How Did We Get Here? Part 4: Cultural Differences
One of the aspects we rarely consider in American politics is culture. We ignore culture because of the myth that America is just one culture. But it isn’t. New England and New York, geographically close, are worlds apart culturally. And the South and the West are different again. California is it’s own unique collection of cultures, with the northern part of the state differing from the south.
While it’s difficult to generalize America’s regional cultures, there is one distinct pattern: urban and rural cultures are very different from one another.
Tied to the Land
As my last post explained, many historical rural occupations are tied to the land. Agriculture, mining, manufacturing– even modern additions like prisons and casinos– are stationary. This has been true been ever since agriculture was invented. Rural people tend to be stationary. They develop cohesive communities where everyone knows everyone, and has for generations.
Wealth is often measured in land. Historically, this was because more land meant more income from production. But land has its own intrinsic value, too, and not just in financial terms. When you live in the home your grandparents built, or when your ancestors are buried nearby, there’s a psychological connection that cannot be duplicated.
In such an environment, change is not always welcomed. But the interstate system that began in the 1950s brought change, which continues to this day. Commuters from the city move to rural areas, bringing their urban culture, their urban demands, and sometimes their urban problems. One of the most difficult conflicts is when city folks who have relocated to rural community begin to demand city services like streetlights and sidewalks.
Yet there’s an even deeper conflict that often remains unspoken: “We don’t know these people.” Yes, we may meet each other. But we haven’t grown up together, known each other’s parents and grandparents, and developed a bond of respect and mutual responsibility that comes with facing survival together. Don’t get me wrong: there are feuds and judgements galore in a rural town. But when our roof cracked under four feet of wet snow when I was a kid, even neighbors we didn’t like came out in the middle of the night to shovel off the snow.
But our neighbors didn’t live too close,. They lived their lives, and we lived ours. If one of them wanted to put up a ramshackle building in their backyard, who cared? We might snicker, but we wouldn’t protest. Space offered protection from whatever eyesores they (or we) might erect. Your life was, at least ostensibly, your business. People might gossip, but were unlikely to interfere. Of course, anything too outrageous would be remembered and retold for at least two generations!
Now imagine the relationship we had with our police– one part-time officer in those days. He was our neighbor. His job was to keep the peace– and generate revenue by writing speeding tickets for out of state tourists who were in a hurry. He knew everyone. He didn’t want trouble. I doubt he ever pulled his gun in the line of duty, except perhaps to deal with wayward wildlife.
This is not to say life was idyllic in a small town. Alcoholism and spousal and child abuse occurred, most often unseen. The school bus driver was having an affair with a local farmer– a badly kept secret. And poverty was rampant, even if most were too proud to admit it. These, too, are characteristics of rural culture: we keep up appearances, even when everyone knows the truth, simply because everyone knows you.
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.