beliefs based on who we are and what we know today. Yet Peterson goes beyond this in noting that throwing states into artificial bins labeled red and blue is “truly misleading.”

I would like to suggest that a balanced blending of these two colors, red and blue, is what we need. The blending of red and blue yields magenta. Is it not interesting that many color therapists believe magenta to be of the highest order, oriented toward spirituality and meditation? It is considered an instrument of change, of the purging of old attitudes and obsessions. . . . I want to call for a magenta nation, a people who recognize that finding common ground and cooperation are the important values for our future. Those who understand that listening and tactful responding are superior in the long run to inflammatory rhetoric. Superior because they bring us to the center in our national consciousness where resolution and solution can be found.

Some may see such approaches as weakness, self-delusion, concession or capitulation. The fact is that politics are not the sine qua non of living blue in a red state — or living red in a blue state. Rather, seeking a magenta nation is part of striving for a successful democracy.

Starkey does not cater only to this aspect of blue thought. Living Blue in Red States provides a variety of thought on the blue of the two-tone grid. The range is perhaps best seen in David Case’s “Playing Debussy in the Heart of Dixie.” Even Starkey describes the essay as a “scornful” and “unapologetic screed” against the racism, homophobia and small-mindedness Case saw growing up in Alabama. In what I hope was a brilliant stroke of editing and not mere chance, Case’s essay is immediately followed by Peterson’s, providing a quick and scalpel-sharp look at the range of ideas.

Yet Case’s essay also points up one of my criticisms of the collection. A few of the authors — Starkey included — do not live in red states. Thus, although Case focuses on growing up and living in Alabama until he was 21, he has resided in California for most of the last 23 years and now visits the South “only for a few days, once or twice a year.” As a result, Case, Starkey and others who now live in blue states can be challenged regarding their qualifications to opine on living blue in red states today.

Still, there is some value in seeing the effects upon any particular individual of having previously lived by today’s “blue” standards in what is today known as a red state. Blue and red were not always concepts by which political ideologies and beliefs were expressed. In fact, several essays note that it wasn’t all that long ago that being “red” stood for something wholly antithetical to the beliefs of those who take pride in that color today.

Another editorial or structure choice annoyed me. The brief biographies of the contributors appear alphabetically at the end of the book. Given the number of essays and the book’s regional breakdown, I would have much preferred having a biography immediately follow each essay. Often while reading or contemplating points made in an essay, I wanted to know what experiences or background helped form the writer’s views and thoughts. Forcing the reader to an alphabetical collection at the end of the book tends toward greater distraction and interruption.

These failings, undoubtedly idiosyncratic, are insignificant in light of the work as a whole. Having former but not current residents of red states as essayists does not prevent readers from considering that in assessing a particular essay. If it at times requires jumping to the back of the book in the midst of reading an essay, so be it. Neither criticism undercuts where Living Blue in the Red States succeeds — causing even dyed-in-the-wool liberals like myself to pause, think and evaluate what it means to be a liberal and, more important, live like one.

This dance, this prolonged argument between myself and my father, was training, preparation for holding unpopular, liberal views in the midst of a conservative community.

“The Kreskin Effect,” Jim Peterson, Living Blue in the Red States

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