Today is my day off, and I spent a lot of it, like I usually do, reading about politics, including this piece by David Wong, which at first I liked, and then the more I thought about it, the more I disliked it. I was still in the process of sorting that out when I got hungry and decided to get a grilled pimento cheese and onion rings at the dive BBQ shack up the road from me.
To understand the point of this story, first understand that I live in North Carolina – yes, the very one you've heard so much about lately. We're a “swing state,” which really means, as Wong understands intimately, that we're profoundly culturally divided between our urban I-95 corridor and the rural rest of the state. I live in Durham, a city I love profoundly, passionately, a majority-minority city heavily influenced by, on the one hand, the sometimes outrageous wealth and privilege of the Duke community, and on the other hand, the fact that it's (for now) the affordable part of the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle and therefore the part that's become home to a large population of non-wealthy but culturally urban artists, activists, and assorted odd ducks for whom Durham is a liveable option, cheaper and friendlier than moving to a huge city, progressive enough and diverse enough to build a life in. For ten years, I've lived in Durham. A city I love profoundly.
Two years ago, though, my partner and I had to give up our apartment in south Durham, with its cool location across the street from the gelato place and around the corner from our local coffeeshop and easy driving distance to downtown Durham and Chapel Hill and even Raleigh, if we wanted to go to Raleigh (we rarely want to go to Raleigh). The stars were in alignment, the time was right, and we bought a house. Our house is technically in Durham County but just ouside the city, not too far from anything, but not too close to anything, either, and what it is close to is two public schools and two small strip-malls – really, they're too small to be called malls, but strips of stores – that are pretty desperately downmarket. It's just outside the Durham city limits, but it's a very Real America neighborhood – quiet, slightly shabby, working class, keeps itself to itself. I expect it to be very different in ten or twenty years, as the city spreads outward, but right now, it is what Durham would be without Duke money and without millennials, which is to say, it feels like an old neighborhood in more ways than one.
A few streets over, on the other side of the high school, there's this BBQ place. It's a busted-up old place, a renovated house with a gravel parking lot, a window air conditioner that barely works, and a rickety ceiling fan. The menu is just printed sheets of paper stuck in the kind of plastic sleeves you put in three-ring binders, one set taped up over the kitchen window, one set on the counter. In a city that prides itself on being The Foodiest Small Town in America (as selected by people who live in the kind of places that consider a city of a quarter million people to be a small town), it will never be written up approvingly by food critics. It's various kinds of meat, smoked or fried, on white buns or on a platter with the usual sides. It's closed on weekends, and after 7 pm. It's mostly kept alive by the breakfast and lunch business of Real Americans still caked with the grime of the Real American manual labor they're taking a break from. The girl who's always working the counter is white. The guys in the kitchen are all black. The people eating there off the checkered vinyl tablecloths are usually about half and half. It's greasy as fuck, and a weird place for a vegetarian to frequent, but I love their pimento cheese and their onion rings are the fucking best I've ever had. I eat there about once a week. It's by no means the best BBQ in Durham, but it's The Place Near Me, the one up the road, around the corner from the high school, the one where people always ask me what I'm reading, not because they want anything, but because they're Southerners and they haven't yet fully internalized the new laws about not talking to your neighbors.
So today I was thinking about this Wong piece, and I took my tablet with the e-book I'm reading about food justice, and I went to eat at this BBQ shack next to a junkyard on a back road out of Durham. About halfway through my meal, a white family came in – parents probably in their early 60s, a son in his mid 30s. They asked someone else directions to a nearby nursing home, so I'm guessing they were in from out of town to visit Grandma. Dad and son went into the back to order; Mom sat down at the table next to me. This was as straight-up a Real American family as you could get, all of them wearing plain colored t-shirts, the men with trucker hats, Southern accents so heavy you could beat down a door with them.
“Where do they post the sanitation score here?” Mom asked me while she was waiting alone at the table. I couldn't tell if she was joking or not – I think she was joking-not-joking. I laughed and said I wasn't sure, but I ate here a lot and I was okay. “We just saw this place on the internet,” she said. “The reviews were good.” I told her it was a good place. I went back to my book, and tuned the world out a bit until I was ready to go.
They had their food by then, and they were all eating in somewhat strained silence. I might not have noticed or thought about them again if I hadn't heard the son say, “That first debate scared me, though.”
“Let's not talk about politics,” his father said grimly, and they went back to silence. I was clearing off my table by this point, and I figured with that line of conversation shut down, I'd never learn why this was not a family that talked politics for fun.
“I just think he could really make the country into a mess,” the son finally said.
“The country isn't already a mess?” said his father.
After a few beats of silence, the son said, “Lot of that goes back to George Bush. The oil, the gas-- “
“Let's not talk about politics,” his father said. And as far as I could tell they didn't anymore, or at least not til I was out the door.
Mom never said anything. I suspect by now she'd learned it was a waste of energy to interfere.
I come from a Real American family. My parents were born in the first two years of the Boom, right after the war. My mother's parents were college educated – her father on the GI Bill after fighting in the South Pacific, her mother decades later when her kids were grown and she decided she wanted to be a teacher in the second half of her life. My father's parents were not; his father left an abusive home in the Ozarks at 13 to try his luck in the world and ended up entering the new mid-century middle class as a traveling insurance salesman, his mother was a housewife from an immigrant family who worked on the railroad, back when that was a career you could have. When I was growing up, the extended family on both sides was a mixed bag of people who'd made it into the American Dream – not wealthy, but safely employed and homeowners – and people who still lived on the family farm. My parents went to college in the early 60s; my father became a preacher and my mother an elementary school teacher, careers they had their entire lives until retirement with pensions. I grew up in a university town, only 60,000 people, but with the kind of culture a big reasearch institution develops, with lots of theater and art and international food. I'm sometimes accused, here in the South, of being Not From Around Here and bringing in my funny liberal ideas from Elsewhere, which I always find hilarious, because, sure, it's true, I'm from the socialist paradise of central Missouri – but there's the slightest grain of truth to it, in that all Red State college towns are oddball little bastions of Blue State culture. So I had that advantage, but for the most part, I belong culturally and historically to a highly pure strain of solid, German Protestant stock, midwestern churchgoers, stay-at-home sorts, a family who raised me no more than a hundred or so miles from the location of every family story we knew. And a family of Democrats.
My people were working folk, and on both sides they were New Deal Democrats, fiercely pro-working class and pro-union. My grandparents, born between 1907 and sometime in the early 20s, doubtless did have their prejudices and resentments, some of them more than others (my paternal grandmother was particularly open to change and free-spirited; my maternal grandmother was particularly...not as much), but they were not among those who abandoned the Democrats over Civil Rights. Their politics were largely Kennedy-esque, and fully anti-segregation. They were certainly of their times, but none of them were Archie Bunker types; in their limited, small-town, midwestern way, they were patriots and boundless optimists who believed America was getting more fair-minded over the years, and envisioned a future history that would go on that way into infinity – Roddenberry Democrats, if you like. They were puzzled and not wholly approving of the youth culture of the 60s, which they saw as decadent, but they felt the same way about the “conservative” Reagan yuppies; they were Depression-era people who didn't understand why people didn't value modesty, hard work, and simple pleasures anymore, but I never really saw any of them express anger about it, and certainly no sense of personal aggrievement or persecution. The world changed, and if maybe someone grumped sometimes about how there was too much sex in the movies these days, they were mostly not just resigned but pleased that the world was changing. On a fundamental level, they believed it was supposed to.
David Wong defends his Real American friends and family with passion and eloquence, and I don't take issue with anything his article says, really. What I did find troubling about it was the sense of fatedness: that people in Red America will naturally grow into Trumpists, that he would certainly have been one himself, if he hadn't moved to Blue America and been re-educated by Blue Americans. He left home and he learned better, and now we must understand that not everyone can leave home, and not everyone will learn better. He finesses that a little more than I just did, but at rock bottom, that's what he's saying.
But ultimately, as much as I appreciate that people are born into systems that shape them and build the narratives they live under, I balk at the determinism of it all. Yes, my family was able to be happy and successful and open to change as they were because they lived at the height of American wealth and security. Yes, people's lives now are in many ways more marginal and the future more frightening, in those parts of the country where I come from, and where I live now. But the answer to that can't be, “you have to expect fascism, from people who don't have the Advantages of city living.” The answer can't be that, because I refuse to believe my “way of life,” the culture and the world I come from, is impossible to maintain.
Yes, cities are always the vanguard of change and progress, because they're where things and people meet and combine and create new things and new kinds of people. That's always been the case. But there's a Red State way of life that isn't toxic and violent. There's a kind of traditionalism that used to understand that rich, gaudy playboys who cheated their workers were villains, not heroes, and that loyalty and decency and fair-mindedness mattered, and most importantly, that you don't fucking throw bricks through America's windows. Part of the reason I like Hillary Clinton so much is that when she talks or writes about her working-class Illinois family, I see my working-class Missouri one. She was raised Republican, of course, but I think her parents and my grandparents come from a time when there was far less polarization, and midwestern working-class values were more alike than different between party lines. She certainly grew up to have politics almost identical to my parents' politics, and while people seem to assume Wellesley somehow did that to her, the truth is that my parents came to the same place attending college in Warrensburg, Missouri. I think it's not simply a matter of escaping the backwardness of middle America and turning into East Coast Elites. I think the causality runs just as much the other way; I meet a lot of people just like myself here in Durham, people who became liberals in Red America and moved to cities because of that, not moved to cities that then taught us how to be proper liberals.
I hate the devastation our economy has created in rural and small-town America; I think it has many causes, some of which were probably inevitable and some of which weren't. I hate that towns like the ones my parents and grandparents grew up in can no longer sustain the kind of lives my parents and grandparents valued, good and honorable lives, lives that value children and education, lives that produce people who are secure enough in their ability to stay afloat that they can afford to be curious about the world and care about people other than themselves. I know it's easy to say, Democrats and Republicans abandoned these people, Democrats and Republicans are to blame. It's easy to say, and it's not devoid of truth. It's so easy to hate politics for failing us, even though I suspect a lot of what we punish politicians for is their inability to do the impossible. The urbanization of the economy is global, and it's a necessary feature of the world we say we want, the world we vote for with our money every single day.
But while the 20th century isn't the Era of American Greatness that we need to rewind back into, I think it's also wrong to say that only the cutting-edge values of the cities can save us from the regressive nightmare of the rural past. I know some of the fun of Captain America fandom right now is the opportunity for people to discover or rediscover a lineage of American progressivism, to tell us that we come from somewhere, that there were people before us who believed in what we believe in. But I'm not a Steve Rogers progressive; I'm a Clark Kent progressive. I have a lineage and a tradition and a way of life, too, and while it was forged in a different time, I don't think we have to betray and abandon it just because the world got harder. If you abandon your beliefs because they got hard, who are you? How can you seriously argue that you've earned the right to run the place?
When we watched the Democratic National Convention, I know there were a lot of people who saw it in strategic terms – that the Democrats were trying to pave the way for more Republicans to come over, that they were stealing Republican thunder by stealing their talking points. I heard lots of comments from both parties along the lines of “That was the convention that Republicans would normally run.” But to me it didn't feel like bipartisanship; it felt like seeing my home, my people, my tradition for the first time in a long time – hell, maybe for the first time since Roseanne went off the air. A homey, practical, honest kind of liberalism, a corny, true-believing one that cares about families and fairness and all that Smallville stuff, that believes life doesn't have to be as hard as it is, that we can make it better for each other, that we don't have to be cruel or frightened or suspicious, because hard times come and we get through it.
I think a lot of us come from that; one way or another, that's the tradition I think the guy I listened to at the BBQ place was speaking out of. Hey, we don't have to throw bricks; there are other ways; just because America has problems, it actually isn't okay to say, hey, fuck it, burn it down. Trump and his people are saying exactly that. He's running on, Everything sucks, fuck it all, I'll rebuild it my way. Even out here in the Red State parts of our red states and our blue ones, not everyone is like this. Not everyone reacts to hard times with this kind of rage, and I think the prevalence of it isn't circumstance, but design. There has been a concerted effort for thirty years now to pour resentment and fury down the throats of Real Americans, and of course the history of that has been told and is being told. It's going to be hard to undo all that, but I think we can at least start by getting rid of this framing device that says that backwardness and hate are the normal and natural state of people who weren't lucky enough to get good jobs and move to the city. It's not normal or natural. It's not inevitable. It's not universal.
And it won't be cured by treating Blue State people like they're all sheltered trust-fund assholes who need to have Real America explained to them – as though there aren't plenty of liberals exactly like Wong, who already know this because they lived it. He writes as if he's translating between two unconnected civilizations, and only he speaks both languages. And he lives in Los Angeles, what do I know about Los Angeles, maybe that's the case in his circles. But the country contains millions of liberals who grew up outside of cities, who have family and friends outside of cities, who aren't by any means speaking about an alien planet when they speak about Republicans. The problem is not, by and large, like we've never met the right-leaning segments of the population. Solving the problem is not going to be about introducing us like we're strangers.
I don't know how to fix things, but I know what won't work. Hoping the 20th century reverses itself and brings steel mills back to Ohio won't work. As Wong says, calling people ignorant savages won't work. The battle for the soul of Red America has to be fought from the inside; it has to be guys like the one I sat beside today, who keep quietly talking sense to people in his life, who keep saying, This is the wrong way, let's not go down this road, it's not too late to go back. And I think it has to be fought from a position that respects the terms of the argument: that there is such a thing as a way of life, that there is value in having roots, that the American Way matters – and that defending the American Way means something very much like what Democrats are offering, and nothing at all like what Republicans are offering. Our narratives and our mythology are, for humans, more powerful than almost anything, and with the best of intentions, what Wong does in this article is reinforce what I think is exactly the wrong mythology.
Smallville matters. And Jonathan Kent wasn't a worse person than his son just because he stayed there his whole life. Bedford Falls matters. Lanford, Illinois matters. These places aren't better or worse than Brooklyn by nature; I mean, they are now, but they don't have to be. If we can't create a world where we have better advice for people who are struggling than “Move out of your shitty town to my awesome city,” then we can't claim to have anything figured out beyond “The more people are like me, the better off they'll be,” which is exactly the mindset we say we oppose on the left.
I think I'm rambling now, but thanks for reading all the way through, if you did.