Why Blue vs. Red Has Become Blue vs. Gray: The Agrarian’s Fight to Keep Family and Faith Alive

Last week’s presidential election was devastating to people who love God and their children… but its true meaning continues to elude the talking and scribbling classes.

My maternal grandmother’s ancestors arrived in the Tidewater area of Virginia from England about four centuries ago.  There they remained until her generation scattered to the four winds under the social and economic pressures of the early twentieth century.  She herself had the misfortune to end up in central Texas after marrying a lad in the navy who was stationed around Richmond.  Frontier life (for so it seemed to her) was a true culture shock.  Yet she raised four children and was an ideal neighbor to anybody in need.

What brings such geographical tensions to my mind just now is the memory of Tuesday’s election map.  Excepting only Virginia and Florida, all of the South went resonantly red, including Kentucky, Kansas, and other border states.  The exceptions prove the rule, furthermore, that there must be something distinctive about location.  Virginia was turned blue by the overflow of… I will call them “carpetbaggers” if you can absorb a bit of Southern humor after dismal a week.  The same is true of Florida.  These two states have received an overpowering influx of well-educated, highly-paid or -pensioned white-collar civil servants and retirees.  Northeastern “infection” is largely responsible for what progressive toxins one finds in the Southern bloodstream around Arlington and Tampa.

Minorities—blacks and Hispanics, most visibly—also abound in the South.  Yet Mississippi and Alabama went red.  So did Texas and (for that matter) Arizona.  Texans actually elected Ted Cruz as their new senator; and Cruz, though Hispanic, is resolutely anti-amnesty.  Indeed, New Mexico and Colorado, which disrupted a more or less solid block of red states south of the fortieth parallel as far as the West Coast’s Disney-zone, faded to blue not because too many of their residents have names ending in vowels, but because resort-like cities such as Santa Fe and Denver are carpetbagger havens.  Minorities were not the margin of liberal-progressive victory here.  Practically every second- or third-generation Oklahoman has some Indian blood, yet Oklahoma went red, as well.  By contrast, states like Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin have very few blacks or Hispanics or Cherokees while being comparatively smothered in blond, blue-eyed northern European clans.  All chose to re-elect a dictator.  Why, then, are we hearing that Romney’s failure unmasks the Tea Party movement’s hostility to minorities? How does that explain, for instance, why the white Yankee transplants of south Florida rejected Tea Party stalwart Allen West, an African-American?  (West has sued for a recount, by the way: his adversaries run precincts by the Chicago Manual of Style.)

What is it about the South—the true, “uncolonized” South—and adjoining regions that packs such a cultural punch?  And precisely how and why does the East and West Coast influence oppose this impact diametrically?

Here I find that my grandmother feeds me a vital clue.  In her day, “west” was synonymous with creeping barbarism.  Few of the people she met in Texas had any “rootedness”.  The farthest back an Anglo family’s lineage might flow in a place like Nacogdoches or Seguin was two, or maybe three, generations: not much to compare with her ten or twelve generations in Tidewater.  Naturally, the farther west one trekked, the shallower the roots of the Anglo-Americans one encountered.  Californians had barely arrived.  Bostonians, on the other hand, were so ancient that they made even some Virginians look like Johnny-Come-Lately’s.

What has changed in the 130 years since my grandmother was born is the specific location of “rooted” density, but not the principle.  People whose families have nested in one area for generations have a heightened sensitivity to and valuation of peace, quiet, repose, decency, dignity, and fidelity.  People whose only “tradition” is that of the rolling stone, ever arriving in new places alone and unknown in search of pleasure and adventure, prize an anarchic kind of freedom that opens new horizons to their endless, fantastical roving.  Rooted people have a taste for the classical virtues: wanderers with all their belongings in a bag of carpet fabric are romantics.

Over the past century, places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona have grown comparatively stable in certain key social respects.  Their degree of “radicity” (if I may coin a very useful word) has ascended.  The great New England enclaves of culture, at the same time, have been roiled by wave after wave of immigrants, most of them Old World Catholics (Irish, Poles, Italians, Slavs) who spoke broken English at best.  These people were not the carpetbaggers of whom I speak—but they were their immediate progenitors.  They did not give up their Catholicism, for the most part, as they were fed into the mighty northeastern industrial machine, working for railroads and steel plants and slaughterhouses.  They rather quickly gave up their languages, however, along with their dances and sports and lore.  Most significantly, all of them gave up agriculture—for they had all been tied closely to the land back home, and had been so for time out of mind.  Now their communal spirit, though still often intense, was pitted against loathsome and dangerous places of employ whose conditions and operators assumed the role of adversary.  A new “us against them” tradition developed which one finds yet vibrant in the descendants of Polish steel workers or Welsh coal miners.

Of course, part and parcel of this mentality was a willingness to pull up roots in pursuit of a better job, and also a dream that one’s offspring might never have to sweat on an assembly line or descend into a mine.  The children of these tribes, if they were very lucky, went to college: that, at least, was the most common form of the dream.  With a college education would come an opportunity to live and work indoors, in comfort and security, admired and handsomely remunerated.  One can well understand the lure of such a dream.  Indeed, one can scarcely imagine not sharing it in the same circumstances.

Meanwhile, the children of Southerners and Southwesterners were still being raised to assume their place on the farm or ranch.  The land may not have been good to them, and they may not have possessed much of it; but it sufficed for their survival, and they had round about them a vast and ever deepening support structure of kinfolk.  These people were not particularly interested in sacrificing hard-earned money to colleges: they failed to see any advantage in such a choice.  Local cemeteries continued to amass occupants with the same old names, and the same old names continued to appear on marriage licenses.  Even in the year 2012, many of my East Texas students are the first members of their extended family to attend college.

And in 2012, what has become of the Pennsylvania coal miner’s grandchildren?  They are what one of their own kind might grandly call “self-actualizing”, whatever that means.  I suppose it means that they feel “empowered”, whatever that means.  They appear to chase after the best college degree and the best career that Daddy’s savings and government loans can buy at the same time as they cultivate the best social life and the best material surroundings that the continent has to offer.  Hence they descend upon places like Austin, Santa Fe, San Francisco, and Portland, hungry for a higher career move and for a more active love life.  They are not in the least interested in early or large families, if indeed they care to have any children at all.  Marriage should come late and only as the field begins to thin alarmingly—the best deal to be struck in a declining market; for, naturally, conjugal bonds are all about securing “good sex” (one of the main reasons for the push to bestow vows upon homosexual relationships).  Sexual activity should be insulated with various protections from irksome or perilous consequence: contraceptives, abortion on demand, and all-out pharmaceutical warfare on exotic infections that attend “experimentation”.  To associate these rabid sybarites with Grandaddy Polanski or Grandma Monaghan seems entirely implausible… yet the falling dominoes of cause and effect are not really all that many.  Once the clan lost its contact with the land, its roots were doomed to shrivel and die.

Meanwhile, the yokels of the hinterland continue to marry their high school sweethearts, to begin a sequence of three or four kids before they reach twenty-five, to see the same cousins over the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, to attend the same church every Sunday (or every other), and to avoid adultery and divorce partly (if not entirely) because they dread disgracing themselves before their neighbors.  The carpetbaggers sneer and smirk at them as “primitive”—and so they are, in a way.  Touches of tribalism and “shame culture” are quite visible in their midst.  Yet these traces also serve as fertile motives to prod the hearts they affect into a deeper examination of human duty.  A person who steers clear of neighborhood gossip may grow up a hypocrite, but he or she may also eventually discover a self-sacrificial devotion to metaphysical goodness that the law of public expectation can but crudely translate. 

What spiritual achievement have the carpetbaggers to place in counterpoise against such lofty possibility?  They have only their “self-actualization”.  Somehow the fact that they have maximized their creature comforts and sensual pleasures while mapping out a brilliant career (defined in terms of power, salary, and “respect”) is supposed to prove that life in general is getting better and better.  That they bring no children into the world is supposed to demonstrate that they care about overpopulation.  That they frequently bike when not taking jets to conferences or vacations abroad is supposed to shout to the world the keen activity of their “environmental conscience”.  That they willingly carve away small chunks of their huge income to educate the masses (an education that integrally includes learning how to abort, counter-conceive, and otherwise avoid the “mass mess”) is supposed to put their charity on wide display.  Of course, as they age childlessly, the abundance of masses who work for dirt is a rich dividend upon their tax investment: somebody has to mop their floors, cook their food, and mow their lawns. 

To find traces of tribalism and hypocrisy in the romantic self-actualizer, in short, is really no more difficult than finding them in the hinterland hayseed.  Since carpetbaggers have a choke-hold upon the broadcast media, however, we never hear about the Third World slaughter prosecuted to coat their solar panels in cadmium or the suicide rate among children adopted by gay households or the finger movements of a baby as its brains are sucked out while it exits the birth canal.  We only hear that their way is the way of progress.

I see no immediate solution to this bitter war of essential values.  People who have no children and no roots but enjoy a fat paycheck and a wealth of pleasures cannot possibly appreciate the worth of quiet neighborhood routine and the joy of nearing one’s natural end with grandchildren on one’s knee.  I realize, of course, that the self-actualizers—the carpetbaggers—by no means solely account for Mr. Romney’s debacle.  I realize, even, that the overall Hispanic vote went heavily against Romney, while the black vote on his behalf was virtually non-existent.  And I realize, too, that Iowa and Illinois and Wisconsin have plenty of farms.  So does Ohio.

Yet besides the fact that the rural vote in these places was not nearly so blue as the urban vote, the farms in these places also belong more to the “agribusiness” model: vast concerns, that is, run to grind out big bucks rather than to feed families that actually live on them.  I believe that similar factors account for variations in the black and Hispanic vote.  Blacks in the South and Hispanics in the eastern Southwest are more likely to have vibrant propriety ties to the land than their counterparts in northern or West Coast urban centers.  Work in the big city is hard to find and easy to lose, while food and rent in the big city are exorbitantly high.  No incentive exists here for a young man to take a family upon his shoulders: the life of constantly being on the move (and often leaving illegitimate children behind) is an almost preemptive choice.

While I am no statistician, I am convinced from my personal dealings with live human beings that my conclusions are valid.  The pundits should try breaking their racial/ethnic blocks into groups that subscribe to certain cultural habits and values before they announce to us that this or that skin color produces this or that vote.  What I see when I contemplate the colors of Tuesday’s map is agrarian versus industrial, rural versus urban, stasis versus flux, and—most significantly of all—family versus singularity.  An unbridgeable cultural chasm has opened up between the two coasts—and it is not defined by a Spanish/English opposition or a hip-hop/heavy-metal opposition, but by sexual habits, response to the notion of a supreme moral being, and attitude toward the relevance of others in life’s overall purpose.  One group strives to practice self-control, grounds its morals in metaphysical belief, and views others as autonomous persons whose free will must be acknowledged.  The rival group considers generous indulgence of natural urges essential to a fulfilled life, finds authority for this belief in a popularized kind of Darwinism, and views others patronizingly as lucky (if sometimes forced) beneficiaries of its own magnanimity.  There’s nothing much for two such diametrically opposed sides to talk about.  Any concession by one party must necessarily be the beginning of the other party’s end.

The United States should probably break up into a looser federation.  Most of western Canada would willingly join Middle America, and parts of Mexico could be brought in, as well.  Personally, I would consider this a happier solution than cycle after futile cycle of negotiation and compromise between a culture whose god-in-becoming is something like The Hive—a “collective advance”, that is, toward ever greater material efficiency—and a culture whose god is the author of our mysteriously matter-transcendent and immutable personhood.  For the ironic truth is that the self-actualizers are The Hive’s worker-bees: their egocentricism renders the vastest possible social unit the only possible one, with no stop between atom and universe.  On the other hand, the self-sacrifice demanded of family members (to complete the irony) will strain against the Individual’s fusion into the Mass until families are utterly exterminated.

If there exists any other hope at all for our moribund union of states, it must rest in the resuscitation of the largely self-sufficient individual household.  Such a change could really happen—could easily happen, in fact, if we could find the will to advance it.  The technology already exists for property-owners to collect and purify their own water, as does the technology to reduce home heating and cooling costs.  Though farming of yesteryear’s variety would be neither feasible nor desirable to many contemporary Americans, technological assistance could further turn the typical quarter-acre of suburban living space into a dynamo of edible foodstuffs.  If Americans can thus reduce the costs of food, energy, and other essentials of modern living, they could break the shackles which the Industrial Revolution heaped upon displaced farm folk.  That is, the loss of a job or the reduction to part-time work would no longer mean forced dependency upon Big Brother or forced migration to another, perhaps distant place of employ.  People could begin to sink roots again, as they have throughout most of human history.  Families and neighborhoods would prosper.  Politicians would not have to “create jobs”.  For the indispensible job of feeding one’s family, one would need little more than sun, rain, and perhaps a roof transformed into a year-round 3000-square-foot greenhouse.  Neighbors might need to help out around the edges.  In a setting such as this, they would be happy to do so.  It always worked that way in the past.

Technology was locking us into this dungeon at about the time my grandmother’s ancestors were crossing the Atlantic: the Enclosure was sweeping small farmers off their land and into urban nightmares.  The same key could turn the lock the other way.  “High tech” might mean “decentralized” rather than “ultra-centralized”, “centrifugal” rather than “centripetal”.  We could again be left alone by Big Brother to form our own families and communities if we could again acquire the power of feeding ourselves—of creating our own jobs.  The good news is that this can and must happen if we descend into a dark age, as seems altogether possible now.  The bad news is that we will incur many, many needless casualties unless we choose to make the shift in a timely manner. 

1 comment to Why Blue vs. Red Has Become Blue vs. Gray: The Agrarian’s Fight to Keep Family and Faith Alive

  • arete5000

    That was brilliant. I have long thought that these subterranean values were more descriptive of culture than ideology or even the template of identity politics. We have become the parties of Marx and of Jesus and these two worldviews are in diametrical opposition. Look forward to seeing you flesh out more of this thesis.

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