Saturday, March 22, 2008

Till things are brighter...

I've been ruminating over the last couple of weeks on an article by Rebecca Solnit at Orion. In 'One Nation Under Elvis', she considers the seemingly unbridgeable divide between urban liberals (or progressives) and the rural communities where many of their issues lie (particularly for environmentalists) but whose residents, Solnit suggests, they consider with -- at best -- condescension and at worst outright hatred.

Solnit's essay is a very personal one (it may be that that is the mode best suited to this issue), but it touches on a tangled parcel of issues of broad relevance. After all, as she rightly points out, the electoral map that was much discussed in 2004 was only a north/south one on the surface: look below it and you'll find that one of the more crucial divides is that between urban and rural, with the suburbs often breaking one way or another based on their proximity to cities or local factors such as the presence of a university.

My home state of Illinois, for instance, is in the 'blue' column, but only because of the enormous electoral weight of Chicago (even if only the living vote only once, the city carries a lot of voting clout). Drive a couple of hours west and you're in a very different world.

The same kinds of divisions were apparent in my adopted home state of Maryland (one stop south of the Mason-Dixon line, don't forget) where the distance between, say, downtown Baltimore or the 'People's Republic of Tacoma Park' and a place like Taneytown was about more than merely geography.

(There were, though, as I recall, more than a few cowboys to be found at the gay bars around the corner from where I used to live in Mount Vernon...but that was Bawlmer, hon.)

Now, some kind of urban-rural cultural divide is probably a historical continuity or global commonality: the rhythms of life, the interpersonal networks, and perhaps many of the needs of living in a city are different than those of living in the country. However, there does appear to be something particularly virulent and odd about the contemporary American version of this conflict.

Odd, because it's not something that is entirely geographical. Solnit, not unfairly, identifies country music as one of the key cultural divisions. Building on her point, I suppose it's fair to say that 'country' is a serious cultural category in the land of my birth. And it's not all about geography.

I have a little bit of personal experience about this.

The town in which I grew up, for instance, was far from 'rural'. But while paying my way through college, I spent a couple of summer and winter breaks working at a steel lacing factory located there, and I came to realise something. (No, before that, I didn't know what 'steel lacing' was either.)

I was one of the few 'college boys' who worked there, which was the source of no small amount of ribbing -- most of it good natured -- but, still, at lunch time you sat and talked with whomever happened to be around. You get to know people.

A quite large percentage of my co-workers drove pickups, were extremely patriotic (I was there when the First Gulf War was under way, so that became hard to miss), loved country music and tended to drop the final 'g' from any 'ing' endings that they spoke. Quite a few were enthusiastic hunters -- or at least gun-owners.

But after work, 9 out of 10, I'm quite sure, did not drive home to a ranch or farm, but rather to a housing development off of some four-lane road chock-full of big box stores and strip malls. And, again, this was northern Illinois, less than an hour's drive from the Chicago Lakefront, when traffic was good. (Which it most often wasn't.)

So what I realised was this: 'country' is very much a state of mind.

Solnit refers to a variety of examples of what we might call urban middle-class disdain of 'rednecks' and assumptions that 'country' means racist. She observes:

So on the one hand we have white people who hate black people. On the other hand we have white people who hate other white people on the grounds that they hate black people. But that latter hatred accuses many wrongfully, and it serves as a convenient coverup for the racism that is all around us. The reason why it matters is because middle-class people despising poor people becomes your basic class war, and the ongoing insults seem to have been at least part of what has weakened the environmental movement in particular and progressive politics in general.

I'll leave you (no, urge you, in fact) to take a closer look at her article, since, as I said, it's full of the sort of personal anecdotes and nuances that are hard to summarise. What it comes down to, however, is more or less a plea to try to address this downward urban glance toward all things rural and twangy, with the argument that this is acting as a serious brake on progressive politics.

In general, I think there's a lot to her argument. The article provoked two quite positive -- and readable -- reactions at Dave Neiwert's Orcinus blog, one from Dave himself, and one from Sara Robinson. Each, in their own way, reiterate Solnit's basic point. Perusing the comments at each response, however, brings you to other perspectives (and to the depressing realisation that there are people who really do hate country music because they think it's 'right-wing'.)

One of the main objections that commenters raise -- one that I think carries some weight -- is that the cultural divide she rightly identifies is not one sided. There are, if you'll forgive the mangled physics of this observation, two sides that are mutually looking down on one another. In short, some of the commenters argue that 'rural communities' (for lack of a better or more neutral term) don't want any kind of alliance with liberals, no matter how much Johnny Cash those young city slickers might have on their I-Pods.

In a great number of cases, their rejection of Solnit's argument (and Neiwert and Robinson's agreement with it) are driven by personal experiences, often painful ones, with the kinds of environments with which she urges greater bridge-building efforts. (One of the more striking of which involves memories of a school bus driver named 'Skeeter'.)

Partly because those arguments are so personal (and so painful), they point to the difficulty of the project that Solnit suggests: if they can be taken as at least a partially valid sample of country folk (at least of the sort of formerly country folk who have turned into the sort to read Orion), then we're talking about more than a clash of grammar and musical tastes.

I don't, though, read Solnit as saying one has to necessarily overlook the urban-rural differences (or even conservative-liberal) that exist: she seems to be suggesting that both sides would have much to gain in trying to distinguish those areas where differences remain from those where commonalities exist.

This is not an easy thing.

I wonder whether this kind of cultural divide is quite so pronounced in other places. I know that in Britain the 'Countryside Alliance' has succeeded in making a lot of noise about representing rural interests in the face of an allegedly uncaring (or clueless) urban elite. On the other hand, I'm not so sure that this has had quite the significance of the urban-rural divide in the US (Britain is, after all, much smaller and more densely populated), and I wonder whether it has had quite the cultural impact. There are many ways in America in which a particular kind of cultural code (country music, NASCAR, traditional gender roles, hunting and fishing, perhaps a kind of casual racism -- the latter recalled by Dale here) has come to stand in for a particular set of political beliefs.

I have the sense that the British version of this is quite a different beast.

Here in Germany, you might be interested to note (and if you're not, just skip down a ways) there is a political drama that is in some way relevant. The Green Party is facing the possibility of forming coalition governments in two Bundesländer: Hesse, and the city-state of Hamburg.

That is not particularly unusual in itself, as Germany has a proportional voting system that has allowed smaller parties to have more influence. The more curious bit is their potential coalition partner: in Hamburg the CDU and in Hesse a combination of the CDU and the Free Democrats. (Reminder for Americans: 'liberal' in a European context very often refers to a predilection for small government and free markets 'As much state as necessary, as little state as possible', as the FDP puts it. It's confusing, I know, but it's the US that, for whatever reason, paints its conservative states red, which I've never understood.)

Considering that the Greens are often seen as a 'left' party (and probably in some important sense are) the possibility of the first black-green (or black, yellow, green...parties in Germany are known by their colours) coalitions at a state level have been causing no small amount of political soul searching within the party.

There are certainly what we could call 'cultural' barriers to overcome: the Green movement, after all, came of age in the era of Helmut Kohl, and as a movement that saw themselves in opposition to much of capitalism, militarism and consumerism, they can certainly be placed to the left on most conventional political spectra. However, their suspicion of statism, celebration of self-sufficiency, desire to preserve traditional ways of life and commitment to civil liberties suggest that there are points of agreement with at least some sections of mainstream conservative and liberal politics in this country.

As in America, it is hard not to notice, this is indeed more than a policy debate: it's partly cultural. Polling data shows that the Greens' most solid electoral base consists of well-educated and relatively well-off urbanites. In Germany, as in the US, there is a rural-urban divide of sorts. However, it is my theory -- and any German readers with more knowledge on this point are welcome to chip in if you wish -- that this division is not as stark as the one painted in Solnit's article in the USA.

There is a village not too far from here -- certainly 'rural' by any standard -- that we have the pleasure to have gotten to know through a friend of ours. On the roofs of its houses you would not be surprised to find solar panels, and in the gardens you'll likely find all of the paraphernalia of a conservationist lifestyle that most American (and German) environmentalists are expending so much effort to promote. (I commented on something similar in an earlier post.)

Nonetheless, I feel quite sure that its inhabitants tend rather toward the conservative side of the spectrum when it comes to the ballot box.

There are some Greens, it seems, for whom the idea of even working with Conservatives in a government is anathema. However, I think they have much to gain, not least since it would be the opportunity to gain some new voters while also freeing themselves from a left-wing camp that -- at least for the near future -- seems doomed to internal dissension and competition from a more radical left that seems rather far from electable. Times have changed. Conservatives wear sneakers too.

And, so far as I can tell, a love for Volksmusik has not quite taken on the political significance of country music in America (even if I imagine you'll find relatively few fans of it among Green voters...or among sane voters of any party for that matter....)

As someone who identifies -- though not uncritically -- with the Greens, I'm quite excited by the possibilities that the new alliances open up. Of course, this possibility requires that there are voters who are 'culturally' Liberal or Conservative who are willing to at least consider voting Green.

And that's not a foregone conclusion.

As a final note, I few personal memories about trying to bridge the divide that Solnit describes.

In a former and distant life as a campus activist, I recall that it took a relatively short time for me to become frustrated with the main vanguard of leftist politics at my university. There was a network of groups that tended to all have the same members and who sought to turn every campus issue into their own personal struggle. They were the reason that the Black Student Union for a time refused to work with any predominantly white left-wing group: they had experienced a few too many episodes where erstwhile revolutionaries (invariably white and middle-class) showed up to tell the BSU what real oppression was all about.

In any case, a few friends of mine and I decided to do our own thing and formed a new group that sought out contact with the local unions. One of the first issues we got involved in was the then prominent miners strike at the Pittston Coal company in western Virginia.

The strike was a drawn out and particularly difficult one. And it was clear that kind of people who were directly involved with it were the sort that, in Solnit's article, were the object of so much scorn from her well-educated environmentalist friends.

Along with raising attention to the strike on campus and organising a canned food drive, we called a meeting with local unions and (pro-union) religious groups at a church just off campus. And, indeed, you could sense a cultural divide of sorts in the room.

However, focusing on the commonalities and the issues at hand helped, though, as well as the fact as one of our co-organisers at the university was a history teacher who also happened to be the daughter of miners.

To make a long story short and to not belabour my own small part in these proceedings, our efforts culminated in a talk given by a United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) representative who came up from downstate (yes, there is mining in Illinois) to talk to a packed university auditorium about the strike.

Our contacts with local churches and unions ensured that the audience was about equally mixed between students, staff and non-university types. It turned into a rather remarkable evening, and I recall vividly the way that after the talk, one by one, the representatives of the locals that we had helped bring together stood up to pledge their members' support (and money) to support the UMWA. Campus groups chipped in as well, along with and a few local churches. It may not have been decisive. But I like to think that it helped.

The curious thing is that on many other issues we (the students, the churches and the unions) may not have had a lot to say to one another: indeed, we may have been at odds. And there were undoubtedly far more Hank Williams fans among the union members than among the students.

However, at least just for a short time, it didn't seem that that mattered. It was one of the finest evenings of my college years.

The following video is a 'mini-documentary' of the strike. It's quite good.

And I dare you to look down on the people involved.

(Warning: viewers may experience bluegrass music.)


Dale said...

To be perfectly candid, I do and I don't look down on them. Both. All of the above. Both at the same time. One but not the other and vice-versa. Neither?

A little background: I come from exactly these people. My mom was a very active member of OCAW (oil, chemical, and atomic workers) during her employment with what was then Conoco and is now Conoco-Phillips. She would have fit in that film, accent and all, line for line, sentiment for sentiment. I learned a great deal of what I know about life from people exactly like that. And she was (unlike me) a social butterfly, so our house was often the center of a social scene that broadened this experience well beyond whatever her pecularities were. We had people from her union in our house, talking about labor relations and a million other things, day after day.

And that million other things -- that's the rub, right? All of these men and the few women among them -- when my mom entered the oil refinery in 1977, there were no women's restrooms, that's how men-only an environment it was -- called each other 'brother' and 'sister' without irony, especially when the company was putting the clamps on. But there were other pain points and fractures. They weren't all as racially progressive as my mom was (and as I've noted, by today's standard, much of what she allowed to pass was pretty shocking). They weren't all as receptive to the life of the mind as she was -- she was an avid reader, many of them, it was plain, were not. They certainly had their differences over religion. And they did not agree on the big political issues of the late 70's-early 80's: many of them voted for Reagan, much to my mom's regret, and she made few friends in her vocal advocacy of the ERA. And the environment? What the hell was that to them? A place that provides deer and fish for violent culling.

As I look back on it, and consider the divisions that were and that only might have been, I become less and less convinced that it was a case of proper revolutionary class consciousness overruling all other concerns in some textbook Marxist way. I think it was a question of fighting the biggest bear on the scene, and that was, to them, then and there, Conoco and its desire to cut costs at the expense of their wages and safety. They saw that they were the campers and Conoco was the bear, and other intra-camper conflicts just didn't matter as much. The union existed to help them make that calculus, and it worked. Mostly.

I think life and politics are basically that way. People are diverse, so successful organizing and coalition-building comes from two directions, lining up similarities and downplaying differences. And because we're plastic, or maybe the word is fickle or maybe 'hypocritical,' coalitions will shift, and what was downplayed before will become central now. Coalitions will shift because today's bear might be tomorrow's chipmunk.

So I am completely with the miners, auto workers, truckers, writers guild members, longshoremen, grocers and refinery workers when there's a conflict. I don't even need the facts. I'm on their side right now, before contract talks have started. It's going to take quite a lot to move me from that. But I'm not necessarily on their side on everything because that's not on the only fight worth fighting. And I don't mean to imply that 'they' are a monolith on these other struggles.

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks very much for that Dale. It's about bed-time here, but I wanted to respond quickly to your comment.

I think that what Solnit is appealing for is to appreciate precisely the complexities you're mentioning. No more, no less.

Neither to idealise nor demonise, particularly when one is trying to find allies.

Your mother sounds like quite a remarkable woman.

My mother's situation and life was very different. She, along with my father, voted for Goldwater, Nixon and Reagan, but after my father's death in the late 80s, she evolved politically and ended up describing herself to me as a 'liberal democrat'. My father tended to vote right-ward, but he also, during the 60s, tried -- and failed -- to unionise his workplace (due to pressure on one side and disinterest on the other, as it was recounted to me). Both of them, throughout their lives, had significant friendships with both both black and gay people ... without ever being entirely comfortable with black or gay politics. (As to their generation, they were both born in the 1920s.)

People are complicated.

And our approach to political issues should never forget that.

Thanks again. And good night.

Dale said...

JCW, You're right, it's complicated. And the Solnit article is right in the same way.

My mom is just about a deity to me. If I didn't remember her so well, she'd be all the way there. Watch this space for a new cult to emerge as I age and the memories do what memories do. Before long I'll be claiming she spent three days in hell to visit the shades of demigods past by way of the belly of a whale or something.

Our parents. We are them and yet we aren't. More complexity!

Why does everything have to be so complicated?!??! Waa. I just want clean, simple lines.

Thanks for the post, and guten nacht!

la23ng said...

What intrigued me when I first heard it is that the first green bavarian mayor was elected 12 years ago (and he is still in the office):

Sepp Daxenberger

J. Carter Wood said...

Thanks for that. I wasn't aware of Mr. Daxenberger. And I hope he's feeling better...

Thanks for stopping by!