Sunday, December 23, 2007

The strangeness of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Only this year did I stop to ponder the opening lines of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:

You know Dasher and Dancer
And Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid
And Donner and Blitzen.
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

Hold on: these kids "know" the likes of Comet but might have forgotten Rudolph? And you can't say they're just working up to knowing the big one because they would have to "recall" the acknowledged "most famous reindeer." Nonsense and bollocks and humbug.

But we let that pass. Here's the part I've been thinking about more:

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?
Then all the reindeer loved him ...

My first thought was that this is a prototypical nerd's fantasy, the dream of a world in which gaining the favor of a parent or teacher results, instantly and without explanation, in attaining the love of one's peers.

Maybe there's something to that reading, but I've come to a more universal one that I like better: that the song is less about the child's perspective than the adult's--the parent's. This is the fantasy of beholding a child subjected to laughter and name-calling and transforming the social world into one of approval and love. What power could a parent or teacher desire more, and what power is less attainable?

At this moment, the Santa myth meets the Christmas story in a beautifully complicated way: Santa's approval of Rudolph involves the God-like prevention of social wounds; the Christmas story has God subject God's child to the world's woundedness. And at some level, they both raise the problem of preventable even: until a moment of dramatic redemption, Santa and God both allow suffering they ostensibly have the power to stop.

The Rudolph story may gain its greatest complexity and interest, and its strongest connection to the more complicated mythologies of Christmas, when we imagine Rudolph going to bed Christmas night, exhausted and happy and loved, and wondering what will happen if the next Christmas Eve brings a clear sky.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Iowa Democratic Caucus, Education, and Poll Reporting

This morning's Washington Post has a routine article about the paper's latest political poll in Iowa. The main thrust of the story is equally routine: Obama has a small lead, but everything will come down to turnout. As an Iowa caucusgoer myself, I scraped up enough motivation to click to the second page of the story and found this paragraph:

Considering other turnout factors brings no additional clarity. Age and education are two key predictors of caucus participation, with older and more highly educated people disproportionately showing up to vote. While Clinton outpaces Obama among older voters, particularly those aged 65 and up, Obama outperforms her nearly 3 to 1 among those with an education of a college degree or more.

THREE TO ONE? Obama is outpolling Clinton three to one among college grads? I am gobsmacked: I've read a lot of coverage of this race, and I would guess that I've seen a hundred times as much coverage of race and gender as education level. Yet there it is: alongside relatively tiny differences in other areas, an enormous gap based on one variable that almost nobody is talking about. Note that the gap isn't even the main topic of the Post's own paragraph: the gap is presented as a turnout factor, not as the crucial difference between the Iowans who prefer Obama and those who prefer Clinton.

In this race, the education level of voters also seems to work against some of the race's main narratives; for example, given the Clintons' alleged association with cultural elites, would we have heard more about this story if the numbers were reversed? Do we even know how to talk about Hillary Clinton as someone who connects with common people but flops among college graduates? I'm not sure we do.

But I also wonder whether this case illustrates a blind spot in political journalism more generally. I imagine so, at least to some extent. It might be easier, and it seems to me more conventional, to talk about political preference in terms of race, gender, and age than education. If I'm right that there is such a blind spot, does it relate to ways in which we do and don't discuss social inequality in America?