Thursday, March 2, 2017

Reflections and ramblings on the urban/rural divide in Canada and the U.S.

There are so many ways to slice the “divide” that currently separates one demographic from another in the United States. Black/white, rich/poor, college educated/non-college educated, white collar/blue collar, working/un-or under-employed, Christian/Muslim or Jewish, immigrant/native born, north/south, coastal/middle plains, masculine/feminine, LGBT/straight….the adjectives seem unlimited.

There is a piece in the recent Atlantic magazine that points to the urban/rural divide, pointing out that Hillary Clinton won all of the 100+ large cities by a substantial margin, while Trump won the rural areas. Blue states line both east and west coast, while red states dominate as the filling in the sandwich.

It is the difference in “world view” that is the focus of attention here.

The ratio of people regularly attending weekly church services is higher in the rural areas; the ratio of college educated is much higher in the cities and on the coasts. The demand for retaining or re-instituting the death penalty is much higher in the rural areas. The resistance to immigrants, especially those of a different ethnicity and religion than the Christian blacks and whites who for many decades comprised the majority, is higher in the rural areas by a wide margin. The climate “deniers” are more heavily clustered in the rural areas, and the demand for a return to a “law-and-order agenda” (whatever that may mean to each individual and community) is higher among the rural populations.

There are, of course, cross-over issues like the spike in opioid use, including death and serious health impairment. Unemployment and underemployment cross the rural/urban divide just as do tragedies like firings or job-releases, divorce, accidental injuries or deaths, and what might be called the current whirlpool of social angst. Rural women, many of them regular church attenders, see agencies like Planned Parenthood very differently from their city-sisters, most of whom use its services, and campaign for its sustainability.

Military enlistments cross the divide between city and country; however, although more than 44% come from rural areas while only 14% come from the cities. (Washington Post, November 4, 2005 and this may have changed with recent numbers). Some political leaders are calling for a return of the draft following the two wars in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan…clearly, young men and women, too, are growing weary of war. Enlistments follow a pattern reflecting income levels as well; when young people are strapped, and facing a life with neither hope of employment nor a reasonable income, the military is an available option, although the risks to each family are high.

Paralleling the rates of college educated, literacy is higher in the cities than in the rural areas, and with literacy comes a plethora of additional advantages. Literacy does not simply mean the capacity to read words and sentences, for their literal meaning. Literacy also means the capacity to discern literary devices such as irony, personification, metaphor, onomatopoeia, as well as psychological injections into language, at a basic level, such as reverse psychology, compensation, projection. Literacy also includes a familiarity with characters from literature, drama and film that expand the imaginative landscape for the not incidental purpose of making sense of the world. Literacy also includes a basic familiarity with history, of one’s region, country, and some comprehension of the broad strokes on the canvas of the human story. These are not qualities for which anyone should have to apologize; they are the core ‘stuff’ of a reasonably complete secondary level education, supplemented for many, by the many enhancements of time on a college campus. Nevertheless, rural dwellers too often, in a remarkable display of reverse prejudice, consider themselves ‘better’ as a defence mechanism, than the more educated city folk.

We are witnessing the demise of what used to pass for a “liberal” education in the humanities, replaced, tragically for far too many, by technical and job-skill training, which, by its very definition robs millions of students of the ambiguities, paradoxes, ironies, tragedies and comedies that line the timeline of human events. Converging with this “reduction” in liberal education opportunities and subsequent job opportunities for liberal arts graduates is the spike in technological devices, all of them relying on a mere primary school command, grasp and use of the language. Both of these trends converge on city neighbourhoods and rural landscapes.

Strip the universities of their liberal arts programs and both undergraduates and graduate students, and then collapse the newsrooms in the major dailies and weekly news outlets from the shift in advertising dollars to the “digital social media”, and overlay these dynamics on the already widening chasm of social demographics, (even that word did not exist in an ordinary person’s vocabulary a couple of decades ago, the marketing machine having invaded our consciousness and our transactional interactions) and there can be little surprise in the triumph of both the dollar as an idol, and Trump as its high priest.

While it is far too simplistic to blame the election of Trump in the failure of North America’s English teachers, there is definitely a line of dots that can trace that path of responsibility, corroborated by the political class whose tenure depends partly on their keeping the lid on the jobless numbers, and the corporation’s rush to the bottom in hiring practices, as part of their machete-budgeting approach.

So we are witnessing a race to the bottom in a number of areas: language, comprehension and comparisons, critical insight and independent thought, the demise of faith institutions (yet not apparently the demise of human spirituality),  a shrinking job market, the hopelessness of many parents who once believed they could and would work for the same employer for their whole career, and the cynicism and nasty competition for whatever opportunities are left in a scorched earth labour environnment leaving both towns and rural areas devastated.

And then there is a wide gap between the ways in which men and women face calamity. Superficially, women “circle” around their sisters, while men cocoon by themselves, occasionally sharing their shame and fear with a bartender or a co-worker, without disclosing either the finer details of the situation or the intimate details of their true emotions. Women also find support and encouragement from their “circles” of friendship, especially among women who have known each other for a considerable period of time. These circles are more likely in small towns and villages than they are in large urban centres. Men, whether in cities or small towns, tend to operate on the “hard-wiring premise” that whatever their pain, they are obliged to “suck it up and keep going”…whatever “keep going” looks like.

Stories abound, for example, of men who, upon losing their jobs in the tech sector in the 90’s could not bear the shame and embarrassment of informing their wives. Some even banded together, purchased motor homes which they parked in the parking lots of the companies from which they had just been released, continued their morning routines at home, dressed as they always had for work and drove to the motor homes as if they were still going to the workplace. Keeping up appearances, at any cost, was the best many of these men could do, until, of course, their whole charade unravelled. Under this pressure, it is not surprising that many of those previously “solid” relationships broke, leaving both parties in trauma.

Some of that trauma spilled over in the ballot box, in last November’s election especially in the rural counties which opted for the kind of fear-mongering doomsday scenarios (and circus solutions) pontificated by Trump to the more ‘moderate’ rhetoric from Ms Clinton, except when she was talking about Trump himself, a habit she was unable to shake. Rural and small town people paradoxically are highly resistant to change, unless and until they reach a boiling/breaking point when they explode in an insurgency of unleashed emotions they, especially the men, can neither name nor control.

And that includes, at a certain point, but the men and women who unite in a common front against what they perceive as a shared enemy: and it seems that educated, nuanced, sophisticated, science-based thinking and planning (not to mention a latent and finally exploding racism, after Obama) satisfied this need for a symptom bearer. Every family has one, and so do nations. In this case, it appears that Obama (and by inference Hillary) was perceived as the symptom bearer…so rather than “reward” him for his stewardship over eight years, they pointed the arrows of their invective at his Democratic successor.

And here is another of the more significant differences between a “rural” or small town culture and an urban one: the “family” or personal dynamics are more important in rural counties than in cities. By that I mean that the slogan “all politics is personal” plays in a different key in the rural areas than in the urban areas. Issues take on the face and the voice and the adjectives ascribed to him/her by both supporters and opponents.  Rarely are those issues studied and debated on their respective merits. If some people like the person, and this usually comes first, then they will fall in line behind his or her proposals. Similarly, those people who dislike the person fall in line behind opponents of every proposal regardless of the relative merits of the idea.

While some of this “personalizing” takes place in urban environments, there is less of it and more examination of the details and the comparative merits of ideas proposed. And of course, from the perspective of the two groups, they too are “stereotyped”: city folk too often consider rural dwellers as unsophisticated and uninterested in the nuances of the finer points of art, academic theories, music, and certainly political philosophy. From the rural perspective, city folk are often considered “too preppie” or to “high brow” or arrogant, distant, out of touch with ordinary people, and above all, untrustworthy.

The issue of “trust” is so prominent and yet also so easily bandied about, as if, based on some superficial understanding of both a political candidate (often based on what the neighbour says) and his or her ideas, too often people leap to a conclusion,  and recently those conclusions are often extreme and rigidly held, a trait more commonly associated with men than women, regaradless of their geography, income, education or ethnicity.

Political coverage by national media demonstrates that the “undecided” vote is extremely low, very early on in the political campaigns, leaving a mere 5-10% of voters who acknowledge they are still considering their options. Some graduate student in political science (if someone has not already done this) will write a doctoral thesis as to whether hardened opinions are more prevalent in rural or urban communities.

 Intuition, at least that of this scribe, would point in the direction of  rural voters holding hard and fast opinions based almost exclusively on the “gut” response they have to a candidate. In this most recent election,  extremely positive views abounded for Trump and extremely negative views of Ms Clinton. And much speculation focuses on a sexist bias, against “this” woman as a potential president.

Urban voters, at least from an anecdotal and intuitive perspective, seem at least from a distance, to be more critical of all positions prior to making a decision than their rural counterparts. And then, there is also the question of where the “traditional centre-left” voter resides (primarily in the cities) and where the right-wing voters reside (primarily in the rural areas)

(As T.S. Eliot reminds us, life usually brings us  back to where we started with a new perspective.)

So here we are where we began, attempting to tease out the shades of perspective and meaning that seem to be more or less preponderant, comparing the rural and urban cultures in America and their respective impact on the political landscape.

Footnote: (Personal note)
I grew up in what has been called, legitimately, the most “conservative town” in Ontario, left for university, returned only to get “gob-smacked by the religious fundamentalist evangelicals…moved to a mid-sized city for a quarter century where there was a more liberal-leaning culture..then left for urban centres where anonymity was at least an option, and then returned to the rural areas to get clobbered again by the conservatives….both the religious and the political variety. Words like "communist", "pinko",  (words used by Nixon to describe Pierre Trudeau)and "way to eastern" for our "western"  (read rural) people have been hurled in my direction, on both sides of the 49th parallel.

Of course, I know I am not a “fit” for the conservative majority in any town. In fact, my “not fitting” is assured by my penchant to ask questions especially of the established authorities and the people in power, most of whom are accustomed to supportive cliques who have sustained them in power for a long time. So, am I prejudiced against rural conservatives, as a group of people, or am  I fundamentally disposed to a far left, socialist, egalitarian and socially sustainable political ideology and ethic? D’ya think? 

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