There’s Something Still the Matter with Kansas: Thomas Frank and a Sinking Society

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Thomas Frank is the kind of writer who gets trotted out when the national media wants to cast its distracted gaze on the hinterlands.  It helped that he wrote a book a decade and more back about his home state titled What’s the Matter with Kansas? After the 2016 election a whole lot of pundits wanted to know the answer to that question.  Why would so many people in the heartland vote for a candidate with big city, Acela Corridor brashness and a class profile so different from the majority of his voters?

When he wrote that book in 2004, Frank was pointing to the populism to come, noting the many working class folks who have been growing ever more distanced from the elite who, unlike them, have benefitted from the cosmopolitan world that global economic trading and technological innovation have created.  Frank himself may have wandered from his thesis in the Obama years, if the essays collected in his latest book are any indication.  Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society shows a writer searching for a master narrative that only snaps into focus with the presidential election.

To crib from Samuel Johnson, there’s nothing like a catastrophe to concentrate the mind.

Catastrophe.  Oblivion.  A sinking ship.  That’s what Frank sees when he looks at America.  (The ship also graces the cover of the book.)  In early essays dating from 2011-2014, his targets are diffuse.  As in Sarah Kendzior’s essays in her recent collection, The View from Flyover Country, Frank’s preoccupations in this period are with the academic world, journalism, inequality, and even the empty sloganeering of civic boosters.  (Don’t get him started on ‘vibrancy’!)

As the apocalypse…er…election approaches, however, you can see him returning to Kansas, and Missouri, and all the places that were enthralled with the Trump candidacy, trying to figure out what is going on. He recognizes that the ever-present populist impulse in rural America has no voice on the left today.  Democratic leaders, who used to champion the interests of unions and the working class against Wall St. have now thrown their lot with money.  Insurgent voices were actively marginalized and the professional class has developed a ‘softly, softly’ approach to change.  Big ideas couldn’t succeed, this group felt, so they had to be smothered.

At the same time, as prosperous, two-coast America divorced itself from the deindustralized, depopulating, despairing countryside, “the Trump movement [was characterized] as a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race hatred.  Its partisans not only are incomprehensible, they are not really worth comprehending.” (173)

Rural America picked up on the condescension, and Frank sees it as an indication of one of the key challenges facing those who would turn the country a different way.  “It is uncompromising moral stridor that has come to dominate the opinion pages and the airwaves of the enlightened—a continuous outpouring of agony and aghastitude at Trump and his works.” (218)  Without some introspection and reconnection with its traditional base, Frank feels, the Democratic Party is condemned to a future in which the only satisfaction it can expect is “a finger wagging in some vulgar proletarian’s face, forever.” (222)

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Thomas Frank

I was glad that Frank eventually found his groove in this book.  Before he returned, late in the book, to Marceline, Missouri to see what had happened to Walt Disney’s hometown Main Street, (the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A.), I worried that he had was leaving the Midwest behind for shinier objects elsewhere.  But the crisis of the current moment brought him back to his roots.  

The title bespeaks a gloomy outlook.  “This is what a society looks like when the glue that holds it together starts to dissolve,” he says on the opening page. (1)  But for all his alarm bells about “the golden age of corruption,” (2) “the casual dishonesty of politics” spilling over into everyday life (4), and the con game the economy has become for so many Americans, Frank still believes in the essential wisdom of where he came from.  Even if he doesn’t think we’re in that Kansas anymore.

Metropolitan Books provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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.

Jeff Sessions and the Things Church Trials Can’t Do

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Photo by Hayne Palmour IV

Church trials don’t create community; they create tribes.  And that’s got me concerned for The United Methodist Church.

Some 640 United Methodists recently lodged a formal complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, who is a United Methodist with membership in a Mobile, Alabama church.  Though it is almost so rare as to be unheard of, church trials for lay members  can happen for a range of offenses.  This complaint against Sessions alleges that his advocacy for and enforcement of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, which has led to family separations at the border, constitutes immorality, child abuse, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the order and discipline” of the UMC [para. 2702.3, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016].

Those who brought the charges say they don’t really expect it to go to trial. The Book of Discipline outlines a process of just resolution that sees trials as a last resort. The Rev. David Wright, chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, told CNN:

“The goal is to hopefully get Attorney General Sessions to talk to his pastors and church leaders, bring his position in line with the church’s doctrines and social principles, and end the damage he is causing.”  

Church trials for lay members are extraordinary, but they have been used with increasing regularity for clergy members who have officiated at same-sex weddings, which is also a chargeable offense.  The trials have provided some level of accountability to The Book of Discipline, but they are expensive, divisive, and have had the effect of heightening tensions within the denomination over sexuality issues.

In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus provides a model for restoring relationship when an offense has caused injury.  It begins with a conversation.  “Point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus says. “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” [NRSV]  It is only after these attempts at resolution that you institute a kind of separation.  As if to emphasize the importance of maintaining the bonds of Christian community, this passage is followed by a lesson on forgiveness.

What Jesus assumes is that there is a community holding together all the persons involved in the resolution.  When we use the media to shout at one another, even when it has the aim of beginning a Matthew 18 reconciliation, we are substituting a deeply flawed national mouthpiece for a church process that is too often atrophied and broken.  When we do so, we begin in a place where our moral objections can too easily be entwined with our partisan commitments.  And we invite the same behavior by those with differing partisan loyalties.

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photo by Heather Mount via Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong.  I feel like shouting, too.  There is injustice and injury that we should lift up, decry, and put our hands to ending.  Separating families is such a thing.

But there is injury in our churches and our communities that needs attention, too.  To have a “catholic spirit,” the openness of heart to fellow Christians to which John Wesley called his Methodists, requires that we tend to the essentials of our connection, that we are in close enough community that you might “provoke me to love and to good works,” that we attend to the means of grace.

A few days ago, the combination of local and national events prompted me to write a Letter to my Haitian Neighbor.  I was outraged, but looking for a way to ground that outrage in a larger picture than the one offered by the echo chambers of social media and cable news.  It seemed right that we bear witness to what is happening—to offer our hearts and our neighbors to God.

I don’t want to be distracted from that task by taking the Attorney General to church court.

The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, a friend and colleague, is pastor of Clarendon UMC in northern Virginia where Jeff Sessions often attends.  Last Sunday, in the wake of this story, she preached to a congregation that included Sessions’ wife, Mary.  In her sermon she said:

”I do have strong beliefs…I will work to let our government know how I feel and I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday and pretty much every night at the dinner table, if you ask my family. But I will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans … and I am committed to listen to them.”

It’s hard to hold that space in these times, but Wines does it because she was formed by a United Methodist tradition that has taken this as a core value.  It is a tradition that believes in seeing people, all people, as distorted by sin, redeemed by grace, and capable of sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s an understanding best learned in Christian community—not on CNN.

Letter to My Haitian Neighbor As You Leave Town

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I saw you yesterday pulling on a frayed nylon cord to tie down the mattresses on the roof of your car.  You’re leaving town and we never got to say ‘hello.’

I’ve seen you in the Food Lion and the Wal-mart and I’ve been tempted to try to speak.  But my high school French, which I would use to approximate your Creole, always comes out as rusty Spanish—the language I’m used to breaking out in talking to my immigrant neighbors.  I know.  Haiti is a long way from Mexico in so many ways, but I’m sometimes laughably limited.  I also order in Spanish at the Chinese restaurant.  

So, no, we haven’t said ‘hello.’

And now you’re leaving.

I imagine that it has been a strange sojourn for you here in this small town.  Traveling to this rural peninsula in Virginia to work on farms and in chicken processing plants must have seemed a hopeful opportunity after the earthquake in 2010.  Our government gave you Temporary Protected Status to allow Haiti to recover and now it has revoked that authorization, giving you until next summer to go home.

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photo by Kaique Rocha via Pexels

Our town changed when the Haitian community came.  Oh, not in the ways some politicians say.  You didn’t run down the town.  You occupied buildings that would have remained vacant.  You didn’t ruin the economy.  You kept Dollar General and our legendary five-and-dime humming.  You opened a Caribbean market on the square.  You began a church.  You filled jobs when the poultry farms expanded.  Crime didn’t spike.  The town police say we have one of the lowest crime rates in the state.  

So, even though we never got to know one another, I felt like our town was better with you here.  I wish we’d gotten to share stories.  It is not good for people sharing the same land to be ignorant of each other’s deepest hopes and needs.  We need to see each other’s humanity.

The Bible I preach from tells us to love the sojourner because we were once sojourners [Deuteronomy 10:19].  A wandering Aramean was our ancestor. [Deut. 26:5]  We will always share something with the immigrant.

These are hard times for immigrants in my country.  Most of us found our way here from someplace else, but we have begun to believe that ‘foreign’ means ‘threatening.’  We talk about immigrants as criminal, predatory, and dangerous.  We use verbs like “infest” to describe your actions.  Our fear leads us to closing our eyes to the gifts you bring and the people you are.  Our fear leads us to cruelty.  Unfathomable cruelty.

This week we couldn’t close our eyes because we couldn’t close our ears.  The sounds of children being torn from their parents to be caged in old Wal-marts converted into warehouses couldn’t be ignored. Something is broken, not only in our immigration system, but in our spirits as well. And the most vulnerable, as always, suffer the consequences.

Your story is not so loud.  You came quietly and you are leaving just as quietly.  If I had not passed you yesterday, I would not have known.  I would just notice slowly that the town was changing again.  The malanga and plantains would disappear from the shelves.  I would notice fewer people walking around town and wonder where they’d gone.  There won’t be crying children on the news when you leave.  Just more silence.

Like much of rural America, our silence is growing as our population is declining.  Each year in our county there are more deaths than births.  The most common narrative for our young people is that they leave for college or job opportunities elsewhere and they don’t come back.  The result is a spiritual crisis of confidence.  You interrupted our stories of decline. You helped us understand that we are not dead.  But we live by being connected.

abandoned-america-american-221327Yes, we need border control.  We need an immigration reform that makes sense—that keeps people and businesses from having to live in a furtive secret economy.  And if you have the opportunity to return to your home after it has recovered from a devastating disaster (something that I don’t believe has really happened in Haiti), of course, that is a good thing. 

But I will miss you.  You reminded me that our stereotypes of what we are can be challenged.  That we could be something different.  Something more.

I watched your car as it bumped out of the dirt driveway and onto the road, the edges of the mattresses flopping over the rooftop.  The back right wheel lacked a hubcap and there was a worrying squeal coming from the engine.  I wondered where you were headed.  I wondered if you would make it safely.

I wondered where we were headed, too.

Thanks to Yossi Klein Halevi and his Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor for the inspiration for this letter.

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.

Doughfaces, Denzel & Racing against Racism: The Ed Ayers Interview, Part 2 of 3

Think the racial narratives of American political discourse are bad today?  As Edward Ayers reveals in his latest book, The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America, it’s nothing new and it’s been worse.  In the second part of my interview with my former professor, we talk about racial narratives of the mid-War North and the post-War South.  

The first part of my interview can be found by clicking this link.

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So, then, how new was the racial narrative that the Northern Democrats developed during the Civil War? How did it work for them and was it really new or was that of a piece with what went before?

Before the War, they were ‘Doughfaces,’ which is: Northern men with Southern sympathies. They were called Doughfaces because their faces could be shaped to whatever expression the South wanted. Before the War, the Democrats had basically been Southern sympathizers for reasons of racism but also for party advantage. 

Once they’re fighting to the death against white Southerners, they don’t have that option anymore and it becomes just anti-black. So, in some ways the racism is of a purer form in the War. You see this in the invention of miscegenation as a scare tactic of the Democrats. 

During the war itself, the Republicans are always pointing out, “You guys are just on the verge of treason—wishing ill for the Federal armies, kind of pulling for the Confederacy a little bit because you don’t want to see slavery end, because you don’t really want the formerly enslaved people to come into the North.” 

The Democrats don’t really have a good answer for that because that’s kind of true. Then after the War, they return to their sympathy for the white South and in some ways the War is an interruption of the longer conversation about race. The difference is that there are white Northerners after the War, who didn’t exist before, who had their entire political identity wrapped around some kind of justice and freedom for the formerly enslaved people 

That’s one thing I really emphasize—here’s a case where politics does something great. You have all the mobilization on the ground of people who want to be elected and re-elected, and to do so they embrace emancipation. And because they embrace emancipation, they embrace the character and capacities of African-Americans. If you don’t have that, you don’t really have the mobilization of white support in the North for Reconstruction. We’re so used to thinking of politics as a corrosive craft, but here’s a case where politics played a role that no other institution could have played because it blended self-interests and idealism in a really powerful mixture.

How much did the Northern Democratic narrative impact the Southern narrative that developed after the war? It obviously built on something that was there in South already, but how quickly did the alliance between Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats emerge?

Everybody was happy that Andrew Johnson was president after Lincoln’s assassination. The Democrats say, “OK, we got one of ours. Even though he just ran on the Union ticket, he’s always been a Democrat.”

The Republicans say, “Here’s the bravest guy in the South who was uniquely willing to stand up for the Union against his own people.”

Johnson was trying to make a national Republican Party that could hold its own with a national Democratic Party that was reassembling itself after the War. The white Southerners and the Northern Democrats came back together quickly despite the fact they had just been killing each other months before. 

So, I give Johnson a little more credit than most people. I’d say, “What was he doing?” It’s true, he threw black people under the bus. It’s true that he granted pardons to so many former Confederates. But why?

It’s usually explained, “Well, he was a racist.” Well, yeah, but so was everybody. The difference was, he was doing what he thought Lincoln wanted to do, which is to put together a national party, North and South, of white people who would further the cause of union. To do that he was willing to sacrifice much that had been won recently and at such great cost. 

Even though there was a war and I know those were extraordinary circumstances, it’s surprising that the Republican Party was able to retain control of Congress as long as it did. I don’t think of Congress as really having that much time to do much and, in our day, doing much of anything at all. How unusual was that?

That’s a really good point. If we pull the camera back a little bit, though, we see that they were racing. They accomplished as much as they did because they knew it wasn’t going to last. So, you have the nine months that Johnson was president that Congress is not in session. Then he basically sacrifices a lot of what the Republicans believed in and what a lot of Northerners believed in.

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Ed Ayers

But because of the disgust of what white Southerners did in that time, they were able to win a mandate in 1866 that they were able then to carry over into 1867 and ’68. But they started losing as soon as they started winning. The Democrats started a resurgence almost as soon as the Republicans were in power creating the Military Reconstruction Act. 

My experience is that people don’t even think they understand Reconstruction because it doesn’t have any kind of a narrative arc. It starts ending as soon as it begins and it ends in different states at different times in different ways.

I asked my freshmen students last year to tell me about Reconstruction. I said, “Go online and see what people think about Reconstruction.” They came back and the only commonality was that it was a failure. That’s what we teach our children—Reconstruction was a failure. I think that’s misleading and also defeatist. It also undercuts the idea that the government might be able to do something important. Of course, it’s going to end. You can’t change people. So the point is that the Republicans were racing precisely because they knew that if they didn’t do it then they might never do it.

Another great thing about the book is the way that you captured voices from people who were in the US Colored Troops during the War. I have always known how important those soldiers were symbolically, but what came through in the book was, practically, the North really relied on what the Colored Troops were able to do in the field.

Yeah. The New York Times wrote an article about the Valley of the Shadow project back in 1999 or 2000 when the idea of an online project was considered a novel idea. An older professor wrote me and said, “You would never find them, but the largest single collection of letters of African-American soldiers is of a family from Franklin County [PA]. But they’re filed in the county next door… I can’t read the letters.” 

colored_troopsI wrote back and said, “That’s ok. I know some twenty-two-year-old eyes that can.” And [the grad students] transcribed all those letters. So, I was able to flesh out that story because of that remarkable stroke of good luck.

The fact that these guys were just writing to each other…they’re not grandstanding. This is not a speech. This is not an editorial in a newspaper. They’re just saying, “I do believe it’s God’s will that this War will go on till the black people have their rights.”

I still get chills thinking about that and for us to know that that’s what they were fighting for. I think is crucial. It changes the story we have. Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman [in the movie Glory]—it’s all great, but it gives the impression that it ended after Fort Wagner [in 1863]. As you see, it didn’t and the kind of fighting they were doing on up to the gates of Richmond is an important thing for us to know. 

Click on this link for Segment 3, “Musicals, Monuments, and Historical Optimism.”

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.

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.

Rural Soul: Evolution of a Liberal, Guest Blogger – Sara Keeling

I’m traveling back from Israel & Palestine Monday, but not before the Rev. Sara Porter Keeling continues her guest hosting with a post on anthropology, theology, and the continuing journey of discerning the Word.  Many thanks to Sara for bringing her rural soul to Heartlands while I’ve been away…

Sara Porter Keeling

Does loving our neighbors look like being politically correct and choosing our language for each other carefully? Does wanting access to health care and child care and equal pay and education make me a snowflake?  
 

It goes without saying that we have trouble hearing one another and talking to each other. But it seems to be helpful to try to understand why we may think and feel the way that we do: particularly about social and political issues.  

I used to be concerned that The UMC might allow for the full inclusion of LGBT persons. Now I’m much more deeply concerned that we never will.  

 It doesn’t feel right that people who are gifted for ministry, called by God, should not be ordained because of who they are attracted to and who they commit their lives to.  

 It doesn’t feel right that that is the number one issue, life choice, character trait, even as we allow for outright, named, unquestionable sins to exist amongst our clergy. We pick and choose what we want out of the Bible. We pick and choose what we want out of the Book of Discipline. Are we all so blameless and striving for perfection? We don’t mind sinful clergy so long as they are not gay. And there’s nothing else to say except that we are fascinated and grossed out and consumed by sex.

I managed to leave the town of Orange, Virginia as a moderate conservative. I confess that I voted for a Republican my first election.  Shortly thereafter, my liberal arts education lived up to its name. That’s what happens to all small town girls right? We go off to college, cut our hair short, and become raging feminists. That was true for me.

I majored in Anthropology and English at UVA. And yes, since you asked, my first paying job—post diploma—was making coffee.  

Brooks Hall at UVA

My intro-level anthropology classes started with an apology tour of the oppression the discipline had caused. I barely understood what anthropology was in those days.  (It’s the study of human culture—“anthro” referring to human beings, “ology” to the study thereof.)  But before we could fully understand cultural criticism or current archaeological methods, we had to take a look at the history of the discipline.  

It turns out that the study of human culture was a very euro-centric, very 19th-century way of documenting and cataloging other cultures–the non-European, therefore non-civilized, generally inferior and primitive cultures. This way of study was often to prove such inferiority and primitiveness in the first place. To document cultural aspects as they “vanished” in the march of progress, civilization, colonization, slavery. Often proving along the way exactly why these cultures and groups of people were so “easily” destroyed and obliterated or assimilated or enslaved.  

In general, keeping bones, and other sacred objects that were acquired through “discovery.” Despicable things such as keeping skulls in museums to measure was also a practice. Which is why many indigenous peoples are dubious, even unwelcoming, to an anthropologist in their midst—to an outsider attempting to tell their story or stealing their ancestral heirlooms.

Now done differently, of course, anthropology is a way of actually understanding how very different and unique and valuable each culture is—how so many things that we consider natural and normal are really our cultural ways of understanding.

To uncover the lost stories and different perspectives that were lost to the written history books. To challenge our assumptions about race, class, gender, sexuality, and on and on.

I took all of this and thought what does God have to say about this? About indigenous cultures, minorities, colonists and the colonized?  Aren’t we all God’s children no matter the winners and losers of history?

I had taken a bit of a break from church at that point, but I returned and picked up at the Wesley Foundation. Where Alex was serving as director. (It all comes back to Alex, like it’s his blog or something.) I discovered that the language of Wesley and our Social Principles aligned quite nicely with my social conscience. My academic language and the native language of my religious upbringing were not at all at odds.  

As a minister, I bring cultural understanding to the scriptures. Realizing that our stories as the people of God are so highly tribal and interwoven with all of the stories of God. From other times and places and cultures and understandings. Sometimes the people of Israel were the oppressed and downtrodden. And sometimes they were the mighty victor and the oppressor. Both slaves and slave holders throughout history. Sometimes with God on their side and sometimes not. Words that were not written for us in 21st Century America, and yet words that still speak to us and guide us.  

Why Books Will Win

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photo by John-Mark Kuznietsov via Unsplash

I’m making a wager that books will lead us to the future.

Heartlands came about as a desire to understand the present age, particularly from the perspective of rural America and rural church ministry.  In the beginning I was trying to figure out why the place where I live seemed suddenly so strange to me.  Things had shifted, and not just because of an unexpected outcome to the presidential election.  We had been shifting for some time and no politician could claim credit for creating the Great Divide.

What we lost was texture.  Red and blue became easy stand-ins for the complexities of our culture and we let the color labels define us.  We latched onto them as identity markers.  Who we are, in all our contradictions and quirks, was less interesting than a convenient narrative that prevented us from observing and thinking deeply.

As I wrote in a piece for Topology magazine, “Rural is Plural,” there was a tendency in some writers from the coastal cities that sounded like they were writing off the heartland.  The reason Heartlands is plural is because there is diversity here, too, that is unrecognized.  So I began to search for the lens and the language that would help me bring it to sight and voice.

The surprising thing is that literature has become one of the most useful tools in that search.  You know—books.  Stories have the capacity to carry so much more freight than other forms of communication.  Good stories don’t force the world into neat categories and simple morals.  Characters in a book should always be able to surprise us because, like real human beings, that have complex motivations that they don’t always understand.  That’s certainly the case for biblical characters.

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photo by Lysander Yuen via Unsplash

So the jaunts this blog has taken into books and interviews with authors like Alix Hawley, Trudy Hale, and Arlie Russell Hochschild, and with the photographer Michael Mergen, have ended up not being diversions but central to the whole project.  Perhaps the best language for an age that has destroyed truth is the vernacular of art, which is groping, not desperately, but confidently in search of new truth.  It’s obvious that the old vehicles have broken down—science, politics, and the like.  But the arts still sparkle – underfunded as they are.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice” — T.S. Eliot

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice,” T.S. Eliot says in ‘Little Gidding.’  So I’ll keep reading and writing, awaiting another voice.  Literature may not be the fluff we have presumed it to be.  It may the gateway to what comes next.