Tragedy in the Culture War

old farm

We don’t talk about them that way, but “urban” and “rural” are fuzzy things. Town and country may have been cleanly divided in medieval Europe, where landed barons ruled the fields and merchants plied their trade in tightly-defined non-feudal centers. But now that we’re all (ideally) free merchants of our time and energies, now that the private corporation has become something very different from the public corporation, urban and rural are just geographic – or demographic – terms.

But not necessarily to the political right. According to conservative scholar Victor Davis Hanson, urban and rural still determine how we view the world. In “The Oldest Divide,” published in City Journal (also in the LA Times), Hanson defends the wounded honor of rural America. As a city-dwelling progressive, I can’t say I felt wholly comfortable with Hanson’s piece. But it was a good read.

Hanson portrays urban America as a bloated and elitist place, cut off from the land, its residents totally ignorant about how food gets to table. The ideals of Jefferson and the gentleman farmer have steadily corroded, weakening the American republic and its citizens. America needs its greatness again.

It’s easy to argue that Hanson has it all backwards. That rural places, not urban ones, are over-represented in state and federal government. That the gentleman farmer is just that: white, male, and fairly well-off. It can be argued that Hanson’s dual residence in a Central Valley farmhouse and a Stanford University apartment lets him sample both places, shielding him from their problems. And his disdain for ecology and conservation places him vaguely out-of-time, an intellectual emissary from the early 20th century. A case can even be made that Hanson romanticizes rural America: exactly what he accuses city-dwellers of.

But aggrieved right-wing rhetoric aside, I found Hanson’s article insightful in a number of ways, and it feels good to escape my usual online echo chambers for a while.

“Living safely” versus “living together”

Hanson writes, “For rural residents, existential issues on the national level are seen as magnified versions of personal considerations: Does the country have enough food, fuel and minerals? Can America defend itself, protect its friends and punish its enemies? These concerns differ markedly from the urbanite’s worry about whether the government will provide services to take care of vulnerable populations or whether those of different races and religions can get along in such a crowded environment.”

This election season (if two years can be called that), disbelief about Donald Trump is the refrain from progressives. We can’t believe people are falling for his coarse, xenophobic nativism. He’s a dabbling bully, a liar, a frat boy idol. But for rural white people, living in declining places with neighbors “on the take” from governmental aid programs, current Republican rhetoric satisfies these “magnified personal considerations”.

I’m reminded of a theory that uses colonial origin in England to explain America’s clashing political ideologies. According to the hypothesis, New England settlers and their liberal politics emigrated from urban and lowland England, places associated with royal and parliamentary London elites. Those who settled the American South, by contrast, hailed from rural upland areas further from government control. Hence the worry, in Hanson’s piece and among conservatives at large, about urban “elites” and their regimented, tight-lipped greed. They’re worried about a new serfdom, a new aristocracy.

Which “culture of dependence”?

Since they’re closer to the land, says Hanson, rural people see only weakness in “dependence,” especially on the government that may be the predominant authority they encounter. In cities we live differently. Certainly, social programs do exist and some people may be unduly dependent on them. But any dependence on government – the public corporation – is eclipsed by an all-encompassing cultural dependency on the private corporation.

There is very little to do in the modern city that doesn’t involve paying (or being encouraged to pay, or working to pay) for some non-essential product or service. Government authority is present in the background; commerce is front-and-center.

In his article, Hanson described an Obama administration bulletin like this: “Its dependency narrative defined the life of an everywoman character as one of cradle-to-grave government reliance — a desirable thing.” Multiply that little message a thousand-fold, Mr. Hanson, and realize that urban life is a dependency narrative of cradle-to-grave corporate reliance, hammered into us as a desirable thing by a million commercials, ads, and the constant strain to live like those “elites” you imagine comprise the entire urban population.

Perhaps agrarians see corporations as enablers, as providers of seed and equipment, as those who purchase what they coax from the earth. And that leaves them the luxury to see government – where they get their subsides – as the necessary evil in their midst. Of course, actual farmers are a minority these days. The aggrieved small-town population has been slighted, not by the government, but by the corporate culture that outsourced their jobs and is returning to its natural metropolitan home. The fact that neighbors turn to drugs, drink, or federal alms is tragic but predictable. After all, didn’t the cities turn to drugs, crime, and government aid when the economy abandoned them last century?

Rural tragedy, urban therapy

It turns out Hanson is a classicist, a defender of the rural ideal not only on Jeffersonian terms, but through a republican lineage going back to Greece and Rome. While that background may account for his conservative outlook, it also enables him to observe the following:

“Physical and mental balance, practicality, a sense of the tragic rather than the therapeutic — all these were birthed by rural life and yet proved essential to the survival of a nation that would inevitably become more mannered, sophisticated and urban.”

I think that’s one of the key statements in Hanson’s essay, a point of divergence that does much to explain the great impasse of American politics. If rural politics amplifies personal problems, a tragic view makes sense: life ends in death, and nothing stays the same forever. Progressive urban politics soothes and solves; people learn to live with their differences. But they may fall prey to utopian and ahistorical thinking.

It could be argued that today’s Republican politics aren’t politics at all, but a tragic personal narrative written on national scale – a narrative of decline, anger, inevitable change. It is bizarre (see Donald Trump) because it isn’t really about living together, it’s a tragic drama where the old ways go out with a bang and fade to black.

If progressives really want to confront the old rural values Hanson defends, maybe we should take the time to understand them and explain ourselves on their terms. We’re not all yuppies and “elites”. City life can be tragic too.

Photo credit: Mark Engelbrecht via Flickr cc