Tom was a down-to-earth, “good ole boy” who grew up on a farm in central California. We don’t think about California as a rural state, but even today 56% of its land area remains rural.
Like many of us, Tom moved to the city to find work. When I met him, he was night supervisor at an industrial plant. At the time, I worked the loading docks. I was 20 years old.
Tom was a genius, but not in the conventional sense. He was functionally illiterate, could barely read, and wrote at a second-grade level. But he had a gift for machinery, and could make any piece of equipment run.
This was an important skill at the plant, which used a number of types of complex machinery from forklifts and yard goats to packaging and painting equipment. The most challenging was an acetylene production and bottling system, which took up about 25% of the plant and was the only facility like it in all of southern California. Acetylene is a relatively unstable gas used for welding, and the process of producing it and dissolving it into acetone in cylinders is not at all simple. The system broke down a lot. Tom, the night shift supervisor, could keep it running better than the plant’s engineer.
But Tom was not well liked by the management. The corporate culture thrived on reporting, and Tom, who couldn’t write, was unable to provide the copious and lengthy reports required. This was the other reason he was moved to night shift: he was an embarrassment to a culture of college-educated management. But they needed him. The plant wouldn’t run through the night without him. They knew this because the weeks Tom took for vacation each year were nightmares for management– and for those of us who worked at night.
No one could make that plant run like Tom could. Yet he was the least-respected member of management. In a culture that valued correspondence, Tom’s gift for machinery was essential but not respected. Most managers considered him stupid. He was uneducated, but he was far from stupid. If you wanted life advice, his was better than any of his college-educated superiors.
I can tell Tom’s story because he’s gone now, and so is the company we worked for. I tell it because it illustrates one of the fundamental issues of the polarization in our nation. But let me illustrate it from the other side.
Someone I know well, a self-described liberal, recently told me, “There’s no excuse for whining about low paying jobs. Anyone can get a college degree and get a better job if they just put their mind to it.” Education, she claimed, was the answer to the economic woes of the working class.
There is some truth to this. Many are capable of educating themselves and getting better jobs. But as a blanket statement, this just isn’t true. First of all, it defies the laws of economics. If everyone had a college degree, wages for skilled jobs would go down and required qualifications for advancement would go up. That’s the law of supply and demand. Just look at India, where you need a college degree to become a clerk!
But let’s return to Tom, who never learned to read and write functionally. He’s not alone. Some reports claim that 44 million American adults cannot read a simple story, and 50% cannot read a book written at an 8th grade level. This is not exclusively a rural-urban issue, but it’s related. In a rural economy, what matters is getting the job done. Whether that’s construction or farming, driving truck or repairing equipment, skills are of much more value than literacy. And that’s been true for hundreds of years. It is not just a statistic, it is a cultural reality.
I remember when the Foxfire books debuted in the 1970s. It was as if people suddenly realized that there was wisdom in the Appalachians. The books became bestsellers. The life (and generational) experience of mountain people spoke to “the rest of us.” Perhaps there was an element of romanticism in this embrace. Or perhaps we realized that we had forgotten to value wisdom from other times and places.
Today, those same people are often considered uneducated and unworthy of making their own decisions. It seems we cannot imagine any reality other than our own. We expect everyone to agree with us–and this is true across the political spectrum– as if everyone has had the same experience and faces the same realities.
How can someone who struggles to raise thousands of dollars for a tiny apartment in an urban community relate to someone else whose livelihood depends on maintaining acreage on which to farm, and vice versa? How can someone whose livelihood relies on a corporation providing cheap goods relate to a small producer who needs a better price to survive, and vice versa? And how can an educated urbanite relate to a rural person whose family never valued education because it didn’t put food on the table? (Remember my mention of the deer poacher in my last post? Where there are no skilled jobs, education isn’t a priority.)
But, conversely, without farmers and truck drivers what will you eat? And without urban economies, who would employ farmers and truck drivers?
Like Tom and the company he worked for, we need each other. Like Tom and the company, we have different values and experiences. Do we vilify each other, or do we try to understand where the other is coming from?
The answer has gotten more difficult since the 1980s when I worked with Tom. No longer do people from diverse backgrounds sit around and chat. Instead, we trade memes on social media. No longer do we listen to each others’ stories. Instead, we trade sound bites.
It’s a lot like giving just the punchline of a joke. “So he says, ‘Bring me my brown pants.'” How do you know if it’s funny without the back story?
I worked with Tom for a decade. I listened to his stories, and talked with him about life. He died some 30 years ago. I’m sure his fellow managers, wherever they are, have long forgotten him. But his memory lives on in me because I knew him as a wise man.
I grew up in northern New England in a town of 800 people spread out in four villages. Our school district served eight towns. It had a better graduation rate than most, but few went on to college. This was a town of families who’d been there for hundreds of years. I was born in the same hospital as my father. We can track his line back to 1799 in rural Maine. My mother’s line goes back to the Mayflower.
There were no jobs to speak of back then. The interstate wasn’t constructed until the late 1970s, so we were pretty isolated. It took over an hour on winding state highways to get to the state capitol. (Now it takes about 25 minutes.) Most residents tried to make a living doing what they could: selling and fixing chainsaws, or fishing and hunting equipment, or lawnmowers, plowing driveways, or working in local restaurants. These did not provide much of a living. In 1959, our state had one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. My dad was a CPA whose clients did all those things. He often received payment in barter because cash was scarce. I remember my mom complaining, “I can’t take that new lawnmower to the grocery store!”
Occasionally, someone would get an idea for a new business, like manufacturing RVs. These usually went bankrupt fairly quickly, often taking with them the already-scarce wealth of residents who dared to believe something better was possible.
The only major industry was tourism. Every summer, every foliage season, and every ski season, the state would get deluged with rich folks from Boston, New York, and Montreal. Many were rude in both their interactions and their driving, so we had a love-hate relationship with the tourists. Most people looked at them as simply a source of income. Some in my generation discovered the benefits of stealing from them, because they had much more portable wealth than we did. My first job was as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, where for 90 cents an hour I washed plates from meals that cost $10-$25 each.
There were no minorities in our town. With no jobs and brutal winters, why would there be? There were plenty of better places to live. There was one local TV station, if by local you mean in the same state. Most of our media came from Boston, and we were deluged with stories about urban problems: gangs, violence, and white flight. As a child, I most remember that they cancelled school in Boston for a half inch of snow, but we had to wait for the bus in the dark in up to a foot. The news impacted adults much differently than it did me. When, in the 1970s, the government opened a research facility not far away, the first black family moved to town. This was an upper-middle-class family, wealthier than most of us. But I remember adults whispering concerns about accompanying gangs, violence, and white flight. They only knew about Blacks what they’d heard on the urban news. The narratives we hear are the narratives we know.
Not surprisingly, in this environment of poverty, everyone sought to feel better about themselves. Those of us who were different got bullied on the school bus and at school. I was one: my parents were marginally better off, and I was too smart (and socially inept) for my own good. The two sons of the black family were also targets, as was the son of a Japanese-American family that also moved there to work at the research center. Sameness was important.
Education was less so. Those whose parents had professions were likely to go to college; those whose parents didn’t were far less likely. Generations of “just getting by” leave their imprint, and you don’t need a college degree to sell chainsaws or work at the local ski area.
Alcoholism was rampant. There wasn’t much to do after work besides drink. When I later joined a Twelve Step program, it was filled with people I knew: some peers my age, my seventh grade teacher, my dad’s former business partner, and the owner of a local restaurant. (The latter’s sons, my peers, would also benefit from such a program. Alcoholism, too, seems to be a generational phenomenon.)
Not surprisingly, I and most of my peers left as soon as we were old enough. I don’t know where most of them went. I went to Los Angeles. When I return home now, it’s rare to meet anyone I grew up with. And things have changed. Many urban folks have moved there for its lower tax rates, and they commute to jobs in the city. The population of my hometown has become somewhat more ethnically diverse, which is to say you might see a person of color once in a while. It’s funny to observe how gangs and white flight never materialized…
The state now boasts one of the lowest poverty rates in the nation, and unemployment is low. But these statistics are deceiving. Because of the brutal winters, the cost of living is high, and even the many who live slightly above the federal poverty line struggle to make ends meet. Most of the new jobs created locally are minimum wage jobs. There remains a division between locals and skilled urban workers, just as there remains a division between locals and tourists.
When I was a child, our family was friends with a family whose head of household poached deer. This wasn’t something he was proud of. He had to, or his kids wouldn’t eat. I have no doubt such things still go on in the woods of New England.
Think about how an anti-gun, pro-environment, hunter-shaming message plays to someone who did, does, or might need to poach deer to feed their family.
Think about the divide that grows up between that native and their urban-liberal neighbor who built a McMansion on the hill, figuratively looking down on everyone around them (and who perhaps complains that these rural roads have neither street lights nor sidewalks).
Think about a diet of urban news conditioning a population of rural people, who now see what they thought were urban problems like drugs and crime invading their rural communities. Who do they blame? On the urban news, it’s often people who look different. While that may be simply because urban communities have people who look different, unless you’ve lived there you don’t really get that. (Trust me on this. My move to Los Angeles caused major culture shock.)
I’m not saying any of this is right. But perhaps it can be understandable. Until we realize that there are bridges of understanding that need to be crossed, we can’t even begin to cross them. And without understanding, without a common frame of reference, communication isn’t possible.
The Bundy Ranch standoff that occurred in Bunkerville, NV, in April, 2014  offers a clear view into two very different Americas: the urban liberal reality now experienced by a majority of Americans, and the reality of rural America which has little in common. I offer this case study in the hope that we as a nation can begin to understand that our experience, whether rural or urban, is not the experience of many other people, each of whom makes decisions– including political decisions– based on their own experience of reality. Only when we begin to acknowledge that difference can we possibly bridge the divide that has polarized the nation and brought us to the political state in which we find ourselves.
Rancher Cliven Bundy had been grazing cattle on federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for many years, but had not paid his grazing fees. The fees and related fines eventually totaled over a million dollars. After a series of legal battles, heavily-armed BLM agents were dispatched to impound hundreds of Bundy’s cattle. When videos circulated of Bundy family members being physically assaulted by BLM agents, hundreds of supporters streamed to the ranch. These included a few dozen militia members from Idaho, and hundreds of ranchers and other supporters from Nevada, Utah, and other western states.
Ranchers, farmers, and other interested parties supported Bundy because of ongoing, widespread problems with federal land management. It is little recognized outside the West that 81% of the land in Nevada, 67% of Utah, and 62% of Idaho are owned by the federal government—the majority of it managed by the BLM. While these federally-owned lands are seen by many Americans as wilderness to be protected, they are also an important source of livelihood for the people who live in those states. Land use issues affect livelihoods, and therefore survival and identity.
On the final day of the standoff, according to eyewitness Symbria Patterson, 40 unarmed men and women on horseback gathered under a freeway bridge and approached the BLM command post southwest of I-15. “They stopped and said a prayer, and talked about whether they would survive this. Some of them discussed who they wanted their horses to go to if they died,” she told me. As they exited the cover of the bridge, hundreds of protesters on foot streamed across the freeway in support. The BLM sent an agent to negotiate, and the protesters demanded that jurisdiction be turned over to the Clark County Sheriff, where (according to the protesters) it belonged. Sheriff’s deputies took control, the cattle were released from their pens, and the standoff ended. Supporters also documented the BLM’s abusive handling of the impounded cattle.
None of this was reported in the mainstream media, and the narrative of violent uprising continued in coverage of the legal aftermath. Associated Press quoted the prosecutor in the criminal case as saying, “[The Bundys] got what they wanted that day. They got it at the end of a gun.” Meg Dalton writes that Bundy “and an armed militia held off the feds from rounding up his cattle.” To the mainstream media, this incident represented a bizarre confrontation contributing to the belief that rural, white Americans are irrational and violent. The most noteworthy image is that of a militia sniper on a bridge with his rifle aimed at federal agents. (The photo of a BLM sniper posted outside the Bundy ranch before supporters arrived, which inflamed many people in the West, was never seen in the mainstream media.) The land was portrayed as pristine wilderness, the habitat of the desert tortoise. The narrative, for much of the country, was that a racist, domestic terrorist was defying federal jurisdiction—and his supporters were just like him. Yet we can also hear a narrative of structural violence as described by Elaine Enns and Ched Myers: “Criminals or rebels using guns are wrong, but officers or soldiers using the same guns are justified, even heroic.”
The local narrative was much different. A local editorial contrasted this, stating,
Since 9/11, we’ve seen our federal government intensify its focus on national security to the point where it is actively eliminating our freedoms… Whether boarding a plane or purchasing a firearm, the federal government views every citizen as a potential criminal or terrorist until they have submitted to its screening. Its agencies are arming themselves at an unprecedented rate.
Dalton acknowledges that the national media failed to cover this issue well. She quotes Ryan Haas: “To just dismiss [the Bundys] because their trial is over is sticking our heads in the sand about something that is really important to Western people.” And indeed, government officials are quoted as saying, before the standoff, “Mr. Bundy believes the BLM’s actions have nothing to do with cattle or the desert tortoise, but rather that it is an attempt by the federal government to take land from the state and the citizens who live there. This sentiment is held by almost every individual who was interviewed.” Symbria Patterson adds, “You should have heard the stories being told around the campfire at night. So many people, especially older people, thought they had a right to land their grandparents had homesteaded. Then the government took it away. One man in his 70s said he’d been fighting for his land since 1946.”
Two distinct narratives are evident. Outside the intermountain West, the incident at the Bundy ranch was seen as irrational lawlessness or rebellion against federal jurisdiction. The presence of militia members bolstered this perception; the fact that these represented a minority of the participants was not reported. Even the need expressed by the ranchers was in some circles dismissed as unimportant. One man in Los Angeles commented to me, “No one makes a living ranching anymore.”
Those involved saw it quite differently, particularly in Utah where cultural memory includes the so-called Utah War of 1857 between settlers and federal troops. The memory of the intermountain West also includes the Downwinders, tens of thousands of residents in Utah and other western states who were intentionally exposed to radiation from nuclear tests beginning in 1951 to assess the impact of nuclear weapons on civilian populations, and the later Divine Strake bomb test proposed in 2007. Combined with massive federal land ownership and lingering resentment over lost homestead claims, the belief that the federal government stands ready to do violence against them is not difficult to understand.
This narrative informs other social issues as well. For example, ranchers regularly use guns as tools of their trade, protecting livestock from predators. With a narrative of federal animosity, along with incidents like the recorded video of BLM’s manhandling of Bundy’s 57-year-old sister, it should not surprise us that some westerners actually do believe that guns might be necessary to protect themselves against the government. Typically living in states with high gun ownership and low gun violence, the narrative of gun control threatens not only their livelihood but their perception of safety from an institution that appears adversarial to their way of life and even their existence.
It’s easy to paint Cliven Bundy as a fanatic. It is less easy to explain away the broad support he received from across the rural intermountain West, unless we believe that the majority of rural residents are irrational fanatics. It’s not uncommon to see this as an underlying assumption by urban liberals. However, as this analysis shows, there is another side to the story, as there always is. Human beings are, at the root, rational creatures; there is nearly always a reason for our actions, however invisible that reason may seem. Some of us may not want to hear about the historically-adversarial relationship between government and the rural West. We may not understand how people can cling to what to urban people is an outdated way of life, even dismissed as “cowboy culture.” We may not realize that thousands of Americans still make their living ranching.
We dismiss these realities as fiction at our peril. When we dismiss the experience of a minority– any minority– we drive a wedge that cannot easily be removed. A person whose lament goes unheard may seek to be heard by any means, even destructive means. That their actions may also be self-destructive becomes irrelevant.
Conversely, one of the most radical actions we can take is to listen to the narratives of those who disagree with us. This doesn;t mean to take their sound bites at face value, any more than they take ours at face value. It means, rather, to listen deeply to life experiences, generational histories, and most importantly woundings.
This is not an easy thing to do. It means risking the notion that we may have had some part in those woundings. It means risking our pride and our self-image of righteousness. Yet that is the risk required for healing. And without healing, we face a dark national future.
 This analysis is less interested in rancher Cliven Bundy and his interactions with the legal system, and the government’s failure to heed internal advice that might have avoided the standoff, but rather with the standoff itself and the hundreds of supporters who became involved.
 When I visited the site of the standoff on April 11, 2014, a participant who identified himself as a rancher from Utah told me, “They [the militia members] keep to themselves… They’re a little scary; we don’t mind that they stay away from us.”
 On outside attitudes toward these lands, see for example, Cassidy Randall, “Trump condemned over plans to allow drilling near national parks,” Guardian, Sep 14, 2018 (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/sep/14/conservatives-democrats-trump-drilling-national-parks, accessed October 31, 2019). Note that these leases are not in the national parks; there are surely issues to be confronted here, but I would venture to suggest that the majority of Americans who unilaterally oppose commercial use of these lands have never been to them.
 Symbria Patterson and Sara Patterson, personal interview, April 17, 2014, documented by D. J. Mitchell, “Portrait of a Protester: Not What You’d Expect,” Notes from D.J., Apr 18, 2014 (http://djmitchellauthor.com/portait-of-a-protester-not-what-youd-expect/, accessed November 3, 2019). Patterson and her daughter, Sara, then age 19, are organic farmers in Cedar City, UT.
 According to Sara Patterson, who was also present, agents had destroyed waterholes in the desert to encourage cows into corrals. “The conditions in the corrals were disgusting. There was no water. There were dozens of dogie calves separated from their mothers. The cows were all full of milk because they had been separated from the calves. Two cows had died, and two more had been crippled and had to be killed.” Bulls had been shot rather than impounded. Patterson.
 Bundy himself alludes to it in Sotille. No other report I have seen mentions the conclusion of the standoff.
 Ibid.: “The majority of Bundy supporters aren’t ranchers or farmers or cowboys, but militiamen, anti-government agitators, and white supremacists—the kind of people who flocked to Charlottesville last summer.”
 To be fair, Cliven Bundy has been in the spotlight for making remarks considered racist. Brett LoGuirato, “Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy Makes Ridiculously Racist Comments, Says Blacks Might Have Been ‘Better Off’ As Slaves,” Business Insider, Apr 24, 2014 (https://www.businessinsider.com/cliven-bundy-racist-comments-slaves-ranch-2014-4, accessed November 1, 2019). The standoff had nothing to do with racial issues, and to extend Bundy’s personal belief on an unrelated issue to all those who supported his protest against federal land use policies represents a guilt-by-association fallacy. While most ranchers are white—and indeed the majority of non-reservation residents of the rural, intermountain West are white—there are many exceptions, including my former neighbor, cattle rancher Reyes Carballo who, like his neighbors, grazes his cattle on federal lands each summer. But compare Bundy’s criticism of the effect of the Welfare State on Blacks, though worded inappropriately, to comments made by Haitian farmers with respect to subsidized rice imports from the U.S. that were supposed to help their economy but instead put local farmers out of work. Michael Matheson Miller, “Poverty Inc.,” Acton Institute, (2014).
 Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, Ambassadors of Reconciliation: Diverse Christian Practices of Restorative Justice and Peacemaking Vol II (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 8.
 This comment was made on a FaceBook post in 2014. I am unable to locate it. But note the statistics on small cattle producers cited above—many people do make a living ranching, though most of the beef we eat does come from large, factory “farms.”
 History.net describes this intervention as “a collision of territorial self-determination against [the] federal government…” The primary issue appears to have been the Mormon practice of polygamy in violation of federal law. Donna G. Ramos, “Utah War: U.S. Government Versus Mormon Settlers,” History.net (https://www.historynet.com/utah-war-us-government-versus-mormon-settlers.htm, accessed November 3, 2019).
 The issue of rates of gun ownership versus gun violence has been clouded recently by a tendency to include suicide in gun “crime” rates. German Lopez notes, “Most gun deaths are suicides,” and states with lower gun ownership rates tend to have lower gun suicide rates. German Lopez, “America’s unique gun violence problem, explained in 16 maps and charts,” Vox, Aug 13, 2019 (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/10/2/16399418/us-gun-violence-statistics-maps-charts, accessed November 3, 2019). However, according to FBI statistics CO, ID, MT, ND, SD, WY, and UT all rank in the lowest 20 states for rate of gun murder; UT ranks 5th lowest in the nation. “Table 20: Murder by State, Types of Weapons,” Federal Bureau of Investigation (https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/tables/table-20, accessed November 3, 2019). These states do rank higher in suicide rates. For comparison, CA, which ranks 34th lowest in gun murder, ranks 7th lowest in overall gun mortality when suicides are included. But note that nationally only 51% of suicides are committed with a firearm, and there are also questions of contributing factors such as the generally-higher rates of poverty in the intermountain west and other rural states, suggesting that combining suicide with gun crime obscures the causes of divergent problems in favor of a symptom-oriented approach, namely regulating guns.