A couple weeks ago I was at the Morrow County fair. I have a lot of good memories at the fair: the booths with free pens, the rides lit up at night, seeing the animals that my friends were showing, watching the demolition derbies, eating deep fried everything. The fair is also an opportunity for the community to come together. It may sound silly to some, but it is an important part of our common life.
Perhaps county fairs aren’t what they used to be but they are a still an important way for rural communities to come together for entertainment, exchange, and encouragement of the emerging generation of stewards and citizens. When he was running for President, Abraham Lincoln gave a speech about the importance of fairs, saying that they “make more pleasant, and more strong, and more durable, the bond of social and political union among us.” I think this may often be the case. Somewhere in the mix of funnel cakes, the smell of livestock, and the loud noise of the tractor pull there is an alchemy that turns strangers into neighbors.
It’s not all deep fried Oreos and roses, however…
On Sunday night, near the end of the fair, I attended the special event for the evening: a live action stunt show by the Northeast Ohio Dukes. During the show, the crew performed a story featuring actors portraying the main characters from the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. At several points in the show there were stunts that involved air time and a dramatic crash. It was kinda fun to see some big crashes and hear some big booms, knowing that everyone was okay in the end. But in the midst of cheering for the crashes and poking fun at the quirkiness of the show, part of me felt quite uncomfortable. I think that feeling came because of how the show began.
At the start of the show, the crew lined up near the stands and the American flag was raised. Nothing unusual about that. Then, a boy to the right raised another flag–the Confederate flag. The crowd of several hundred people stood up and sang the national anthem with both the American flag and the Confederate flag being raised (with the American flag raised slightly higher). I thought to myself, Am I the only one who thinks this is nuts?
When I initially heard about the Duke show, I joked that while the rest of the country is tearing down monuments and taking down the Confederate flag, Morrow County is excitedly advertising a show in which the main feature is a car called the General Lee, topped with a large Confederate symbol. I wondered if they would tone it down in light of the national debates. I don’t think they did…
I admit that the old Battle Cry of Freedom began playing in my head: “The Union forever/Hurrah boys hurrah/Down with the traitors/Up with the Stars…” The Confederate flag represents those “traitors” who tried to betray and divide the United States of America and protect an economy based on the enslavement of human beings. Why are we still raising the flag and why are we raising it beside the symbol of our unity?
While that last question was rhetorical, I realize that maybe it should be more than that. Alongside the anger and disgust, there is a small place of curiosity, perhaps empathy, that rises inside me. Indeed, why is that flag still being raised?
My mind went to my relatives, on my Mom’s side, who live in Kentucky. When we visited them, we had to go deep into the “holler,” passing through forests, past abandoned stores, and driving alongside many acres of “backer” (tobacco). When we arrived, we would be greeted with the warmest of southern hospitality. Often we would sit on the back porch that looked out to the countryside. My Great Aunt Joy would offer us a “Coke”–sometimes actually a Coke and sometimes not. Then we would catch up. Since I only visited a few times, I didn’t feel particularly close to them. But I felt their love and friendliness and enjoyed visiting a place that felt different from mine. I would observe the humidity-soaked tobacco fields, the pride they had in their flourishing garden, the free-ranging chickens that came running when called, the unused outhouse, and a large barn that showcased the “rebel flag.”
The conversations were friendly and free-flowing but sometimes hit a snag. For example, during one visit, my Great Uncle started talking about “retards” and he kept saying the word over and over again. My family looked at each other, wondering why he was being so insensitive. We finally realized that he was talking about retirement and being “retired.”
It took me awhile to understand. I am a Yankee through and through (not to be confused with the baseball team based in New York City, an organization I despise). Still today, I do not understand. And it’s about more than dialect.
I do not understand the flag.
I do not understand the monuments.
I do not understand Southern culture and Southern pride.
I do not understand the beloved bundle of God, guns, and grits.
I do not understand the deep racial strife that marks the memory of the land and remains alive underneath the surface.
(I do think they got sweet tea right, though.)
I can hear my socialist friends retorting with the common Marxian maxim that the point is not to understand or interpret the world but to change it. Fair enough. I often need challenged to move from thought to action. However, I am skeptical of people who believe they are charged with changing the world. Especially if they feel no responsibility for understanding it first.
In an era of increasing ideological polarization, identity politics, and widening gaps between classes, I think we should reconsider the value of neighborhood and nation. The bonds of community and country, as well as family, still have meaning. Even as globalization, the Internet, and a host of sociopolitical dynamics make them less central. Don’t get me wrong, I have readily available labels I can put on my neighbors who wear the Confederate flag, drive loud trucks, and watch NASCAR. I have used them and they may even be accurate. And somtimes, when driving through certain parts of the South, I get the eerie feeling that I’m in a scene from Deliverance and need to make as few stops as possible. But something in me still believes that neighbors are worth understanding and if we are at odds with our fellow citizens, it is worth seeking a path of reconciliation (without sacrificing the demands of justice).
I admit that this internal tension arose before the Dukes show. I became aware of it most acutely on November 9, the morning after the 2016 Presidential election. Full disclosure: I worked very hard to elect a candidate that was not Donald Trump; I believed he was a dangerous and delusional individual. I overcame my introverted nature to make hundreds of phone calls, go door to door, register people to vote, pass out literature, get kicked out of grocery store parking lots, and get cussed out by angry Bernie Bros. But I chose to believe it was all worth it as the Ohio polls closed. I only had to watch the results come in and nearly every single pollster in the land was convinced that the odds were ever in my favor…
They were not. And we all know what happened. Or do we? We all know that Donald Trump won the Presidency, in a night of shock and awe for many. But how did it happen and why? I simply could not understand how so many people I know and love could vote for Donald Trump. I could not understand how so many of my neighbors and fellow Americans could vote for him. The media pundits quickly latched on to theories. Chief among them was the theory that the “silent majority” of the “white working class” had found a voice in Trump, after feeling neglected by the ruling elite for so long. This analysis may have been insufficient but seemed to have some truth to it, I thought.
Then my friends from the west coast chimed in. They had suddenly become experts on the social and economic conditions of people in the South and Midwest. They even had some kind of supernatural insight into the motivations and beliefs those people have inside their hearts and minds. Through social media, I was informed that the theories of white working class marginalization were a bunch of bull. People in the Rust Belt and Appalachia don’t have any legitimate grievances; they are simply rationalizing the ignorance and prejudice that keeps them from becoming true, enlightened progressives.
Now, by most standards I am a “liberal,” but I confess to feeling a growing sense of resentment toward people making these claims. Those were my friends, neighbors, and family members they were talking about. I am well aware of the racism and willful ignorance that exists among some people around me. I am also aware of the intelligence, compassion, wisdom, and suffering people carry. Some of the same progressive people that bend over backwards to provide social and economic justifications for the cruel and brutal violence of terrorists in the Middle East can’t be bothered to dig a little deeper into the concerns and complaints of those in their neighborhood or nation. Simplistic categories and caricatures of people living in the “red states” and “Trump’s America” were apparently sufficient.
Though outraged and devastated at the results of the election, and having more political common ground with progressives, I still wanted to find a different path. For the first time in my life, I understood why people in the heartland talk about “the elites” and “west coast liberals.” The Left-wing, Left-coast response wouldn’t help me build constructive change in my conservative community nor would it help the nation move toward a “stronger together” vision. (It wouldn’t help Democrats win future elections, either. Several counties in Ohio that voted twice for President Obama voted for Trump.)
So I did some reading.
I read J.D. Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy, which combines memoir and cultural commentary to provide a helpful glimpse into the life of folks living in Appalachian America. He writes of people and places with affection while facing squarely and recalling personally the shadow side of the region: family breakdown, domestic abuse, economic collapse, substance abuse and addiction, ineffective public policy, and failures in the educational system. Vance was tapped for constant commentary during the election because he provides useful insight into the white working class, acknowledging the roles of both cultural and economic decline.
More recently, I discovered a more sociological and data-driven examination of the topic in a book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. The book was researched and written by Charles Murray, whose recent attempted lecture at Middlebury College was met with student protests which became violent after the speech was shut down. The controversy was largely related to his earlier book The Bell Curve that dealt with sensitive issues of race and I.Q. Though I disagree with Murray’s libertarian bent, I found the Coming Apart book fairly scientific and uncontroversial. He traces the social, economic, and religious changes that have taken place since 1960 which resulted in the creation of an upper class and lower class that were previously unknown in the United States. Of course there have always been income and class differences in America, but the current conditions have allowed the formation of classes that differ in core values and behaviors that used to unite Americans across class. This has resulted in the “coming apart” of American identity and kinship which Murray predicts will have devastating consequences. He also draws from David Brooks and Robert Putnam, whose thinking and writing have provided me unique insight into the current state of affairs in American communities and potential steps toward repair.
A third book I read in this adventure of empathy was the book White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America. In it, Nancy Isenberg takes a different (perhaps opposing) approach than Murray in relating issues of class in America. She sets out providing evidence that class has always been a fairly significant part of the American narrative. Britain dumped off many of its “white trash” subjects into the colonies and the colonists would soon develop their own class system that placed poor whites in a category as low as “Negros” and “savages.” While reading, I remembered the time I confronted someone for using the N-word, after which he assured me: “It’s not about race. I know plenty of white people who are n*ggers.” After reading Isenberg’s fascinating but disturbing history, I now understand his comment. It is both a statement of prejudicial ignorance and a fact of historical narrative. “Lower class” whites were victims to some of the same social injustices as black folks; in the eugenics movement, for example. I also learned that poor white folks have long been a factor in presidential politics. Andrew Jackson had a Trump-like appeal to many who believed he spoke their language and cared about the “common man.” And liberals like FDR, the Kennedys, and LBJ all worked to improve their conditions, even while occasionally making derogatory comments about them in private.
So…After hearing the evidence of history, sociology, memoir, and my personal experience, what can I say about this “white working class” that votes for Trump and raises the Confederate flag?
Are they, as the Dukes of Hazzard theme song suggests, “just some good ol’ boys”?
Or are they dangerous white supremacists?
Are they the victims of a classist cultural elite and economic decline?
Or are they the perpetrators of their own economic stagnancy and social alienation?
It seems like the answer is “Yes.” Because it’s complicated…like most things, like most people, like most groups. If we are to build our capacities to recover abundance in rural communities, we must build our capacities to hold this tension. There are real issues of racism, stagnation, and cultural breakdown that need addressed and repaired. There are also real issues of political alienation and marginalization that need acknowledged and remedied.
Somewhere between the shaming, dismissing elitism of the Far Left and the scapegoating, wall-building and fire-stoking of the Far Right is a field. A field where we can understand one another as complicated human beings capable of healing deep wounds and creating new systems. A field where we share divine dreams and say together: “let us arise and build” (Nehemiah 2:18).
If you happen to know where that field is, let me know.
I’d love to meet you there.