Mid-20th Century American Peasant Communities

Industrial capitalism is radically new. Late stage capitalism came rather late. That is true for the United States. Until about a century ago, most Americans still lived in rural communities, worked manual labor on small family farms, survived on subsistence in growing most of their own food, and bought what little else they needed through store tabs and barter. Many Americans were still living this way within living memory. A few such communities persist in places across the United States.

Segmented Worlds and Self
by Yi-Fu Tuan
pp. 17-21

Most peasants are villagers, members of cohesive communities. What is the nature of this cohesion and how is it maintained? A large and varied literature on peasants exists—historical studies of villages in medieval Europe and ethnographic surveys of peasant economy and livelihood in the poorer parts of the world at the turn of the century. Though differing from each other in significant details, peasant worlds nonetheless share certain broad traits that distinguish them from urban and modern societies. First, peasants establish intimate bonds with the land: that one must labor hard to survive is an accepted truth that is transformed into a propitiary and pious sentiment toward Mother Earth. Deities of the soil and ancestral spirits become fused. Peasants see themselves as belonging to the land, “children of the earth,” a link between past and future, ancestors and progeny. Biological realities and metaphors, so common in the peasant’s world, tend to suppress the idea of the self as a unique end or as a person capable of breaking loose from the repetitive and cyclical processes of nature to initiate something radically new. Although peasants may own the land they work on, they work more often in teams than individually. Many agricultural activities require cooperation; for example, when the fields need to be irrigated and drained, or when a heavy and expensive piece of equipment (such as the mill, winepress, or oven belonging to the landlord) is to be used. Scope for individual initative is limited except in small garden plots next to the house, and even there customary practices prevail. Individualism and individual success are suspect in peasant communities. Prosperity is so rare that it immediately suggest witchcraft.

In the peasant’s world the fundamental socioeconomic unit is the extended family, members of which—all except the youngest children—are engaged in some type of productive work. They may not, however, see much of each other during the day. Dinnertime may provide the only opportunity for family togetherness, when the webs of affection and lines of authority become evident to all. More distant relatives are drawn into the family net on special occasions, such as weddings and funerals. Besides kinsfolk, villagers can count on the assistance of neighbors when minor needs arise, whether for extra hands during harvest, for tools, or even for money. In southeast China, a neighborhood is clearly defined as five residences to each side of one’s own. Belonging to a neighborhood gives one a sense of security that kinsfolk alone cannot provide. Villagers are able to maintain good neighborly relations with each other because they have the time to socialized. In Europe the men may go to a tavern, where after a few  beers they feel relaxed enough to sing together— that most comradely of human activities. In China the men, and sometimes the women as well, may go to a teahouse in a market town, where they can exchange gossip among themselves and with visitors from other villages. More informally, neighbors meet to chat and relax in the village square in the cool of the evening. Peasants desire contentment rather than success, and contentment means essentially the absence of want. When a man achieves a certain level of comfort he is satisfied. He feels no compulsion to use his resource and energy for higher economic rewards. He has the time and sense of leisure to hobnob with his fellows and bathe in their undemanding good will. Besides these casual associations, peasants come together for planned festivals that might involve the entire village. the New Year and the period after harvest are such occasions in many parts of the world. the number of festivals and the days on which they occur vary from place to place, but without exception festivals come to pass when people are relatively free, that is, during the lax phases of the calendar year.

Festivals, of course, strengthen the idea of group self. Tehse are the times when the people as a whole express their joy in the success of a harvest, or the growing strength of the sun. Simultaneously, they reaffirm their piety toward the protective deities of the earth and sky, their sense of onennss with nature. Group cohesiveness s a product of need, a fact that is manifest n the traditional world of villagers at different scales, ranging from that of family and kinsfolk, through those of neighbors and work team, to the entire community as it celebrates the end of a period of toil or the passing of a crisis of natue, or as it is girded in self-defense against natural calamity or human predators. Necessity is not a condition that human beings can contemplate for long without transforming it into an ideal. Thus, the cooperation necessary to survival becomes a good in itself, a desirable way of life. Units of mutual help achieve strong identities that can persist long after the urgencies that called them into existence have passed. In such groups, forged initially out of need but sustained thereafter by a sense of collective superiority, wayward and questioning individuals have no place.

A common image of America is that it is a land of individualists. Even in the colonial period, when towns were small and isolated, intimately knit communal groups like those of Europe did not exist. The people who lived in them, particularly in the Middle Colonies, shared too few common traditions and habits. Moreover, they were continually moving in and out. In New England, where settlers made periodic attempts to establish communities artificially by means of consciously constructed models, the results were mixed in relation to satisfaction and permanence. In the countryside, the Jeffersonian ideal of the yeoman farmer seems to have held sway. Nevertheless, not only individualists but families and clusters of families migrated to the frontier, and in the course of time some of them became deeply rooted agglutinate communities, in which such characteristic American ideals as upward social mobility, individual intiative, and success were alien.

Traditional farming communities, relics from the past, persist in rural America at mid-twentieth century. Consider the sixty-odd families whose roots in the hollows of Tennessee, a few miles south of Nashville, go back to 1756. Over a course of two hundred years, inter-marriage has produced the closest bonds. Natural warmth between kinsfolk and neighbors is reinforced by a deep suspicion of outsiders. The community is strongly egalitarian. Work roles differ by age and sex, but social stratification as it exists in most parts of the country is unknown. “In work terms,” writes John Mogey, “no one is clearly leader: collective responsibility for work assignment is the rule to an extent that to speak of individual or family farming enterprises would be to violate the facts.” In her study of this community, Elmora Matthews notes how warm feelings between farmers can emerge from a combination of blood ties, laboring at common tasks, and informal socializing. One woman described the relation between her four brothers, who have adjoining farms: “They work all day long together, eat their meals together, and then always sit around and visit with each other before they go home. ” Ambition and even efficiency, when it is obtrusive, are bad. On the other hand, “no one ever condemns a husband who evades his work. If anything, a man who sits around home a lot blesses a family group.” One of the most respectable activities for man is to loaf and loiter with other men. The greatest satisfaction lies in the warm exchange of feeling among relatives and close friends at home, church, or store.

People in this Tennessee community almost never organize formally for special ends. There are no communal projects. The community is not a provisional state that might be altered and improved upon, or used for some larger, ulterior purpose. It is the supreme value and sole reality: whatever threatens to disrupt it is bad. Critical self-awareness seems minimal. Thus, although this Tennessee people fervently believe in freedom, anyone who exercises it to develop his talent and becomes a success is harshly judged. Thorough conformists in thinking and behavior, they nevertheless resent the government for its tendency to impose rules and regulations, and they regard communism as unimaginably horrible.

Close-knit communities of this kind can be found in the more isolated countrysides of Western Europe and North America even in the middle of the twentieth century.

Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir
by Joe Bageant
pp. 15-20

When Virginia Iris Gano and Harry Preston Bageant crested that ridge in their buggy and began their life together, they stood an excellent chance of making it. For starters, in that world the maths of life was easier, even if the work was harder. If you could show the bank or the seller of the land that you were healthy and sober, and knew how to farm, you pretty much had the loan (at least when it came to the non-arid eastern American uplands; the American West was a different matter). At 5 percent simple interest, Pap bought a 108-acre farm — house, barn, and all — for $400. (It was a cash-poor county, and still is. As recently as 1950 you could buy a 200-acre farm there for about $1,000.) On those terms, a subsistence farmer could pay off the farm in twenty years, even one with such poor soils as in these Southern uplands. But a subsistence farmer did not farm to sell crops, though he did that, too, when possible. Instead, he balanced an entire life with land and human productivity, family needs, money needs, along with his own and his family’s skills in a labor economy, not a wealth economy. The idea was to require as little cash as possible, because there wasn’t any to be had.

Nor was much needed. The farm was not a business. It was a farm. Pap and millions of farmers like him were never in the “agribusiness”. They never participated in the modern “economy of scale” which comes down to exhausting as many resources as possible to make as much money as possible in the shortest time possible. If you’d talked to him about “producing commodities under contract to strict specifications”, he wouldn’t have recognized that as farming. “Goddamned jibber-jabber” is what he would have called it. And if a realtor had pressed him about the “speculative value” of his farmland as “agronomic leverage”, I suspect the old 12-gauge shotgun might have come down off the rack. Land value was based upon what it could produce, plain and simple. These farms were not large, credit-based “operations” requiring annual loans for machinery, chemicals, and seed.

Sure, farmers along Shanghai Road and the Unger Store community bought things at the junction store on credit, to be paid for in the autumn. Not much, though. The store’s present owners, descendants of the store’s founders, say that an annual bill at the store would run to about ten dollars. One of them, Richard Merica, told me, “People bought things like salt and pepper. Only what they couldn’t make for themselves, like shotgun shells or files.” Once I commented to an old Unger Store native still living there that, “I suspect there wasn’t more than $1,000 in the Unger Store community in the pre-war days.”

“You’re guessing way too high,” he said. “Try maybe $400 or $500. But most of it stayed here, and went round and round.”

So if Pap and the other subsistence farmers there spent eight bucks a year at the local crossroads store, it was eight bucks in a reciprocal exchange that made both their subsistence farming and the Unger Store possible as a business and as a community.

Moneyless as it was, Maw and Pap’s lives were far more stable than one might think today. In fact, the lives of most small farmers outside the nasty cotton sharecropping system of deep-southern America were stable. Dramatic as the roller-coaster economics of the cities and the ups and downs caused by crop commodity speculators in Chicago were, American farm life remained straightforward for the majority. Most were not big Midwestern broad-acre farmers who could be destroyed by a two-cent change in the price of wheat. Wheat in Maw and Pap’s time hovered at around fifty to fifty-five cents a bushel; corn, at forty-five; and oats at about fifty-six. Multiply the acreage by average bushels per acre for your piece of land, and you had a start at figuring out a realistic basis for your family’s future. It was realistic enough that, after making allowances for bad years, plus an assessment of the man seeking the loan, the banks lent Pap the price of a farm. That assessment was not shallow.

Pap was expected to bring to the equation several dozen already-honed skills, such as the repair, sharpening, and use of tools (if you think that is simple, try laying down wheat with a scythe sometime); the ability to husband several types of animal stock; and experience and instinct about soils and terrain, likely weather, and broadcasting seed by hand. Eastern mountain subsistence farms needed little or no planting equipment because plots were too small and steep. What harvesting equipment such as reapers and threshers might be needed was usually owned by one man who made part of his living reaping and threshing for the rest of the community. Other skills included planting in cultivated ridges, managing a woodlot, and estimating hours of available sunlight for both plant growth and working. The subsistence farm wife’s life required as much experience and skill on a different front of family provision.

That said, Pap wasn’t a particularly good farmer. He wasn’t a bad farmer, either. He was just an average farmer among millions of average farmers. The year my grandparents married, about 35 million Americans were successfully engaged in farming, mostly at a subsistence level. It’s doubtful that they were all especially gifted, or dedicated or resourceful. Nevertheless, their kind of human-scale family farming proved successful for twelve generations because it was something more — a collective consciousness rooted in the land that pervaded four-fifths of North American history.

They farmed with the aid of some 14 million draft horses and God only knows how many mules. Pap wasn’t much for mules; all the farming he had to do could easily be done with one horse. Without going into a treatise on horse farming, let me say that, around 1955 at the age of ten, I saw the last of Pap’s work horses in use, a coal-black draft animal named “Nig” (short for nigger, of course). By then, Nig, who was Nig number three, if I remember correctly, was over twenty years old, and put out to pasture — a loose use of the term, given that he spent his time in the shade of the backyard grape arbor waiting to be hand-fed treats. But Nig still pulled a single tree-plow in a four-acre truck garden down in the bottom land — mostly melons, tomatoes, and sweet corn — while I sometimes rode atop barefoot holding onto the wooden hames at the collar. Pap walked behind, guiding the plow. “Gee Nig! Haw Nig! Step right … Turn and baaack. Cluck-cluck.” The rabbit dogs, Nellie and Buck, trotted alongside in the spring sun.

Though Pap owned a tractor by then — a beaten-up old Farmall with huge, cleated steel wheels, a man-killer prone to flipping over backward and grinding the driver bloodily under the cleats — he could still do all his cultivation walking behind Nig in the spring. In summer he’d scratch out the weeds with a horseless garden plow, or “push plow”, and pick off bugs by hand, dropping them into a Maxwell House coffee can half-filled with kerosene. Pap hand-harvested most things, even large cornfields, using a corn cutter fashioned from an old Confederate sword. But it is that old horse and that old man with the long leather lines thrown up over his shoulders, the plow in his iron grip, and cutting such straight lines in the red clay and shale, that I remember most fondly. He made it look easy. Fifty years in the furrows will do that.

pp. 41-53

THE CULTURAL VALUES MAY REMAIN, HANGING over everything political and many things that are not, but there are few if any remaining practitioners of the traditional family or community culture by which Pap and Maw lived — the one with the woman in the home, and the man in the fields, although Maw certainly worked in the fields when push came to shove. This is not to advocate such as the natural order of things. I am neither Amish nor Taliban. But knee-jerk, middle-class, mostly urban feminists might do well to question how it all started and what the result has been — maybe by getting out and seeing how few of their sisters gutting chickens on the Tyson’s production line or telemarketing credit cards on the electronic plantation relish those dehumanizing jobs that they can never quit.

It would do them well to wonder why postwar economists and social planners, from their perches high in the executive and management class, deemed it best for the nation that more mothers become permanent fixtures of America’s work force. This transformation doubled the available labor supply, increased consumer spending, and kept wages lower than they would have otherwise been. National production and increased household income supposedly raised everyone’s quality of life to stratospheric heights, if Formica countertops and “happy motoring” can be called that. I’m sure it did so for the managing and owning classes, and urban people with good union jobs. In fact, it was the pre-war trade unions at full strength, particularly the United Auto Workers, that created the true American middle class, in terms of increased affluence for working people and affordable higher education for their children.

What Maw and Pap and millions of others got out of it, primarily, were a few durable goods, a washing machine, a television, and an indoor toilet where the pantry, with its cured meats, 100-pound sacks of brown sugar, flour, and cases of eggs had been. Non-durable commodities were vastly appreciated, too. One was toilet paper, which ended generations of deep-seated application of the pages of the Sears Roebuck mail-order catalog to the anus (the unspoken limit seemed to be one page to a person at a sitting). The other was canned milk, which had been around a long time, but had been unaffordable. Milk cows are a wonderful thing, but not so good when two wars and town work have drained off your family labor-supply of milkers. […]

The urging of women into the workplace, first propagandized by a war-making state, was much romanticized in the iconic poster image of Rosie the Riveter, with her blue-denim sleeves rolled up and a scarf tied over her hair. You see the image on the refrigerator magnets of fuzzy-minded feminists-lite everywhere. This liberal identity-statement is sold by the millions at Wal-Mart, and given away as a promotional premium by National Public Radio and television.

Being allowed to manufacture the planes that bombed so many terrified European families is now rewritten as a feminist milestone by women who were not born at the time. But I’ve never once heard working-class women of that period rave about how wonderful it was to work long days welding bomb-bay doors onto B-29s.

The machinery of state saw things differently, and so the new reality of women building war machinery was dubbed a social advance for American womankind, both married and single. In Russia, it was ballyhooed as Soviet socialist-worker equality. And one might even believe that equality was the prime motive, when viewed sixty years later by, for instance, a university-educated specimen of the gender writing her doctoral dissertation. But for the children and grandchildren of Rosie the Riveter, those women not writing a dissertation or thesis, there is less enthusiasm. Especially among working mothers. The Pew Research Center reports that only 13 percent of working mothers think that working benefits their children. But nearly 100 percent feel they have no choice. Half of working mothers think their employment is pointless for society. Forty-two percent of Americans, half of them women, say that working mothers have been bad for society on the whole. Nearly all working mothers say they feel guilty as they rush off to work.

Corporations couldn’t have been happier with the situation. Family labor was siphoned off into the industrial labor pool, creating a surplus of workers, which in turn created a cheaper work force. There were still the teeming second-generation immigrant populations available for labor, but there were misgivings about them — those second-generation Russian Jews, Italians, Irish, Polish, and Hungarians, and their like. From the very beginning, they were prone to commie notions such as trade unions and eight-hour workdays. They had a nasty history of tenacity, too.

On the other hand, out there in the country was an endless supply of placid mules, who said, “Yes, Ma’m” and “No, Ma’m”, and accepted whatever you paid them. Best of all, except for churches and the most intimate community groups, these family- and clan-oriented hillbillies were not joiners, especially at some outsiders’ urging. Thus, given the nature of union organizing — urging and convincing folks to join up — local anti-union businessmen and large companies alike had little to fear when it came to pulling in workers from the farms.

Ever since the Depression, some of the placid country mules had been drifting toward the nearest cities anyway. By the 1950s, the flow was again rapidly increasing. Generation after generation couldn’t keep piling up on subsistence farms, lest America come to be one vast Mennonite community, which it wasn’t about to become, attractive as that idea might seem now. Even given America’s historical agrarian resistance to “wage slavery” (and farmers were still calling it that when I was a kid), the promise of a regular paycheck seemed the only choice. We now needed far more money to survive, because we could no longer independently provide for ourselves.

Two back-to-back wars had effectively drained off available manpower to the point where our family farm offered only a fraction of its former sustenance. Even if we tried to raise our own food and make our own clothing out of the patterned multi-colored feed sacks as we had always done, it took more money than ever. […]

By the mid and late 1950s, the escalating monetized economy had rural folks on the ropes. No matter how frugal one was, there was no fighting it. In a county where cash had been scarce from the beginning — though not to disastrous effect — we children would overhear much talk about how this or that aunt or uncle “needs money real bad”. […]

WHEN IT COMES TO MONEY, I AM TOLD THAT BEFORE the war some Unger Store subsistence farmers got by on less than one hundred dollars a year. I cannot imagine that my grandfather ever brought in more than one thousand dollars in any year. Even before the postwar era’s forced commodification of every aspect of American life, at least some money was needed. So some in my family, like many of their neighbors, picked apples seasonally or worked as “hired-on help” for a few weeks in late summer at the many small family-owned apple- and tomato-canning sheds that dotted Morgan County. In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, between farming and sporadic work at the local flour, corn, and feed-grinding outfits, and especially the small canning operations, a family could make it. Pap could grow a few acres of tomatoes for the canneries, and Maw or their kids could work a couple of weeks in them for cash.

This was local and human-scale industry and farming, with the tomatoes being grown on local plots ranging from five to ten acres. Canners depended on nearby farm families for crops and labor, and the farm families depended upon them in turn for cash or its equivalent. […]

Farm-transport vehicles were much scarcer then, especially anything bigger than a quarter-ton pickup truck. So the sight of Jackson Luttrell’s one-ton Chevy truck with its high wooden sideboards was exciting in itself. In those days, farmers did not buy new $45,000 trucks to impress other farmers, or run to the nearest farm supply in one of them to pick up a couple of connector bolts. Every farmer had a farm wagon, whether pulled by horse or tractor, but almost nobody owned a truck. Common sense and thrift prevented them from spending big money on something that would only be used during one month each year at harvest time. Beyond that, farmers would not even think of growing those small acreages of tomatoes that the canneries depended upon if they had to buy a truck to transport them there — any profit made on the tomatoes would be lost on the truck. So, for folks such as Jackson Luttrell, who had one, ownership made more economic sense. He profited through its maximized use in getting everyone else’s crops to the mill or processing plant. One truck served the farm community, at minimum expenditure to the entire group. They didn’t even have to pay Jackson Luttrell any cash for the hauling.

That was because Cotton Unger, who owned the canning operation, was expected to get the tomatoes to his factory himself. As a businessman and entrepreneur, it was Unger’s job to deal with the problems that came with his enterprise. Unger’s job was to run a business; a farmer’s job was to farm. These were two separate things in the days before the rigged game of agri-business put all the cost on the farmers through loading them with debt, and all the profits went to business corporations. Nor did Unger’s duties as a capitalist end with getting the hauling done at his own expense. It was also his job to turn the local crops such as wheat, corn, and tomatoes into money, through milling or canning them for sale to bulk contractors elsewhere.

Cotton owned more than just the family store, which he’d inherited from his father, Peery Unger, and for which the community was named sometime after the Civil War. The store at the junction had gasoline pumps, a grinding mill, and a feed and seed farm-supply adjunct. It was also the official post office for that end of the county; and, just to be safe, Cotton Unger also farmed. The Unger family’s store was a modest, localized example of a vertically integrated, agriculturally based business, mostly out of necessity.

Cotton never saw much cash, and never got rich by any means. Not on the ten-cent and fifteen-cent purchases that farmers made there for over one hundred years. Yet he could pay Jackson Luttrell for the tomato hauling — in credit at the store. That enabled Jackson to buy seed, feed, hardware, fertilizer, tools, and gasoline, and farm until harvest time with very little cash, leaving him with enough to invest in a truck. Unger could run his tomato cannery and transform local produce into cash, because he could barter credit for farm products and services. This was a community economic ecology that blended labor, money, and goods to sustain a modest but satisfactory life for all.

At the same time, like most American businessmen then and today, Cotton Unger was a Republican. He was a man of the Grand Old Party: the party of a liberator named Abraham, who freed millions of black men from the bondage of slavery; and the party of two presidents named George, the second of whom subsequently ushered Americans of all colors back into slavery through national indebtedness. Being of a Republican stripe made Cotton Unger a rare bird in the strongly Democratic Morgan County.

Today he would be even rarer, because he was a Republican with the common wisdom to understand something that no Republican has ever grasped since: he realized that any wealth he might acquire in life was due not only to his own efforts, but also to the efforts of all other men combined — men who built the roads that hauled his merchandise; men who laid rail track, grew crops, drilled wells, and undertook all the other earthly labors that make society possible. Whether they were Democrats or not, he needed the other citizens around him as friends, neighbors, and builders of the community. To that end, he provided transportation to the polls at election time for farmers without cars — and they were many, Pap and Maw among them — full knowing that nearly every last one of them was going to vote against his candidate. In his ancestors’ time they had voted for Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James Polk, James Buchanan, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman — all Democrats.

The old-timers say that Cotton always looked kinda weary around election time. And well he must have been. On election day, Cotton chauffeured around Democratic voters, people who would vote against his interests, vote in favor of higher business taxes or to increase teachers’ pay to the point where the school-marm could almost make a living. But Cotton also understood that his personal interests resided more with his community and neighbors than with his political affiliation. Republican politicians in faraway Charleston took the back seat to his face-to-face daily life with his neighbors. Cotton, like his father Peery, and his grandfather, C.J. Unger, before him, knew that when you depend directly on neighbors for your daily bread, you’d damned-well better have their respect and goodwill. And you’d best maintain it over generations, too, if you plan to pass the family store down to your sons and your sons’ sons. We may never see that level of operative community democracy again.

pp. 61-69

Not that money was unimportant. Money has been important since the first Sumerian decided it was easier to carry a pocket full of barley shekels than hump a four-foot urn of barley down to the marketplace on his back. And it was certainly important 5,000 years later to the West Virginia hill country’s subsistence farmers. But in the big picture, money was secondary to co-operation and the willingness to work hard. A considered ecology of family labor, frugality, and their interrelationship with community was the economy. And the economy was synonymous with their way of life, even though that would have been a pretentious term to Pap and his contemporaries. He always said, “You just do the next thing that needs doing. You keep doing that, and everything gets done that needs to be done.” When I’d ask him what to do next, he’d say, “Just look to see what needs doing, dammit!”

Understanding what needed doing was the glue of subsistence farming’s family-work ecology, which was also ecological in the environmental sense. Knowledge was passed along about which fields best grew what produce, the best practices to maintain fertility, and what the farm could sustainably produce year in and year out. It was a family act.

Those farm families strung out along Shanghai Road could never have imagined our existential problems or the environmental damage we now face. But, after having suffered such things as erosion from their own damaging early-American practices, they came to understand that nature and man do not stand separately. The mindfulness involved in human-scale farming demands such. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, we should understand our environmental problem as a kind of damage that has also been done to humans. In all likelihood, there is no solution for environmental destruction that does not first require a healing of the damage done to the human community. And most of that damage to the human world has been done through work, our jobs, and the world of money. Acknowledging such things about our destructive system requires honesty about what is all around us, and an intellectual conscience. And asking ourselves, “Who are we as a people?”

Meanwhile, as settlers migrated down the Great Valley of Virginia, as they called the Shenandoah Valley toward the fertile southlands, the poorer among them kept seeping westward into the uncleared Blue Ridge, where land was cheapest and work was hardest. When they settled on Fairfax’s land, they may have become human assets to his holdings. But they were not slaves and they were not employees. The overwhelming portion of the fruits of their labor were directly their own. They could not be fired. They could not incur oppressive financial debt. And if their farms were isolated specks in the blue Appalachian fog with their split-pine log floors, they were nevertheless specks located in a great, shared commons called nature.

In contrast to Fairfax and the planter society’s money-based economy of wealth, these settlers lived by a family-based economy of labor. Not that they had a choice. Any kind of coinage or currency was rare throughout the colonies. Their economy depended on the bartering of labor and sometimes goods between themselves. Dr Warren Hofstra, an eminent historian of the area, tells me this system was so complex that they kept sharply detailed ledger books of goods and services bartered, even of small favors done for one another. In essence, this was an economy whose currency was the human calorie. Be it a basket of apples or a week’s labor hauling stone for a house, everything produced (which was everything in their subsistence world, there being no money), was accomplished by an expenditure of human energy. Calories burned could only be replaced by an expenditure of calories to plant, grow, and preserve future calories for sustained sustenance. This was a chain of caloric expenditures or barter going all the way back to the forging of the iron hoe or plow that made subsistence possible at all. Keenly aware that both time and their own human energy were finite, they measured, balanced, and assigned value to nearly every effort, large or small. Wasting these resources could spell hunger or failure to subsist.

This attitude lives on today among the descendants of the settlers. When outsiders move into this area, they often comment on what they perceive as the miserliness of the natives. Or the fact that they will not let you do them even a small favor, lest they be obligated in return.

A lady new to the area, a physician who hails from Delaware, told me: “I went shopping with Anna at the mall last week. We went in my car. She tried to give me three dollars for ‘gas money’. I told her that was very kind, but we’d only driven two miles at best and that it wasn’t necessary. She kept pushing the money at me, saying ‘Here, take this,’ getting more and more insistent each time. I kept declining until I noticed that she was becoming honestly and truly angry with me. It was so damned strange, I’ve never seen anything like it. So I took the three dollars.”

I explained that many natives are like that, and told her about the early settlers’ rigid barter-and-favor economy, and how these attitudes have unconsciously come down through our cultural history, remaining as deeply instilled social practices and conventions. It can work the other way around, too. Some people will unexpectedly do something very nice for you, or give you something — maybe an antique or whatever.

“Don’t let the Southern charm fool you, though,” I said. “In the back of their mind they have marked it down as a favor or a social debt owed. And they’ll expect you to recognize when to pay it back. Maybe volunteer to feed their dog or water their lawn when they are away. At the same time, you should feel somewhat honored. It’s a down payment on developing further friendship. If they hadn’t judged you to be a worthy, reliable, and reciprocating person, dependable in a friendship, they wouldn’t even bother to know you at all. In fact, that’s why so many outsiders perceive some natives as snotty and cold.”

“Amazing,” she said. “I’d never guess their behavior had such deep cultural roots.”

“Neither would they,” I replied.

As the hill-country population grew, their isolation lessened. Farmers grew more connected in a community network of seasonal mutual efforts, such as threshing, hunting, hog slaughtering, haymaking, clannish marriages, and birth, burial, and worship. These conventions were still being observed into the 1950s as I was growing up there.

Family and community life in that early, non-wealth-based economy is impossible for us to comprehend. No man can fully grasp a life he has not lived, or for that matter completely grasp the one he is living. But we Blue Ridge folk most surely live subject to the continuing effects of that dead culture which is never really dead.

For example, the old agrarian culture of reserve, frugality, and thought-out productivity translate as political conservatism today, even though few of its practitioners could identify a baling hook if their lives depended on it. At its core stood — and still stand, for the most part — “family values”, which meant (duh!) valuing family. Valuing family above all else, except perhaps God’s word. Grasping the true meaning of this is to understand much of the conservative American character, both its good and its bad qualities. I dare say it also holds some solutions to the dissolution of human community, the destabilizing of world resources, and the loss of the great commons, human and natural, all sacrificed to the monstrous fetish of commodities, their acquisition and their production through an insane scale of work and round-the-clock commerce and busyness.

Urban Weirdness

In a summary of a study from this year, it was concluded that “young city-dwellers also have 40% more chance of suffering from psychosis (hearing voices, paranoia or becoming schizophrenic in adulthood) is perhaps is less common knowledge.” The authors in the paper claim to have controlled for “a range of potential confounders including family SES, family psychiatric history, maternal psychosis, adolescent substance problems, and neighborhood-level deprivation.”

These are intriguing results, assuming that the study was successful in controlling the confounding factors and so assuming they were making a genuine comparison. Some of the features they noted for the effected urban populations were adverse neighborhood conditions and community breakdown, but I’d point out that these are increasingly found in rural areas. For example, if they further focused in on the hardest hit areas of rural Appalachia, would they find the same results? Is this really a difference between urban and rural areas? If so, that requires explaining, maybe beyond what the authors articulated.

Some of that might be caused by physical factors in urban environments.

Lead toxicity, for example, is worse in cities these days (although a century ago it was actually worse in rural areas because of heavy use of lead paint for barns). Lead toxicity has major impacts on neurocognitive development and mental illness. Also, keeping pets indoors is more common in cities. And where cats are kept as house pets, there are higher rates of toxoplasmosis which is another causal factor that alters the brain and leads to mental health issues.

Neither lead toxicity nor toxoplasmosis was mentioned in the paper. Those are two obvious confounders apparently not having been considered. That could be problematic, although not necessarily undermining the general pattern.

Other factors might have to do with crime or rather the criminal system.

There are actually lower violent crime rates in urban areas, both big and small cities, as compared to rural areas (the rural South is even worse). But it is true that specific urban communities and neighborhoods would have more crime and violence, meaning greater levels of victimization. Beyond crime itself, a major difference is that there are greater levels of policing in cities, which means more police targeting of particular populations (specifically minorities and the poor) and so more police harassment and brutality for the victimized populations. Many poor inner cities can feel like occupied territories, far from optimal conditions for normal psychological development.

Furthermore, there are more video cameras, public and private, watching the citizenry’s every move. Cities are artificial environments, highly ordered in constraining and controlling human behavior, with more walls than open spaces. In tending toward inequality and segregation, cities create divided populations that have separate life experiences. This undermines a culture of trust and makes it difficult to maintain community-based social capital. It’s understandable that all of this combined might make one feel paranoid or simply stressed and anxious. But we should be careful about our conclusions, since cities in more equal and well functioning social democracies might be far different than cities in a country like the United States.

Besides, there might be more going on than these external issues of urban environments.

Urban populations are larger and more concentrated than ever before. Maybe there are psychological changes that happen to populations under these conditions, as urbanization increases. Being in near constant close proximity to so many people has to have major impacts on human development and behavior. And this might go far beyond issues of stress alone.

This could relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, as he argued that people hearing voices became more common with the emergence of the first city-states. Urban environments are atypical for the conditions under which human evolution occurred. It shouldn’t be surprising that abnormal conditions would lead to abnormal results, whatever are the specifics involved.

So, maybe it should be expected that “mental health deterioration” would follow. If the bicameral mind actually did once exist in the ancient world, I’m sure the first urban dwellers initially experienced it as negative and threatening. Any major societal change takes many generations (or centuries) to be fully assimilated, normalized, and stabilized within the social order.

But humans are so adaptable that almost anything can eventually be integrated into a culture. Recent research has shown how highly atypical is our WEIRD society (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) and yet to us it is perfectly normal. Maybe these neurocognitive changes from increased urbanization are simply our WEIRD society being pushed ever further down the path its on. The WEIRD might get ever more weird.

A new mentality could be developing, for good or ill. If our society survives the transition, something radically different would emerge. As has been noted by others, revolutions of the mind always precede revolutions of society. Before the earthquake, the tectonic plates must shift. The younger generations are standing on the faultline and, in being hit by urbanization the hardest, they will experience it like no one else. But as it goes on, none of us will escape the consequences. We better hope for a new mentality.

“News from the guinea pig grapevine suggests that whatever it is, we won’t know until it’s way too late, you see? You see that we’re all canaries in the coal mine on this one?”
~ Barris, A Scanner Darkly

* * *

Cumulative Effects of Neighborhood Social Adversity and Personal Crime Victimization on Adolescent Psychotic Experiences
by Joanne Newbury, Louise Arseneault, Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt1, Candice L. Odgers, & Helen L. Fishe

Does urbanicity shift the population expression of psychosis?
by Janneke Spauwen, Lydia Krabbendam, Roselind Lieb, Hans-Ulrich Wittchen, & Jim van Os

Schizophrenia and Urbanicity: A Major Environmental Influence—Conditional on Genetic Risk
by Lydia Krabbendam & Jim van Os

Brain Structure Correlates of Urban Upbringing, an Environmental Risk Factor for Schizophrenia
Leila Haddad, Axel Schäfer, Fabian Streit, Florian Lederbogen, Oliver Grimm, Stefan Wüst, by Michael Deuschle, Peter Kirsch, Heike Tost, & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

City living and urban upbringing affect neural social stress processing in humans
by Florian Lederbogen, Peter Kirsch, Leila Haddad, Fabian Streit, Heike Tost, Philipp Schuch, Stefan Wüst, Jens C. Pruessner, Marcella Rietschel, Michael Deuschle & Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg

 

On Rural America: Understanding Is The Problem

There is an article, On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem, that has been getting some attention. It’s written by someone calling himself Forsetti and co-written with his Justice. The tagline for the blog is, “this is Truth”. Well, I like truth. But that is where ends my agreement with the author.

The piece is too simplistic, narrow-minded, uninformed, and cynical. I sometimes think liberals like this are projecting a bit about their own limited groupthink. In the words of one comment I saw in a discussion, “So it’s a tumblr post saying religious people are dumb. OK.”

There is only one reason that this is worth responding to. The author does express a fairly typical view among liberals. I understand the attraction to righteous judgment and, in the past, I might have felt more sympathy toward the anger expressed. But I’m now growing impatient with this kind of attitude that is driving a wedge between Americans who should be seeking common cause.

The very basis of the argument is blatantly false. The world is more complex than is allowed for by an us vs them mentality.

As many have pointed out, there is nothing specifically Republican and conservative about rural areas and states. Many of these places were Democratic and strongly union in the past. Also, there used to be a strong movement of rural socialism, cooperatism, and communitarianism. Plus, mining states like West Virginia once were breeding grounds for radical left-wing politics like communism, Marxism, and syndicalism.

Quite a few states in flyover country, in particular the Upper Midwest, still are largely Democratic. In the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton won many rural areas and rural states. And, after the nomination, many of those rural voters chose Obama and helped elect him to office. Obama didn’t just win all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. He also won the Midwestern states along with Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. He almost exactly repeated these results in 2012, minus Indiana and North Carolina. The difference for 2016 is that Clinton lost almost the entire Midwest, a region of flyover country that has been key for Democrats.

In recent elections, Democratic candidates win the presidency when they win the Midwest and lose the presidency when they lose the Midwest. The only Democratic candidate in the past half century who didn’t follow this pattern was Jimmy Carter, a Southerner who won with the support of Southern states.

I would point out that we really don’t know how most Americans would have voted this past presidential election because nearly half of Americans didn’t vote. If you live in a state that you think you’re candidate can’t win, you likely won’t vote at all. That is the problem with our winner take all system, where the winner takes every state in its entirety. This leads to Democrats losing presidential elections all the time, despite supposedly winning the popular vote, although to be fair it is impossible to determine the popular vote when not voting at all is so popular.

Population density and lack thereof is important. A person’s vote is worth more in a low density state than in a high density state, because if you’re surrounded by a vast concentrated population your vote has less ability to influence who becomes the victor. But the high density states aren’t entirely where you’d think they’d be.

Both Texas and California aren’t in the top ten of high density states. Rather, along with Florida, all the top ten most population dense states are found in New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. In the top twenty, a quarter are found in the Midwest. Only Iowa and Minnesota are particularly low density for the Midwest.

Let me give some specific responses to the piece. Forsetti wrote that,

“The real problem isn’t east coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because the don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe.”

Well, it’s a fact that East Coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. Or rather, it’s a fact that research has shown the elites are disconnected from most of the population in general. The political elites are disconnected even from their own constituents. This is true for political elites from the coasts and from flyover country, because political elites tend to associate with other political elites along with elites in general.

That is only problematic if you support democracy. But if you don’t care about democracy, then everything is working just fine. Rural America doesn’t have much influence on politics. Even in rural states, most of the voters are concentrated in urban areas. It’s the cities more than anything that determine which candidate wins any given state, rural or otherwise.

“I have also watched the town I grew up in go from a robust economy with well-kept homes and infrastructure turn into a struggling economy with shuttered businesses, dilapidated homes, and a broken down infrastructure over the past thirty years. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand these people. The problem is they don’t understand themselves, the reasons for their anger/frustrations, and don’t seem to care to know why.”

First off, not all rural states are the same. Many farm and natural resources states with strong economies were largely untouched by the Great Recession. The housing market here in Iowa never took as much of a hit. Unemployment and poverty rates also have remained fairly low here. Maybe that is why Iowa has tended to vote Democratic in recent decades. Neighboring Minnesota has only voted for Republican presidential candidates in three of the last twenty-one elections, the only state to never have gone to Reagan. Iowa and Minnesota are as rural as they come and, as I pointed out, the most low density states in the Midwest (respectively ranked 36 and 31 in the country).

This author probably comes from the South. The rural South isn’t like rural anywhere else in the country. It is related to why working class whites everywhere outside of the South have tended to vote for Democratic presidential candidates. It is also related to the fact that, even in rural states, most working class whites live in urban areas. Also, keep in mind that many places considered rural today were considered urban in the past, until so much of the population left. My dad grew up in a thriving small town with multiple factories, but it was out in a rural area surrounded by farmland. Many small towns like that used to exist. The people left behind didn’t necessarily choose to be rural. It’s just the economy around them collapsed, with small businesses being closed, small factories disappearing, small farms being bought up by big ag, and small town downtowns slowly dying.

Many of those people understand just fine. They purposely didn’t vote for Clinton because she was the neoliberal candidate and they voted for Trump because he was the anti-neoliberal candidate. Trump promised to stop neoliberal trade agreements and to build infrastructure. They may have low education rates, but they aren’t utterly stupid. They are able to put two and two together.

“In deep red, white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems.”

That is more of a Southern thing. In Iowa, for example, rural areas are largely Catholic along with Lutheran and Methodist. You don’t find many Baptists and other Evangelicals around here. Religion is more of a private issue in much of the Midwest. There is no mass longing for theocracy or the Second Coming.

Look at religiosity rates. Most of the Midwest is average, about evenly split between those who are highly religious and not. Some Midwestern states rate lower than average. Minnesota, with the 15th lowest rate, is lower than California (#17). And Wisconsin, with the 6th lowest rate, is lower than New York (#9).

Besides Utah, none of the most highly religious states are found outside of the broad South. And many of those religious Southern states are coastal and have big cities. The coastal elite in the South are as clueless as the coast elite elsewhere.

“I’ve had hundreds of discussions with rural white Americans and whenever I present them any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy because I’m an educated liberal.”

I’ve found the exact same thing with well educated liberals. It seems to be common to humans in general. It’s why I’ve given up on the Democratic Party. Self-questioning and looking at contrary info doesn’t seem to be a talent of partisan Democrats. Nor is it a talent of the liberal class in general, as the world they live in is rather insular.

“Another problem with rural, Christian, white Americans is they are racists. I’m not talking about white hood wearing, cross burning, lynching racists (though some are.) I’m talking about people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white.”

Are we to assume the Clintons and other Democrats don’t think they are superior white people when they use racist dog whistle politics, promote racist tough-on-crime policies and mass incarceration, and kill large numbers of brown people in other countries? Is racism fine, no matter how many are harmed, as long as it is unstated and veiled?

“For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God.”

Once again, that depends on what part of the country you’re talking about. Many rural Americans, especially Midwesterners, have been supportive of education. In high school graduate rankings, Wyoming gets 1st place, rural Iowa ties for 3rd place with rural Alaska, Montana is #7, and Utah ties Hawaii for #8, North Dakota is #11, South Dakota is #12, Nebraska and Wisconsin tie for #13, and Kansas ties Washington for #17.

Consider Minnesota again. They are ranked 2nd in the country for high school graduates, #10 for bachelor degrees, and #17 for advanced degrees. That is quite the accomplishment for rural flyover country. Minnesota is the home of Garrison Keillor, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Methinks the author living on the coast doesn’t understand much about the rest of the country.

“Their economic situation is largely the result of voting for supply-side economic policies that have been the largest redistribution of wealth from the bottom/middle to the top in U.S. history.”

There is no evidence that, outside of the South, that rural states were more supportive of supply-side economics than the rest of the country. And even in the South, voting for Republicans probably has more to do with social and cultural issues than economic issues. Besides, this past election, it was the Clinton New Democrats who represented and defended the Reagan Revolution of neoliberal corporatism.

“They get a tremendous amount of help from the government they complain does nothing for them. From the roads and utility grids they use to the farm subsidies, crop insurance, commodities protections…they benefit greatly from government assistance. The Farm Bill is one of the largest financial expenditures by the U.S. government. Without government assistance, their lives would be considerably worse.”

In the Midwest, you hear less of such complaints. Farm states are more nuanced in their opinions about government, both local and national. It isn’t a coincidence that most major farm states are in the Midwest. The South doesn’t have as much farming as it used. The agricultural sector in states like Kentucky has largely disappeared. When I traveled through Kentucky, there were many collapsing old barns and fields slowly turning back into forest with some housing and old shacks mixed in between.

The reason I was visiting Kentucky was to see where my mother’s family used to live generations ago. Many Southerners left rural states like Kentucky to head up to the industrial Midwest, as did my family. Or else to move into one of the nearby metropolises such as Lexington. For those who remained in rural Kentucky, I doubt the Farm Bill is helping many of them.

“When jobs dry up for whatever reasons, they refuse to relocate but lecture the poor in places like Flint for staying in towns that are failing.”

Actually, most of them have relocated. The rural areas are depleted of population.

Many of those remaining there are the old, disabled, under-educated, low IQ, mentally ill, and generally struggling; plus, family members who stayed back to take care of aging parents and other independents, along with families that simply didn’t have the resources to move. Anyone who was in a position to leave has already left. And few young people and young families have any desire to move back to those kinds of places. It’s been a slow rural drain for more than a century now. We are just finally experiencing the death throes of rural America, quite literally as much of the rural population further ages and dies off.

It is heartless to judge these people. If they had the ability and opportunities to leave, they would have long ago. But even many who left for urban areas have simply faced problems of poverty and unemployment in their new location. If you were in their position, you’d also likely be in a state of bitter despair, frustration, and outrage. These people have literally been left behind, abandoned to die in obscurity. Besides, that is their home, maybe the home of their family for generations. Family and community is even more important when you’re poor.

What it is hard to understand is that it is immensely harder to be poor in a rural area than in an urban area. There are few public services available for rural residents. They might have to travel hours (an entire day trip back and forth) to get to the nearest government office, public health center, mental health services, food bank, etc. That is assuming they even have a reliable working vehicle to travel anywhere. There is no public transportation out in rural areas. They are lucky to have a convenience store and bar nearby. And if they are really fortunate, there might be a Walmart within an hour’s distance.

When most of the population left, most of the money, community centers, schools, churches, and social capital disappeared. There isn’t even much sense of basic safety. You want to know why they cling to their guns. It’s a desperate place to live, surrounded by some of the most impoverished and hopeless people in the country. The most thriving economy is probably illegal drugs, prostitution, and stolen goods. The violence and homicide rates are higher in rural areas than even the big cities. And if you feel threatened or have an emergency, it could be too late by the time the county sheriff arrives.

Yet many rural residents remember from their childhoods that these were great places to live with thriving communities and prosperous economies. They know full well what has been lost. And they are correct that coastal elites don’t care about them, even if they had the slightest understanding about their lives. They have every right to be angry. They’d have to either be crazy or saints to not be angry. Still, they probably don’t think much about it most of the time, as they’re too preoccupied with trying to get by.

“They complain about coastal liberals, but the taxes from California and New York are what covers their farm subsidies, helps maintain their highways, and keeps their hospitals in their sparsely populated areas open for business.”

That claim has little to do with reality. Most of the non-coastal states, even moreso in the Midwest (even Illinois with all of the “welfare queens”), give more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits. Also, many of the farm and natural resource states have large state GDPs that contribute immensely to the national GDP. Iowa gets ton of federal benefits but more than easily offsets that with federal taxes and general support to the economy.

The US economy was built on and has been largely maintained through farm and natural resource states. Even some of the natural resource states like Montana that receive more federal benefits than they pay in federal taxes only do so because the federal government funds projects there that benefit big biz. And so essentially it is a form of corporate subsidization that has little to do with the state itself as those are national and transnational corporations operating there. Sometimes the subsidies are more direct, such as the Koch brothers getting millions of state and federal dollars in Montana.

Ignoring the problem of corporate subsidies, the main economic divide of takers vs makers isn’t rural vs urban but South vs North. The South has a disproportionate part of the poor population in the country. And it is the single most populous region in the country.

“They make sure outsiders are not welcome, deny businesses permits to build, then complain about businesses, plants opening up in less rural areas.”

You can travel all over most of America and most often feel perfectly welcome. I’ve never felt unwelcome anywhere I’ve traveled, not even in the rural South. I’m surprised how many friendly people there are in the world when you act friendly to them.

About businesses, I have never seen such a pattern. The rural towns around here are more welcoming to businesses than this liberal city I live in. There is a crony capitalism and corporatism in this liberal town where local business owners tend to shut out anyone new from developing here. All major projects that are allowed by the City Council and given preferential treatment (e.g., TIFs) are those by local business owners. Otherwise, having a building permit denied isn’t unusual. And the liberals here aren’t shy about voicing their hatred of certain businesses, such as keeping a Walmart from being built in town.

I’ve never heard of any rural areas and small towns refusing to allow factories and businesses to be built. Most of them would be glad to see employment return. In the town my dad grew up in, the factories and stores didn’t disappear because local residents wanted them to disappear. The economy simply shifted elsewhere.

“Government has not done enough to help them in many cases but their local and state governments are almost completely Republican and so too are their Representatives and Senators. Instead of holding them accountable, they vote them in over and over and over again.”

Some rural state governments are Republican and some are Democratic. The pattern of party control seems to have more to do with regional culture, political traditions, and the kind of economy. Over time, though, there are changes in how rural state residents vote. Where the two parties tend to win has shifted vastly over the past century, including an entire political realignment. Just looking at the past 50 years doesn’t show a consistent pattern, except for in strong Blue states like Minnesota and the strong Red South.

“All the economic policies and ideas that could help rural America belong to the Democratic Party: raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions, infrastructure spending, reusable energy growth, slowing down the damage done by climate change, healthcare reform…all of these and more would really help a lot of rural Americans.”

The problem is many Democrats haven’t done those things. The Clinton New Democrats made the party into a wing of the neoliberal corporatist hegemony. Hillary Clinton was against raising the minimum wage before she said she was for it, but she no doubt was lying about changing her mind as she obviously doesn’t care about the working poor. The Democrats have done little for unions this past half century and betrayed them almost every chance they got.

Tell me again who campaigned on infrastructure spending… oh yeah, that was Donald Trump. Who has been one of the strongest supporters of dirty energy? That would be Hillary Clinton. And which president created a healthcare (insurance) ‘reform’ that was designed to primarily benefit healthcare insurance companies, even though the majority of Americans wanted either single payer or public option that the president refused to put on the table? Barack Obama, of course.

This self-identified ‘coastal elite’ is calling rural Americans stupid and self-destructive when it’s obvious he is as clueless, ignorant, and bigoted as they come. This kind of rant is the opposite of helpful. But it is a useful example of why the Democrats have lost so much support.

What Is Kentucky?

I was looking into the data and history on Kentucky. My motivation was diverse. I was thinking about violence, but I was more generally considering what makes Kentucky such a unique state.

North of Kenutcky, there is Ohio and Indiana. That is the earliest settlement areas of the Midwest. These particular Lower Midwest states are as influenced by Southern culture as Kentucky is influenced by Midwestern culture. Hence, the hybrid name of Kentuckiana.

In my visit to Kentucky, I mostly saw the central part of the state. Traveling through rural areas, I was surprised how much it felt like the Midwest. It wasn’t all that different from nearby Indiana, where my own Kentucky ancestors moved to. The main difference is that the barns in Kentucky are painted black because many of them were originally built to dry tobacco, although these days much of the land is being used for grazing cattle, just like in the Midwest.

Many of my Kentucky ancestors were of German heritage, another commonality with Midwesterners. Near where they lived, there is a Shaker village. The Shakers are more commonly associated with the North. Here in Iowa and throughout the Midwest, there are many Quakers and Amish as well, two other religious groups that are also found in the Upper South but not the Deep South.

Furthermore, the limestone country straddles the border region of the Upper South and Lower Midwest. My Kentuckiana family worked in the limestone industry about a century ago. Limestone country is some of the most beautiful land in the country. The streams and rivers cut through the limestone in wondrous ways. All of this border region is defined by water, where it flows and where it gathers.

Western Kentucky is a narrow part of the state. This is where it touches the narrow part of Illinois. Abraham Lincoln’s early life began in Kentucky, involved years in Southern Indiana, and then later on as an adult his political career began in Illinois. That was a common path of westward movement for many families.

The whole state of Kentucky stretches westward, defined by that very movement of the population pushing the boundary of civilization. At that western edge, the state touches upon the Mississippi river, the last great boundary of the frontier. Just across that water is Missouri with a similar set of cultural, historical, and geographic issues as Kentucky. I’m not familiar with this part of Kentucky, but I’m sure there are some old river towns there and I’m sure more industrialization happened because of it.

To the South of Kentucky, Tennessee stretches lengthwise as the twin of Kentucky. They are like two children who were adopted by different parents. Both grew up in an early history of violence. Tennessee remains one of the most violent states in the country, and yet Kentucky has somehow become one of the least violent states in the country. However, the memory of Kentucky violence is not buried all that deep.

This brings me to Eastern Kentucky and especially the Southeast stretch. This is where Appalachia dominates. So, this is where is found the long history of the worst rural poverty, the most infamous violence and fueds, and of course mining and labor organizing.

Here the state borders Virginia and West Virginia. It is through these states that Kentucky had its strongest influence of what would later come to be thought of as Southern culture. Virginia was the earliest slave colony, where a completely different line of my family was part of the first generation of slaveholding aristocracy. A couple centuries after the colonial settlement, West Virginia broke away because of the Civil War, but that wasn’t just a political split but also a cultural split. West Virginia was more defined by Appalachia and the Scots-Irish settlers.

The struggle for control of Kentucky involved many divides. It was the birth state of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s family, like Daniel Boone and my own family, left for various overlapping reasons. There was a lot of legal conflict there and so it was a highly litigious society, because of the complications of the metes and bounds system in creating property boundaries (a British system that was used throughout the South and parts of the early Midwest, specifically Southern Ohio). There was also the slave issue that pushed many people further west toward the free territories and states.

Even after the Civil war, there was still a class war element to this. The Black Patch Tobacco War was an expression of this (the Black Patch is Western Kentucky where the soil grew a dark tobacco). There was the first developments of big agriculture. A monopoly had formed that was squeezing out small tobacco farmers, and they weren’t happy about it.

The pressure on small family farms was common throughout the Midwest as well, but the difference was the response. This is where Kentuckians showed their Southern side by organizing the Night Riders who were the strong arm of the small farmers’ association. These Night Riders terrorized anyone who didn’t join the Association. Property was destroyed and people killed. They didn’t wait for distant government, state or federal, to help them with oppressive big biz and a local plutocratic ruling class. They had a tradition of taking care of their own problems.

The dark side of this is that the Night Riders ended up being hard to distinguish from the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks joined the Association at higher rates than whites, because they were hurt the most by the suppression of tobacco prices. Still, none of this mattered to the racially-motivated opportunists. Some of the terrorism was directed at innocent black farmers. They were either killed or sent packing, and their land and property was stolen (or bought cheaply at the threat of violence).

This shows a weird mix of Southern and Northern social patterns.

The violent mob way of dealing with the problem was Southern. This was also seen in the Southern-tinted edge of the Lower Midwest — for example, the KKK was a big player in Southern Indiana. A similar thing was found with the Italian Black Hand and the later Mafia in Northern cities, but my point is that this wasn’t a common way of dealing with problems in places like the rural Upper Midwest or even the Northern parts of the rural Lower Midwest (Italian immigrants and their descendants have never been a majority in the Midwest and so that ethnic culture never defined the Midwest).

Yet the Kentucky history of sundown towns where blacks disappeared from entire communities and regions is more typical of the rural North than of the rural Deep South. As in the Lower Midwest states, the blacks in rural areas had been large in number and then disappeared. This is how blacks ended up in concentrated numbers in big cities, such as Lexington or Chicago.

There used to be many blacks in rural Kentucky. However, when I visited there, I didn’t see a single black person in the rural areas. Similarly, the first settlement in the Iowa town I live in (Iowa City) was a free black community and some nearby towns had a fair number of black families a century or so ago. Then most of the blacks disappeared from the area for most of the 20th century, until recent years when they’ve begun to return.

In the rural Deep South, there aren’t many sundown towns. People forget that the rural Deep South has a large black population, as it has had since it was first settled. However, the rural Upper South is more like the rural North in this aspect.

This difference is seen in the diverging trajectories of Kentucky and Tennessee. They were split during the Civil War. Lincoln understood the symbolic and strategic importance of Kentucky. This is why one of the early actions the Union army took was to secure a famous Kentucky racehorse because of its symbolic value. The Confederates took another good racing horse that was sired by it. However, it was the Union that won the state, for the same basic reason West Virginia split off, there was too much of the population that saw little personal benefit from being loyal to a slave owning aristocracy. Also, the Northern cultural influence was quite significant.

Tennessee is clearly Southern, but Kentucky is different. It isn’t part of a single region. Rather, it connects quite diverse regions. The Lexington metropolitan area is quite a different world from rural Appalachia. In 2002, an Eastern Kentucky sheriff was assassinated during a political rally. That is an area of all kinds of violence, once famous for moonshine and now famous for illegal drugs. It is what people think of as Kentucky, but it is just one part of the state.

Still, I don’t mean to even dismiss that small corner of Kentucky or the whole of Appalachia. I’ve written about how it is misleading to speak of blacks as having weak and broken families (see here and here). Black family ties and communities are surprisingly strong, when considering all that they have going against them. Stronger in many ways than what is found among middle-to-upper class whites.

The same goes for poor whites in Appalachia. They actually put a lot of value on family and religion, just like blacks. In some ways, it is because their values are so strong that they are so poor. They refuse to leave their families and their homes, their land and their communities just to chase dreams of wealth and social mobility. They are traditional conservatives, something mainstream American conservatives don’t understand with their obsession about some unbalanced notion of fiscal conservatism, economic well-being and success at nearly any cost.

That is something rural Appalachians do share with rural people all over the country. Many people see them as having been left behind. That might be the case for some of these people who feel trapped by circumstances, but I wouldn’t generalize. These poor people could move, but they’ve chosen not to. Besides, where are they going to move to? The entire country is economically hurting. Would being poor elsewhere be an improvement? Sure, in the big city, they could get better access to public services and maybe better education… but at what cost? They would lose everything and everyone they know. They would lose their roots and their cultural identity.

My family left that world behind. They chased the American Dream and slowly climbed the social ladder. My Indiana-born mother, descendant of poor Kentuckians, went to college and became an upper middle class professional. She assimilated into mainstream culture, including losing her Hoosier accent. Yet, for all the sacrifices made, the middle class is now under attack as has been happening a long time for the poor working class. Not unlike the Black Patch Tobacco War or the Appalachian mining strikes, big business is making life hard for so many people and so few feel that big government is on their side.

States like Kentucky are more representative of America than others may think. Kentucky isn’t just some backwater frozen in time. Kentuckians are a part of what it means to be American.

* * * *

An additional thought:

I realized that I had left out one of my favorite things. Kentucky and some of the nearby states have something that defines the region more than anything else, at least in my mind. It is what defines this particular culture and how it manifests in communities and politics.

I became familiar with this type of culture through my experience of North Carolina, specifically the Blue Ridge Mountains. North Carolina is another fascinating state with an unusual history. Some consider its early rebellious population as being the true starting point of the American Revolution.

Like Appalachia, all of North Carolina wasn’t as easily accessible. It formed an area of refuge between two great slave societies, Virginia and South Carolina. This laid the foundation for a different kind of political tradition, more progressive than its coastal neighbors.

This can be seen in the many diverse communities, communes, monasteries, retreats, and colleges. The reason I was in North Carolina was as an employee for several summers at the Black Mountain YMCA camp. It previously had been a well known alternative college that attracted some of the greatest thinkers at the time. That was my introduction to a different kind of Southern culture than I had grown familiar with from years living in South Carolina.

In the mountains, roads crisscrossed in such a way that I felt like I might come across almost anything around the next bend. There were hidden nooks everywhere and thick forests covered the land. There is a sense of freedom in this that people have sought for centuries.

Appalachia is similar the Upper South in general, specifically Kentucky. Even on the western side of Kentucky, there are rolling hillsides and winding roads. It’s not like the parts of the Deep South that have been heavily developed and it’s not like the flat farmlands to the horizon of much of the Midwest. It’s inferior soil and rocky landscape has protected it. A very different feel from Iowa, for example, which is the most developed state in the country. Big agriculture tried to rule Kentucky, but the conditions weren’t right for it. There just aren’t many massive farms in Kentucky, as found in the Midwest.

So, the land is cheaper. If you want to live on your own private mountain or start your own alternative community, a place like Kentucky is a good choice. The Upper South was less known for building infrastructure, but there are enough roads for travel purposes. For good and bad, there is a tradition of being against big government and high taxes. The live-and-let-live worldview allows a certain kind of freedom, even though in the poorest areas it also leads to some not so nice results. A fair number of rural Southerners still like to take care of their own problems, if we are to go by the data.

I wouldn’t want to go tromping through the poorest of Appalachia any more than I’d want to walk through the poorest of inner cities. Still, that has little to do with the average person living in these places. If we ended the War On Drugs, there probably would be great and positive changes seen in poor communities all over the country. There is a long history for why poor people, blacks and whites, have a lot less trust of outsiders and of government. There is a reason that so many poor people, rural and urban, learn to take care of their own problems, as best they can.

I wouldn’t be the first person to see a cultural connection between poor white Southerners and poor black Northerners. Those poor black Northerners mostly descend from poor Southern populations. It is a common culture. Many of the rural blacks who left Kentucky ended up in Northern inner cities. Even some of the rural whites who headed north also found themselves in similar circumstances, although like my family it was a bit easier for them to escape through upward mobility, not always though. The prejudice against Southern whites was strong among Northern whites because they were competing over the same jobs with the same white privilege.

Anyway, I was wanting to note that the Midwest did have some of the same community traditions as the Upper South. That is seen with the communities of Amish, Shakers, and Quakers. The Amish have been successful in refusing to fully assimilate to mainstream American society, not unlike certain populations of Appalachians. It was more challenging, however, in the more highly populated and developed Midwest to escape the forces of and demands for assimilation.

I find it comforting that there are still communities and populations that have managed to maintain some of their traditional cultures and ways of life. Outsiders may think that the self-isolated Amish and rural Appalachians are backwards, but that is being dismissive. Some people even think monks choosing a life of asceticism in a monastery is also backwards. Everyone who doesn’t perfectly assimilate is somehow wrong or strange. As an immigrant nation, the dominant society has become obsessed with assimilation, sometimes force entire populations to assimilate against their will or at least to destroy whatever culture they had before.

I’d like to see a revival of the American tradition of resistance to assimilation. I don’t mean simply assimilating to yet another monolithic culture, such as a blanket Southern identity. I’d like to see communities be more independent, not just culturally but also economically and most important politically. That is what a place like Kentucky reminds me of, a place where the forces of assimilation and resistance have been fighting it out for a long time.

I don’t mean to romanticize rural life or poor communities. I just see how the dominant society and how big biz has destroyed the independence that Americans once had. Independence has to be built on identity, on the sense of who you are in your immediate community and relationships.

* * * *

Possible Sundown Towns In Kentucky
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

General Info On Sundown Towns in Tennessee
by James W. Loewen, University of Illinois

Terror in the Night
by Ron Soodalter, Kentucky Monthly

Blacks, Gun Cultures, and Gun Control: T.R.M. Howard, Armed Self-Defense, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito, Second Amendment Foundation

The Politics of Despair: Power and Resistance in the Tobacco Wars
by Tracy Campbell

Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard’s Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power
by David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America
by Elliot Jaspin

A History of Blacks in Kentucky: In pursuit of equality, 1890-1980
by George C Wright

Origins of the New South, 1877–1913: A History of the South
by C. Vann Woodward

Kentucky: Portrait in Paradox, 1900-1950
by James C. Klotter

Appalachia in the Making: The Mountain South in the Nineteenth Century
edited by Mary Beth Pudup, Dwight B. Billings, Altina Laura Waller

To Be a Stereotype or Not

I was at work last night. I’m a parking ramp cashier. My job is basically customer service, that and taking people’s money so that I’ll let them out.

I don’t tend to react too much to anything that customers do or say. I just put on my blank professional face and do my job.

So, last night, a car pulled up with two young Asian guys. They were likely college students as the biggest increase in the University population has been Asians (Is that a stereotype?). I only mention this to give context to the interaction. The passenger leaned over and said, “Can I ask you a question?” “Sure,” I say. The question he asks me is, “Do you like to eat hunted deer and rabbit meat?”

That amused me. He was stereotyping me. Part of me would’ve liked to have asked in return, “Do you eat raw fish and clubbed dolphins?”

It doesn’t bother me when people try to stereotype me because they usually fail to put me into the right stereotype. Yes, I’m a working class Iowan. Yes, I wear Carhartt clothing. Yes, I’m of German ancestry. But, no, I wasn’t raised in nor have I ever lived in any rural area. No, I’ve never hunted nor owned a gun. And, no, i haven’t spent my whole life in Iowa, much less the Midwest. I’m less of an Iowan than many people I know. Still, I know people who have lived here their entire lives and they don’t particularly seem any different than people I’ve known in entirely separate regions.

I may look like a rural Iowan, but I spent much of my life growing up as an upper middle class city boy. I suppose I’m comfortable looking working class because my mom raised me with a working class sensibility. I’m not interested in standing out. That makes me a more typical Midwesterner. In Iowa, there is no clear distinction between someone who grew up in a rural area and someone who grew up in an urban area, especially as in both cases it is the same Standard American English. This also might relate to how Midwestern farmers have a long history of ensuring their children are well educated, including often sending them off to college. This seems particularly evident living in Iowa City, a college town, where urban and rural populations mix freely as you only have to drive to the edge of town to find farm fields.

Of course, none of my family were farmers. I’d have to look back to the 1800s to maybe find an ancestor who farmed. But I can’t offhand say for certain that I know of even distant relatives who were farmers. However, my mom’s family is as close as the Midwest gets to what is stereotypically known as rednecks.

I don’t mind stereotypes all that much, except when they directly relate to prejudice. I wasn’t worried about suffering oppression by Asian college students and so it was a harmless incident. Sometimes stereotypes are even accurate, and some people even embrace stereotypes in pride and defiance. As for me, if someone assumed I was a depressed artsy intellectual, then they’d be right. But I’ve never tried to fit into a stereotype. I don’t dress like a depressed artsy intellectual. I do carry a backpack which has caused some people to think I was a college student because after all this is a college town, but I have no college degree.

I have no grand point to the post. I was just amused by how a foreign student perceived me in terms of how he perceived Americans and specifically Midwesterners. Many Americans, particularly from the coasts, often stereotype Midwesterners, not entirely dissimilar to how Southerners are stereotyped. I suppose people from other parts of the world see America through the lense of the American MSM that is mostly produced in coastal big cities. To a foreigner like an Asian, I could imagine the Midwest is largely known through movies: Wizard of Oz, Field of Dreams, etc (maybe some of the movies and tv shows of Superman’s youth; and who knows what else). It is quite likely that, to a foreigner, Iowa might as well as be Oklahoma, Tennessee or North Dakota.

Stereotypes are odd things. They aren’t always incorrect. Even when they are caricatures, there can be elements of generalized truths. Are there many Iowans who hunt and eat what they hunt? Sure. But stereotypes tend to go way beyond such simple probabilistic correlations. Even if I did hunt, what would that say about me? Not much.

This is relevant to my recent thinking. One book I finished reading a while back is Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele. It is about stereotype threat which is a heavily researched issue. One thing that is clear is that stereotypes can have very powerful results, even when there is otherwise no active effort of prejudice and oppression. Stereotypes have a way of becoming pervasive in all aspects of society and become embedded deep within our thinking, both in the thinking of those who benefit from it and those who suffer from it.

Did that Asian guy think I was less smart, less worldly or less worthy in some way simply because I looked like a lower class rural person? I’m sure that would be a common element to such a stereotype. How far away is that stereotype from that of the redneck, the hillbilly and white trash? For those who are perceived in that light their entire life, what impact would stereotype threat have on them? For those who live in a society that has treated them that way and expected that of them, what kind of life would that lead to? The structural prejudice directed at poor rural whites isn’t all that different from the structural racism directed at poor urban blacks.

Asians come to America and they don’t really understand the history behind such stereotypes. Many white and/or upper class Americans also don’t understand. Stereotypes are so powerful because of this lack of understanding.

Iowa Biking & Rural Politics

My brother, Nate, and I were bicycling on Iowa’s country roads. We were on a day outing. We met in the Waterworks Prairie Park by the Iowa River, from where we traveled to a nearby town (Hills, Iowa) and then crossing Coralville Dam. On the way we passed farmland mixed with housing, and we talked as we cruised along. Healthy exercise and fresh air.

Iowa is one of the best states in the country for bicyclists, including professionals wanting to train, which is why there is such things as Ragbrai here (my brother has been biking a lot in preparation for that particular event). The reasons Iowa is great for biking is because of how the roads were planned in mostly square sections that goes back to the earliest settlements and farmland (Iowa was the first state or one of the first to be planned out in this manner). This type of planned community structure and civic infrastructure is part of the Midwestern DNA, unlike the haphazard (and litigation-prone) metes and bounds system that defined the early development in the South (legal problems with land ownership were behind Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln’s family leaving Kentucky).

The other thing Iowa is known for are all these small towns that are regularly situated in the counties, even in rural areas. Many of these farm towns have died out or are in the process of dying, but many of them still survive. The surviving farm towns, besides the county seats, have often had to reinvent themselves or else become ghosts of their former selves. Even with the rural population drain, the massive road infrastructure is maintained because it is required for the movement of farm equipment and farm produce.

One of the results of the rural population drain is that many of the young have left. Those left behind are older and getting older every year. These small towns are typically filled with fewer young families, especially as the family farms have been bought up by large corporations.

This has created many small communities with little sense of the future. The old people there remember the way things used to be. They fear and resist change, but in doing so they are typically unwilling to invest in the future. Some of these towns essentially collectively commit suicide because the problems they face are so great and no one wants to take responsibility to invest in the next generation that is likely to move away. It is a vicious cycle of self-destruction or else, in some cases, an unavoidable downward spiral.

The shrinking populations have a cascade of effects, but let me first describe how it used to be.

Iowa counties were designed so that any farmer could drive his horse-drawn wagon to the county seat and back in a single day. The Amish living here still travel by wagon, and under these conditions their traditional communities thrive. Counties are relatively small, but many counties used to have a number of towns where basic needs to could be regularly taken care of. In a typical town, there would be such things as grocery and farm supply stores, farmers’ markets, gas stations, repair shops, public schools, public libraries, etc. These were very civic-minded places, somewhat modeled on the New England ideal of local democracy.

The heart of the counties are the county seats where the courthouses and such are located and where parades and fairs are held, but the heart of communities used to be the public school and the downtown. The pride of any decent-sized town was the local high school football or baseball team. However, to save money, many of the small schools have been shut down and replaced by centralized larger schools where kids are bussed in from far away. This has had a terrible impact on these traditional farm communities. All that is left of many of the remaining towns are the houses surrounding a now mostly emptied downtown with a few struggling businesses. The Walmarts have put the final nail in the coffin of most of the small downtowns.

This has been true all across the Midwest. My dad grew up in Alexandria, Indiana. It was once declared Small Town USA. In the decades following the post-war boom era, factories have closed down or laid off workers. My uncle has remained their because of his love of the place, but he struggles to make money with his dentistry business. Most of these small towns used to have dentists and doctors with offices in the downtown, but rural residents these days typically have to travel a lot further than they used to just to get basic healthcare, if they get it at all.

To make matters worse, meth addiction has become an epidemic in the rural Midwest. Meth is a drug that grows amidst desperation, spreading that desperation further like weeds that even Roundup can’t kill. The best options available in such a desperate environment is to work at the slaughterhouse or work at Walmart or else work multiple jobs trying to support your family which leads you to be tempted by meth to give you that extra boost when you have no energy left. Of course, you can also go into the meth making business itself as meth can be cooked up easily in any kitchen or trailer.

Desperation also breeds politicians like Steve King. He is congressman of a district in western Iowa, the epitome of everything I describe. That district has the oldest average age of any population in the entire country. The reason Steve King is such an asshole is because he represents ornery old people who live in dying towns where there is absolutely no hope for the future. You have to have pity on a population so distraught that they would repeatedly vote for someone like Steve King. That is a group of people begging to be put out of their misery. They are angry at a world that has left them behind and they have every reason to be angry, even though in their anger they embrace a demagogue who can’t and won’t solve their problems.

These aging rural folk mostly come from farm families that have farmed for generations. They are the last of their kind. In many cases, their family land has been sold and their children have left them. Society no longer has any use for them and so they have no use for society. The shrinking few of the next generation that have stuck around aren’t following in the family tradition of being independent farmers. Jefferson’s yeoman farmer vision of America is a thing of the past. These last rural holdouts embrace reactionary politics because they are fighting for a lost cause. Only in fiction are lost causes ever noble.

Reactionary politics doesn’t result in constructive and sustainable policies. Fiscal conservatism becomes the rally cry of communities in retreat, communities full of people who have lost faith in anything greater that can be achieved. Building and maintaining town infrastructure is something that is done when it is seen as an investment that will one day payoff. To the reactionary mind, though, all change is seen as loss and destruction, even when it involves basic maintenance and simple improvements. Normal government functions become battles to be endlessly fought against. Local democracy can’t survive under such conditions, and so the remnants of civic-mindedness devolves into struggles for power. If the only self-respect in one’s view is resistance and refusal, it will be seized with a death grip.

Nate and I were discussing some of this on our jaunt about the countryside.

He lives in one of those small towns, West Branch. It used to be a very thriving town since the railroad used to pass right through the middle of it, but the tracks have been pulled up and it has partly become a bedroom community of Iowa City (where the University of  Iowa is located and where I live). West Branch is the boyhood home of Herbert Hoover, the 31st US president. There is a federal park there that includes Hoover’s boyhood home and some other original buildings, and the park brings in some money into the town.

Having been in West Branch for many years now, my brother has gained an inside view on what goes for small town life these days. His town lacks the desperation of some towns as there are jobs to be had in the larger, more prosperous cities nearby. I doubt there are many people left in West Branch who make a living by farming their own land. Still, the old families remain and they try to maintain their grip on their community.

This plays out in a number of ways. The older generation resists improving anything for fear that it will attract more people to move into town. They’d rather let the town crumble than risk it growing into something new, prosperity and hope for new generations be damned. Others in town, often newcomers like my brother (and all families are newcomers who haven’t been there for generations), want to improve the town for they are mostly young parents and young professionals who are hopeful about the future.

It is a battle of the old power elite against the rising of a new generation. The old power elite consists of a group of families that have had immense influence. They hold many of the political positions and they treat the volunteer fire department like a private club. These families are represented by a generation of old white guys, many of whom are in their 70s. They are known as the ‘Dinosaurs’. The mayor died last year. Some of the older city council members don’t have have many years left before retiring, going senile or dying. It is a government run by nepotism and cronyism, a typical good ol’ boys network.

West Branch is a perfect example of fiscal conservatism. There is always money for the fire department, of course. It is the pride and joy. Otherwise, there is never money for anything and there is great resistance to raise taxes. Even when a federal grant was available, they wouldn’t take it to fix the sidewalks. Part of the reason was because the federal government has requirements about how work is contracted out which means they couldn’t use their typical practice of cronyism. So, the sidewalks go on crumbling.

The local government is governed by those who don’t want to govern. They see their sole purpose is to obstruct progress and maintain their control, and they have been very good at achieving this end.

For some reason, the city government likes to give public property away. They gave away the city park to the Herbert Hoover National Park because they didn’t want to spend the money to maintain it such as keeping it mowed, but now every time they want to have a public event at the former city park they have to get permission from the local representative of the federal government. They were donated a large old building and the property it was built on, a former retirement home as I recall. The land was worth $100,000 and the building was worth a $100,000. They gave it to one of their cronies for $5,000 which means the city took a loss of $195,000 and that is a lot of money for such a tiny town. Their justification was that this crony sometimes did volunteer work for the city. I wish someone gave me $195,000 when I volunteered.

They don’t like the idea of public property. I guess it sounds too much like communism. If they could give the entire town away, they might consider it as long as it went to a member of one of the old families. As libertarians like to say, government is the problem. These Dinosaurs are taking seriously the idea of shrinking their local government so much that it can be drowned in a bathtub. Some might call that self-destruction, but they would consider it a victory.

Like many conservatives, they see salvation in big business. The West Branch city council gave TIF agreement to a company with the promise that they would hire 100 residents. The company didn’t live up to their end of the deal when they laid off some people, but they gave the excuse that it wasn’t their fault because of the economy. So, the city council extended their TIF again. Only after the company broke their promise a second time did the city council revoke the TIF. Meanwhile, the city loss massive amounts of money in the taxes not paid.

If you add up all the money the West Branch government has given away or lost, it might add up into the millions. However, whenever any citizen group or committee seeks to do anything productive, the city council and the mayor will claim there isn’t enough money. That is fiscal conservatism for you.

The government of this town does the absolute minimum that it can get away with while keeping taxes as low as possible for town residents. They can get away with this partly because they live in the same county as the more prosperous Iowa City which means they get more county funds than they pay in county taxes. All of this pays for the public schools in town and helps pay for other basic maintenance. All that the West Branch government has to concern itself is that its few streets have their potholes filled and the snow plowed in the winter. The sewers probably need replacing and water pipes break every so often, but the infrastructure works well enough most of the time. The neat thing about infrastructure is that once it is built it can be neglected for decades before it becomes so big of a problem that it can no longer be ignored and shunted off onto the next generation.

A town like West Branch is a metaphor for our entire country. Like the rest of the country, it isn’t a bad place to live. The old white guys in West Branch government are like the old white guys in government everywhere else. This old political elite is part of a very large generation, the Baby Boomers (although the oldest of them are Silents or on the cusp), who have held onto power so long because they were followed by an extremely small generation, GenXers.

Many people, especially conservatives, like to idealize rural life. These days, though, rural life goes along with a lot of dysfunction, the side effects of globalized capitalism. Nearly everything is being concentrated into ever growing corporations, farms being no exception. Small independent farmers and business owners are becoming a rare species, the family farm and business rarer still. With factory farming, the land is being farmed even more intensively which means even less sustainably. I often doubt that we are on the road to long-term prosperity. It can feel that we are as much fighting against so-called ‘progress’ as we are looking for a progress worth fighting for. It is hard to blame old rural people for lashing out at a world they no longer understand.

I don’t think it is all doom and gloom, though. There are still plenty of small independent farmers fighting the good fight. Some have gone organic in looking for a niche market to make enough profit. There has been a growing market for locally grown produce. If the Amish can thrive in this modern society, there are far from being without hope. Besides,  even small towns like West Branch have their up-and-coming young generation looking to the future rather than the past. overwhelmed as they may seem by the old folk.

We typically look to the big cities on the coasts in determining the winds of change, but there remains a significantly large part of the US population living in rural states and not all of them are aging reactionaries. Driving through Iowa, one still sees plenty of progress. Many rural people gladly embrace new technology such as putting up wind turbines or renting their land out for those who put up wind turbines and beneath these behemoths the cows graze. Iowa is a leader in wind energy and most data shows the state doing relatively well compared to the rest of the country. The rural states to the west of the Mississippi fared extremely well even during the economic downturn. The economy could entirely collapse and there still will be a demand for corn, soy and wheat.

More important to my mind, I would note that the Midwest has been for a very long time one of the breeding grounds for progressive, populist and even radical politics. That fiercely independent spirit remains, even if the older generation has forgotten about it. If I were too look for the direction this country is turning toward, I’d probably look to a state like Wisconsin. The battles of local politics can be as inane as national politics, but I think the local politics might have more impact than we realize.

Midwestern Values of Community & the Common Good

Here is a video about a local shooting of a man in his home by an officer. You might think this would lead to outrage, but these Midwesterners in typical fashion are calm. Instead of outrage, they simply want resolution and understanding. That is the complete opposite reaction of what I’m used to seeing, especially in other parts of the country.

In my post about the North/South divide, I made an argument that there are cultural differences between Northern and Southern states. Specifically, I wrote about my experience of living in Iowa as compared to my experience living in South Carolina. One difference I noted was that Southerners tend to treat their family as their community and Northerners (or, at least, rural Midwesterners) tend to treat their communities as family.

In watching the above video, it jumped out to me how important ‘community’ was to these people. They explicitly talked about community rather than about individual people or individual families. This is an event they all are experiencing together. And it is an event that threatens the fabric of their community. To attack the officer for his actions would feel like an attack on the whole community.

These people may become more angry later if it turns out the shooting was unjustified or if the officer doesn’t act adequately remorseful. But, for now, their immediate concern is ensuring a sense of community is maintained.

This community-obsessed culture makes sense when you consider the history of the region. Small family farmers in these rural areas were extremely isolated early on when these towns first formed. They depended on and still depend on one another. This is the origin of Midwestern neighborliness.

It’s easy to forget communities like this still exist. This is the most clear example I’ve seen in a while.

It reminds me of the speech Zach Wahls gave. Zach is a native-born Iowan who was raised by gay parents. Some might find it strange that Iowa would be one of the first states to legalize gay marriage, but along with the community-centered culture there is an egalitarian sense of everyone deserving to be treated equal.

Zach naturally used a conservative defense of gay marriage. He didn’t portray his life as being special nor that he wanted special treatment. He didn’t portray himself as defending gay rights but as defending human rights. There is a conflict-avoidance in this attitude. It’s not us vs them but us together as a community (and society just being community on the largescale). Zach made it even more clear by stating that his family was a normal Iowan family and by describing himself as a hardworking Iowan. He said, “And if I was your son, Mr. Chairman, I believe I’d make you very proud.”

Growing up in the Midwest, this way of viewing the world is a part of my sense of reality. It’s not that Iowa doesn’t have it’s own ideologues that like to fear-monger and stir up trouble, but such people just seem against the grain of the culture here. They are more the exception than the rule. I made this argument in another post. As evidence I quoted a Tea Party speaker to show how different the Tea Party is in Iowa as compared to other states:

Doug Burnett, the event’s first speaker, urged the crowd to stress the positive rather than the negative.

“Let’s watch our words.  Thoughts become attitudes, attitudes become words and words become actions.  I hear too often people saying, ‘I’m scared.  I’m scared for my country. I’m scared for my way of life’ and I don’t doubt the sincerity of that sentiment, but I do question the accuracy of the words.

“Scared is negative.  It’s powerless.  It’s debilitating.  Scared is what happens when you wake up in the middle of the night to that bump, right?

“We’re frustrated.  We’re angry.  We’re concerned and trust me, many times I look at our elected leaders and I see the boogey man, but we are the Tea Party and we aren’t scared of anything.  Are you scared?  We don’t do scared.

“Think of words that are positive and accurate, like ‘I’m engaged. I’m empowered. I’m moved to action.’”

A Tea Party that is positive instead of fear-mongering. Watching the mainstream media, it’s hard to believe such a thing exists… and yet it does exist, at least here in Iowa. Even the Tea Party in Iowa isn’t interested in dividing the community.

Whether a defender of gay rights or member of the Tea Party, Iowans seek a common vision to unite the community. When something threatens that sense of community, the response is to bring community closer together.

Psychology and Parapsychology, Politics and Place

In some recent posts, I’ve discussed personality types and other psychological factors that distinguish one person from another.

Fox and Hedgehog, Apollo and Dionysus

Horror and Typology

The Paranormal and Psychology

This subject is an interest of mine that goes back many years and my interest in psychology in general goes back even further.  I’ve always sought explanations for human experience and psychology is one of the best fields to look for helpful data and theory.  Psychology is also a good place to find connections between other fields: narratology and folklore studies, paranormal, religion, politics, etc.  I really became fascinated with psychology through Jungian typology and traits theory which connects to tons of fascinating research spanning the past century (and much from the last half century is cross-cultural research using large sample sizes).  Correlations and meta-analysis of varied research has offered clearer insight into many elusive factors of the human psyche and socio-cultural behavior. 

Psychology became even more interesting for me when I read George P. Hansen’s The Trickster and the Paranormal in which the author discusses experience and hermeneutics at the edge of mainstream science.  Along with discussing the trickster archetype, he details the relevance of Hartmann’s boundary types.  Upon further research, I learned that research on boundary types correlates with other research on personality types and traits, and of course Jung’s theory of personality types connects with his theory on archetypes.  Even further research has helped me to understand how central psychology is to the UFO field and paranormal in general.  Basically, this was an area that promised many further connections.

I’ve been recently focused on the connections between genre fiction (especially SF and Horror), philosophy (especially Pessimism), religion (especially Gnosticism) and the paranormal (especially UFO experiences).  There isn’t any grand reason my mind is focused on all of these subjects (besides general curiosity in all things weird and countercultural), but it does all fit together (more or less, in my mind that is).  To be specific, my friend has been reading a lot of Thomas Ligotti and other horror writers.  This has caused me to read more horror (and dark weird) fiction and discuss it with my friend… which has led me to read Ligotti’s philosophizing and the blog writing by related people (Quentin S. Crisp and Matt Cardin).  Because of Gnosticism and other reasons, Philip K. Dick and William S. Burroughs have been on my mind and the latter happened to be a favorite writer of Ligotti. 

 As you see, one thing leads to another and I at times can get obsessive in following certain leads.  My brain was being swamped by connections and so I wrote a post about it.

Just Some Related Ideas and Writers

I had initially noted in earlier posts some similarities and differences between William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick and between them and Thomas Ligotti.

PKD, ACIM, and Burroughs

Burroughs, PKD, and Ligotti

My interest in such things is very personal in many ways, but I think the socio-political angle is at least as interesting.  Psychological understanding is probably needed in poltical discussions more than anywhere simply for the reason that politics seems to attract many people who lack subtle understanding (if any at all) of the human mind and behavior.  I wrote about this in a post a while back.

Morality, Politics, and Psychology

In looking into psychological research in context of “abnormal” experiences, I came across one particularly interesting piece of data (which I believe can be found somewhere in one of the numerous links in my post The Paranormal and Psychology).  Someone mentioned that UFO experiences are more common along the coasts of the US than in the midwest.  I haven’t seen this data, but I have seen data that shows liberals are more concentrated on the coasts and in highly populated areas (i.e., urban areas) and that shows conservatives are more concentrated in the interior and in lowly populated areas (i.e., rural areas).  So, it would be logical that UFO experience would correlate with liberal politics.  Research has shown that liberals and conservatives tend to have different personalities.  One of the major factors is that liberals tend to have more “openness to experience” (a particular trait that has been well researched).  This Openness also correlates to MBTI’s (Jungian typology’s) Intuition function and Hartmann’s thin boundary types (amongst other correlations). 

Anyways, it’s not simply a matter of different ideological persuasions, but psychological tendencies that we often are born with (and which tend to remain stable throughout our lives).  Liberal types aren’t simply open to believing in the weird.  They’re actually open to experiencing them.  A liberal believes in the paranormal because they’ve experienced it, and the conservative disbelieves because they’re experiences don’t include the paranormal.  However, even if a conservative did have a paranormal experience, they’d be more likely to try to explain it away or make it conform to their cultural expectations (such as fitting it into the doctrine of the religion they belong to).  Because of psychological and other factors, I truly doubt that people hold their viewpoints for primarily rational reasons, but I have no doubt that humans are very talented at rationalizing.  Another thought I had was that people’s beliefs aren’t exactly disconnected from reality.  It’s just they’re limited to one perspective on reality.  The conservative and the liberal each explains in a perfectly valid way the data of their experience.  The problem is that it only applies to their own narrow experience, but from an evolutionary point of view this may be no problem at all.  Both views are helpful or maybe even necessary for the stability of society.  Either side is wrong in claiming their beliefs are absolutely true.  Nonetheless, the conservative belief about human behavior applies to conservative humans and ditto for liberal beliefs. 

However, accepting each as a valid viewpoint would be criticized as pluralism by many conservatives (in particular moral conservatives).  Does this mean that a liberal has a better chance of understanding the conservative position than the other way around?  Maybe… depending on what we’re focusing on.  This could be explained that we aren’t just dealing with types here, but also social development such as understood by spiral dynamics.  Liberal as a personality trait wouldn’t be helpful in understanding conservativism, but liberal pluralism as a stage of development could potentially give someone greater perspective to understand previous stages of development (which is where the majority of the population is still at).  I’m less interested in the latter for this post.  I just wanted to point it out because this a complex subject with many factors and I’d rather not make simplistic judgments.

It is important to point out that these distinctions aren’t absolute.  The average person isn’t at the extreme opposite ends, and our pscyological attitude can change depending on situation.  Even so, most people tend to spend most of their time in one mindset or another.  Furthermore, people tend to seek out others similar to them and careers that are conducive to their thinking style.  A liberal-leaning person living in a rural area is more likely to move to an urban area and so this is how genetics become concentrated.  Liberals will tend to marry liberals and tend to have liberal kids, and the same for conservatives.  This wasn’t possible in the past because people didn’t move as much, but modern society has created a situation where human genetics may be diverging into two type of people.  This reminds me of a species of rodent (or something like that) that I saw on a nature show once.  There were two genetically distinct variations of males.  One set of males mated for life with a female, but the females weren’t so loyal in their affections.  The other set of males would have sex with any female and the females of this species were willing (when their spouses were otherwise distracted).  The children of the loyal males grew up to be loyal and the opposite for the other type.  I’ve always suspected this might be the case for human males as well, but even if not the general principle might apply to humans in other ways.

It can’t be denied that humans do like trying to divide eachother up into categories.  I was reading an article titled “Burrough-sian Gnosticism In His Own Words” by Sven Davisson which can be found in the journal The Gnostic.  I was already familiar with Burrough’s ideas along these lines.  He considered himself a Manichaean and it was from this that he founded his own typology of people: the Johnsons and the Shits.  The Johnson Family was a designation that came from turn-of-the-century hobo culture.  A Johnson was someone who was a basically good and trustworthy person, someone who would help when such was needed but otherwise would mind his own business.  On the other hand (from the article): “A shit  is one who is obsessively sure of his own position at the cost of all other vantages.”  Upon reading that, I immediate thought that it sounded like an extreme version of a hedgehog type of person (who knows one big thing)… which is approximately an MBTI type with Sensation function (most notably represented by Kiersey’s SJ temperament), a thick boundary type, someone low on the trait ‘openness to experience’.  I was also reminded of a quote (by someone other than Burroughs) about a missionary (to paraphrase): “You could always tell the people she helped by the hunted look on their faces.”  My guess is that Burroughs was making an extreme distinction that could otherwise be stated with more psychological subtlety.  Taking as an extreme, it’s hard to disagree with Burroughs about the Shits of the world, but I’m sure he was intelligent enough to realize that not everyone exists at the extremes.

I also think the distinction between hedgehogs and foxes relates to the attitudes of universalism and pluralism.  I was thinking about  this latter category because of my reading another article in the journal The Gnostic.  The article is “Magic and Gnosticism” by  Will Parker.  I won’t say much about it right now as I haven’t finished the article yet, but I’ll point out that I’m thinking about his ideas in terms of George P. Hansen’s discussion of Max Weber’s theory of the process of increasing rationalization in Western society.  I plan on blogging more about this where I’ll also bring in how certain personality types are most likely to gain positions of power in certain types of organizations.