MIKE HUCKABEE. God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. x, 272 pp. Hardcover, $26.99. Reviewed by Jim Dempsey.
For the last few decades the United States has been engaged in a perpetual presidential campaign. To cite one example, after the last official cycle television news pundits openly speculated about which opponents would face each other before the Electoral College gathered officially to declare the winner. I personally blame news department budget cuts; the less messy and expensive reporting, research, and vetting the news agencies need supply, the more profitable news becomes for the corporate parent. Talking on camera extemporaneously proves all but free, save the cost of a catchy backing graphic.
Into this lack of original journalism wade an increasingly large number of those aspiring to political office on promotional tours pushing their books, books taken seriously enough to mysteriously rise to the top of the best seller lists. These books vary in quality, but almost all have one common element: first and foremost, they are political rhetoric and polemic screeds; only secondarily does the writing between the covers reward the reader with a positive experience. Mike Huckabee's God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy proves to be exactly that kind of book.
Governor Huckabee hardly buried the lead. He framed his book with the simple declaration that there are two types of people in America. There are those that live in “the three major nerve centers of our culture,” by which he means “New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.” (p. 1, from the first sentence. Again, no lead burying here.) The other America, not surprisingly, is just about everywhere else, provided that “everywhere” is mainly rural, and a place where God, guns, grits and/or gravy can be both found and held by the locals in high esteem.
He has labeled these two Americas “Bubble-ville” and “Bubba-ville,” declaring that those in the cultural “nerve centers” live in a reality bubble disconnected from the rest of the country. “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….” (pp. 3-4) Did you catch the implied condescension that bubble-coast-to-bubble-coast fliers “look down on” the rest of the country with both their altitude and attitude? In this book such digs are common and often groan inducing, even if you find yourself occasionally agreeing with the sentiment.
He follows the above observation with a sentence I find strange. “Because most of the movies and television shows portray people living in one of the bubbles, we know you pretty well.” (p 4). Strangely, he seems to assume that fictional portrayals are not fictional, but rather grounded in reality well enough to discern the culture behind the portrayals.
I'll start with the food of his title and work my way backwards. The Governor is right: it is difficult to find a plate of grits in New York City, let alone a plate slathered in gravy. (pp. 1-2) In one of the more interesting sections of the book, Huckabee explains that the tradition of frying foods is understandable given the history of the South. The practice probably stems from two main sources. First, thrift: “In a poor family, food needs to stretch to feed a maximum number of mouths at a minimum cost. Breading and frying allows one to take pretty much anything and add to the caloric content and 'fullness factor' without adding to the cost. Got a cheap piece of meat? Beat the daylights out of it to tenderize it, then bread it and fry it.” (p. 56)
Secondly, frying solves a food safety issue. “In homes where poverty meant not always having refrigeration or reliable ways to protect from spoilage, especially in the summer, [frying] took food to such a high temperature that any bacteria were also crispy-cooked.” (p. 56) Huckabee relates a tale of traveling in Rwanda with former U.S. Senator and heart surgeon Bill Frist. After the author expressed his concerns about the food locals might serve, the former doctor gave the Governor a bit of advice about finding safe foods in poor, foreign lands: order french fries and a Coke. (pp. 56-57) Why? “French fries are fried long enough, at a temperature high enough, to kill off most germs. Pair the fries with a nice bottle (any vintage) of Coca-Cola, which is surprisingly available even in the most remote places on Earth…. The bottling standards are the same the world over, and the sealed cap keeps it fresh and pure.” (p. 57) Despite yet another dig at those in the Bubble coast with the “vintage” crack, I can't fault the logic.
Moving up the title, I confess I took fewer notes and found fewer objections on the Governor's take on firearms. Huckabee is a hunter. He hunts ducks and deer. His biggest complaint about New York City is summed in a quip he is “quick to say, 'I don't live there and won't unless they will let me duck hunt in Central Park.'“ (p. 1)
Still, the reason I took so few notes is that, despite being a fairly moderate and reasonable-sounding gun owner, he still trots out the tired reasons cited by the political right to attack even the most reasonable firearms restrictions. All of these can be found in his Chapter 2—possibly a reference to the Second Amendment?—titled “Guns and Why We Have Them.” And here I will cite a quote, simply because it is so emblematic of the type of political rhetoric I find so deplorable.
“FactCheck.org revealed that from 2001 to 2007, gun ownership in the United States rose from 84 to 88.8 guns per 100 people. Yet in 2011, there were 50.8 gun-aggravated assaults and 45.8 gun robberies per 100,000 people, the lowest rate since 1981. Granted, gun suicides were up to 6.28 per 100,000, the highest rate since 1998, but was that a gun issue or a mental health issue?” (p. 25)
Huckabee's book was published in 2014; why does he cut off the ownership years as those of the George W. Bush presidential tenure? Which puts the last sentence in the quoted section in a frame the author doesn’t seem to appreciate at all: was that “mental health issue” in the Bush administration a reaction perhaps to the administration itself?
Finally, let's get to God, more specifically to the religious positions on secular and political life as presented through Huckabee’s faith. Quite a bit of ink in this book is spread to support his religious and traditional bona fides. Though he works in NYC, lives some of the time in Florida, and travels extensively, he still gets to his Arkansas church on Sundays, often to volunteer. (pp. 144-145) He was taught to show respect to others, noting that if his mother “had ever caught me saying something disrespectful of a black person or speaking to a black adult … I would have been on the wrong end of one of those little green twigs off the bushes in our backyard.” (pp. 41-42) Imbued in him are the values of Bubba-ville, which he constantly repeats. These traditional values are, as he implies and never questions, simply moral and decent.
Why his moral positions—and by extension those of Bubba-ville America—are accepted without criticism deserves some examination. On this point the author was refreshingly frank. “The one thing I learned from my competitive debating days in high school and college was that the debate can't begin until a definition of terms has been agreed to by both sides. Allowing one side to dictate the definition of the terms means a default victory for the side that sets the terms.” (p. 54) This book dictates “the definition of the terms” only to support the author’s conclusions.
For example, take two the two terms “morality” and “liberty.” “When people act immorally or without regard for others, laws get passed to set a standard of behavior that would have existed naturally and organically if we all demonstrated a little empathy.” (p. 112) And by “empathy,” we should all be clear that the Governor means “in a moral manner”: “A free people can't exist in a moral vacuum. Liberty is more abundant when the personal behavior of the citizenry is abundantly moral.” (Ibid.)
Did you catch the definitional contradiction in the last quote? If we critically examine the terms “liberty” as “the freedom to do things”—no matter what those things might be—and “moral behavior” as “behavior constrained by moral law,” then actually an “abundantly moral” citizenry faces by definition less liberty.
For another example, when Huckabee started frequenting very not-Bubba-ville locales like New York City and discovered, much to his surprise, that people do curse openly, even “in business settings and in mixed company of men and women,” (p. 37), as many who take a dim view of crude language he concluded that it must be because of their limited vocabulary and/or cognitive ability, not due to some cultural norm of which the Governor was unfamiliar. “It must have seemed like maturity to those who found a way to make every third word a profane utterance, but it's always struck me that the ultimate definition of profanity is the forcible expression of a feeble mind.” (Ibid.)
Worse, when those in Bubble-ville curse with abandon or engage publicly in inappropriate antics or dress, they are flaunting their disregard for traditional behavior, and by doing so “contributing to a culture that is abrasive, rude, obnoxious, and just plain mean.” (p. 41) From here we enjoy a ride down the slippery slope! “When we treat others with reckless disregard for their personhood and act as if human feelings don't exist—or matter—we create an atmosphere in which it becomes much easier to damage them physically. Once we dehumanize someone, we feel much less sensitive about what we say or do. This was one of the tragic lessons of the Holocaust.” (Ibid.)
Wait, did he just say “cussing” led to the Holocaust?!? It gets better! Once the “reckless disregard for their personhood” leads to dehumanization, an assumed (but undefined) feedback mechanism accelerates humanity toward an evil condition. The “same root evil that created slavery, genocide, 'honor killings,' and the Holocaust is growing in our society today, with some people deemed 'less than' others, whether it's because they are unborn children, people of other ethnicities, or increasingly, people of faith.” (Ibid.)
Those poor “people of faith” are feeling attacked so egregiously that the Governor titled the very first chapter of his book “The New American Outcasts: People Who Put Faith and Family First.” These beset but faithful folks can't express their religious beliefs without consequence. “Today, those of us who still believe that marriage means a man and a woman are told we're 'homophobic,' 'gay haters,' or 'on the wrong side of history.'“ (p. 76) They have no control over their own families. “And if the government were really interested in our health, why would they push to give a twelve-year-old girl the right to buy birth control pills without her parents' knowledge—let alone their permission … —or push for her to be able to secretly have an abortion?” (p. 66)
The Governor either completely misses or—more likely, in my opinion, completely ignores— a key to understanding of these “two” Americas. Quite simply, not everyone in the Bubble-villes was born and raised there. The larger cities are filled with people who originally hailed from rural America but for many very good reasons left. I have met and spoken to such people.
Often, they cannot agree with the overpowering cultural assumptions that permeate the Bubba-villes, for example assumptions that emphasize the centrality of home, family and church as defined by the political right. Huckabee says public assistance and other government programs “are vital, filling gaps for people going through tough periods and struggling through no fault of their own.” (p. 104) True to his goal of defining the terms, though, those on such assistance are still in the wrong. Ideally, he notes in the very next sentence, “would be for them to receive help from their families, their neighbors, or their church, mosque, or synagogue….” (Ibid.)
I found this theme prevalent. “As difficult as it may be for folks in the urban power centers to understand, real power for folks in the land of God, guns, grits, and gravy is having family and neighbors you can count on when you're in trouble, a church that keeps you centered around what's really important, a table where good food and laughter are always on the menu, and the self-reliance to take care of your home and your family should someone ever try to violate either one.” (pp. 232-233) When these things work, there is no need for (as he describes government assistance throughout the book) Uncle Sugar, “a term used commonly [in Bubba-ville] to describe Uncle Sam morphing into our 'sugar daddy' and buying us off with his gifts and material things.” (p. 53)
Expats might further take exception to Huckabee's description of “natural marriage” as being “between a man and a woman….” (pp. 18-19, emphasis mine.) They might care much less about “seeking to honor the clear descriptions of marriage as repeatedly revealed in Scripture, and maintaining faithfulness to the institution of the family” (p. 82), and more about those that openly hate and fear gay people… especially when those with such hate and fear are in their families, churches and communities.
These Bubba-ville expats might bristle at the assumption that a woman's language gave implicit permissions to men: “Of course, if the 'lady' wasn't much of a lady and did her own share of cussing, all bets were off…. There was, for some guys, a kind of attraction to girls whose language would fit in just fine in the men's locker room, but that was not the kind of girl you took home to 'meet Mama.'“ (p. 37) What “bets” were those? I'm thinking they might involve a concept known in the Bubble-villes as “consent.” And should consent fail to matter, sadly, all too often one can find examples where ending an unexpected pregnancy proves less fraught with peril than having one’s traditional and value-oriented parents discover the situation, perhaps ever.
One can have a bit of fun with Governor Huckabee's book. In attacking the “left” and its liberal values, the author uses rhetorical devices that are so generic that they can be used with equal effectiveness against his own positions. Take that unfounded and undefended assertion that today's faithful are “The New American Outcasts:” “But as much as there is a great divide in the country between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots,' there is also a great chasm between the 'believes' and 'believe-nots.' And, increasingly, the 'believes' in America have come to feel like cultural lepers—untouchables and undesirables—and an embarrassment to their fellow Americans who equate the holding of traditional views on marriage, religion, family, patriotism, and even the rule of law and the Constitution with ignorance and superstition. The snobbery and bold bigotry aimed at the 'believes' goes unchecked and unchallenged by 'believe-nots' who call themselves 'mainstream.'“ (p. 17)
Being the aim of such discrimination must be quite the burden! “Being offended is a full-time job for many. It's a tedious task, for it requires enormous amounts of imagination and creativity, relentless pursuit of an audience willing to swallow the notion of the offense, and then a never-let-go nursing of the manufactured hurt until the protagonist actually begins to believe his or her grievance….
“Sadder than the proliferation of the perpetually offended is the reaction from what should be a sane and rational public. Wouldn't it be great if they could simply laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all and refuse to be cowered into a catalog of words that will placate the whining class? But it's impossible to satisfy the whiners. People who live off their self-inflicted emotional wounds don't want a resolution, or even a true conversation to help them understand the feelings of another. So the attempt to accommodate them creates a never-ending retreat on the part of common sense, and a surrender to irrational demands.” (p. 51)
Exactly, I say! The Governor has so very accurately described people (like himself) who write books filled with the injustices besetting them! Ah, but wait; in the ellipses between the first and second quoted sections above, the book lists examples of “political correctness,” offenses to those on the left of the political spectrum! What a pity, since the quotes so accurately for me describe the governor's own positions.
Here's another example, one a bit more serious. For me, giving the excuse that “a matter of loving God, seeking to honor the clear descriptions of marriage as repeatedly revealed in Scripture, and maintaining faithfulness to the institution of the family” is simply “a tactic to cut off rational debate by impugning the motives of the other side.” (p. 82) Why, that “other side” of the debate simply doesn't understand that we cannot accept same-sex marriage! We are merely following “the belief that there is a God, we can know Him, and the rules we ought to live by are His.” (p. 81) Discussion ended.
Sadly, that is not how the governor sees it. Rather, he maintains: “It's not my intent to be combative or to appear to be uncaring or indifferent to what are true desires and passions. But the attempt to tar those who don't support same-sex marriage (still a majority in Bubba-ville) as homophobic bigots is simply disingenuous; it's a tactic to cut off rational debate by impugning the motives of the other side. This isn't a matter of hating or fearing gay people; it's a matter of loving God, seeking to honor the clear descriptions of marriage as repeatedly revealed in Scripture, and maintaining faithfulness to the institution of the family.” (pp. 81-82)
Worse, Huckabee precedes this obvious Appeal to Authority fallacy by noting that proponents of marriage equality lack the authority to do so! “The arguments for ignoring the history of nearly every civilization in recorded time and insisting on a redefinition of marriage are almost always expressed in very personal terms…. Rarely is there cited an objective source of authority, whether it be the experience of past cultures; a religious source such as the Bible or Koran; or, for that matter, the teachings of Confucius.” (p. 81)
What if, for the sake of argument, we dismiss any and all Appeals to Authority on the matter of sexual orientation and legal equality? The author is refreshingly honest here. “When advocates of same-sex marriage say, ‘What's the harm?’ the honest reply is that at this point, we simply don't have enough reliable accumulated data to be able to say.” (p. 83) Fine! We have a conclusion!
Not so fast! The Authority of Bubba-ville must not be ignored! “While homosexuality has been around throughout recorded history, with references to it even in the Old Testament, one has to be more imaginative than Pixar to claim that the Bible approves of homosexual behavior, much less homosexual marriage. One would have to say that the traditions as well as the biblical texts are simply wrong.” (Ibid.)
Though I, for one, would not be just content but enthusiastic to accept that conclusion, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee must never give such a concept credence. After all, he is a Republican, a political operative who must adhere to a very narrow script that delineates his acceptable positions. Accepting that script is but a step toward his ultimate plan; writing this book is another, hinted at in the book itself. Though he feels “out of place in Washington, D.C.”, he is clear on one point; “there's only one address in that city that I'd probably want to relocate to.” (p. 2) A smiley face appears in the book ending that last sentence, giving readers a knowing smirk.