How to Get Over the Election – 2018 Edition

We went to the polls. We voted for change or not. We resisted or didn’t. And in the end, we remain divided.

One pundit I heard this morning said that the most profound and confounding divide in America is the rural-urban/suburban split. As a site begun after the 2016 elections and devoted to understanding the heartlands of rural America, I offer the following review of posts to get you up to speed if you’re just now turning to this complex landscape:

Poetry

To Know the Country Whole

Essays

Rural is Plural

What Goes Without Saying: Some Thoughts on Charlottesville

Why Don’t Country People Just Get Out?

What We Talk About When We Talk About Social Justice

You’ve Got the Wrong Enemies

Rural Soul by Sara Porter Keeling

Interviews

Crossing the Great Divide: An Interview with Arlie Russell Hochschild

Still Kinda in Kansas: Talking Politics with Robert Wuthnow

Book Reviews

The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America by Robert Wuthnow

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America by Eliza Griswold

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

The View From Flyover Country: Dispatches from The Forgotten America by Sarah Kendzior

Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society by Thomas Frank

Fracking & A Fractured Land

The Washington County Fair in 2010 should have been unalloyed joy for Stacey Haney and her family.  After all, Haney’s 14-year-old son, Harley, and his goat, Boots, took the Grand Champion Showmanship award.  Paige, her 11-year-old daughter, got awards for her two rabbits, Pepsi & Phantom, and for her Mexi-SPAM Mac and Cheese entry in the cooking contest.  They had a load of ribbons to take back to their small farm in Amity, Pennsylvania.

But things were not O.K.

Harley was sick–some kind of strange stomach ailment that left him listless and unable to get to school.  Stacey had an odd rash.  And the neighbor’s goat, Cummins, had died, his insides crystallized, “as if he’d drunk antifreeze.” (12)  Perhaps, they began to think, it had something to do with the fracking wells and waste pond just up the hill.

Hydraulic fracturing technology, or fracking, transformed America’s energy market in the last decade.  By breaking apart shale deep in the earth using millions of gallons of pressurized water and chemicals, the fracking boom released abundant natural gas.  The gas burned cleaner than coal and it was underneath American soil, enabling even environmental advocates to imagine that it might be a bridge fuel to a future when renewables could shoulder most of the load.

In places like Appalachia, where the Haneys live, the new industry brought new life, new money, and new visibility to a region dragged over by previous energy booms.  Landowners, including Haney, got paid for the mineral rights to their land.  Extraction companies like Range Resources touted the millions they contributed to local communities through impact fees and road improvements.  One township supervisor “called them a ‘godsend.’” (280)

But there were other impacts and the Haneys were feeling them.  Over the course of eight years, as Eliza Griswold tracks this family in her powerful new book, they lose their health, their animals, their house, and their trust in just about everyone except a pair of crusading lawyers who tilt at the windmills of industry and the government agencies that should be protecting them.

Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America is the kind of propulsive read that marks our great story-telling journalist/writers today.  Griswold uses her extensive visits to the region and understanding of this one family to tell a story that is much larger.  She is telling us about small things like county fairs, hard-working single mothers, the ties that bind together neighbors, and the persistent pleasures of small town life.  But she’s also telling us about God, politics, government, industry, and the perils of living in a resource-rich, desperately poor region.

It’s about America, and given the state of things at the moment, that makes it a tumultuous read.  Griswold’s writing has all the flair and clarity of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, but unlike that uplifting story of a World War II hero displaying courage and endurance in the face of unimaginable hardship in defense of America, Amity and Prosperity takes us into the places where that endurance is not always recognized and the victories not so clear.  In the eight years since Hillenbrand’s book was published, we’ve moved from Unbroken to Fractured.

Griswold may seem like an unlikely chronicler of this tale.  The veteran journalist has spent years in far-flung places around the globe.  Her last book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, went deep into the heart of Africa and Asia tracing the front line of religious and ideological conflict.  What brought her back was her realization that 

“so many of the problems of collective poverty plaguing Africa and Asia were becoming more evident in America.  I decided it was time to come home, to turn my attention to how we tell stories about systemic failings here in the United States.” (307)

Not that she came back to write a strident, partisan critique.  Amity & Prosperity is far from that kind of book.  Its characters, including Stacey Haney, are complex people who don’t fall easily into stereotypes.  There are plenty of Trump voters, but there are skeptics, too.  What they share, from the days when coal was king, is

“a sense of marginalization and disgust, both with companies that undermine the land and with the urbanites who flick on lights without considering the miners who risk their lives to power them.  Today, the fracking boom has reinforced those convictions.” (6)

Religious viewpoints here verge on the fatalistic.  One older woman says that the poisoned waters from fracking are a Revelation-foretold sign of the end times.  “God permitted this to happen because the U.S. has gotten so far from him,” she tells Griswold.  “I just hope we’re raptured out of here.” (268-9)

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Eliza Griswold

Stacey sees it in more personal terms.  The utilitarian arguments from the Obama Administration become for her a kind of cruel sentence.  The greatest good for the greatest number of people meant that “it was Stacey against the Bangladeshi woman who was losing her farm to a rising sea.  It was Stacey against factory workers eager for a manufacturing revival.  It was Stacey against most of the world, and Stacey was losing.” (223)

The rural landscape Griswold reveals bears resemblance to my own Eastern Shore of Virginia as Monica Hesse described it in last year’s American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land.  Written in a similar style, Hesse’s book also uses a narrow story, (in her case, a string of arsons), to uncover a larger picture.  What it’s about is personal but it’s also about “America: the way it’s disappointing sometimes, the way it’s never what it used to be.”

These reports from the field by remarkable journalists are not encouraging.  Griswold depicts a creaky, hapless, corrupt federal apparatus that is less and less able to confront powerful interests and to address the concerns of rural residents who do not trust the government.  Those who do try to make a stand, like Stacey and the valiant lawyers Griswold describes as Mr. & Mrs. Atticus Finch, must be committed to years of painstaking work with little pay and no guarantee of success.

It’s a credit to Griswold’s talents that she keeps the suspense about the outcome going until the very end.  It’s up to the reader to discern if the best outcome the book describes is the haul of ribbons at the county fair in 2010, which seems so long ago.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Look for my interview with Eliza Griswold, coming soon.

Normal is How America Got This Way: A Review of The View from Flyover Country

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photo by Omar Prestwich via Unsplash

“The absence of complaining should be taken as a sign that something is rotting in a society,” Sarah Kendzior says.  “Complaining is beautiful.  Complaining should be encouraged.  Complaining means you have a chance.” (225)

Sometimes it takes a critic to get things to change, and Kendzior is such a critic.  Her book, The View from Flyover Country: Dispatches from the Forgotten America, is misnamed, but her targets are well-chosen.  Looking back on the essays about the decline of America, which she wrote during the Obama years and which form the bulk of this book, she says, “in the era of the audacity of hope, I made a case for the audacity of despair.” (xii)

The book is misnamed because, even though Kendzior is located in St. Louis, her concerns are much larger than the forgotten Midwest where she begins her flights from flyover country.  She begins where I began this blog—with the recognition that the national media and the narrative of the Great Divide have turned the heartlands of America into a crude stereotype—a vast landscape of racist rubes who can’t discern what serves their own self-interest.  

“There are endless variations of ‘America’ in St. Louis alone,” Kendzior declares.  “This insistence that we have an inherent divide has in some respects become a self-fulfilling prophecy…America is purple—purple like a bruise.” (xvi)

Having begun here, however, Kendzior’s essays, which she originally wrote during her time as a reporter for Al Jazeera, quickly move from the local to the structural.  She wants to know why America isn’t working and she documents it with a sustained focus on a narrow range of issues.  

In Kendzior’s America, higher education is broken.  Adjunct professors are getting food stamps and living in their offices.  Students are leaving college with mountains of student loan debt and declining job prospects. Unpaid internships, available mostly to the wealthy elite, are replacing entry-level positions in careers like public service and the media.

Structural racism continues to limit the potential of black communities and black youth.  Though Ferguson, which happened in her back yard, is a mere footnote here, Kendzior sees its symbolic importance.  “St. Louis is a city where black communities are watched—by police, by spectators—more than they are seen, more than they are heard.” (108)

Journalism, which even into the 1970s had space for reporters without academic degrees, is now dominated by people with the means to get graduate degrees.  Even so, most journalists who can get a job are seeing their income potential shriveling.  

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Sarah Kendzior

This is important “complaining.”  It focuses attention on why, even when the economic indicators are rising and the unemployment rate declines, we continue to feel that all is not well.  For Kendzior, the 2016 election was not a radical departure from the norm, but the inevitable result of the “normal” we had already been experiencing.  “‘Normal’ is how we got here.” (231)

“Income inequality remains at a level unrivaled in modern U.S. history, as does household debt. Wages remain stagnant of in decline.  Higher education remains an exorbitant barrier to middle-class jobs, which middle-class jobs continue to disappear.  Geographical inequality…remains rampant, with prestigious jobs clustered in cities few can afford.” (231-2).

No wonder Kendzior feels “we live in the tunnel at the end of the light.” (29)

There’s much that I appreciate about the passion and analysis of this book, as well as Kendzior’s knack for the well-turned phrase. What I miss here is a reckoning of the capacity of the “flyover country” to persevere and renew itself.  By turning her attention so fully to the systems that are broken on a national level, the place Kendzior lives and the people with whom she lives disappear—just as they do in all the media reporting she decries.

In her great new book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, Prairie Fires, Caroline Fraser quotes Pierre-Jean De Smet, the Belgian Jesuit priest who explored the Great Plains in the mid-19th century.  De Smet was mystified by the “strange people” who settled the region, defying all the “lethal obstacles placed in their paths by climate, weather, or disease.”  

“Nothing frightens them,” he said.  “They will undertake anything.  Sometimes they halt—stumble once in a while—but they get up again and march onward.” (106)

Those Midwesterners still exist.  I’m all for acknowledging the tunnel.  But it doesn’t have to mean the absence of the light.

Full disclosure: Flatiron Books provided me with a copy of this book for review.

Small Towns as Moral Communities: A Review of The Left Behind

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photo by Jamie Mink via Unsplash

Here’s the plot: a ragtag group of survivors suddenly discovers that people who have been a significant part of their lives have moved on leaving them in a desperate moral quandary as they try to piece together what has happened and work for a better future.  No, it’s not Tim LeHaye’s rapture series, Left Behind.  It’s The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, the latest book from Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton social scientist and Kansas native.

Wuthnow, like a lot of us in the aftermath of the 2016 election, has been taking a hard look at what’s happened in rural America.  I have lamented on this site about the easy and dangerous caricatures we fall into in trying to understand what’s happening in the Heartlands.  On the one hand, there is a tendency for bluer places to see all of red America as a reactionary landscape of racism, misogyny, and economic resentment.  On the other hand, rural America sometimes adopts a stereotyped vision of itself, hanging on to symbolic grievances (like the “War on Christmas”) and denying its own complexity.

Wuthnow tries to get under the surface of the Great Divide in this book by putting the focus on something larger than individual perspectives. 

“My argument,” he says, “is that understanding rural America requires seeing the place in which its residents live as moral communities…a place to which and in which people feel an obligation to one another and to uphold the local ways of being that govern their expectations about ordinary life and support their feelings of being at home and doing the right things.” (4)

There’s a lot of familiar territory to be trod here.  Drawing on lots of research over the last 20 years, Wuthnow documents a familiar litany of rural challenges: population decline, a rural brain drain, teen pregnancy, drugs, lack of jobs, and the age-old friction between ‘born heres’ and ‘come heres.’  But he puts these perceived threats within a larger, unsettling framework. 

“Being part of a moral community, even when it sits lightly on people’s shoulders, means that sensing your community is declining and your young people are falling behind is a reflection in small measure on you…you are part of a failing community.” (78)

This almost imperceptible psychological burden can curdle into fear and anger—fear that a way of life is slipping away and anger that, as it does, it is “being discredited and attacked from the outside.” (79)  

 

Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow

Even though Wuthnow talks to a lot of fearful and angry people in this book, his larger point is that the realities of rural life are not dependent on emotions.  There are systemic things eating away at old certainties, as well.  Small communities have depended on an ethos that believes that “when problems arise, we can fix them.”  The flotilla of small boat rescues after Hurricane Harvey last fall represents an ideal of what rural America believes about its potential.

Systemic problems are harder to pull out of the floodwaters, though.  Real change involves being part of regional, state, and federal organizations who bring resources, but also bureaucratic intricacies and arcane policies that don’t make sense.  When economic development happens in small towns, it often means that a new company comes in that needs expertise and skills that also have to come from elsewhere.  

“If rural people are susceptible to appeals that blame others—Washington, minorities, immigrants—for their problems, we must recognize clearly the psychological toll that seemingly insurmountable problems take on rural people themselves.” (91)

RELIGION AND CHURCHES IN RURAL AMERICA

Throughout the book, Wuthow notes the role that religion plays in rural life.  He sees the struggles churches are having.  Herb and Linda Tobias attend a Baptist church in the Midwest, but they “admit to being disgruntled because it’s been hard for their small community to attract good preachers and the one who came last year leaves them shaking their heads sometimes.” (92)  

colin-maynard-280700-unsplashDenominational churches struggle as well, although they play an interesting role in forcing some conversations that might not happen otherwise.  For instance, United Methodists and other mainline churches have asked their local congregations to discuss the issues of gay ordination for clergy and same-sex marriage.  “That meant people who quietly supported one side or the other had to make their positions known.” (134)  The result has been a few church splits while other congregations find ways to stay together despite disagreements.

“There’s a paradox in all this, though,” Wuthnow says.  “On the one hand, the conversations about gay rights and marriage equality wouldn’t have happened in rural communities…if there hadn’t been prompting from outside…On the other hand, it was precisely these outside promptings that rural communities disliked, just as they did Washington telling them to purchase healthcare and quit reading the Ten Commandments in school.” (135-36)

The Left Behind leaves the reader, (or at least this reader), longing for more.  Wuthnow makes the curious decision to turn his three principal research sites (small towns in the Midwest, New England, and the Deep South) into generic communities with names like Gulfdale and Fairfield.  The individual stories, which could have added more vivid interest, remain in the background, but perhaps that is best for a broad sociological look.  

The idea of small towns as moral communities is useful and helps keep the individual perspectives in context, but there is much more to be said about the ways the moral narratives that bind communities together are being manipulated by larger forces, like national media and institutions.  Wuthnow downplays the work of Arlie Russell Hochschild in her Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right because he feels it focused too narrowly on the Lake Charles, Louisiana area, (which, at 200,000 people, he feels is too large to be rural).  But Rochschild, as I noted in reviewing her book and in a subsequent interview, is mining a similar deep story that feels more visceral.

The land is crumbling in The Left Behind.  It’s all burning down in Hochschild’s book.

This is a good addition to the literature on rural America in the Age of the Great Divide.  It describes the landscape I know, which feels so distant from the shiny, globalized cities on the television screen.  Wuthnow sees that, while no one has been raptured, a whole lot of the country feels left behind.

**Princeton University Press provided me a copy of this book for review.

Your Civil War Is Too Easy: Looking for The Thin Light of Freedom with Ed Ayers

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Freedwoman –Juneteenth Memorial Monument, Austin, TX  By Jennifer Rangubphai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51616286

Who starts a story of the Civil War in the middle?  By the time Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia marched up the Shenandoah Valley into Pennsylvania in July of 1863, the war had been going for more than two years.  The twin Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg on the 4th of July usually mark the beginning of the end for the South and the two remaining years of conflict move inevitably to Appomattox, full emancipation of enslaved persons, and the reunion of the nation.

Edward Ayers, (the correct answer to the question above) is not having your easy narrative, however.  The eminent historian and co-host of the BackStory podcast knows that the Great Dates theory of history is as shaky as the Great Personage theory.  Something significant happened in 1863 (and in 1865) but a whole lot was still undetermined and conflict was still going to be necessary to preserve a “thin light of freedom” for those whose sought real racial equality in the United States.

51kX8OoXrAL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Ayers new book takes its title from this phrase.  The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America is the kind of history Ayers has specialized in—extensively researched, sympathetic to its subjects, discontented with simple narratives, progressive, eyes wide to the trauma but ultimately hopeful.  This book also throws uncomfortable light on the conflicts of our own age.

In covering the war and its aftermath from 1863 to 1902, Ayers chooses two of his frequent haunts as touchstones for his story—Augusta County, Virginia & Franklin County, Pennsylvania.  The two counties, despite being on opposite sides during the Civil War, share a common geography in the long Valley stretching behind the front line of the Appalachians, some common demographics, and a similar agricultural economy.  They have also been the focus of a long-term digital archiving project conceived by Ayers—the Valley of the Shadow, which has been collecting diaries, letters, newspapers, Freedmen’s Bureau reports, soldier’s records, and photographs from the period from the 1850s to 1870.

Ayers calls this “history on a human scale” (xx) and he regularly checks in with characters, black and white, who are living through the destruction and disruption caused by the war and then the dangerous uncertainties of Reconstruction.

Twelve-year-old Cate confronts a northern soldier looking beneath the beds of her Augusta County home “for rebels” by telling him “We are all rebels…I am a rebel too & I glory in it.” (171).

A northern Democratic newspaper editorializes vociferously against arming formerly enslaved men: “It was wrong to place ‘these poor devils in the army to be shot down like dogs, knowing that they had neither the physical nor the moral courage requisite to make good soldiers.’” (314)

Meanwhile, Franklin County men write back from their service in the newly-formed US Colored Troops with contradictory evidence: “Mi Dear Jest let Me say to you if it had Not a bean for the Culard trips Wiy this offel Ware Wod last fer ten years to Cum.” (317)

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Edward L. Ayers

Interspersed with this documentary evidence is Ayers’ interpretative account of what is happening.  Military actions are conducted with an eye to northern political struggles.  Northern Democrats develop a vicious racial narrative as a strategy to return to national power.  Republicans build a quasi-religious language that demands of the defeated Confederates shame, repentance, and moral regeneration.  In response, whites in the South retrench and we see in the early post-War years the building blocks of the narrative of the Lost Cause and eventual institutionalized segregation between the races.

As a boy who was raised in a Southern town steeped in the Lost Cause and as a student of Ayers in his teaching days at the University of Virginia, I have had the Civil War period much on my mind as the nation goes through this current period of Great Divide.  It’s hard not to be reminded of the political disintegration of the 1850s when the national story broke down and new, rigid narratives developed.  There are ominous parallels between our times.  Is a crisis similar to the Civil War on the horizon?

In this book, Ayers offers a different lens.  By downplaying the myth of the epic moment (Gettysburg, Lincoln’s assassination, 13th Amendment, etc.) he points to a more enduring reality.  Political conflict didn’t end with the Civil War.  If anything, the political environment of the North was more vicious than before and Lincoln’s achievement in holding even that part of the Union together seems all the more miraculous.  The achievements of the Reconstruction period seem similarly improbable given the resistance of northern and southern parties.

“Reconstruction, it turned out, moved by counterpoint and reaction as well as by intention and fulfillment,” Ayers says.  “Just as white Southerner’s secession made emancipation possible, so did their resistance to basic civil rights for black people create the possibility for votes and office-holding for black people.” (450)

Ayers is not making the case for continual conflict as an unqualified good, but he has a native confidence in the possibilities that emerge from the clash between mighty forces:  “At every step, those who would advance freedom found themselves challenged and defeated.  As this history shows, however, black freedom advanced faster and further than its champions had dreamed possible precisely because the opponents of freedom proved so powerful and aggressive.” (xxii)

There are echoes here of Martin Luther King’s famous arc of the moral universe, long but bending toward justice.  Ayers lets the question of an invisible hand in history hang in the air.  In the meantime he’s going to introduce us to the people who are actually moving though that history as agents of change, however provisional and tragic.  People like Serena Carter, a Staunton African-American leader who died in 1898 at the age of twenty-nine.  With her spouse, Willis, Carter began a school for black children, worked with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union to improve the lives of women and children, and took a leading role in an economic improvement program for the black community.  At her death the Staunton newspaper headlined her obituary: “Useful Colored Woman Dead.” (491)

Is hers a story of triumph?  Ayers, I believe, would say, ‘yes.’  You just need the right frame.  And the chronological frame of a life, like the dates of a war, is just not big enough.

Look for my interview with Edward Ayers coming soon to Heartlands.

Order The Thin Light of Freedom.

Who’s Fighting For Democracy These Days?

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photo by Isai Ramos via Unsplash.com

Let’s talk politics.  I don’t do this much on the blog, because it’s a toxic substance and has to be handled with care.  But there’s no doubt that Heartlands had its origin in concerns about the political direction of the country.  And there is no way to talk about these strange days of rural America without dealing with the role they are playing in the current Great Divide.

My own taste in political thinkers runs to thoughtful iconoclasts who don’t lean with the prevailing winds.  I like people who search for the larger contours of our present moment and different frames for viewing the scene.

41dqZWxy60L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Edward Luce is such a person and I have just gotten around to his 2017 book, The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  I highly recommend it.  Luce is a British-born, American-based columnist for the Financial Times.  He also served as a speechwriter for the Treasury Secretary in the Obama White House.  But don’t expect hopey-changey from this guy.

Luce is horrified by a political landscape which allows unprincipled populist blowhards to rule the day, but he isn’t surprised.  For Luce, liberal democracies have been on the retreat for awhile now, and Trump is the symptom, not the disease.  The comfortable, urban, wealthy elites of the West have been divorcing themselves from the anxious, rural, working class for some time now.  And the the divide is only getting worse.

In four brief sections of a 200-page book, Luce offers a breathless ride through his thesis.  In the first section, “Fusion,” he takes on globalism—how it has enriched so many in developing nations but also how it has forced down wages on the Western middle classes.  Urban centers have flourished even as they have begun to grow more and more disconnected from the nations around them.  London is not responsible for Brexit any more than Chicago is responsible for Trump, but they share so much in common with each other and so little with the hinterlands for which they used to be magnets.  “To the West’s economic losers,” Luce says, “cities like London and Chicago are not so much magnets as death stars.” (48)

Buckle your seat belt.  It gets worse.

The second section, “Reaction,” charts “the degeneration of Western politics” in which the optimism that accompanied economic growth curdles into the angry, divisive movements that seek a scapegoat and a nostalgic return to a more secure past.  When progressives saw this movement and slapped easy labels like ‘racist,’ ‘regressive,’ and ‘whitelash’ on it, it only fed the divide.  Something that became all to clear in the aftermath of Charlottesville, when MAGA Americans, who were otherwise sympathetic to the outrage over the overt racism, felt they were being asked to sign on to an agenda that equated their support of Trump with the same overt racism.  “To write off all those who voted for [Trump] as bigoted will only make his job easier,” Luce notes. (97)

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Edward Luce

The third part, “Fallout,” looks at the foreign policy implications of the United States’ declining power in the world.  The chaotic world that takes the place of Pax Americana is a frightening one to consider as Luce tells it.

Finally, in the fourth part, “Half Life,” Luce sketches, all too briefly, an ambitious plan to combat the decline of the democracies—one which would require a recognition by both right and left that we can’t keep ‘playing to the base’ no matter how righteous it makes us feel.  Some new common narrative must take the place of the Great Divide.

There have been a lot of books out there that try to explain what’s going on in the Heartlands.  I’ve highlighted a few in this blog, such as Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, and Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing LandAdd J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to that list as well.

But Luce’s book pulls back the lens so that we can see that the change is not just out here, but everywhere.  And a shaming moralism is no way to point the way to a brighter future for those who feel left behind.  “If politics is persuasion, these are dangerous tactics,” Luce says.  “There is a thin line between convincing people of the merits of a case and suggesting they are moral outcasts if they fail to see it.” (188)

There’s a theological argument to make here as well, which is not in Luce’s bailiwick.  It’s no more complex than the Golden Rule.  In seeing the world through the eyes of the other, we recognize a humanity that transcends our political assumptions.  Reading, and shuddering along with, Edward Luce, I wonder if we still have eyes to see.

In Praise of Uncomfortable Books: Huck & Harper Revisited

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photo by Chris Lawton via Unsplash

Huck and Harper are on the block again and I’m not comfortable with that.  Then again, I think it’s high time we all got uncomfortable.

In late 2016, as I was beginning Heartlands, I reflected on the controversy that was roiling Accomack County, Virginia where I live.  Only that’s not strictly accurate.  The decision by the local School Board to temporarily remove The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird for offensive, racialized language did lead to some protests here (and the eventual return of the books), but the headlines were largely elsewhere.  Accomack County was one more piece of evidence for blue America (and places far beyond) that red America was regressing into ignorance and intolerance.

Now I think that maybe the greater danger is that the country as a whole is regressing into head-in-the-sand comfort.

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The courthouse in Monroeville, Alabama

This week news came that the same two classics of American literature were being removed from the required reading lists in the schools of Duluth, Minnesota.  The decision was not the result of a particular complaint but from ongoing conversations that included the local NAACP chapter.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Michael Cary, the school district’s director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.

Stephan Witherspoon, president of the local NAACP said, “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people.”

I don’t want to argue the case for Mark Twain’s Huck and Harper Lee’s Mockingbird, even though they stand among the best and most important books American culture has produced.  The de facto canon that American public schools have been using is too limited and could surely be strengthened by adding more diversity.  But to set aside Huck and Harper in favor of literature whose primary requirement is that it does not offend is a travesty.

Good literature is offensive precisely because, if it is authentic to experience, it goes directly to those places where humanity is exposed and revealed in all its flaws and triumphs.  Sure, let’s add Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave to the mix of required reading, but what they describe is degradation and it’s going to be no less offensive.  Put James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time on the list and there will still be squirming in the seats.

I get the distinction.  Twain and Lee are white authors who may be using the racialized language satirically but who certainly don’t bring the same lived history or context to it that African-American writers would.  But the characters they create—Huck, Jim, Scout, and Atticus—are the kind of people I want my children to meet in literature.  They are limited by their times and their prejudices, just like their authors, but they contain the beating heart of humanity and of the possibilities of expressing that humanity in this land.  They can’t be what they are, fully fleshed out, without the jarring reminders of what racism and the legacy of slavery has done to them and their language.

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Alex hanging out with Scout & Jem

Removing the books may seem like a good move to save children from the disturbance of knowing how such hurtful language has been used against people who look like them.  But isn’t empowerment, in part, helping students of every race deal with the world they live in everyday that includes such language and its history?  Is it better to let them struggle with such language in its cartoonish version in alt-right chat rooms and casual daily racism or to deal with it in books that give them other resources for understanding what’s going on?

Another danger of the move is that it threatens to remove another voice from our contemporary world that we still need—our ancestors.  Because they do not conform to our current standards of appropriate terminology and ethical behavior, they make us uneasy and we are tempted to hide them away as an inconvenient embarrassment.  But the dead do not stop speaking for all our attempts to silence them.  What motivated them and stirred them to both moral horrors and triumphs is still within us and we have much to learn from them, even as we expand the canon with voices that were suppressed in their own time.

So here’s a plea for some holy discomfort that should welcome the challenge of Huck and Harper.  Perhaps it’s a longing for schools to be a space where wise books and wise people can lead us out of our struggles to live into a common story.  Or maybe it’s just because I believe that we are already uncomfortable and will be despite such changes, so why discard some companions who would try to help?

The Most-Read of 2017: A Heartlands Retrospective

freestocks-org-4875612017 began with a quaint and quixotic belief that one more blog might be helpful in addressing the Great Divide.  Post-election I was casting about for a way to explore this strange, new world we all seemed to be living in.  Were we really as divided as we seemed?  Had we forgotten how to talk to each other?  What new languages might we have for new conversations?  And how could the church reclaim its own language for this new day?

img_5321Heartlands is about the way these questions play out in rural America.  Over the year, it has developed a particular interest in how place and story can ground us.  Hence, book reviews, travelogues, and interviews with authors and artists.  But you have helped shape what this blog looks like.  And it’s time to count down the most read posts of 2017.  So here they are:

10. How to Preach a Bad Sermon – reflections by one who has delivered and heard more than my fair share.  Includes obligatory Annie Dillard reference.

9. Why don’t country people just get out? – What happens when we give up on country life?

19366224_10154952950103533_8737175430623632393_n8. In Which I High-Five a Bishop – The new bishop of the Virginia Conference, got me (and the whole conference) fired up at our annual gathering last June.  Here’s where I tell why.

7. We’ve Got an Open Door Problem – revisiting the deceptive slogan of the United Methodist Church.

6. Why the Duke Divinity School Controversy Matters – not sure, but I think a few Duke alums might have helped goose this post up the list.  But the controversy did matter in helping us define the stakes of 21st century theology.

5. The Last Thing I Want to Talk About – Bishop Oliveto and the United Methodist Church – The legal wrangling over the status of the denomination’s first openly lesbian bishop got me thinking about what I really wanted to be talking about.

14_working4. When Robert E. Lee was in the Walgreen’s Parking Lot – An interview with Photographer Michael Mergen – Passing through Farmville, Virginia one day, I took a break at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts and discovered the work of a great photographer of place and memory.  Man, I’m glad I did.

3. This Old House: The Love Story – an interview with Trudy Hale – One of my favorite people who lives in one of my favorite places – The Porches writing retreat.

2. The Empty Bench at the Book Bin – Remembering Kirk Mariner – the Eastern Shore and the UMC lost a giant in 2017.

images1. What Goes Without Saying – Some Thoughts on Charlottesville – a fitting #1 considering how much time we spent discussing that awful day in August in a city I love.  Race, faith, and the Great Divide in one terrible package.

But the true #1 is you, dear reader.  Thanks for giving these posts some life and breath and for moving toward something like a community – a far less quaint and quixotic concept.  Thanks as well to Christopher Smith and Sara Porter Keeling who contributed guest blogs this year and all the authors and artists who gave me their time.  Happy New Year!

The Lure of Small Towns: The Heartlands Interview with Winn Collier – (1 of 3)

winn-mountain-lumber_largeWinn Collier’s new book, Love Big. Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church, is a generous celebration of the potential of church.  In my review I noted that it is a gentle, human love story between a pastor and his congregation told in the form of letters written to the church over the course of his tenure.  Winn is not only an author but the pastor of All Souls Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.  In the course of this interview we talked about the book, the realities of small church ministry, the writing life, and even church security in the wake of the Texas church shooting.

Winn: So, you were telling me about your blog.

Alex: Yeah, I started it after the election last year, thinking that the theme I wanted to work on was: Why don’t I understand the place where I live anymore?  It has developed into an exploration of the Great Divide that we’re in and also rural life and rural ministry.  So it’s not only that I appreciate you having a new book, but that it’s written to a small town church.  It feels like it’s right in the wheelhouse for this blog.

Well, hopefully it resonates somewhere with some folks.

What has the response been like so far?

It’s definitely been far different from any of my other books, but I feel like that’s such a low bar. Definitely getting more responses, more curiosity about it, more notes, people saying kind things about it and stuff. So, in that sense it feels like its connecting with certain people,

I’m definitely hearing more from some different groups, saying, “Hey I think we’d actually like to read this and talk about it.”  And from lots of different angles—like one pastor wants to give it to his Elder Board because he struggled trying to explain some things of where he’s coming from, he feels like the book gives a language for them.

Another pastor wants his church to read it because he feels like it will start some conversations that might open up some possibilities for them. And then there’s a group of retired Presbyterian pastors that meet cordially and they want to read it and me to come talk with them about it. So, in that sense, the narrative form of it maybe has allowed some possibilities that maybe other forms might not.  So I’m thankful for all that.

This isn’t your first foray into letter writing as a literary form though is it?  Wasn’t your first book in a similar style?

41DSa3mfXpL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_No, it was my second book [Let God: The Transforming Wisdom of François Fenelon] and it was letters that François Fenelon wrote to friends that I reworked.

This book obviously is also [written as series of letters], but a good friend of mine, who lives in Colorado, and I write letters to each other on our blogs.  So that’s connected with a whole other sort of group of readers which has been kind of interesting.  It does seem like something about me keeps coming back to that.  There’s something about that that resonates with me.

Is it the second person voice?

I think it’s the relational component, that it’s been written to a particular person or persons. The way I enjoy letters, is it kind of gets to the point and there’s something about the particularity, like you’re writing to particular people.  It’s so steeped in friendship and there’s something about the form that’s so counter to the realities that we live right now.  Nobody writes letters anymore.

Yeah.

I do wonder: How is that changing us?  How does it change us that most of our communication now happens in email blasts?  There’s a lot of good about that—I can communicate with our church in a rapid fashion and its very nice for the budget, doesn’t require the manpower, office staff, stamps and  envelopes and even the time—but also I wonder if we’ve grappled at all with what we’ve lost because it’s not our world anymore and I don’t know what to do with that.

Right. It’s not just the texture of the paper but the texture of the communication too.

Yeah, that’s right.

So why a small town?

41q15SgR88L._AC_US218_A couple different reasons.  It wasn’t a conscious choice.  Partly what’s important for me to say is that this book didn’t come with a message.  The fiction wasn’t just a tangential device I chose because I thought it would be the most effective way to get out the message I wanted to get out.  It was a story, and it was one that was going to be told in letters and we would see where that would go, not because it was going to be a pastor writing to his church, (which is different than Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead which was a pastor writing to his son, telling his own story).

This is really different and it forced me to think about: there’s lots of things a pastor actually wouldn’t say in a letter to his entire church community.  I had to think long and hard about what kinds of stories he could tell that he would feel he had permission to tell, all these sorts of things.

So the fact that it is a small town was just the way the story came to me.

Then the question would be: Why did the story come to me that way?  There’s something inside me that’s resisting the storyline that’s often getting played out which is overtly or covertly signaling that large and urban is better…that the center of power definitely is moving to the urban centers.  Sometimes I wonder if the [last presidential] election is a reaction to that…kind of a last grasping.  A ‘no!’

51zxriXcF5L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_But it’s inevitable.  It’s happening and it’s a train that’s left the station.  But it’s not the whole story.  There is something in small towns that I find myself drawn to because there are still vestiges of a kind of humanity possible there that I don’t want to completely lose.

I also don’t want to in any way idealize it.  There is also another kind of humanity that happens in urban places that’s a new expression and I’m not discounting that in any way.  I’m also not saying that small rural towns are always these humanizing places because sometimes they’re just desolate. I totally get that.

But there is something that’s at least possible in those spaces that no longer feels possible in larger urban areas.

The second reason would be that I spent the last 5 to 6 years immersed in Wendell Berry’s fiction, so it seems obvious that my brain would probably naturally go to some place like that.

Winn’s blog is at winncollier.com.  The second segment of this interview, How to Make Your Church Inefficient, can be found here.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017: #9 Can You See Anything Now?

416HGA6nSHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_We continue the idiosyncratic countdown of best reads of 2017 with all its caveats: not all published in 2017, not limited by genre but limited by Alex having to have read them.  Don’t let my limitations keep you from Katherine James’ debut novel Can You See Anything Now?–a book with the rich texture of human tragedy and a beautiful confidence in God’s presence in its midst.  The story of a small town with its own red-blue divides and the artists and young people who populate it, this is a story that stuck with me and gave me hope for what Christian fiction is at its best.  Raw and wonderful.  And I had fun interviewing the author this fall.