Some Thoughts on Division

I heard a professor talking about visiting and getting to know a family in Montana. There were six children in the family and every one of them had served in the military, not because of the economic draft but rather because there is a tradition of military service in their community and family. The professor (from Harvard or somewhere like that) was reflecting on the fact that back at his campus he didn’t know anyone with a child who had served in the military.

Recently I heard Mark Halperin discussing talking with a group of Democratic donors in New York. He asked for a show of hands for how many of them had been to Europe in the past year, and lots of hands went up. Then he asked how many of them had been to Staten Island. Zero hands went up.

Maybe we’ve always been divided culturally, but it seems to be getting worse. Largely gone now are the regional/sectional divisions of the past. Last night we went to hear an American history professor from UNC give a talk about one of his books on the presidency. He said that nowadays (in contrast to the past) affluent suburban people outside of Atlanta vote the same way as affluent suburban people outside of Detroit. Our divisions seem to be increasingly socio-economic.

Among rural people who aren’t highly educated (meaning almost all of us), it seems that the dominant culture not only doesn’t share our values, but rejects and ridicules them. Basic traditional fundamental values like patriotism and religion are seen not as virtues, but indicia of ignorance.

And if this is to be a culture war, where does it leave me? Affluent and educated (at least by country standards), I don’t share many of the biases and political preferences of my friends and neighbors. But country-born and raised, with deep and profound roots here, I take offense at, and want nothing to do with, the contempt and derision being directed at my people by my socio-economic peers.

There is a great old song that asks the question on my mind: what do you do with good old boys like me?

When I was a kid Uncle Remus would put me to bed
With a picture of Stonewall Jackson above my head
Then daddy’d come in to kiss his little man
With gin on his breath and a Bible in his hand
He talked about honor and things I should know
Then he’d stagger a little as he went out the door

I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees
And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me
Hank and Tennessee
I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be
So what do you do with good ole boys like me?

Nothing makes a sound in the night like the wind does
But you ain’t afraid if you’re washed in the blood like I was
The smell of cape jasmine through the window screen
John R. and the Wolfman kept me company
By the light of the radio by my bed
With Thomas Wolfe whispering in my head

When I was in school I ran with kid down the street
But I watched him burn himself up on bourbon and speed
But I was smarter than most and I could choose
Learned to talk like the man on the six o’clock news
When I was eighteen, Lord, I hit the road
But it really doesn’t matter how far I go

I can still hear the soft Southern winds in the live oak trees
And those Williams boys they still mean a lot to me
Hank and Tennessee
I guess we’re all gonna be what we’re gonna be
So what do you do with good ole boys like me?

And in these days, with folks like us cast as the villains of history (scapegoats might be a better word), Mr. Berry has wisdom to offer.

Anglo-Saxon Protestant Heterosexual Men

Come, dear brothers
let us cheerfully acknowledge
that we are the last hope of the world,
for we have no excuses,
nobody to blame but ourselves.
Who is going to sit at our feet
and listen while we bewail
our historical sufferings? Who
will ever believe that we also
have wept in the night
with repressed longing to become
our real selves? Who will
stand forth and proclaim
that we have virtues and talents
peculiar to our category? Nobody,
and that is good. For here we are
at last with our real selves
in the real world. Therefore,
let us quiet our hearts, my brothers,
and settle down for a change
to picking up after ourselves
and a few centuries of honest work.

Wendell Berry
1997

These are growing pains I suppose–just another of the countless transitions humanity has experienced through the millennia. We’ll all come out of it just fine in the end, hopefully without unduly impoverishing our imaginations and our history.

In the meantime, if I could offer some advice from the perspective of someone who straddles both worlds (often uncomfortably) I would urge people to think charitably. That is, don’t assume the worst about the motives of those on the other side of the fence. In the end we’re shaped by things we have little control over. The vast majority of us want the same things ultimately–even if we disagree on how to achieve them. And for every fault we see in those with whom we don’t agree, we can find plenty of things to praise and admire if we only choose to look carefully for them.