March 15

Why I Write About Politics I

I work with people struggling with addiction. I am a person who struggled with addiction. Helping others is my passion, and my debt to those who helped me.

So why do I write about politics? Because politics and addiction are related. Decisions made in the political arena directly affect not only those who now struggle, but whether or not people who have not become addicted will do so in the future.

The Criminal Justice System

The criminal justice system is one of the biggest influences. It’s a system that not only fails to promote recovery, but often makes recovery more difficult. First, we should know that the rate of recovery among prisoners released after serving time for drug offenses is approximately zero. A 1974 study noted, “[w]ith few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have no appreciable effect on recidivism.” Based on that observation, decades of inattention to rehabilitation followed.

Not only that, but even for those who desire to get clean it’s often difficult to recover with the realities placed on them by the system. For example, it’s hard to get a decent paying job or even rent an apartment with a felony on your record. Here in Harrisonburg, where James Madison University’s huge enrollment strains the availability of rentals, often the only option for those coming out of prison is a room in one of the “drug den” hotels downtown. When I took one man down to look at a place, in the 20 minutes we spent there he saw five people he knew from his substance abuse years. That’s hardly an environment conducive to recovery!

In rural Utah, released prisoners are not allowed to get their drivers licenses back until they’ve paid their fines. Yet they may live 20-30 miles from where work is available. If they don’t work, they can’t pay their fines and they go back to jail. If they drive to work without a license and get caught, they go back to jail. It’s a Catch 22. Many of them do go back to jail because they can’t find a solution to the conundrum.

The Fallacy of Prohibition

Our drug policies not only fail to prevent and treat addiction, they actually promote addiction. A 1992 study showed that despite increasing negative consequences, illicit drug use actually rose in some communities, while the use of legal substances like alcohol dropped.

How is it possible that prohibition promotes addiction? The Cato Institute cites Richard Cowan’s “Iron Law of Prohibition”:

[T]he more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the prohibited substance becomes. When drugs or alcoholic beverages are prohibited, they will become more potent, will have greater variability in potency, will be adulterated with unknown or dangerous substances, and will not be produced and consumed under normal market constraints.

The 1972 book, Licit and Illicit Drugs by Edward M. Brecher found a similar link. The stronger the prohibition, the more potent the form of the drug and the more rapid the ingestion method (i.e. smoking or injecting as opposed to swallowing or snorting).

This is not only economics. It’s common sense. As Creedence Clearwater Revival noted in their 1969 song, “Bootleg,”

Take you a glass of water
Make it against the law.
See how good the water tastes
When you can’t have any at all.

The basic laws of economics say that something becomes more valuable as it becomes scarce. Prohibition makes the prohibited substance not only more expensive, but also more desired. We can try to blame that on immorality, but the truth is, it’s basic capitalism. Prohibition is an anti-capitalist approach.

We lament the rise of addiction and overdoses in this country, but our legal system isn’t designed to reduce the problem. Instead, it makes it worse for those who are already in addiction. Whether it prevents people from becoming addicts should also be obvious– if our legal system worked as a preventive measure, the problem wouldn’t be increasing.

There are some basic changes we could make to move us in the direction of positive change. Decriminalization is one. And I say this as a recovering addict who knows first-hand the danger and damage of the substances involved. But the fact is, criminalization is a failure. It has made the drug problem worse. And, as we say in recovery, “If you kleep doing what you’re doing, you’ll keep getting what you’re getting.” If we want something different, we have to do something different. And that is a political problem, not a moral one.

March 10

Broken Minds in a Broken System

Cory grew up in a violent home. He turned to alcohol at an early age. He also suffers from schizophrenia. When he drinks, he sees the world as a threat and responds in kind. He was released from prison a few months ago after a decade for making a threat he did not have the ability to carry out.

Cory needs psychiatric help. He’s been on a waiting list for months. Now he’s back in jail, awaiting trial for getting drunk and making a threat he had neither the means nor the knowledge to act on.

Jack, too, grew up in a violent household. He turned to drugs at age 12 and lived on the streets for a time. He recently graduated from a recovery house and is trying to live clean and sober. But Jack suffers from bipolar disorder. When he gets manic, which is about every other week, he gets paranoid and believes the world is out to get him. The only way he knows how to manage this is through self-medication. Needless to say, he hasn’t stayed clean for more than a few days at a time.

Jack, too, has been on the waiting list to see a psychiatrist. In his desire for help, he went to the emergency room and was hospitalized, but the medications they put him on didn’t help. He wound up back there again last week, in a suicidal depression after a week of manic behavior and drug use. The doctors changed his medications and sent him home.

These two men, both of whom want to change their lives, may be just statistics for most people, sad stories that we want to believe are the exception rather than the rule.

I don’t have that luxury. Like them, I have struggled with addiction. Like them, I suffer from mental illness– in my case, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). And like them, I struggle to get help in a broken mental health system.

When Trauma Comes Home

My recent troubles began, like so many things, with Covid. The isolation caused by the pandemic not only led to depression, but eliminated a lot of my regular coping mechanisms. Visiting friends and working at the library became impractical if not not impossible. My world shrank to our home, and my family became my social circle. Between Covid and the weather, my 6-year-old, special-needs son has only been to school about one day a week this year, causing his problem behaviors to multiply and adding to my emotional challenges.

Meanwhile, our political situation deteriorated, frighteningly resembling a traumatic situation I experienced almost 30 years ago. I’ve done a lot of work on my trauma over the past two decades, but now the nightmares returned. So did the irritability, depression, and sensitivity– all classic symptoms of PTSD.

I’d been seeking help. It took over two years to find a practitioner who dealt with trauma (and accepted my insurance), and I’ve only been working with her for a couple of months.

About two weeks ago, unbeknownst to me, my 16-year-old intentionally startled my wife. She let out a blood-curdling scream. And something inside me snapped. I left the house and drove around for two hours, unable to deal with my feelings and the world around me. I scratched myself because the pain felt good.

After much internal consideration of less desirable alternatives, I went to the hospital. They shipped me to a facility two hours away, where I received medication and watched TV for a week. (I hate TV, so this was not a relaxing vacation.) Then they released me, advising that it would take weeks to know if the  medication was really helping. The side effects are arguably worse than the PTSD symptoms they are intended to treat, and the psychiatrist I saw after leaving the hospital immediately discontinued the medication.

Our Broken System

Our mental health system is broken. It doesn’t do prevention or healing, it manages crises. Getting an appointment if you’re not in crisis can be difficult or impossible, even with health insurance. Waiting lists are long for those who are not bad enough to be hospitalized.

For those requiring hospitalization, our system uses a “catch and release” approach, diagnosing and medicating patients, then sending them home before the effects of the medication on that specific person become evident. How often have we heard a psychiatrist, following up on a hospital visit, say, “I don’t know why they selected that medication!” When side effects crop up, refer to the previous paragraph. Your options are to suffer, or go back into crisis management. Six years ago, I was hospitalized three times– once for the condition, and twice to deal with the life-threatening side effects of the supposed treatment of the condition.

And our system doesn’t do healing. Instead, it manages crises of symptoms with medication. It works for some, but many do not find relief. This approach pays little attention to addressing the underlying condition– much like using pain pills without treating the broken bone.

There are exceptions. Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, for example, has been shown to reduce both the frequency of crises and, for some conditions, the need for medication. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is incredibly effective in treating trauma. Long term inpatient substance abuse treatment, when paired with mental health care for underlying conditions, can be very effective not only in treating addiction, but in preventing future mental health crises. But there isn’t enough of it. In fact, in many communities, there isn’t enough mental health care available, period.

A system is defined as “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network.” By that standard, our mental health “system” isn’t a system at all. The parts don’t work together. Some parts are missing.

Does ignoring our mental health make the problem go away? Hardly.

An estimated 56 percent of state prisoners, 45 percent of federal prisoners, and 64 percent of jail inmates have a mental health problem. –“The Processing and Treatment of Mentally Ill Persons in the Criminal Justice System
Few of these prisoners get treatment. Most will return to incarceration after being released.

Counting the Cost

We pay for our nation’s mental health problems, whether or not the treatment is effective. But instead of recognizing the problem, we ignore it or criminalize it. By official estimate, we pay $80 billion per year to incarcerate 2.3 million people, But that doesn’t include the out-of-pocket costs to the families of the incarcerated. One wonders, what kind of a nation would rather pay for jails and prisons than treatment facilities for its sick citizens?
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation, and the 2nd leading cause (behind accidents) for Americans aged 10-34. Yes, you read that right: Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for children 10-14 years old, and continuing well into their 30s. Yet we’d rather argue about gun control than address the cause, which is mental illness.
With nearly 1 in 5 Americans living with a mental illness, you’d think we’d pay more attention to it. That’s almost one person in every American family. But we seem to be too ashamed of mental illness to admit this medical affliction– as if having diabetes, for example, was a moral failing.
Mental illness is NOT a moral failing. And that’s why I post about it. Go a few rounds with our mental health care “system,” and you may begin to see our national denial the way I do: Mental illness is not a crime, but ignoring it is.
March 8

Goodbye, Facebook!

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Facebook for years. I’ve quit, but always went back. Because the fact is, despite its inherent dishonesty, decreasing user-friendliness, and nonexistent customer service, it’s the only way to keep in contact with some of my friends.

But my relationship with Facebook is now over. They ended it. Thank you, Facebook, for doing what I couldn’t.

It began when I received an email that I had changed my password. But I hadn’t changed my password. So I immediately tried to recover my accunt, which had been hacked. The problem was, they not only changed the password, they changed the email address. After hours of trying, I finally was able to reset the information to point to me, not the hacker.

But I still couldn;t log in. Apparently, there’s a setting to require a “code generator”– I still don;t know exactly what that is– in order to log in. The hacker selected it. The problem is, according to Facebook’s admittedly vague documentation, you have to be logged in to use this code generator.

In other words, you havce to be logged in to get logged in. Yes, you read that right.

After more hours of trying to figure this pout, a friend walked me through the alternate recovery process. That involves uploading an ID, which I did. I was instructed to allow 48 hours for my account to be reset.

It’s now been over a week.

If you’ve ever tried to actually contact Facebook, you klnow it’s not possible. They have no contact links, no email address, and no phone number staffed by a person. There seems to be no way to resolve this. Their security is so good, the account owner can’t even get in!

So this is goodbye. Which means no one will ever read this post, because we all read posts on Facebook now, not on individual blogs.

Oh, well. I should probably be interacting with people face-to-face, anyway.

January 4

Midwest Book Review on The Soul of an Addict

The Soul of an Addict’s ability to delve into the heart of the addictive personality and mindset leads readers onto a path of discovery and insights on the path away from addictive traits and habits… [The book] is an eye-opening, relevant, insightful guide that’s highly recommended for any individual interested in addiction…

Read the entire review here.

Then buy the book here!

December 1

“A Most Practical Book”

My eyes have been opened to dimensions of addiction I never knew about. One of the most practical books I have read in a long while, I expect to use it in my relationships with persons who have addictions. I recommend it to anyone wanting to better understand and relate to people in their lives who suffer addiction.

–Suzy Kanode, Pastor and Spiritual Director

Check out The Soul of an Addict today!

November 11

Do You See This Person?

In the aftermath of the election, we are no less divided. But Bible tells us that God is love, and that our love for others is a representation of God’s love for us and our love for God (1 John 4:7-21). Jesus calls us to see the other person as an actual human being (Luke 7:36-50).  Using stories of people with different backgrounds, this sermon shows how different experiences and realities move us to different, even opposing, political opinions. We’re challenged to move beyond the slogans to really understand the people who use them.

November 4

Deja Vu All Over Again

Do you remember when the party in power intimidated voters, “lost” opposition votes, and stuffed ballot boxes? They lost in a landslide to their opponents, but they refused to let the winners take office. The nation came close to violence that night and in the following days. Only a massive appeal from civil and religious leaders convinced the defeated party to vacate their offices and end the standoff. But that was after five days of a tense, 24-hour curfew.

You don’t remember? Of course not. Because you weren’t in Sri Lanka in 1994, when Chandrika won in a landslide after a courageous campaign that defied death threats and intimidation. (It’s a place where death threats should be taken seriously: her father and her husband had both been assassinated.)

I remember the collective sigh of relief when someone turned on the TV and we watched Chandrika being sworn in as Prime Minister. And I remember thinking, ‘Thank God this could never happen in my home country.”

Or could it? USPS (run by an appointee of the President who has been slashing postal services) has lost 300,000 mail-in ballots– and has defied a court order to find them. Democrats are far more likely to mail their ballots than Republicans. So it’s likely that over a quarter of a million votes for Biden have already been declared missing.

Not only that, but the mail-in preference of Democrats will cause their votes to be counted last, potentially creating the illusion that Trump won even though all the votes haven’t been counted.

And Trump has signaled that he may not accept the election results.

All of which adds up, for me, to deja vu.

I sat with a political activist who supported Chandrika shortly before the election. He told me how, just the night before, someone had come to his home after hearing a rumor that Chandrika had been shot. The activist confirmed that the rumor was false. And he asked the man what he would have done if it had been true. The man replied that he and his friends had planned to kill every opposition supporter in town.

We’ve already seen the violence our nation is capable of in recent protests and counter-protests. I pray that this election goes smoothly. Because what it feels like tonight is that the world is holding its breath. I imagine this is what it felt like in 1936. As songwriter Robyn Hitchcock summarized,

Chamberlain came crawling from Munich
With one piece of paper. He waved at the camera.
Peace in our time, Oh thank you Herr Hitler.
Tell that to the Polish. Tell that to the Jews!

May God be with us this night, and in the days to come.

November 2

How Did We Get Here? Part 5: Can You Hear Me?

After the 1992 riots, the slogan “Love sees no color” became popular. And it’s a nice sentiment. “I love you disregarding what color you may be.” But there’s a dark underside to this approach. It says, “I love you but I don’t recognize your differences.” Put another way, it says, “I love you, and I expect you to be the same as I am.” A better slogan might be, “Love celebrates all colors.”

It’s All About Me

The root of this fallacy is an American philosophy that teaches us that the purpose of life is “me.” Our lives revolve around the acquisition of wealth and comfort. As I pointed out previously, our economic policy depends on us spending more than we have. We’re taught to be selfish; our national wellbeing depends on it.

Ayn Rand, the patron saint of conservative capitalism, went so far as to argue that morality is defined by what is good for the self. And while many of us may reject the directness with which she states her position, the self has become the center of the American reality, if not always its morality. So, for example, while conservatives may ague that no one has a right to more than they have earned (and thus the poor must earn their way out of poverty), liberals might argue that everyone has the right to a helping hand to become part of the middle class.

That middle class image likely includes a home in the suburbs with two cars in the driveway in front of a garage. Sure, in our minds we may easily be able change the color of the kids playing in the yard without too much difficulty. Maybe we can even allow for a quaint variation on holiday themes to include Hanukkah or Kwanza. But in our image, aside from skin color, the family looks a lot like us. They dress like us, act like us, and want what we want.

Cultural Blindness

If you visit the home or place of worship of someone from South or East Asia, you remove your shoes– and you don’t touch the food with your left hand. You don’t serve beef to a Hindu, or pork to a Muslim or a Jew. If you’ve had contact with these cultures and religions, you know this.

But do we stop and ask the person why they don’t eat beef? Do we listen to the stories of where they come from? And do we ask what their life goal is, and how that is the same or different from their parents’ life goal?

Most of us don’t. We accept surface differences. But we take it for granted that everyone wants what we want– because what we want has been programmed into us by years or even decades of brilliantly-evangelical marketing. By extension, we subconsciously assume that everyone’s story is similar to ours. But we never actually hear the other person’s story. We don’t have time. We live in a world in which we’re bombarded with 10-second sound bites and slogans. So whether it’s “Abortion stills a beating heart” or “My body, my choice,” whether it’s “My country right or wrong” or “Not in our name,” we assess the slogan by our own experience, never questioning what it might mean to the person promoting the slogan.

A Nationwide Problem

I’m not claiming that this is a liberal problem, nor is it a conservative problem. It affects us all. And we rarely see the impact personally because in general we tend to only really get to know those people with backgrounds somewhat similar to ours. This is partly because of geographic separation. You don’t meet many farmers when you live in the city, nor do you meet many stockbrokers in rural America.

But having lived in both kinds of places, I’ve developed an appreciation for the differences between us– and the different narratives– of people who live in urban and liberal locales. I knew a conservative farrier who grew up struggling to survive and became successful  through hard work and skill– and no doubt a little bit of luck. If you don’t know what a farrier is, it’s someone who shoes horses. Yes, people still make a living at that. Part of his business is training people to be farriers! Not surprisingly, this man is a Trump supporter. He doesn’t understand urban problems, and doesn’t care to go to the city to learn about them. He also wants America safe, and supports both the police and a border wall. He sees low wages and a shortage of jobs in his community– where even law enforcement officers get paid so little, some of them are on food stamps. The idea of immigrants coming in and taking more jobs doesn’t sit well with him, to say the least.

Then there’s an urban accountant who spends her weekends helping to adopt out rescued dogs. She came to this country as a refugee and is grateful for the help she received after she got here. And she wants others to receive the same help. She’s horrified by our nation’s immigration policy, and by the police brutality she sees in her city.

You can see how a different narrative leads to different political opinions. But if we don’t listen to the narrative, all we can see are caricatures of a gun-toting redneck who just might be a racist, and a bleeding-heart liberal who wants to give to immigrants everything America has. The slogans “Keep America safe” and “Give me your tired, your poor…” become not points of concern in a single national vision, but incompatible opposites.

Keeping It Human

The more we think our opponents can’t be reasoned with, the more likely our nation will split– literally. Already I have heard both liberals and conservatives say that we’d be better off dividing the country. But think about what that would mean! Aside from the inevitable messiness (and violence) of such a separation, there are economic impossibilities. Remember, 82% of Americans live in just 2% of the nation’s land area. Urban areas would lose their food, energy, and natural resource production. Rural areas, which typically get more federal aid per capita, would lose the benefit of having an urban economy to support them– not to mention the advanced medical care and other important services available in urban areas to which rural residents need access.

There is a better way. We need to start seeing the “other” as human beings with their own narrative that differs from ours. We need to start asking people we disagree with not just to explain their position, but to tell us who they are and where they come from! Only then can we begin to understand why they believe as they do. Only then can we begin to find ground on which to compromise. And only then can we start to realize that on some issues there may not be a one-size-fits-all national solution. Some issues may need to be decided at a local level.

Where We Begin

How does this happen? It won’t be in the political arena. Our politicians get elected by stirring us to passionate fear about those people we disagree with. Vote for us because if “they” get elected, you’re going to lose. Whether it’s your guns or your right to choose, most politicians promise not what they’ll do for you, but who they’ll protect you from. And if you need protection, those other folks must be dangerous enemies!

And it won’t be the mainstream media. Conflict sells. Would you pay to see a movie where everyone got along well and nothing happened? Of course not! Media is motivated to ensure that we are in conflict with someone, otherwise you won’t care what they have to say.

And it won’t be social media. A conversation of memes cannot reach the depth we need to understand where someone else is coming from. And social media encourages us to hide who we really are.

Somehow we have got to start sitting down with those who are different from us and listening to their stories. Somehow, we have got to start humanizing them.

We can point fingers at who isn’t doing this, but that’s hardly constructive. Both sides are guilty. But this divide began when this country became a majority-urban nation. Liberal politicians no longer needed rural America to get elected. Liberal media outlets could make more money catering to urban America. They stopped the conversation. A new crop of conservative pundits stepped into the void unchallenged, steering their side of the conversation in a new direction unintelligible to liberals. Joe Bageant, a liberal himself, does an excellent job of documenting how this happened.

It may be that only a liberal transformation can save this nation. But I don’t see one on the horizon. At this writing, it looks like Biden will win the election. But Biden promises nothing new. There is little in his platform to generate interest from, much less reconciliation with, rural America.

Let me close this series this way. We need action on climate change. But we’re not going to get it until we seriously address the economic impact this will have on rural America.

We need national health care. But we’re not going to get it so long as the issue is tied to the rest of the liberal agenda– and until we admit that ACA has been a disaster for many in rural America, especially the self-employed.

We need help for the poor. But we’re not going to get it until we acknowledge publicly that the largest group living in poverty is white, and that many of our economic policies (supported by both parties) have made the problem worse.

We need a lot of things. But our nation cannot be healthy so long as a significant minority, which just happens to occupy the vast majority of the land, is barred from the table.

When that happens, we get Donald Trump as President. And if you think that’s the worst that can happen, you lack imagination.

We need to stop spouting slogans and invite someone we disagree with over to dinner. It just might save the nation.

 

 

October 30

How Did We Get Here? Part 4: Cultural Differences

One of the aspects we rarely consider in American politics is culture. We ignore culture because of the myth that America is just one culture. But it isn’t. New England and New York, geographically close, are worlds apart culturally. And the South and the West are different again. California is it’s own unique collection of cultures, with the northern part of the state differing from the south.

While it’s difficult to generalize America’s regional cultures, there is one distinct pattern: urban and rural cultures are very different from one another.

Tied to the Land

As my last post explained, many historical rural occupations are tied to the land. Agriculture, mining, manufacturing– even modern additions like prisons and casinos– are stationary. This has been true been ever since agriculture was invented. Rural people tend to be stationary. They develop cohesive communities where everyone knows everyone, and has for generations.

Wealth is often measured in land. Historically, this was because more land meant more income from production. But land has its own intrinsic value, too, and not just in financial terms. When you live in the home your grandparents built, or when your ancestors are buried nearby, there’s a psychological connection that cannot be duplicated.

In such an environment, change is not always welcomed. But the interstate system that began in the 1950s brought change, which continues to this day. Commuters from the city move to rural areas, bringing their urban culture, their urban demands, and sometimes their urban problems. One of the most difficult conflicts is when city folks who have relocated to rural community begin to demand city services like streetlights and sidewalks.

Yet there’s an even deeper conflict that often remains unspoken: “We don’t know these people.” Yes, we may meet each other. But we haven’t grown up together, known each other’s parents and grandparents, and developed a bond of respect and mutual responsibility that comes with facing survival together. Don’t get me wrong: there are feuds and judgements galore in a rural town. But when our roof cracked under four feet of wet snow when I was a kid, even neighbors we didn’t like came out in the middle of the night to shovel off the snow.

But our neighbors didn’t live too close,. They lived their lives, and we lived ours. If one of them wanted to put up a ramshackle building in their backyard, who cared? We might snicker, but we wouldn’t protest. Space offered protection from whatever eyesores they (or we) might erect. Your life was, at least ostensibly, your business. People might gossip, but were unlikely to interfere. Of course, anything too outrageous would be remembered and retold for at least two generations!

Now imagine the relationship we had with our police– one part-time officer in those days. He was our neighbor. His job was to keep the peace– and generate revenue by writing speeding tickets for out of state tourists who were in a hurry. He knew everyone. He didn’t want trouble. I doubt he ever pulled his gun in the line of duty, except perhaps to deal with wayward wildlife.

This is not to say life was idyllic in a small town. Alcoholism and spousal and child abuse occurred, most often unseen. The school bus driver was having an affair with a local farmer– a badly kept secret. And poverty was rampant, even if most were too proud to admit it. These, too, are characteristics of rural culture: we keep up appearances, even when everyone knows the truth, simply because everyone knows you.

Urban Transience

Things were different in Los Angeles. I learned quickly that reaching for the glove box to have your registration ready when you got pulled over, the polite thing to do in a small town, was a bad idea in the city. That was the first time I had a gun pointed at my head. Because in the city, no one knows anyone. In 25 years and over a dozen moves, I rarely knew my neighbors. The cops didn’t know me, and I didn’t know them. And because they didn’t know me, I was a potential threat.

Two urban friends were shocked when they visited me in a small town some years later as I talked to a couple of sheriff’s deputies at my home. “That was amazing!” one said. “You talked to them for almost 20 minutes– and they never once put their hands on their guns!”

That was the response of two white-collar professionals. Perhaps you can imagine how people of color experience the police in a city. One friend, who is black, had her 15-year-old, honor student son put face down on the pavement in his own driveway because the police thought he didn’t belong in that neighborhood. Another, also black, was beaten with a baseball bat by her neighbors– and she got arrested.

In my years in the city, I didn’t know my neighbors because I gravitated toward people with common interests. That’s how it works. Surfers hang out with surfers. People who fish find each other. So do people who drink. Liberals hang out with liberals. There are literally millions of people in a relatively small space. You don’t have to be friendly with your neighbors.

And people aren’t tied to the land. In fact since cities were invented, they have attracted the landless. This means people are more likely to move from place to pace for jobs or cheaper housing.

Because they don’t know each other– and because they are more mobile and can relocate if things get bad– they have less sense of responsibility to each other. I knew an accountant who was great at getting clients but terrible at doing the work. He remained successful because there was an endless pool of potential clients. And when I offered to help an old lady carry her groceries up the stairs, she gave me a quizzical look and observed, “You’re not from here, are you.”

Not surprisingly, crime rates tend to be higher in urban areas. There are other contributing factors, including dense areas of poverty, despair that leads to drug and alcohol use, and greater availability of opportunity.

And this leads to a strange paradox: people in the city want things to change for the better in a general sense, but are less likely to help their neighbor.

There are advantages to the city. The economics of scale make many things easier, including making a living. There are services that a small town can’t support, which is why, for example, autism rates are 10% lower and diagnosed at a later stage of development in rural areas as compared with urban, and autism services are more difficult to come by. And it’s why rural people often have to travel to a city for more specialized medical treatment.

And in the city there are people with your interests, no matter how obscure they might be. Stamp collectors have huge gatherings. Model railroaders build modules and join to link hundreds together at a time. No matter your hobby, in a city of millions there will be at least hundreds with the same interest.

The Chasm Between Worlds

I could write a book on rural-urban differences. But here’s one last example. In the city, if you don’t lock your door and someone breaks in, that’s your fault. Not locking your door is carelessness, and you’ll get very little sympathy. But in many rural communities, people still don’t lock their doors– and they don’t want to. They want their neighbor to be able to get an egg out of their fridge if needed. Some even leave their car running while the shop at the grocery store or pick up their mail. If someone breaks in and steals from them, they see it as an assault on their community and their culture. And neither group can comprehend how the other lives that way.

Hopefully this post has highlighted a few of the more important differences in culture. And these are important, because without understanding culture we can’t understand the political symbols being wielded. We have to know the underlying story behind the symbols.

Take abortion, for example. To urban liberals, it’s a symbol of women’s freedom and casting off the strangling yoke of religion. But to rural conservatives, it is a symbol of instability for family and community. To even begin to discuss the issue, we have to understand what the it means to the person holding the opinion!

Or guns: to an urban dweller, guns are scary because you don’t know the person who has one (because you don’t know anyone outside your own circle of friends). And you don’t trust them because you don’t trust anyone you don’t know. And gun crime tends to be higher to begin with. That’s reality in the city. But for a rural person, who lives in a place where gun crime may be almost unknown, banning guns says, “You don’t trust me!” And in a rural community, reputation and trust are everything.

I could make this list much longer but I believe I’ve made my point: There is no single American culture. Much of our political divisiveness stems from a simple cultural misunderstanding– from the chasm between two worlds that neither recognizes is different.

October 29

How Did We Get Here? Part 3: The Environment

The greatest threat to our nation just may be climate change. Yet many conservatives, especially rural conservatives, don’t believe it exists. Or they don’t believe it’s caused by human activity. With almost unanimous scientific consensus that climate change is real and human-caused, how can rural people deny it? The answer is simple: They can’t afford to.

Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. They are skeptical of science, and for good reasons. Environmentalism in general has often taken a combative approach to rural America, sometimes from woefully-uneducated viewpoints. Economic policy, supposedly based in science, has left them poorer. And there’s also been a shift in conservative values from preservation to short-term gain.

The Remaking of Conservatism

As a child, I grew up in one of the most conservatives states. Back then, conservatives believed in preservation– of tradition, resources, community, and wealth. You saved your money. You preserved the land for your children. And you helped your neighbors because they would help you when you needed it. These are values at least as old as the first European settlements.

But that changed. President Reagan ushered in an era of deficit spending, self-centeredness, and short-term profits. The reasons for this exceed the scope of this post. But they changed the landscape of American politics, in part by changing the economic landscape.

Since 1980 the economy has generally been more favorable to resource exploitation for profit of major corporations. This hasn’t always been a partisan issue, either. President Obama, a Democrat, lifted the ban on offshore oil drilling.

Likewise debt, rather than something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary, has become a good thing. President Reagan was the first big spender, almost tripling the national debt. This was the largest non-war increase in American history. But Presidents Bush (43) and Obama also raised the deficit by historic amounts (54% and 74% respectively). President Trump, despite his promise to eliminate the national debt, has added 36% in just the three years before Covid hit.

American consumers are also encouraged to spend more than they make. The Federal Reserve panics when Americans save too much. That’s how the economy stays afloat: it only works if we all spend more than we have.

This leaves those at the bottom of the economic pyramid struggling to survive. Environmental preservation becomes a luxury they cannot afford.

Bad Environmentalism

Ill-conceived environmental policies haven’t helped matters. One of the best known is the campaign to save the wild mustang. It’s a campaign that sells well: wild, majestic horses being removed from their land and slaughtered for dog food at the behest of evil cattle ranchers. But of course it’s not that simple.

The wild mustang is an invasive species, introduced (like so many others) by European colonists. It consumes range land that would otherwise be available not only for cattle, but for native species. Managed grazing can actually improve rangelands. In balance, wild mustangs could coexist on the range with other species. But they are not in balance. The Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for maintaining the herds, estimates that 72,000 mustangs live on land that can support only 26,000. The result: range land can’t support other species like antelope and deer, much less managed grazing by small ranchers whose living depends on access to these federal lands.

This is a good place to recall that the federal government owns most of the land in the American West, including 87% of Nevada, 65% of Utah, 62% of Idaho, and 53% of Oregon. Federal land use policies remain a huge issue in these states and others.

But wild horses aren’t the only issue. Other local issues feed contempt for environmental policies. For example, the Utah Prairie Dog is listed as an endangered species. By law, any prairie dog on your land cannot be killed, but must be relocated. Where they can be relocated remains a mystery, and there is no money to pay for relocation. Yet an infestation can ruin grazing land in a matter of months. Over the course of two years, I watched a breeding pair move to a 20 acre field and expand into a colony of dozens, devastating all the vegetation on what had been healthy range land.

Examples like this abound: decisions driven by passionate but uninformed people with little knowledge of or regard for local realities.

Clean Energy

John was a computer expert who lived in a small rural town. For years, he did computer repairs and other small jobs. His wife worked as a waitress. They barely scraped by supporting their four children. Then the oil boom started in North Dakota. He began commuting, three weeks on and two weeks off. And he made four times as much money as he had before.

A year later, a company began putting in solar panels on plots of land ranging from 10 to 40 acres. They hired hundreds of employees to put them in. The jobs lasted up to two years. Then they ended. It takes far fewer employees to maintain solar panels than it does to install them.

This is the dilemma of clean energy. It doesn’t require constant extraction. From an environmental standpoint, that’s great. But from an employment standpoint, it’s a problem– especially in rural areas already short on jobs.

Consider the campaign against coal, often considered one of the dirtiest fuels. Coal mining employs about 52,000 people nationwide– not a significant number. But 30,000 of these are in West Virginia alone, and coal contributes over $6.5 billion to the state’s economy. That’s roughly 10% of the state’s GDP!

Similarly, 20% of Wyoming’s employment is in the oil industry, along with 12% in Alaska and 10% in New Mexico.

When we talk about a shift to clean energy, the obvious question is, “What are these folks going to do?” There are vague promises of tech jobs and retraining, which may or may not be practical for the education level of those involved– if these jobs materialize at all. But, in an environment where non-energy jobs are scarce, people worry not so much about the future as about putting food on the table today. A call for clean energy is a call to devastate the economy of several states and eliminate good-paying jobs in the areas that most need them.

Shifty Science

We should not forget that many of the policies that have challenged rural America were touted as based in science. From globalization to endangered species, from clean energy to the deficit economy, science– at least as it has been wielded by those with political power– has not been kind to rural people.

Are many rural people skeptical? Yes, for obvious reasons. They’ve been burned already. But more importantly, they are desperate and afraid. And the answers they’ve been given by those who promote these policies fail to address their needs.