Todd Starnes sees a divided America. The culture war-happy Fox News reporter writes in the introduction to his new book, Dispatches From Bitter America, that he is one of the many "bitter" Americans, and self-describes as a "gun-toting, chicken-eating son of a Baptist." The "antithesis" of his kind, he writes, are people "who've been educated in Ivy League schools, who listen to high-brow music, and who dine on arugula and fermented soy." A bit perplexingly, Starnes also describes these Ivy League arugula-eaters as believing that "mankind created the heavens and the earth."
Starnes borrowed the "bitter" descriptor from President Obama, who in April 2008 told a group of donors in San Francisco that people in small-town Pennsylvania and the Midwest see the steady degradation of their communities and sometimes "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." The comment caused a political controversy at the time but has persisted in the conservative talk radio environment like so much strontium-90. For Starnes it was so monumental a happening that, four years later, he's written an entire book around it.
The book, as an indictment of the Obama administration or as a piece of journalism, is utterly useless. It shifts uneasily between earnestness and parody (both intentional and unintentional). Frequently it's just ugly and offensive. Starnes describes "Islamophobia" as "the word [liberals] use to describe bitter Americans who have a fear of getting blown up," unwittingly proving those liberals to be justified in its use. He devotes a short chapter to empathizing with Tyler Clementi, the college student who committed suicide after his roommate secretly videotaped his sexual encounter with another man. The first line of the very next chapter refers to a transgender homecoming queen as a "mary." None of this is particularly surprising, given Starnes' history of bigoted commentary.
What value Dispatches From Bitter America has is to demonstrate the premium the conservative media place on grievance and victimhood. Indeed, it's amusing that Obama's four-year-old remark about "clinging" to guns and religion has been so tenaciously clung to by conservatives who want to believe that the president disdains them. The thesis is that there exists a broader, existential threat to "real" America (generally defined as Southern, Christian, white, and conservative) from a rogues gallery of local elected officials, gay activists, school principals, and various busybodies who hate Christmas. As such, the niggling minutiae of the culture war -- a school that banned peanut butter, a local Democrat that wasn't sufficiently deferential to the Boy Scouts, the long-since debunked story about a Mao ornament on the White House Christmas tree -- is embellished into a broader campaign against traditional American values.
It's the same shtick you see from Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and other talkers who profit by capitalizing on the fear of inexorable cultural and demographic change. Starnes lacks the cachet of those culture war giants, but he does have some star power to back him up. Interviews with Mike Huckabee, Michelle Malkin, and Sean Hannity are spliced in between chapters about the War on Christmas and "Food Nazis." If you've watched Fox News for any significant amount of time you're likely to have already absorbed all this foolishness. What sets Starnes apart is his stark homophobia and his willingness to make explicit his dislike for the non-Christian world.
Starnes' conclusion is that contrary to the president's diagnosis, he is not "bitter," but just a real American. And to prove it, he has invested a great deal of time and energy meticulously cataloguing every slight -- no matter how minor, petty, or imagined -- that the president, various Democrats, local school officials, media personalities, and gay students are alleged to have inflicted upon real Americans like himself. But he's not bitter. No sir.