Sunday, October 18, 2009

Report from the State Fair: No Longer Granny's State Fair

My brother and sister-in-law had a gathering yesterday to celebrate a number of things—a new job for my sister-in-law, the Hindu feast of Diwali (they lived a decade in Sri Lanka and have traveled often in India), and the final arrival of crisp, clear fall weather. It was also a local football day, which means something to my aunt, who is a religious follower of all Arkansas sports teams.

As we enjoyed my brother’s first-rate guacamole and glasses of wine, we talked about the state fair. Philip and Penny had gone the evening before. We have fond memories of the fair from childhood. Since we all grew up in Little Rock (my family moved away when I was young, but returned almost every weekend to be with my grandmother), going to the fair every October was a constant part of our childhood experiences.

This year, Philip and Penny headed to the exhibit hall expecting to see the usual huge display of preserves, jams, jellies, pickles, and needlework entered for prizes in various categories. Penny’s mother and grandmother were first-rate seamstresses, who routinely entered tatting and crochet for the competition. For Penny, the fair is all about memories of sitting with her grandmother in the exhibit hall, talking with other competitors, surveying the rich array of local crafts around the hall.

Philip tells me when they got to the exhibits, they were surprised to find something totally different from the displays they both remember fondly from childhood. Big political booths now dominate the hall. And these are all propaganda booths hawking extreme-right brochures and materials.

One was a pro-life booth that, my brother believes, had a box of fetuses molded out of rubber for children to look at. He didn’t go close enough to see carefully, but that’s what he thought he saw from a distance.

Another booth was a tea-party display, full of right-wing this and that, anti-Obama trinkets, the stock-in-trade of the birthers and immigrant bashers and keep-America-mine crowd. Philip opined that this is what you have to expect in a place like Arkansas, where education has never been a priority, but misguided religious fervor (often translated into theocratic political crusades) carries the day. In Penny’s view, these displays are what America itself is coming to these days, in key sectors of popular culture. She believes that you could probably find displays like this at most state fairs nowadays.

In either case, as Philip says, it’s no longer Granny’s state fair. The days of the exhibit hall dominated by jars of ruby mayhaw jelly and carefully crafted doilies seem to be gone forever, replaced by boxes of rubber fetuses to teach schoolchildren about the evils of abortion.

Maybe Glenn Beck is right: the America we all think we knew, that apple-pie land of happy normal families untroubled by gender and racial divisions with everyone in her place for which Glenn Beck continues to shed tears is gone with the wind. Or maybe it never existed: as a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog notes, the period to which Beck points as he weeps in his latest lament for his lost America just happens to be precisely the period in which his mother drowned in a mysterious boating accident, a year or so after Beck’s parents had divorced and his step-brother committed suicide.

All things considered, maybe the America on which we need to focus and which we need to be building is not some imagined golden age in the past. Maybe it’s a nation in which our foundational democratic ideals finally receive some real play in our institutions and practices.