A Great Divide

In this country we have a long tradition of alternatively praising the work of the farmer and disparaging his lifestyle, the latter often accompanied by the epithet “hick” or “hillbilly.”

I was reminded of this these past few weeks with the ascension of the Tweeter in Chief, when a new broadside of vitriol was being fired at rural America. At a recent march, one speaker actually said, “We are tired of these people living out in the middle of nowhere telling us how to run our government.” On his Inauguration Day late-night show, Bill Maher referred to voters in the rural state of West Virginia as “pillbillies.” Closer to home, my own doctor condemned complaints by rural Tennesseans about lack of services by saying, “Who needs rural America anyway?” My answer: “Anyone who wants to eat.”

To say that basic respect has broken down between the cities and the interior seems at this juncture in the Republic an understatement at best. Any attempt to find a middle ground gets shot down by the left and the right as a defense of the other side. “Communication” is now a cracked landscape of carefully parsed conversations, tweets, and blog posts, all looking for hints of a wrongward tilt.

Example: An economist being interviewed recently on NPR suggested to his host that to better understand the anxiety in the country, the interviewer drive 45 minutes out of DC to see firsthand the economic dissolution of the rest of America. The interviewer glossed over what seemed a reasonable suggestion and, instead, asked the economist to explain why rural America has failed to endorse a laundry list of popular cultural agendas — a connection whose relevance I failed to comprehend.  

Our farm is located in Appalachia, an area that has long been the subject of scorn and mockery. The region’s people, although poor in ways that matter to a money economy, have traditionally been rich in independence, resilience, and self-sufficiency. It now seems that the language used to denigrate this area historically is to be applied across the land to anyone outside the belt of the bright lights.

And that is a mistake. First, because as the wealth of this country dwindles, as the climate becomes increasingly unstable, as the resources that provided this amazing historical interlude run out, we may very well be looking to the hicks and hillbillies to teach us the skills that have long sustained their culture.

Second, because history has shown that it’s imprudent to rile an armed and downtrodden population. Fully 86 percent of our military is drawn from rural and small-town America, and following policies that erode rural families and communities and ignore skyrocketing permanent unemployment, culturally mocking that same population as “pillbillies,” is a recipe for revolt.

As the economist on NPR said, it might be wise for the elitist policy and cultural trend makers to visit the hinterlands and have a non-condescending conversation with the inhabitants. But I don’t hold out much hope for that to happen. Instead, the hard work of dialog will be left to us — town and country, middle America and the coasts — to create anew a language of respect and understanding.

17 thoughts on “A Great Divide

  1. I encountered this question last night, and it seems relevant to our current political and cultural communication impass. Are we listening to understand what and why something is being said, or are we only listening in order to respond?

  2. Jobs have been disappearing for decades, in Appalachia, and the rust belt. I think our current cultural jousting, the elite vs the have nots, is just camouflage for the capitalists always seeking the cheapest, and unionized, workforce. When and how can we hold them accountable?

    • Good to hear from you, Judy. Excellent point about capitalism. And, This is a consequence and part of a long term disinvestment in regions, including cities, that no longer have as much to offer. Of course, I’m trying to comment from a specific vantage that I feel gets under represented in the general discourse. BTW: I’m always pleased when someone quotes Herzen in their year end note 🙂

      • It is indeed amazing to witness the gigantic amount of energy put into the destruction of every detail of public discourse (it’s not vitriol; vitriol is a beautiful substance) and then to think about how all this mayhem, as J.M. Greer recently remarked, is basically about next to nothing compared to what’s in store for all of us in the coming years.

        I wanted to scald Judith for adding “and unionized”, but considering the history of coopted large and vilified small unions in my country…

          • I thought as much 🙂 My answer allowed for both possibilities because as I said, unions are quite easily exploitable if one goes about it the “right” way.

            I’ve witnessed my colleagues screaming in unison with the tabloids at the members of a small train drivers’ union for going on strike, causing them to be late for work. They could see the point of those located at vital intersections going on strike on behalf everyone while such intersections still exist only after I’d explained it to them.
            Why does the act of thinking seem to bore most people?

  3. The skimming and scamming economy is bypassing the areas that have been literally and figuratively strip mined of quick profits and has moved on to ever cheaper labor and easily stolen resources. Too bad for all you peons, should have gotten that debt riddled college degree.

  4. Brian, your essays are great! Thanks for taking the time to put into clear writing what many of us experience/feel. I always enjoy slowing down a minute and reading.

  5. I like it Brian.

    I’m fairly liberal I guess, and also not from a rural background….but I want nothing to do with those who denigrate in the way you discuss. Total wrongheaded ignorance.

  6. “a cracked landscape of carefully parsed conversations, tweets, and blog posts, all looking for hints of a wrongward tilt”

    Beautifully put. The scorn and loathing toward anything rural or not in synch with the predominant lefty paradigm is turning into a giant wave. I have been musing this morning, who is really behind all the so called protests? Is the end goal to create so much trouble that governors will be forced to crack down, and then the lefties will feel vindicated for screaming Hitler? A self-fulfilling prophecy?

    • I’d be tempted to recommend No Agenda to get an enjoyable perspective on this issue, but they themselves have not covered themselves in glory recently when it comes to the global shouting wars… 🙁

Any thoughts or questions?