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What Divides Us

What Divides Us

The oral tradition undergirding conservatism puts it at odds with liberalism

What is the most notable divide between the left and the right? It's not intellect, as some seem to claim. It's the political media each side consumes and how they consume it: those on the right tend to listen to more radio and watch more videos, while those on the left tend to read more news articles and essays.

Richard Hanania, president of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology, lays this out thoroughly in an essay entitled “Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV”. While many are quick to point to this as evidence of an educational divide, I'd like to offer another explanation.

But first, let's look at how this divide manifests in the modern world.

The most listened-to political podcasts and radio programs are overwhelmingly conservative, as are the most watched political TV shows. Additionally, talk radio, best characterized by Rush Limbaugh, is a uniquely conservative medium with very few liberal competitors.

Here in Nashville, for example, the Ryman regularly hosts Daily Wire Backstage and has no problem selling out the entire venue. On the other hand, when the notably liberal Pod Save America came to town, the Ryman had a hard time filling the auditorium to half-capacity.

The things conservatives do read tend to be styled in a more rhetorical or oral manner. Compare that to the media liberals read, which wouldn't be at home off the page or out of print. Think about the difference between Breitbart and Vox to get a sense of what I mean.

So, what can explain this divide if not educational disparities?

The divide is better illustrated by understanding the conservative movement as arising from a primarily oral culture and liberalism arising from a primarily typographic culture.

When I say an oral culture, I mean one that privileges oratory over the written word. Some have referred to the oral tradition as engaging the “active powers.” A rant, speech, or rousing political address delivers more directly observable satisfaction to an audience than a pamphlet (like this one).

Comparatively, the written word—the basis of typographic cultures—can only smuggle in more remote, less rousing appeals. “It was the spoken word, not the printed page, that guided thought, aroused enthusiasm, made history,” claims historian Willam Garrott Brown.

Cultures that rely on the spoken word to transmit information and ideas tend to be more rooted in the material world. They’re usually more unified, more communal. In orally oriented cultures, tribalism takes precedence over virtue signaling, because oral traditions rely on repetition and shared understandings to transmit their ideas and beliefs. As a rule, when a culture’s primary sense of receiving information about the world is through the ear, it will be harder to subvert. Communal coordination is much harder to intercept because who speaks is more immediately up for scrutiny than a faceless writer—such as myself.

On the contrary, typographic cultures emphasize sight over sound, privileging the eye. A typographic culture has fewer boundaries. It can more easily project into the future, plan, and subvert itself (or other traditions). Typographic culture invites private investigation, plus an unceasing desire to question, reconcile, and figure out the chain of cause and effect that leads to a particular idea or concept. It was with the rise of printed materials that we began to see the concept of “objectified” knowledge—something an oral tradition would never claim.

The United States is unique in that it’s been a typographic culture from the get-go. To understand how rare this is, remember that most other countries were founded before the invention of the printing press; they evolved from a primarily oral culture. Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, the basis of Ancient Greek and Western civilization, were poems that were read and recited aloud until they were written down. Shakespeare’s plays find their roots entirely in Britain’s oral tradition just as the printing press came into existence.

What oral culture does exist in the US tends to concentrate in the South—the seat of the strongest strain of conservative thought—finding its origins with the Scots-Irish and West African influences that mingled there. This is why the region has produced luminaries such as William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and Mark Twain, all of whose work centered around the preservation of the South’s oral culture.

The North was “born literate” while the South experienced the transition from oral to typographic that, historically, gave rise to the most enduring cultures. Take, for example, the difference in literacy rates between the North and the South in the nineteenth century. In 1850, the largest library in the North was at Harvard, and it contained 84,200 books. The largest in the South was at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) and contained only 18,400. Even now, the South’s literacy rates are considerably lower than those in the North, indicating a heavier emphasis on speech and cultivated ignorance of the written word.

I’ve already mentioned Ancient Greece, the fount of Western Civilization, being rooted in an oral tradition– but consider further the Irish and their well-known oral tradition. Despite its relative impoverishment, Ireland continues to exhibit and express a strong cultural identity distinct from much of the world. It was the Irish that gave rise to arguably the most acclaimed novelist of the 20th-century, James Joyce. Is it surprising that their kin, the Scots-Irish dregs of the British prison system, have produced such writers as Faulkner?

Donald Davidson, a poet and English professor at Vanderbilt, controversially claimed that the North had not produced novelists of equal caliber to the southern authors of the post-antebellum era because “a prevalence of material progress, great wealth, modern institutions such as libraries and art museums, factories, industrial gimcracks, liberalism, science, political radicalism—that is not the way to produce a William Faulkner” before claiming that Faulkner’s genius derived from his not being corrupted by an education.

Critics immediately lambasted the statement as the “most powerful plea for ignorance” ever uttered. Davidson would probably reply that those holding that belief simply exhibit “cultural chauvinism” of the typographic variety.

This debate is admittedly arcane, hard to parse, and invites so much further inquiry that it makes me dizzy. We live in a thoroughly typographic world today. But what is generally true is that the culture of the American South, the reddest region of the country, draws its influence from robust oral traditions. It’s also true that cultures that place an importance on the oral versus the written tend to echo through the ages, outlasting those that don’t have similar roots. We have the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, and Faulkner as evidence of this phenomenon. That’s quite the roster.