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

Still Kinda In Kansas: Talking Politics with Robert Wuthnow, Part 1 of 3

Robert Wuthnow is that rare academic who still keeps a foot in the heartlands.  Wuthnow is a respected Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University but he’s as apt to talk to you about his native Kansas as he is the cultural capitals of DC and New York.

I caught up with Wuthnow a few weeks ago after reading his book, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. He didn’t disappoint…

You say in the book that people in small communities still “believe that the heart of America still beats in small communities.” Does the rest of America still believe that?

No. If you think about the population that lives in big cities and suburbs–no. They think about rural America, if they ever think about it, as part of flyover country. You can easily find columns online or even sometimes in The New York Times or The Washington Post that basically say, “Those areas ought to just depopulate and turn the prairie back to prairie and let the buffalo take over.”

Yeah, David Brooks has said similar things.

I was doing a podcast a couple of weeks ago and the woman who was hosting it only half jokingly said, “Isn’t it true that in 20 years there just aren’t going to be any people in rural America because all the tractors will be driving themselves?” So, yeah, there is that  impression out there.

One of the things that’s spurred me to do this blog is this sense that what the heartlands mean is really different than it used to be. It used to be that, even if people lived in urban areas, they would look to the rural areas as being an inspiration or holding the essence of what it means to be America. I agree; I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

I’d like to ask about your subtitle: Decline and Rage in Rural America. It’s a catchy phrase, but do you think that those are the predominant dynamics that you run into in talking with folks or are there some other more nuanced words that maybe are better?

The sense of decline is pretty widespread, despite the fact that the total number of US citizens living in rural areas is not declining, and has actually increased. It is a relative decline because the suburbs have grown in population or held their own. So there is that sense of relative decline as people talk about population or as they talk about where the jobs are or where their kids have moved to. 

Also there is that sense of a declining cultural influence related to what we were just talking about. You don’t feel that rural America is regarded as the heartland anymore of whatever values they hold dear in terms of small, local community or traditional values. They feel the nation has moved away from all that. So, in that sense, decline is pretty widespread.

My publisher said they wanted a short book that would answer some of the questions that people have about the 2016 election. It’s harder in a smaller book like that, than it was in longer books I wrote out of the same research, to capture the diversity. 

What I always try to do, in interviews and podcasts and so forth, is to emphasize diversity, because there’s the regional diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, and then a huge amount of difference between what’s happening in a town of 5,000 people versus a town of 25,000 people, which is still within the definition of the small town.  But a town of 25,000 people has a lot going for it that a smaller town doesn’t. Then certainly the differences between a town that is out in the boonies about 100 miles from the city versus a town that’s within easy commuting distance of a city. Especially in my book called Small Town America, I try to get into all of those differences and try to point out to people who haven’t thought much about small towns that there’s is a huge amount of diversity. 

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Robert Wuthnow

The rage part of it really only pertains to the views towards Washington and toward politics. They’re not going around just seething all the time. They’re not really mad at their neighbors. That not really that mad at urban people either. Occasionally they are because they feel urban people don’t understand them or disparage them. But most rural people have friends and family that live in the city that they’d like to go visit .

They are mad at politics. On the political side, it is true that some of the time there is anger toward gay people or racial or ethnic minorities or toward immigrants or toward Muslims. So some of that conversation that happens all the time on Fox News and is coming out of the Trump administration does filter out and it gives people ways to vent some of their anger on groups that they might not have thought about. They may be perfectly ok with the Muslim family that happens to live in the town or the Hispanic family that is working on their farm but then still they get incensed and say, “We need stronger borders. We need to restrict  immigration.” and all of that. It’s in that sense that the wider political culture gets refracted in interesting ways at the local level.

You’re making me think, as you describe it that way, whether some of that emotion is related to the cognitive dissonance of trying to hold together things that seem so opposed. To put it in the simplest sense, “Immigrants—bad. But my neighbors, who happen to be immigrants, they are excellent and they’re helping our community survive.” Or “Washington neglects us but Washington interferes too much.” You know, just the kind of the things that we’re trying to hold in our heads.

Our interview with Robert Wuthnow continues here.

Read the Heartlands review of The Left Behind by clicking here.

Why You Need to Know What’s Happening on God’s Island

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A flooding tide on Tangier

Earl Swift spent the better part of a year on Tangier Island and grew to love the people and the culture of the place.  But when he wrote about the experience for his new book, his takeaway was not subtle.  It’s there in the title.  He believes the island is not long for this world.

I read Swift’s book with the same eyes he does.  On the one hand I see the beauty of a place so small and personal that you can’t talk about it without nicknames and stories.  On the other hand, it is dropping into the Chesapeake Bay, and it may be a bellwether for other places, like my own Eastern Shore, that are facing the same fate.

Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island is the culmination of Swift’s decades-long fascination with life on this tump in the middle of America’s greatest bay (sorry, San Francisco).  He’s written about the place before, as in The Tangierman’s Lament and Other Tales of Virginia.  But here he dives deep, giving the reader the sweep of history, the passion of religion, and the romance and trial of making a living from the waters—all the elements that make Tangier such an irreplaceable culture.

Full disclosure: I’m a frequent visitor to Tangier as the United Methodist District Superintendent for this region.  Swain Memorial and its congregants, by some measures, are the largest church on my district. When Swift mentions names, I can picture the faces.  When he talks about the Heistin’ Bridge and the Slab, I know where they are.  He even grants me an appearance on page 246. So I’m not a disinterested reader and in the mix of the more global story of climate change, important though it is, and the particulars of the settlement, my sympathies are always with the folks I know.

They are vividly portrayed here. Mary Stuart Parks down at the Fisherman’s Corner restaurant.  Lonnie Moore and his crab potting operation.  Carol Pruitt Moore and her regular curation of the disappearing Uppards—the marshy, northern outpost of Tangier on which the whole island depends.

None gets more attention than Ooker Eskridge, the town’s mayor and biggest celebrity, thanks to his regular interviews and highly-publicized interaction with Donald Trump in the summer of 2017.  Following a CNN profile of the island in which Ooker and many of the regulars in the “Situation Room” at the old health center professed their love for the president and made a plea for him to come and “Build us a wall!” around Tangier, Ooker got a phone call from Trump and appeared on a climate change panel with Al Gore.

The resulting social media circus turned Eskridge, and the island, into a caricature of themselves, with hateful Twitter posts declaring that their support for a man who denied climate change left them “getting what they ASKED FOR!” “You’re all #Trump supporters and deserve what Nature gives you: submersion,” one tweet on CNN’s account read. (368)

By the time you arrive at this story at the end of the book, Swift has thoroughly insulated you from the online ignorance that labels the islanders so harshly.  He obviously spent many days and hours with Ooker and the other watermen, learning their craft, seeing with their eyes, and sympathizing with their worldview, if not fully embracing it.  The island natives are not naive and Swift embraces their complexity.

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Earl Swift

Swift is a great storyteller and his descriptions of working the water are rich, giving you the feel of being there.  He doles out the mysterious life cycle of the Chesapeake blue crab in small segments, allowing you to marvel at the creature instead of being overwhelmed by the detail.  The watermen also come to life in stages as you get to know their idiosyncrasies and firmly held convictions.

But nothing diminishes the dire framework within which these stories are told.  In addition to the title, the sub-headings give away the perspective.  Headings like “And Every Island Fled Away” and “Eyeing the End Times” have scriptural overtones, but Swift takes them literally. Erosion. Climate change.  Whatever you call it, the island is just one big storm away from a fatal inundation.

The recent announcement that the state and Army Corps of Engineers are finally moving toward construction of a jetty to protect the western entrance to the main channel through Tangier is a happy ending to a long struggle chronicled in the book.  But the Corps’ Dan Schulte, who co-authored a paper for Scientific Reports in 2015, says the jetty “doesn’t do anything about the bigger problems.” (259)  Without protecting the Uppards and building up the island in other ways, Swift believes, based on Schulte’s research, “you’ll be able to drive a workboat over most of Tangier by 2063.” (258)

Swift also highlights other vulnerabilities: a declining and aging population, loss of young people to the mainland, a fragile economy, an uncertain stock of crab and oysters, a beloved but threatened K-12 school, and a growing drug problem.  Swift asks Lance Daley, who helps run the family grocery store on the island, whether he worries about the future of his business and the island. “‘Not really,’ he said.  He paused, then changed his mind: ‘Well, I guess we do.’” (230)

That’s the sort of hesitating trust I sense in the people of Tangier.  They are no strangers to loss.  Prayer times regularly recall islanders lost at sea in the past.  Swift vividly describes two of those wrecks that happened in the last thirteen years.

IMG_3692But there’s a sturdy persistence, too—something that is inseparable from the faith in God that is never far from the lips of a Tangier Christian.  It can sometimes border on a fatalism that trusts that “God takes care of things” (and therefore we don’t).  But more often it is a trust that the God, who sent a visionary Methodist lay preacher named Joshua Thomas to the island around 1799 and whose Spirit has brooded over the island in the centuries since, will not fail them now.

I often say, (based on my understanding of the island’s history as chronicled by the great Eastern Shore historian, Kirk Mariner, whose name Swift, regretfully, does not mention outside the notes), that great moments in the spiritual life of the Eastern Shore, from camp meetings to revivals, often begin on Tangier.  Perhaps it takes the sensitivity of a people who live on the margins of the world and in total dependence on the the waters of the Bay to see what God is up to.

Earl Swift believes that Tangier’s story is a part of a bigger story, too, though his is a mournful tale of inevitable loss.  I’ve got a different horizon in mind, but I’m glad he paused, with his obvious skills, to pay attention to this place and the threats to it.  He has produced a great book that deserves to be read far beyond what Mariner called “God’s Island.”

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.