Friday, January 13, 2017

ANS -- Rural elites: I’ve had it with the arrogance of ignorance (and its promoters)

Hi  -- If you spend a lot of time on social media like I do, you've been seeing a lot of stuff about how urban elite Hillary voters needed to "understand" the rural "real Americans" who voted for Trump.  This is an answer to that.  I am including the comments because they are a real discussion rather than name-calling.  

Rural elites: I've had it with the arrogance of ignorance (and its promoters)

ignorance-is-powerThe only thing worse than the willfully ignorant is the legion of apologists enabling them.

Since the election – before, really – we've heard a lot of talk about how all those urban liberal elites need to stop being so arrogant and start listening to very real concerns of real Americans in rural flyover values America.

We have more recently begun to see some informed pushback against this silliness self-serving rhetorical engineering masquerading as good-faith socio-political analysis. Now we've hit the daily double, though.

First, our friend Otherwise passed along a righteous rant from a very frustrated Melinda Byerley, CMO of TimeShare. Have a quick look.

Melinda Byerley rant

Then, this morning, the always-righteous Rude Pundit uncorked on "rural elitists." He was responding to an op-ed in the NYT by a Knoxville, IA news director. You should read the whole post, but here are some of the salient points:

There are a whole bunch of us city liberals who came from rural or southern or whatever areas. I've told this story a hundred goddamn times, but this pinheaded, Ivory Tower-humping leftist lived in a trailer park in Florida with a trucker father and a working mom. At 13, I started working unloading semis at warehouses after school. My family was on welfare, including food stamps, and when my father died, we were on Social Security to survive in the south, and we worked our asses off to get out of that hole. I know a shit-ton of other people who have a similar M.O. and now live in New York or L.A.  and a shit-ton who continue to live in rural areas. So don't fucking preach to me about the goodness and grace of conservative rural people or the white working class.

Trust me, he's barely getting up a head of steam at this point.

Byerley could have been a bit more diplomatic, but there's no question that she's right. About a lot. As Otherwise noted in a brief comment to the indignant author of the Inc article linked above:

…what Ms. Byerley said is absolutely true, in both perception and fact. I am a former executive and now live on a 140-acre farm near Bloomington, IN, which I will soon sell to move to somewhere like Taos, Honolulu or Santa Barbara, for the very reasons Ms. Byerley called out. I'm tired of living with these people.

Over my career I've tried repeatedly to hire talent to move to the Midwest and South and failed repeatedly, all because of the "shithole" factor. There's a reason these small Midwestern and Southern towns are full of old people—it's because the young and talented have fled to more tolerant and interesting "blue islands."

Otherwise couldn't be more on point. I haven't had to hire jobs to Red America, but I have had to consider where I might be willing to move for my career. My thinking mirrors his – and that of millions of other workers – precisely. Ain't going anywhere in the South, period. You could get me to Chicago and Minneapolis in the Midwest. Been to Boston and would go back. For the right situation you could get me to any number of big cities in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions. I might go back to Seattle. I'd go to Portland. And if all goes the way I want I'll stay in Denver the rest of my days.

But unless somebody puts about ten times as much money on the table as anyone would be likely to, that's it. And maybe not even then.

As my colleague Brian Angliss recently noted, urban types aren't the only ones who live in bubbles. Except he was being charitable about it, as is his wont. Another S&R colleague, Gavin Chait, also tackled the subject in his outstanding wealth inequality series last month:

And if cities are filling up with diverse, educated, young and ambitious people, who is left in small rural towns?

That's right, mono-cultures filled with conservative, older people.

There is now a cultural cliff between those living in cities and those living in the towns clustered nearby. Cities – with their high rents and limited space – have even experienced a resurgence of manufacturing. It turns out that it is far easier to start a complex manufacturing business (and all modern factories require a mix of automation, engineering, design and raw labour) in a city where everyone is close by than in a rural area where highly-skilled people may not wish to live.

The truth of the matter is that America's cities are overrun by people who used to live in rural America and as a result know exactly what it's all about. On the other hand, while there are some who left the city for the country, that number is far smaller. This, ladies and gents, is a math question. Can you count or can't you?

In other words, the idea that rural folks are real Americans and city folks live in a bubble is, statistically speaking, outrageous bullshit.

I recently had an extremely unpleasant conversation with someone who seemed hellbent on illustrating my point. Let's call him Robert. I have known Robert for a very long time and we are, for better or worse, bound by what we'll call close family ties.

At various points in the exchange Robert, who resides in the town where I grew up, threw every cynical FOX News and Rush Limbaugh-endorsed talking point he could think of at me. He's a proud Trump voter and allows that the economy is already upticking as a result of the coming administration. Over the course of an hour he asserted at least ten "facts" that "proved" his opinions correct. Problem was, all of these facts were, well, factually wrong. Demonstrably wrong. Fake news.

Not opinions. Not points of view. Not perspectives. Just flat-out made-up misinformation manufactured by various industrial lie machines in service to the GOP and spread across their listeners like so much…fertilizer.

I corrected each one with actual evidence. He responded by pretending I hadn't said a word, instead lobbing out the next lie. It got tired.

All of this is merely context, though. There were two parts of the conversation that really stand out in the way they address the question of point of view and perspective – you know, the one we keep being told we need to understand and respect.

The first happened when, out of nowhere, he asked about my religious beliefs. I said I had no idea how it was relevant, but he knows I'm an atheist. Next thing I know I'm being subjected to an escalating barrage of abuse – no other word for it. If I didn't believe in the Lord, I was an idiot, and I needed to go read the Bible. (This is actually a tame characterization of what was said.)

The thing is, I was amazed to learn about Robert's deeply held religious beliefs, as would be anyone who knows him (and I have known him literally his entire life). He's never been Christian in any way that would be noticeable. If he's ever been in a church it's news to me. And he's telling me to go read the Bible when I'd bet the farm he doesn't have one.

I, of course, grew up Southern Baptist and was a Christian until about 30. I still have my Bible from my youth and I have read it. My doctoral dissertation drew heavily on my experience with the Old Testament and could have probably been submitted for a PhD in Theology.

After this, he attacked my education. He says I'm smart and have all this formal learning, but – you know what's coming, right? – he has "street smarts." As it turns out, I had all my ed opportunities paid for and handed to me, while he had to fight tooth and claw for everything he ever had.

This is a damning criticism, except the exact opposite is closer to the truth. My family didn't have much money, so nobody put me through school. I earned scholarships and assistantships at each step of the way. I taught classes at the grad level to help pay the way. I worked third-shift while an undergrad and DJed on the side at the MA level, where I routinely found myself with barely enough money in my pocket to buy a McDonald's burger for dinner. At the doc level I took out loans, which I'll probably never get paid off.

Robert, on the other hand, didn't scrap for anything. You know that elite, rich, 99% white suburb just outside every major city in the US? That's where he grew up. Massive house. Massive yard. Dad had plenty of money. Best educational system in the entire region. Robert wanted for nothing.

His current situation, though, finds him scrapping and fighting an uphill battle every day, but it's because he couldn't be bothered to take advantage of all he had given to him.

Robert would undoubtedly regard himself as "real America," and he doesn't miss a chance to make clear that "street smarts" are better than liberal book learning. Meanwhile, he's one of these racists who doesn't realize he's racist. He has, on any number of occasions, railed about the evils of "foreigners." He looks forward to Trump dealing with all those Muslims and says he'd shoot any Muslim who fucked with his wife and daughter. (He isn't married and hasn't seen his daughter in quite some time. Also, he has never met a Muslim that I'm aware of.)

Robert thinks I'm out of touch with the hard working life, even though I grew up working class while he grew up privileged. Robert imagines himself a man of faith even though he knows nothing of Christianity and has an out-of-wedlock child he never sees.

This is what Rude Pundit is getting at in his post on "rural elites," and I imagine a lot of other big city urban liberals are, like me, sick to death at being told by people who have no fucking idea what they're talking about that we don't understand things that we have deep first-hand, lived experienceof. We don't know everything, and we know we don't. But I think we do understand this: while arrogance comes in many forms, nothing is quite as grating as the self-satisfied arrogance of the supremely, willfully ignorant.

Except, perhaps, the arrogance of the clucking conservative faux-intelligentsia concern trolls acting as apologists and enablers for the worst traits of the collective American character.

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8 comments on "Rural elites: I've had it with the arrogance of ignorance (and its promoters)"

  1. You make a lot of good points, Sam, and the ideology war between city and country folk is one where I stand at ground zero. I'm seeing a lot of frustration over what's seen as an abuse of power. Many rural people in this area feel the rich developers are pushing them off their land and foisting a more urban lifestyle upon them. Or at the very least, boxing them in to where they can't walk outside without seeing a new Starbucks, a new McMansion subdivision with a pretentious name, or someone walking around in skinny jeans with their face glued to their phone. And it's the modern tech-obsessed culture and extravagance they most deeply rail against.

    There's not much for the younger crowd to do in some of these areas. They can either drive/move to the city or learn to enjoy simplicity and quietude. Most choose the former. And it's hard to stand by as a generation is seemingly led away by the Pied Piper from elements and customs often thought to foster spiritual development. I can understand wanting to leave. Some towns are true wastelands. But many others are just humble. We want to send our kids to good schools without being forced into a disagreeable lifestyle.

    What's most vexing is that as your peers leave, you become pressured to leave too –
    especially if you're educated seeking same. Location is key socially, and good luck finding the needle-in-a-haystack woman who'll leave her current lifestyle to be with you. Green Acres anyone? What's a country boy to do?

    I know there are a lot of moving parts in this machine, but all many of us want is for small towns to have resources without being transformed into a city.

    • I hear you, Charlie. What drives me around the bend is how so many people in these situations do such a horrible job of understanding (and punishing) the guilty parties. Developers can buy the mayor and the town council, wreak havoc on a town and people will blame Obama.

      If I'm exaggerating, it's not by much.

      • Sam

        I've really been pondering this issue and your post since I first read it. So much so that I literally woke up the other night listing in my own mind the reasons people voted for Trump. While I agree with Ms. Byerley's diagnosis, I'm not sure I agree with her remedy. The problem it seems to me is she, you and I all seem to think that the people who live in shitholes could make them into not-shitholes if they just would try. I'm not sure that's true.

        See, their problem isn't that the system is rigged. The problem is that it's NOT rigged. In general the economy rewards the more talented and bolder. (I know I have more faith in the efficiency of labor markets than you do.) Most of those who are happy in shitholedom are either the less talented or the more timid. They believe in religion because they're too dumb to understand science. They vote based on emotion supported by fake news because they're not intelligent enough to digest real information and change their minds accordingly. And they yearn for the way things used to be because they're terrified of the future, so much so that they stockpile weapons and dream up magic walls that will protect them from change. (If they were smart or educated or thoughtful, they'd realize that walls have been tried many times before–England by the Romans, Italy during the Black Plague and China's Great Wall and they've never ever worked.) It's not that they WON'T change, it's that they CAN'T change. They simply don't have the capacity.

        I doubt it but maybe this could be fixed if they had any level of self-awareness, but they don't. They're stupid, but stupid people don't know they're stupid because they're stupid.

        This is not the first time we've seen this. This recent election is often compared to Nazi Germany, but the real comparison is to the Cambodian revolution by Pol Pot. In that revolution Pol Pot closed the cities and forcibly made the urban elite move to the country and do manual labor, what those that live in shithole America would call "real work." 25% of the population died because surgeons were too busy planting rice to treat sick babies. And the French Revolution had more than a little class revenge to it.

        Charlie's comment about developers and McMansions is 100% wrong and you're wrong not to call him out. I get that he made his point in a very reasonable way, but at its heart is an unreasonable point. What is a "disagreeable lifestyle" Charlie? Living with black people and gays? Living with people who don't bother to pay lip service to silly religious and patriotic nonsense? If shitholes weren't such shitholes, then developers wouldn't need to come in and knock everything down for people to live there. McMansions in vanilla suburbs are preferable to trailers and armed-to-the-teeth methhead neighbors. What are "good schools," ones that teach what you want your kids to believe whether it's true or not?

        • Otherwise, I respect that you don't agree with me, but that doesn't make me 100% wrong and you 100% right. It was an opinion, just as you are voicing yours. And who said anything about living with black people and gays being part of a disagreeable lifestyle? You're making an unfair stereotype here of all rural people. Many, for that matter. Classism is laced throughout. The lifestyle was as I stated: tech obsessed, pretentious, and trendy. Forgive our yearning for the genuine.

          But where I really take issue is your assertion that religious people are too dumb to understand science. Many highly educated people – including scientists – are religious. Can you prove that there is no God? No. Nor can I prove there is. But since you seemingly witnessed creation firsthand, perhaps you can replicate it and prove to everyone exactly how matter miraculously appeared from nothingness to become life as we know it. I'll brew the coffee.

          As for the developers and McMansions, how do you envision dystopia? Anywhere housing's under 5,000 sq. feet without vaulted ceilings and a high-end car in the driveway? Because if so, that materialistic mentality is a place I truly don't want to live in. Our community has two-level single-family detached homes, not trailers. Open fields and farmland. Developers want to build dense clusters of bigger houses because they offer a higher profit margin. Not to mention the hordes of insecure people who need them to feel like a success. I suspect we have the same ideals of what makes a good school, except mine don't persecute people for being rural or Christian.

        • Can you prove that there is no God?

          Whoa whoa whoa. This isn't how inquiry works. For starters, you can't prove a negative, period. Most importantly, though, the person positing a proposition has the burden of proof. If you say X exists, it's on YOU to provide evidence. You don't get to say say X exists, now prove me wrong or I'm automatically right.

          Believe what you want – that's your right. But you don't get to play rhetorical games like that in here. That which can be asserted without evidence can be rejected without evidence, etc.

    • There's a fundamental long-term economic shift going on here that has resulted in rural America being overpopulated relative to the number of jobs it can produce. Rural areas only have a durable advantage over cities in those industries where land rather than labor is the prime mover. Things like agriculture, forestry, mining, and so on. All of these industries have shed more than 90% of the workforce they had a century ago while drastically increasing production. Settlement patterns change much more slowly, so the result has been more people in rural areas than those areas can support economically.

      Rural areas can't compete with cities in any industry where skilled labor is the prime mover for all of the reasons you mention. And there's no sane thing you can do about it, because if humans are the most important thing to your business, it will do best where there is a greater concentration of humans.

      Newfoundland has been dealing with similar issues over the past sixty years by the straightforward process of simply buying out the residents of economically marginal rural communities and shutting down services.

  2. Charlie

    Yes, you're right. 100% wrong was hyperbole. But I disagree with so many of your points that I was rounding up. You have a right to call me out on that and my snarky tone. I apologize.

    I won't debate God. If you believe that there's an omnipotent and sentient force in the universe standing by to personally intervene in your daily affairs, good for you. I hope it gives you great comfort. I'd argue that any mathematician who believes in God does so by choice, not by reason, and I'd also argue that God seems to be very forgetful with his instructions, since all the white religious people I know say God told them to vote for Trump and my black religious friends say God told them to vote for Hillary. But I don't really care. Believe what you want to believe.

    I don't really like McMansions either, and I don't particularly care for most of the people I've met who live in them. I'd guess that most of the people in them are actually a slightly less-toxic variant of the people I criticized-close-minded rural bigots. I defended people who live in McMansions accidentally.

    I was trying to make three points.

    1. Most rural environments are undesirable places to live not because of lack of infrastructure or remoteness but because the people who live there have a set of attitudes and beliefs which are unpleasant to be around.
    2. It's unlikely that these places can be transformed into desirable places to live (Ms. Byerley's argument) because the people who live there simply can't change. It's not wont, but cant.
    3.Suburban sprawl (McMansions) is an economic solution that gets at part of that problem. It creates mini-communities so people who want to live outside cities don't have to live shoulder to shoulder with disagreeable rural people. It's not completely congruent, because there's a lot more to suburban sprawl than that and sprawl creates communities of people who aren't as disagreeable as rural bigots, but are still pretty disagreeable on average.


    • True dat. You can find plenty of well-scrubbed white people with money in the Denver burbs who are disagreeable to the point they make my skin crawl.

      Privilege can be an ugly thing.

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