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Fr. 760

February 16, 2017

Though no sooner evoked than forgotten, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s distinction between “bubbles” and “bubbas”, in 2015’s God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, serves as an instructive case of the ways in which the name by which a group is identified or self-identifies may encode values antithetical to that identification’s stated purpose. In an interview with NPR, Huckabee makes clear his intent to lay out an identity with which others can identify:

In the three bubbles of influence — New York, Washington and Hollywood — most of the cultural template of America is established, whether it’s in fashion or finance or politics or government or music, entertainment, television, movies. A lot of people who live in the “flyover” land will sometimes say, “My gosh, that’s very different than the general prevailing attitude of the land of God, guns, grits and gravy.”

So this book tries to explain, here’s who we are. It says to the people out there in flyover country, you’re not alone. There are a lot of you. And you may not think there are a lot of you, because everything you see on TV and in the movies is more connected to the bubbles.

For Huckabee, the bubbles inhabit the coasts and the nation’s largest cities, the bubbas the areas in-between. In truth, this distinction retreads a number of others in a similar vein, e.g. blue-stater vs. red-stater, cultural elite vs. the average person. What sets Huckabee’s apart from others is the way in which the term “bubba” by which he designates the latter group builds cultural simplicity and down-to-earth goodness into itself. An excerpt, made available by NPR, makes that latent content strikingly clear:

This book will be very encouraging to people who live in Bubba-ville. And to those who live in Bubble-ville, it will be very enlightening. After you’ve read it, you’ll probably still want to live in your same bubble, but you might at least for the first time really understand those of us you fly over and look down on when you make the LA to New York red-eye flight and wonder, “Just what kind of people live there?” Because most of the movies and television shows portray people living in one of the bubbles, we know you pretty well. We get your unique phrases, attitudes, and even know something about your various neighborhoods. But I don’t think you know us very well. We really don’t live in Bugtussle and we do have indoor plumbing and electricity. So let me introduce you to the land and the people for whom God, guns, grits, and gravy all make perfect sense. After you finish the book, you might just say, “Dang, those good ol’ boys ain’t so dumb after all.”

The “bubba” label comes with both a negative and a positive charge. It proves negative in that it opposes the “bubble” (elitist, condescending) but positive in its manner of seconding the values embodied by the “bubbas” (salt of the earth, meek). Yet, in making such a value judgment, the bubba category undermines one of its linchpin notions, namely, that the bubbas are not elitist. In other words, the fact of casting judgment on the bubbles enables an implicit swap of categories and values.

Put into its most basic terms, Huckabee’s proposed identity makes the following claim. The bubbles are ignorant and bad, the bubbas informed and good. At which point, a natural comparision invites itself. If the bubbles are bad and the bubbas are good, then the bubbas are better, in important respects, than the bubbles. This puts them in a situation to reproduce, albeit unwittingly, the same elitist posturing which invited the distinction in the first place. For, if we define “elitist” simply as that which we say of a person or group of persons considered superior either by others or by themselves, with regards to a given criterion, be it intellect, talent, power, moral rectitude, simplicity, etc., the bubbas very much incarnate an elitist position.

Such a position comes out clearly in the “day in the life” reporting in a January New York Times article wherein several subjects make disparaging remarks as to Huckabee’s bubbles, which remarks map well onto the categorical inversion laid out above. And at least certain outlets have had the moral clarity to call such subjects out on their inverted elitism (some more profanity-laced than others). All that being said, it suffices to remark that the bubba identity, in a manner distinct from other such identities, trades on a a distinction which undermines itself in the end. As such, the identity is unsustainable, an uninhabitable view from nowhere. For we are left not with an out-of-touch elite and the salt of the earth but with bubba as both victim of cultural elitism and propagator of cultural elitism. In an interesting turn to recent conservative dialogue, bubbas would implicitly present themselves as both victims and elitists.

It remains to be seen whether other labels mirroring this distinction are likewise unsustainable. Regardless, contrary to Huckabee’s assertions, the relationship between bubbles and bubbas is hence that between elites which not only do not know each other but, moreover, do not know themselves.


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