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Our Only WorldOur Only World – Wendell Berry

Talking Appalachian – Amy Clark & Nancy Hayward (eds.)

It doesn’t take any great insight to look at this year’s US presidential election coverage and come away with the conclusion that folks just aren’t listening to each other. We’re all too busy being right to bother wasting time figuring out why the “other side” sticks to a point of view that’s obviously wrong. It’s much easier to just argue with the straw man, with the caricature. And since I spend most of my time hanging around with people on the left side of the political spectrum, I’m mostly talking to you folks. As long as your imaginary Trump supporter is a diabetic racist with a sixth grade education riding to rallies on a rascal scooter and armed to the teeth, you can dismiss whatever it is they have to say. They just need to be educated, like you. They just need to accept facts, like you. Or they need to get old and die and get out of the way. And so you find yourselves astonished that 43% of the country will still turn out to vote for Trump. They must all be idiots, right?

I was recently surprised to find that the best analysis that I’ve seen of Trump supporters came from Cracked magazine, of all places. I remember Cracked from when it was just the less-funny little brother of Mad Magazine. But apparently they’ve got some pretty awesome editorial staff right now. In his piece “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind”, David Wong gets a lot of things right. In particular, he gets right the fact that rural America is hurting badly right now. In Appalachian coal country, you’ve had a mono-economy for a century, and that economy is disappearing fast. Nothing is replacing it. When the coal leaves, the town just dies. The same is true in farm communities that have been gutted by the rise of industrial agriculture. The young people leave if they can, find work in the cities, and the old folks scrape by on social security until they finally do die and get out of the way.

As of this writing, FiveThirtyEight has Trump at a 99.1% chance of winning West Virginia. This is not just because all West Virginians are a bunch of ignorant racists, although that’s a much simpler story to tell. As Wong puts it:

“The rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and you smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I’m telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying. It’s not their imagination. No movie about the future portrays it as being full of traditional families, hunters, and coal mines. Well, except for Hunger Games, and that was depicted as an apocalypse. So yes, they vote for the guy promising to put things back the way they were, the guy who’d be a wake-up call to the blue islands. They voted for the brick through the window.”

And it’s not just about jobs. It’s very much about identity, about keeping families together, about finding a way to feel proud of who you are and where you come from, while popular media disparage both. Rural folks are nearly always portrayed as ignorant hillbillies suitable only for reality television, so of course they want to oppose what they see as urban elitism. Their communities are dying, and they’re being mocked in the process. They’re pissed off, and they probably should be. Donald Trump isn’t the answer, of course – his very sketchy proposed policies ultimately wouldn’t do the rural poor any favors – but he is giving voice to the frustration, blaming somebody other than those affected. They finally feel listened to, even if they’re just being manipulated by another urban billionaire.

For rural folks, we define “success” as “getting out”. Success is moving to the city, becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a banker or a computer engineer. Success means leaving behind your community and your family. Only losers stay in their home town. Losers live with their parents or extended family. You can be a successful lawyer, but you can’t be a successful welder. There’s no such thing. We don’t even have a way to talk about people who want to stay in their local communities, who want to stay close to their family, without disparaging their values. We treat “traditional family values” as if it were only code for “anti-gay”, when it’s actually much more than that. While there is no doubt rampant homophobia in rural – and urban – communities, there also is a very real valuing of families that actually is threatened by the economic death of rural communities.That’s a real thing, and it really is happening, and people really do want to resist it for valid reasons that we just don’t listen to. That’s one of the things it means to them to “make America great again”.

Talking AppalachianIn Talking Appalachian, the editors have collected essays that give voice to Appalachian dialects, dialects that – like urban African-American dialects – give its speakers a sense of inclusion, a sense of identity, and have traditionally been viewed by educators as “wrong” or “non-standard”. The book as a whole makes the case that when you try to teach a culture that they the way they talk is wrong, the result is a resistance to education. Because giving up your home voice and learning to talk like city folks makes you an outsider in your own community, an outsider in your own family. Several of the authors in the book make a case for teaching the voices of Appalachian dialects alongside standardized American English, and for teaching students to ‘code-switch’ — which is to say, teach them to be aware of context, and to modulate their dialect according to that context. It’s an approach to education that acknowledges the value of having a home voice, and acknowledges the role of that voice in maintaining social ties. And according to at least one of the authors, it produces quantitatively better results in terms of test scores for standard written English. When you don’t ask people to give up their home voice and instead teach them another language to use alongside that one, they become less resistant to education.

Wendell Berry, recipient of numerous literary awards, is himself deeply resistant to compulsory education. In “Our Deserted Country”, the cornerstone essay of Our Only World about the emptying out of farming communities, Berry writes:

“The Amish famously, or infamously, limit formal schooling to eight grades. (This is not at all to say that they limit learning. Some Amishmen, for example have gone on to learn mechanical engineering.) They limit schooling in order to keep their children in the community. This makes sense if you want to keep your children in the community, and if you have understood that the purpose of mainstream education is to prepare children, and especially country children, to leave the community. If you contrive in general to keep the community’s children in the community, there are two desirable results: 1) The children, from earliest childhood, learn the community’s work, by observing it and, as they become able, by doing it; and 2) If you keep all or most of the community’s children in the community, then as a matter of course you keep the brightest and most talented ones.”

I’m fairly sure that Berry is no Trump supporter, but he shares the distrust of education and the disdain for urban elitism for similar reasons. It has to do with the preservation of cultures and the preservation of families and identities. It’s easy for the “urban elites” (who, I understand, are equally a strawman group, but that’s a topic for another essay) to write those people off as LOL IGNORANT RACISTS, but there’s a whole lot more to it than that. And if we – all of us – don’t make an effort to take that seriously and understand the values that actually motivate people, we’ll remain as divided a nation as the current presidential polls make us out to be. I think we can do better. I think we must do better.

1 comment to Our Only World / Talking Appalachian

  • Adrianne

    Thank you for sharing a compassionate and relevant perspective on an important topic. Somehow we have, most of us, become so certain of our position and our beliefs that we don’t consider the many nuances to our opponents’, or our compatriots’, position. It is, of course, dividing us and leaving us weaker as a national community. I hope that we can find the way to do better, together, soon.

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