Every picture tells a story, but sometimes they tell more than one. Often the story we see is based on where we’re sitting. Because the view can look very different from different perspectives.
Take this graph, for example. It shows the number of households in each income bracket for whites and blacks in 2018. You can see that the household income for blacks, shown in red, is much more likely to be lower than higher. The outer ring, which shows the number of household earning less than $30 thousand per year, is significantly larger than the others. According to the Census Bureau, 6 million black households, or 37%, are in this lower bracket.
Based on this, we can expect blacks to be less likely to have less access to health care, education, legal help, and a wide variety of other resources essential to wellbeing. And statistics bear this out. Early reports are showing, for example, that blacks and other people of color are more likely to die of the coronavirus than whites.
But there’s another story in this picture, one that’s easy to overlook: There are far more poor white people than poor black people. According to the Census Bureau, there are 21 million white households earning less than $30,000 per year– more than three times as many! But that represents a much lower proportion (21%) of white households.
Both stories are true. Which is more important? That depends on where you’re sitting. Obviously if you’re in that lower bracket, the story that describes you and your community is most important.
It’s worth noting that the vast majority (92%) of black households live in urban areas. Only 8% live outside metropolitan districts. On the other hand, 15% of whites live outside urban areas. And rural whites are more likely to be poor than urban whites.
So are rural blacks. Though a small minority of black households (1.4 million) are rural, they are far more likely (57%) to be in the bottom bracket. Numerically, the majority of low income black families live in cities (5.6 million vs 800,000 in rural areas).
And there are almost as many low-income white families (4.4 million) living in rural areas.
You can see how these statistics would pit two narratives against each other. Yes, black households are more likely to have lower incomes, and that’s an injustice that needs to be addressed. Yes, white families are less likely to have lower incomes, but that’s little consolation if you’re in one of the 21 million families that does.
Imagine, when people talk about helping one of these two groups, what the reactions are in the other group. “Why are you helping them and not us?” Because in this time of highly unequal wealth, when we talk about helping one group, we’re quite literally taking food from the mouths of the other. There just aren’t that many jobs that pay well.
If you think that doesn’t contribute to political polarization, think again. One side sees low-income whites as privileged racists, and the other sees income disappearing and a lot of effort to give what’s left to someone else.
The real problem is twofold: people of color have less access to resources, and resources are made more scarce by unequal distribution. This is not an either/or problem. It’s a both/and problem. We need to continue to break down economic barriers for people of color. AND we need to ensure that every family has the opportunity to make a living wage.
Otherwise, we’re pitting low income families against each other. And that rarely ends well.
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.
Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not a conservative. In fact, I sympathize with many of the goals of modern American liberals. But there’s a problem. It’s not the social goals, though I do disagree with some of them. Nor is it the candidates they run, though some of them are abominable. No, it’s something far deeper, and something that few people, left or right, seem to recognize.
In his book The Next Evangelicalism, Soong-Chan Rah refers to primary and secondary cultures. Primary culture is that group with whom we have direct, personal relationships. It’s the people we look in the eye, the family, extended family, and community we trust because we know them.
Secondary culture, in contrast, relies on systems and structures. It is the roads we drive on, and the market we shop at where we don’t know any of the employees. It’s the schools we send our kids to, trusting in a system rather than in the people, whom we don’t have time to know, and it’s FaceBook, where we accumulate “friends” we have never met, and with whom we share a carefully-edited version of ourselves that portrays us in our best light. They’ll never know any different because they don’t know really us.
What does this mean for how we live? Rah describes the impact of primary and secondary culture on our childcare:
Formalized child care in a primary cultural system doesn’t exist. Children are allowed to play out in the village because extended family liver nearby and they would ensure that our children would be safe. They know and trust all of their neighbors, who are likely related to them… In a secondary cultural system, we cannot trust our neighbor to not harm our kids, much less look out and care for them. Child care is obtained through agencies found in the Yellow Pages or a nanny webpage. We trust our most precious gift into the hands of total strangers who have received a seal of approval from other total strangers. (p. 101)
If you live in a city, perhaps you can’t even imagine a primary cultural system. It sounds like a fantasy. It can’t really exist, right?
Wrong. I grew up in a primary cultural system. My mom knew she could rely on our neighbors to keep me safe, just as she would keep their kids safe. Later, I spent 12 years in rural Utah, where it was much the same. We never locked our doors. We left our keys in the car. Some folks left their car running when they went into the post office or grocery store. Our neighbors wouldn’t care if we went into their house for an egg or a cup of flour, even if they weren’t home.
Life was very different during my 25 years in Los Angeles. I didn’t know my neighbors, and I locked my home and my car. I didn’t trust people I didn’t know, which was most of the 10 million people living in the L.A. basin. My safety and security were provided not by relationships, but by structures: locks, police, rules, and routines. Those friends I did have I chose because of shared interests and culture, not geography. There was really no sense of community, and what I thought was community was artificial.
Think about that when we talk about gun control. Many of those who favor it live in fear, because they don’t have much if any primary cultural system. Many who oppose it think it’s ridiculous because the chances of their neighbor shooting them are pretty slim. Both are true– in their cultural context. The fallacy is that one answer can apply to both situations. (That’s a liberal idea, too, though today’s conservatives have jumped on the bandwagon.)
Think about the food you eat today. How much of it was grown by someone you know? How much of it was prepared by someone you know? If you’re a typical city dweller, chances are, not much. That may also be true if you live in a small town, though it’s easier there to eat more food that was grown locally by someone you know simply because there are more farmers. Most of us rely instead on faceless systems and inspectors to ensure there’s no nasty bacteria on our lettuce. And, as we learned again recently, that’s not always reliable.
Why does it matter? Because relationships build trust. Without relationships, we can’t have much trust in our lives. That’s sad. It’s also not good for us. We begin to see systems as more important than people. Perhaps you’re familiar with Bob Seeger’s lament, “I Feel Like a Number.” Elevating systems over people is dehumanizing. If you have any doubt, try conducting a transaction at the DMV in Santa Monica or calling the California Franchise Tax Board.
When liberals call for racial equality, I see that as a good thing. But trying to do it solely through systems is a faulty approach. We are (all of us) human beings, not cogs in a machine. Tuning the machine cannot fix the very real human problems we face. I wonder how many of my white liberal friends who support racial equality would actually make friends with someone of another race, eat together, and have their kids play together regularly? If not, that’s not racial equality. (Remember “Separate but equal“? The Supreme Court declared it wasn’t equal at all!)
So let’s apply this to another problem everyone recognizes: school shootings. The liberal answer is gun control. If they didn’t have access to guns, they wouldn’t shoot anyone, right? Let’s assume for a moment that gun control could work. Heroin control isn’t working, but maybe gun control will. So Nikolas Cruz can’t get a gun, and that’s the answer to the problem. This autistic kid was bullied his whole school career, had just lost his only surviving parent, and had dropped through the cracks in the system. But the liberal answer says it’s not his suffering that’s the problem, it’s the gun he uses to lash out.
It’s not systems that keep us healthy, safe, and included. It’s people.
Certainly there’s a role for systems. We can’t live without them. But putting our emphasis on systems over people dehumanizes us just as much as it dehumanizes everyone else. As Rah says, God created us in community, in relationship (81, ref. Genesis 1:28). Without relationships, we are less than human.
One of the characteristics of the current national dialog seems to be that both sides think the other is crazy, perhaps even evil. I want to challenge us to move beyond that perception.
I do admit that we live in a nation structured to promote this view. Our two party system presents us with the view that there are only two options, and you’re going to be on the receiving end of one of them. Media now targets its message for the particular political realities of its intended audience. And hatemongering has become a regular “news” feature, from Bryan Fischer to Rachel Maddow. We’re being programmed to discount those who disagree with us as irrelevant.
But why do they disagree with us? Do we care? Or are we so self-enthralled (or dare I suggest arrogant) that we claim to have the only possible correct opinion? Surely there can be no one correct opinion. Ask a professional fisherman, a surfer, an environmentalist, and a real estate developer what ought to happen to a coastal area and you’ll get four “obviously correct” but competing proposals.
I think we’ve forgotten that.
Not everyone lives and works in a city. And not everyone lives and works in a rural community. Those are the major lines along which we’re divided.
Let’s take racial issues for example. Los Angeles County is only 29% non-Hispanic white. Race is a huge issue. Yet some 70% of American white people live in “white enclaves,” where minority issues are not prominent. Or consider government overreach. Few urban folks can imagine a situation in which a militarized government agency comes in and shuts down what you thought was a legal business, yet that’s the reality small rural dairies and food producers live with. Likewise, few urban people can imagine living in an area in which the federal government owns 2/3 of the whole state. I’ll take the urban/rural divide over gun control to be obvious, and I’ve tried to explain it elsewhere.
When someone vehemently holds to an idea you find offensive, there’s a good reason for it. And it’s usually not the obvious reason. Most often, people’s livelihoods and lifestyles are threatened. But they’re not going to say that. No one wants to admit that they are “selfish” enough to want government policy to reflect their own needs.
Why did hundreds of ranchers show up to support the anti-BLM protest in Bunkerville? Because that was an issue that directly affected their ability to put food on the table. I’ve seen urban folks claim that no one makes a living ranching. That makes it easy to dismiss the participants as “crazy” or “radical.” Obviously those commentators haven’t been to areas like Utah where ranching supports thousands of families.
Why are urban people more likely to support LGBT rights? Because urban communities are more diverse, and they are more likely to have economic or family connections with someone who identifies as LGBT. (My uncle moved from a small rural town to Los Angeles before “coming out.” I can’t say I blame him.) And there’s more identification with “other.” If gays lose rights, how long before Muslims lose them? And Hispanics? And blacks? And Jews? And pot smokers? How long before Asians are once again banned from owning property? Think that’s far-fetched? It was only 65 years ago that certain racial groups (notably Asians) gained the right to become U.S. citizens! And there are still Japanese-Americans who remember Manzanar. But take a drive through Cedar City, Utah, and you’d never know that race is an issue. The county is 90% white and 7% Hispanic. And the gay community (yes, there is one) is largely hidden. In a largely homogeneous community, there’s little incentive to care what happens to other people who don’t live there, and who are perceived as different and possibly threatening.
I’m not saying we have to agree with each other. I am saying that, if we want to remain a unified and peaceful nation, we need to start thinking beyond what the media and politicians tell us.
We need to try to understand why people disagree with us.
Otherwise, our nation will dissolve into something we won’t like very much. (And those who so often comment that conservatives have all the guns obviously haven’t taken an evening stroll through Compton, CA recently. Ugly will mean ugly for everyone.)
Think beyond the sound bites. Why do these people hold these opinions?
My friend Kim flew across the country to attend the Women’s March in Washington DC today. I applaud her commitment to voice her dissatisfaction with the way things are, and the way things might change for the worse in the near future. But the question remains: now what? Will a demonstration of a hundred thousand or a million or even a billion people change anything? How does that translate into political power? The government regularly takes actions that most of its citizens oppose. Unless there’s a lever to translate that opposition into consequences, they do it anyway.
First the obvious bad news: Trump will be our president for the next four years. This would seem to be bad news for much of the country, which currently gives him a favorable rating of 37%. And if you look at who his policies are likely to hurt the most, the people who currently support him are probably (as H.L. Mencken put it) going to get it good and hard. But it could be worse. If Trump steps down, we get President Mike Pence, and not many people want that. I’m reminded of the 1973 movie, “The President’s Plane is Missing,” in which the best guarantee of the President’s safety was that the VP was an idiot, and not even our enemies wanted to see him in office. (Naturally the President’s plane goes down and the VP becomes president just as we are having a crisis with China…)
But maybe this isn’t all bad news. People need motivation to consider change, and perhaps time will motivate us.
Put another way, there’s a need for change and an approaching window of opportunity.
It’s time to plan.
As it happens, I have some experience with this sort of planning. For nine years, I worked on peace strategy in Sri Lanka. My team helped bring about a six-year cease-fire.
For the purpose of this brief discussion, the planning process can be oversimplified into three steps:
Humanize and build bridges
Apply political pressure
This is where it gets tough. Because the first question is the hardest: what do we want? Vague ideas of equality aren’t going to cut it. We’re facing a system that promotes the status quo at best. It divides us, the electorate, roughly along urban/rural lines. And it’s supported by a media system that pits intellectual elites against the working class, dividing us further. And when you look at who does get what they want, it appears to serve corporations and the financial elite, not any of the divisions of the broader electorate.
This shouldn’t surprise us. The first principle of a sub-group trying to rule a majority is distraction. The most common means is to identify an outside enemy, while dividing any possible resistance from within.
The point is, we need to know what we want to change. Corporate influence on politics? The dualistic two-party system? Centralization of power that insists there is one solution for the entire country? D. All of the above? A constitutional convention implementing a parliamentary system? Dissolution of the Union? Some or all of these will appeal to people in different situations. It’s important to know what we want before we move forward.
We need a vision.
Then comes humanization and bridge building. We’ve been divided. We’ve been taught that “the other side” is the enemy. That’s a deception. They aren’t. We have to make the effort to reach out to them and try to understand why they see things the way they do. Urban voters are unlikely to understand why a militarized Bureau of Land Management is such a big issue for rural voters. And rural voters can’t really understand what infrastructure means in an urban setting. We’re going to have to sit down with each other and talk it through. Spend a week on a farm, or (for farmers) with a family in the city. We’ve got to bridge the divide if we hope to accomplish anything.
There will be resistance. Those who divided us in the first place don’t want us to humanize the other side. It suits them for liberals to believe that all Trump voters are racists, and for conservatives to believe that Hillary voters are gay socialist devil-worshipers.
But the alternative is continuing the slide, or dissolution, or civil war.
Only when we have identified a vision and built bridges can we consider applying political pressure. Otherwise, it’s just partisan politics as usual. Or it will become partisan politics as usual, as soon as the two parties get involved.
Which means we need to start now. Plan now. Build bridges now.
There will come a window of opportunity when everyone is fed up. Will we be ready?
As we wake up to a new reality, I see many of my Democrat friends asking, “How did this happen?” They seem to believe that our nation has become more than half bigots and racists. To be sure, bigots and racists exist. But a lot of people I know who supported Trump are neither. I think it’s important to recognize why they didn’t vote for Clinton.
Some are small business owners who got hosed by Obamacare. One family I know is forced to pay $14,000 a year, almost 20% of their income, for an HDHP plan with deductibles so high it doesn’t pay for anything. Their annual medical expense, including the insurance, more than doubled. Because small business income fluctuates, two years ago they qualified for premium tax credits, but last year they had to pay them all back– while still paying the outrageous monthly premiums for the current year.
Some are ranchers who face an increasingly hostile and militarized BLM that has been sued repeatedly for breach of contract for not taking care of the lands they oversee.
Some are organic farmers who are no longer allowed to call themselves that because the government trademarked the word “organic” and requires an expensive certification most small farmers can’t afford.
Some are small food producers facing an increasingly militarized and hostile regulatory structure, influenced by large producers, that is forcing them out of business. (Did you know that under Obama, the USDA bought hundreds of submachine guns? Did you know that we stopped making cheese because the State of Utah was making it impossible?)
Many live in parts of the country where the economy never really recovered after the financial crisis. Jobs are still scarce and wages are still low.
Some are veterans with serious medical problems who wait months for an appointment at the VA. They rightly resent that they who served our country can’t get the services while they see new immigrants getting services faster. (Yes, their anger is misplaced when they blame the immigrants, but that’s human nature.)
Some live in states that are mostly owned by the fed, preventing cities from expanding, driving real estate prices up, and eliminating farmland.
Some are farmers who work a full time job during the day and plant and harvest their crops all night. (Drive down I-15 through southern Utah during planting or harvest season and you’ll see plenty of tractors running all night.) They work hard and they don’t make much money, and they perceive that the government is paying some people to not work at all.
Some are farmers who own farms valued at millions of dollars because real estate prices have increased, and even though they squeak by on little income, they’re afraid inheritance taxes will prevent their children from keeping the farm when they die.
Some believe the government needs to change away from corporate-financed interests. They supported Bernie Sanders, but they would never vote for an insider like Hillary. (Yes, it’s true: Some former Bernie supporters would choose Trump instead of Clinton.)
Not all of these problems can be laid at the feet of the current president. But they can be attributed to a government that is woefully out of touch with huge segments of its constituents. Trump is not just a Republican, he’s an outsider.
And that’s the key: many people feel the government is so broken it can’t be fixed from within. Certainly Hillary Clinton, a perennial insider, is not the person they’d choose to fix it. Personally I agree, though I don’t think Trump is the one to fix it, either. But Trump gives them hope, which is something Hillary couldn’t do. Whether that hope is misplaced remains to be seen.
Which brings up the complicity of the Democratic Party structure in this election: Even when it was obvious the GOP was going to nominate Trump, the Democrats nominated one of the most controversial candidates in recent history. That’s not what you do if you want a sure win. At the time, Bernie Sanders was polling 11 points better. Sure, Bernie forced Clinton to include some of his planks in her platform. But few outside the Democratic faithful believe she’d follow through on them. And with her corporate ties, she’s surely not going to work against Citizens United.
But here’s my final point: Our nation is not homogeneous, either culturally or economically. Too many people living in urban America have no idea what’s going on in the vast rural regions that produce our food. And many of those people have no idea what city life is like, and why y’all think the way you do. Those folks used to be in the majority. But the population shift to urban and suburban areas has changed that. As the party system has continued business as usual in the past few election cycles, people have gotten more upset. (Many of them hated George W. Bush, but they were more afraid of Gore and Kerry.)
When we think about a Trump victory, we should think beyond the words bigot and racist. We should also think veterans services, government overreach, rural economy, farmers, small business people, and even raw milk.
Now we have a choice. All of us, no matter who we supported, can point the finger at the other side and call them crazy. That would be business as usual. Or we can try to understand why they did what they did, and see how we can bridge the gap to create a nation that works for all of us.
“What’cha doing?” Gracie asks me, catching me off guard.
I glance up at her quickly. I’m sure I look guilty. I’m supposed to be doing bookkeeping, not browsing the news. I briefly consider closing my browser so she doesn’t know I’ve been goofing off, but I have five windows open with various news reports and financial analyses. It’s obvious I haven’t been doing the books.
“The news says that California is about to go bankrupt, and that New York and Illinois aren’t far behind.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” she says.
“No,” I agree. “And there’s a report that says there are 32 states in all that are technically bankrupt.”
“Is Utah one of them?” she asks.
“No,” I say. “Actually, we’re one of the 18 that isn’t.”
“That’s something,” she observes. “But I suppose we ought to review our preparedness supplies.”
Ordinary World is about preparedness, but it’s much more than that. From its initial conception as a series of blog entries, I envisioned it as not just a story about facing a possible future, but about a family like mine having to face that future together. The characters are loosely based on my wife, my stepson, and me. The life they lead going into the crisis is much like ours was when we were still making cheese. I wanted the story to emphasize the family as much or more than the crisis itself.
[A]s we change our clothes together, we take advantage of a rare moment alone. I’ve pulled off my hay-covered clothes when Gracie comes up behind me and puts her arms around me. I turn and put mine around her.
“I love you so much,” I tell her. “You are a remarkable woman.”
She laughs. “I think you are a remarkable man,” she says.
Then she turns pale.
“What?” I ask, thinking that she may be afraid of the dangerous baggage I’ve unwittingly brought with me.
“I’m sorry,” she says. She breaks her embrace and runs for the bathroom. A moment later, I hear her retching, then the water running.
When she emerges, she still looks pale.
“Are you okay?” I ask her.
“I think so,” she says. “This has been happening a lot lately.”
“Jeez,” I mutter. I’ve been so busy doing other things that I didn’t even know my wife was sick.
“Do we need to get you to a doctor?” I ask.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “I’m pretty sure I know what it is.”
“It will pass, then?” I ask.
“It will,” she says. “In about nine months.”
I stare at her, trying to grasp the meaning in her words. Nine months? What kind of a disease…
“Oh, holy hell,” I say, finally. “Are you pregnant?”
“I think so,” she says, and smiles tentatively. “Are you happy?”
“Happy?” I ask. I’m still trying to process this. Gracie is pregnant? “Of course I’m happy,” I tell her.
To myself, I think: I’m going to be a father? My God, that’s what I have hoped for so long… and feared… what if I can’t do it? What if I’m a lousy father? What if I fail Gracie?
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Gracie asks. “You seem upset.”
I’m going to be a father? With Gracie?
Finally the reality begins to get through. I throw my arms around her and kiss her.
“It’s taking a minute to sink in,” I whisper into her ear. “But you are making me the happiest man on earth.”
“You’re afraid,” she observes.
“Of course I’m afraid,” I reply. “I’ve never done this before. I’m terrified I won’t be good at it!”
“You’ve been pretty good at everything so far,” she says.
I’m not sure if it’s a double entendre or not, so I let it slide.
“I will do my best,” I tell her.
“I know you will,” she says. “You already are. You are a great dad to Joe, and I know you will be to your own child.”
It’s tough to write about characters that are so close to your heart. It was tough reading it to my family, too. As bad things happened, and at one point one of the family members got severely wounded, my wife warned me that if I let them die, she was going to kill me! I have to admit that I cried as I reread what I wrote, and some days I still cry when I read it. I hope that level of emotion comes through to readers outside my family.
Lack of protein and the lack of Vitamin C have combined to make us all feel weary and slow-witted. I’m not confident of my ability to make good decisions. And our family meetings suggest that no one else is, either. There’s a lot of “I don’t know” being spoken.
So here I am, ten miles or more from home, determined not to come back empty-handed. I’m carrying the 30-30, which is a bit big for rabbits, but which is the most flexible rifle I have. I can shoot anything up to the size of a deer with it. Including coyotes, should they decide to try to make a meal out of me.
If I see a rabbit, I’m just going to have to hit him square in the head so there’s something left to bring home.
But I haven’t seen a rabbit, not even in the distance.
I’m not going back empty-handed. In my pack, I have a down sleeping bag, a tent, and some supplies. I’m prepared to spend the night out here if I have to. Even two nights.
Gracie is pissed at me for that. She doesn’t want me camping in cold weather. I’ve done it before. Heck, I grew up in cold weather, and winter camping was one of the things we learned. But Gracie is scared.
“Why don’t you at least take the truck?” she pleaded.
“I’m not taking the truck,” I replied, sternly. “If anything goes wrong here, if anything happens with Kendra, you’ll need the truck. There’s no other way to get into town in a hurry.”
“This is crazy,” Gracie said.
“These are crazy times,” I said back. “Weylan and I have been combing the valley for days, and we haven’t seen anything we can eat. I’ve got to go to the hills.”
“And what if you don’t come back?” she asks, a note of panic in her voice.
“I’ll come back,” I insist. “Everything has to be wintering somewhere. I’m going to search the canyons until I find something, and I’m going to bring it home.”
“Look at you,” she said. “You’re tired, you’re weak, and I don’t think you’re quite rational.”
“None of us are,” I replied. “And it’s only going to get worse. We’re starving. If I don’t go now, I may not be able to go at all.”
There were harsh words spoken, words I now regret. I closed the discussion with the words, “I’m going, so get over it,” and the slam of the front door.
If I don’t come back, that’s not the way I want her to remember me.
But I’m going to come back. Just not empty-handed.
When I wrote Ordinary World, I didn’t have a child of my own. My wife and I lost a baby a year earlier, and we talked about trying again, but hadn’t yet been successful. I wrote about the birth of Bill and Gracie’s child from my imagination. Now, with a 17-month-old son of my own, I look back and think I did pretty well. My son Sam was born in a hospital, which contrasts markedly with the home birth scene in the story, but from the birthing itself to the emotions I felt for my brand new child, I wasn’t far off. One of Bill’s great loves is his daughter, Kendra. He would do anything to protect her– and does. Now I feel the same way about my own son.
[In the bottom of the freezer we find] a bag of rice, which is perhaps symbolic of our times. I bought the twenty-five pound bag of high-quality Basmati rice down in Las Vegas a couple of years back at an Asian store. When I got it home and opened it, I found that the rice had weevils in it. Having traveled overseas, I know that almost any culture in the world would have washed away the weevils and eaten the rice. But we’re not just any culture, we’re Americans, and we don’t eat food with bugs in it. So I put the rice in the bottom of the freezer to kill the weevils and to keep until I decided what to do with it.
Now, a couple of years and an economic meltdown later, we have no problem washing the weevils out of the rice. Throwing it away would be unconscionable. Just like most other places in the world.
Is this desperation, or practicality? Was the convenience-filled world we were so accustomed to the real world? Or is this one?
I’ve seen too much of how people live outside our sheltered boundaries to think of this as anything other than an ordinary world. At least half the world’s population would look at our current circumstances with envy. Even without phones and internet and gasoline and utilities, we own our own land and home and business. And we have physical security. That’s something many folks in the world can’t even dream of.
At night, our daughter Kendra sleeps between Gracie and me. We don’t have a crib, but we do have cloth diapers and rubber pants. Gracie feeds her a couple of times a night. Neither of us sleeps as much as we used to. And, as I look at the two of them lying next to me, I am overcome with love. My wife and my daughter. Family.
Of all the things I thought I wanted in life, I never knew that the most satisfying would be the simplest and most universal.
But the chemistry that makes the family work is Bill and Gracie. He couldn’t survive without her, and she wouldn’t want to survive without him. As Bill says,
I know Gracie as the hardest, softest, most naïve, most jaded, most practical dreamer I have ever met. That may make her sound like an enigma, but she isn’t at all. At least, not more than any other woman. She’s just, well, Gracie. She’s hard when she needs to be, and soft when she can afford to be. She can be the most compassionate person I’ve ever known, and then she can shoot a deer or tell me it’s okay to steal wood. This woman who will beg me not to kill a spider in the cheese room, but to put him outside instead, can kill and dress out a chicken, or point a rifle at the chest of a biker who might be threatening our family. I’ve now seen her point a rifle at a man and pull the trigger.
And she is my wife.
Ordinary World was my first novel, but it seems to me to be the best writing I’ve ever done. What makes it work is the family. And I hope my readers feel the same.
I love living in the country. People care about each other here, and they help each other. This is different from the city. I know: I lived in Los Angeles for 25 years. Down there, people don’t know their neighbors, and they don’t really want to. If your car breaks down, you’re as likely to get mugged as helped by a passerby, but you’re more likely to be ignored.
Over the past few days, I got to see the country way of life in action. There are several ranchers who graze cows in my neighborhood. “Neighborhood” may be a bit of an overstatement – it’s mostly empty fields growing a mixture of sagebrush and native grasses. It’s a good place to graze cattle in the spring before the ranchers move the cows up to the mountain for the summer.
Wednesday night about dusk, a herd of cows broke through a fence and were wandering the neighborhood. I didn’t know whose cows they were, but I know Reyes grazes cows out here, so I called him.
“Do they have tags on them?” he asked me.
“They do,” I told him. “They’re green and yellow.”
“Well, they’re not mine,” he replied. “They might belong to Kim. But I’ll come out and take a look.”
Reyes drove out and checked out the cows, and found that they belonged to Coy. He called Coy, and together they rounded up the cows and put them back in the pasture where they belonged.
Reyes would do that because he knows Coy would do the same for him. Or Kim, or any of the other ranchers. In fact, last night, a bunch of cows got out again. This time, I called Coy.
“I don’t think they’re mine,” Coy told me. “I think they probably belong to Reyes. But I’ll come out and take a look.”
It turns out that they did belong to Coy, and he and one of his sons rounded them up, finishing up about midnight. But if they’d been Reyes’s cows, Coy would have been there helping.
This morning, Reyes and some other men on horses started moving their cows to the mountain. Coy was there, helping.
That’s the kind of community I grew up in back in New Hampshire. Decades in Los Angeles made me think that such communities no longer exist. But they do. This is the kind of community spirit in which people know and respect each other. They help each other. And crime rates are lower, especially violent crime. It seems that crime by definition requires a lack of respect for other people, which is why there’s more of it in the city than in the country.
This is the America I loved as a child. I’m grateful that it hasn’t disappeared.