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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As our population shifted from rural to urban, so did our economic profile. Two main shifts were at play. First, the national economy overall shifted from production to services. Second, as tax rates dropped, the wealthy became wealthier much faster than the rest of us. Whether we like it or not, both of these trends contributed to where we are now.
The Service Economy
Consider the change from production to services. A production economy requires a large investment in fixed assets: land, buildings, and equipment. It’s stationary, which means it is tied to the land. This is obviously the case for farming and mining. But even manufacturing plants are difficult to relocate. A production economy tends to favor a geographically fixed population and availability of land, which fits the profile of rural America.
A service economy, on the other hand, tends to require fewer assets. Yes, there are cars, vans, and trucks– all mobile by definition. There may be certain pieces of large equipment. But in general a service business can be relocated much more easily than a factory, farm, or mine. And service businesses require less money to start. What they need most is a ready market of customers, making them ideally suited to an urban environment. Service jobs have tended to grow faster and be more lucrative in urban areas than in rural places where there are fewer customers to service.
Globalization has also affected job distribution. Yes, it has flooded our markets with cheaper goods, which is good. Unless you’re competing with them for a living. The same asset-heavy businesses most often found in rural areas– manufacturing, farming, and mining– now have to compete with goods produced with far cheaper labor overseas. A typical worker in a Mexican maquiladora plant makes 80 cents an hour. A typical worker in a clothing factory in Sri Lanka makes $2 per day. Workers in some other countries make even less.
This trend has helped drive the shift toward a service economy, which provides for needs that cannot be filled from a distance. But for rural workers, globalization has meant falling incomes. Manufacturing has moved overseas, and locally-owned stores are replaced by Wal-Mart, Staples, and Home Depot. Those who once worked for themselves and employed others now work for minimum wage at the local chain store.
At the same time, wealth has migrated upward to the wealthiest Americans. As the graph below shows, the share of income among the poorest Americans has dropped by about 10%. But the most dramatic change is that the share of income taken home by the wealthiest families has almost doubled, while the share belonging to the middle class has fallen by a third.
Incomes overall are gradually rising, so this hasn’t made as much difference in service industries. But in rural areas, where wealth is measured in assets, this has created a concentration not just of money but of land as well. The resulting power imbalance has had far-reaching effects. Farm subsidies, supposedly intended to help the average American farmer, flow overwhelmingly into the pockets of a handful of giant agricultural corporations. This gives them an unfair advantage over the family farm.
Not surprisingly, the number of small farms has shrunk, often absorbed by these corporate farmers. This shift away from farming represents a massive change in rural economics. In 1953, nearly half of all rural Americans lived on farms. By 2003, that had fallen to 5%.
This shift away from small farms has left an employment vacuum, and led to a search for new sources of jobs. Three major sources have been casinos, prisons, and the military. According to a report by the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), “There are now casinos in 140 nonmetro counties in 23 states… ” The report also documents the rise in prison construction in rural areas. And, they report, rural people are 30% more likely to serve in the military than urban dwellers.
What it means
These economic shifts have had significant impacts on rural Americans. Poverty rates are higher in rural areas, although nearly half of those who are poor work. Disability rates are also higher. PRB reports,
Poverty hangs on in 444 nonmetro counties at levels higher than 20 percent. That means… that a fifth or more of the population lives in economic distress.
There is significant poverty across all ethnic groups. But the largest ethnic group among America’s poor is one we hear little about: non-Hispanic whites, who comprise 44% of America’s poor. It’s easy to overlook the magnitude of white poverty. As a percentage of ethnic group, only 10% of whites are poor compared with 25% of blacks, 24% of Native Americans, and 23% of Hispanics. But whites as a whole are a much larger group. That 10% translates to 19 million people!
It is easy to see how these economic shift begins to impact political views. Less corporate regulation (especially “morality” regulation), a justice system focused on incarceration rather than rehabilitation, and a well-funded military are not just planks in a platform for those living in rural America. They are the difference between employment and unemployment, between surviving and not surviving.
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?