Skip to main content

Rural stereotypes

The Oregon standoff has sparked quite a debate on social media as liberals delight in mocking the armed anti-government group who has taken up residence at a wildlife preserve. The incident itself has raised issues of grazing rights, race, what counts as terrorism, and more. But the really interesting stuff is happening at the edges where more moderate rural dwellers have pushed back slightly against some of the stereotyping against rural people. If it's not ok to stereotype Muslims as terrorists or complain about immigrants, surely it can't be ok to make fun of rural culture.

I raised a couple of points in response. The first of which is that good humor always has a fine line between hurting and being funny. It's both sad and humorous depending on your point of view. Even more, it brings up the age-old conversation about how much to hold people responsible for their ignorance. At what point does it stop being "your fault" you're poor, white, and uneducated? Thirdly, there are truths to every stereotype. While I take a neutral (though chuckling) stance on some of the jokes being posted, I do think the critics have a valid--hopefully nuanced and thoughtful--point to make about Americans ignoring rural issues. At best, we're often indifferent. At worst, we're hostile.

That wasn't always the case. Under the New Deal, farm aid and rural electrification was a major project for Democrats. We built rural infrastructure. We gave rural citizens jobs. American politics has caused that to shift post-war. I could do an entire post on why Democrats became the urban progressive party and Republicans got the rural, conservative areas. But, in any case, Democrats have come to see ourselves as primarily focused on the populated, cosmopolitan, progressive areas of the nation. We have more people and assume that will always lead to political power and just governance.

The cold reality of ignoring rural issues and rural people for so long comes home when a few unpopulated counties can throw the national political dialogue into chaos. A wide majority of Americans can wish for whatever changes they want but be blocked by red state legislators and executives. Republicans dominate at the local and state level now in many places (thanks to gerrymandering). And then there's the reason I got into rural issues...food.

We can blow off the "flyover" states as much as we want as Americans, but all the enlightened, tolerant views in the world don't help when it comes to where our farming happens. As Americans demanding a better food system, that reform is only going to happen with our direct intervention in rural policy. Not just paying attention, but interaction and even integration. The deeper into the food system you go, you realize that huge pockets of America are poor, lacking in things like the internet or clean water, knowledge about environmental practices can be substandard...if not open hostility. Yet we rely on the rural population for our food, the clothing on our backs, even the gas in our car.

Why is it that Americans tend to care about education, income inequality, and substandard housing when it's in our own neighborhood or halfway around the globe, but we tend to downplay those same problems in rural America? I'd offer that we see it more as a political struggle than duty to interact. Rural America is small in population, isolated physically, and often intractable in worldview. Our rural stereotypes are of "trailer trash," yokels, bumpkins, rednecks, accents, gun nuts, and rubes. We see them as hard to win over. In many ways, we see rural people as intolerant and hostile to the very things that would help them...government aid, education, tolerant debate with the larger public, experiences with other cultures, etc.. It's easy to write off rural issues because we perceive rural people as not wanting help. (Despite it being the largest source of poverty in the nation, statistically.) I get where the mocking comes from. It's a heaping bowl of schadenfreude as rural-ness backfires in the face of people we think deserve the knock-down of being hypocritical.

* * *

As city folk, we've certainly been very aware of what a move to the country means. No Thai food at 10pm. No world famous museums to visit. A worldview probably at odds with many of our neighbors vs. our very progressive community. But the quiet and solitude and ability to do what we want on the land has value. Which is a kind of common ground itself. 

In my chats with people from all over about farming, one of my ongoing refrains has been that reform is going to have to come from outside. Farmers and business and those inside the ag world very much see attempts at change as an attack on them...I've outlined this in previous blog posts. It feels personal that masses of urban consumers suddenly feel like they know better. It's brought a very defensive "let's educate them" mindset from many in agriculture..."if we can only teach consumers about biotech, pesticides, or animal treatment, they'd understand" goes the common argument. The focus in reaching out to the urban public has often been on "mythbusting" and trying to scrub clean industry public image. With me stuck in the middle often trying to explain why that's not only a bad idea ideologically, but bad from a business/market/capitalism sense as well. Responsiveness on the supply side is always better than trying to shape desire on the demand side. Farmers will do better in rising to meet consumer demands rather than fight a stubborn war against their customers. If people want red apples, not green, then they want red apples. Somebody should take advantage and raise the red apples to meet the need. 

So what does this have to do with rural issues? 

My larger point in all this about rural stereotypes is that Americans have neglected our rural neighbors for too long and it's time to have a firm-but-fair dialogue about the way forward. Somewhere between holding a bird sanctuary hostage at gun point while espousing radical anti-government views and the urban-focused left, there has to be a fair-minded conversation in the middle about the co-dependent relationship that exists between urban-rural and how we move forward. There are a few things that are going to change, sorry rural folks. Progress can be rough and it's probably not going to always be pleasant for you. But on the other side, liberal urban dwellers need to remember that we're dealing with real people who have real grievances...no matter how crazy we think they sound. That doesn't mean we cater. These Oregon guys really are nuts. It's just that the critics are right about rural stereotyping. We have allies and potential allies on rural issues that we can build a coalition with together. That's going to require more dialogue than mocking though. 


Comments