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.)