Monday, July 2, 2007

Can you find a bridge long enough to cross this divide?

Sometime about halfway through our family reunion-cum-vacation in western Maryland, my sister mentioned that she was a little leery of the area my parents had chosen for the gathering. In fact, her friends had asked her and her husband why they were going to such a redneck destination. Redneck? Yes, apparently the Deep Creek Lake region of Maryland is a notorious destination for low-class fans of power boats and ATVs. "They're out of touch with nature."

Through further conversations during the course of the week, my sister sounded off on the sort of folks she disliked--people who shop at Wal-Mart and eat fast food, for instance. They don't have much regard for their natural surroundings.

Err. My wife and I had to scratch our heads. Yep, our neighbors in rural Arizona like ATVs, and they shop at Wal-Mart--they even eat fast food. But it's hard to be out of touch with nature when you raise goats, pigs and horses, hunt and fish, and cut firewood for your main source of heat. Up to your ankles in manure, guts and sawdust is a pretty natural way to live.

"Really?" my sister asked. "I don't think of country people that way."

Yeah. I got that.

Don't get me wrong--I love my sister. She's a smart, fun person with impeccable taste in art and clothes. She's a good conversationalist. She and her husband are wonderful parents to their boys. But somewhere along the line they gained the impression that going on the occasional camping trip, nodding knowingly along with commentaries on NPR and cutting checks to the Sierra Club made them defenders of every shrub and critter from the threat posed by the barbarian hordes who, through some cruel trick of fate, actually live alongside nature's bounty.

I live among those barbarian hordes, and by and large I find them to be pretty damned connected to and appreciative of their surroundings.

That's not a moral judgment. I'm not saying my country-folk neighbors are better people than my urbanite sister. I have good neighbors and bad neighbors just as urban dwellers come in varying degrees of moral rectitude.

What I am saying is that my sister--and many people like her--have created a straw man image of the type of people they don't like, and have defined themselves in opposition to it. They've dedicated themselves to saving the Earth from the peasants and, if necessary, to saving the peasants from themselves.

Politically, this attitude expresses itself in an enthusiasm for centralizing control of "public" lands in Washington, D.C., far from the troglodytes who actually live alongside the vast areas in question. Some urbanites would even encourage--or compel--rural dwellers to resettle in more densely populated places.

I don't notice a comparable aggressive hostility among the rural dwellers I know toward urbanites--in fact, they tend to be pretty accepting of differences in lifestyle and opinion as long as nobody tries to tell them what to do. Of course, my experience of rural life is largely limited to one part of Arizona. Elsewhere, things are different. The anti-abortion movement is largely rurally based--and yes, it does want to impose its will through legislation. The Christian Right as a whole comes from rural foundations and it is certainly authoritarian in its ambitions and methods.

I'm sure that these authoritarian tendencies are encouraged by the tendency of people to define themselves in opposition to "the other." If you have a feared enemy that you need to combat, you're likely to rally around your allies and endorse draconian tactics against the opposition. It's tempting to attribute the worst characteristics and motivations to "the other" as a means to dehumanize them and dismiss their concerns.

And the more fearsome "the other" becomes, the stronger the urge to huddle together with like-minded members of the tribe, to be more like them and to pressure them to refrain from straying far from the herd.

Of course, many--probably most--of us don't fall comfortably in any strictly defined camp. We hunt and we discuss literature. We ride ATVs and we buy organic food.

But I fear that the folks who drive the conversation and set the stage for conflict are the ones who band together in tribal sameness and plot ways to force their will on the feared "other." They create a constituency to be served by politicians who know how to play to prejudices and fears.

Of course, by expressing their tribal instincts, I guess they're just demonstrating how in-touch with nature they really are.



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