Friday, December 03, 2004

Ignorance Is Not a Value Worth Defending

I am concerned about political division in this country, not so much the one between Democrats and Republicans but the one between the rural and the urban, which is what the map of red and blue states reveals. The rural/urban division was even revealed in our election of a new County Commission in Watauga, with the more urbanized portions of the county prevailing for the Democrats over the most rural, which mainly went for the Republicans. That pattern replicated itself everywhere across the American landscape. In the bluest of blue states, the rural areas were more likely to go for Bush. In the reddest of red states, the urban areas just as surely tilted toward Kerry.

I don't like that division for what it does to both sides and by inevitable extension what it does to the whole national psyche, the stereotyping that gets hurled from both sides of that fence. Too many blue staters arrogantly assume the stupidity of red staters, and rural people have an annoying habit of associating every bad thing they see with "outsiders," as though no home-grown sharpster ever cheated them over a galled horse.

The rural/urban split hurts us as a nation because it deprives both sides of the wise counsel of the other. And we need each other. Without knowing any rural people, other than the caricatured "idiots" who voted for Bush, urban Americans are smugly confirmed in their prejudices against hayseeds, rubes, hicks, hillbillies, bumpkins, rednecks, clodhoppers, shit-kickers, and goat-ropers. Meanwhile, stampeded into ever more stubborn corrals of "tradition" (which is often a fear of change), rural people blame the wrong hands for the policy decisions that render rural life increasingly untenable. Willfully choosing to remain ignorant ain't no way to run this railroad.

I spent most of my professional life defending rural people from urban media stereotypes, both the vicious ones (as in "Deliverance") and the sentimental (as in "Where the Lilies Bloom"), since both types of representation achieve essentially the same ends -- the removal of complex realities for the sake of easy pigeon-holing, all designed to make (mainly) urban on-lookers feel better about themselves. I always preached that until country people got hold of the cameras and started aiming them at city people, and at themselves, no fair representation of the real American landscape was likely to happen.

I also appreciated an overriding irony of modern American life: that as the actual proportion of rural people in the total American population has been declining since the first national Census in 1790, the influence of the rural over American urban pop culture has soared. The population of the United States tilted majority urban only in 1920. By the 2000 Census, rural people accounted for less than 25% of our total population. But while it was becoming a puny statistical minority of our total population, increasingly sidelined and sneered at by city people who've evidently forgotten where their food comes from, the stubborn power of country people to redraw the American self-image has blossomed. In the 1920s, just as we were becoming majority urban, commercial country music erupted into the market place and is now THE most popular music in America. What's the current most popular spectator sport? NASCAR racing, the activity that began on America's backroads among moonshiners and mud-daubbers. And who picks American presidents? The South, still the most rural part of this great nation.

I choose to interpret this irony as evidence of the genius of American democracy, that maligned groups have their powers, at least the power over our imaginations, and the most marginalized of us have a way of calling the tune.

But we're in trouble as a union of conflicting interests if the tune being called is a willful rejection of knowledge, a suspicion of education, a dumbing down of what's acceptable according to what's orthodox. I grew up in the country encased in various overlapping cones of silence. After all, what is "culture" if not control over what is thinkable? Rural culture clamped down on us teenagers like a vise. Nobody talked about sex, for example, so we were not only uneducated about it, we were dangerously uneducated about it and prone to believe the bizarre rumors that swept through our playgrounds after school. The "country way" was to control the access to knowledge and to close the doors against anything uncomfortable. But ignorance can kill.

Over the past four years, the evidence has mounted that our rulers are winning by means of willful ignorance. Science has been rewritten to squelch unpleasant news. Evidence has been manufactured to support personal war ambitions. Prejudices and irrational fears have been encouraged, even fed by elected officials, for personal gain. Every morning on C-SPAN now, a caller from a red state offers the opinion that we'd be better off if we knew less about the war in Iraq. Congress passes a rider in the omnibus spending bill that will deprive young women of information about abortion options. And just yesterday we hear that the sex abstinence programs in high schools, so touted by the mullahs as a corrective to the corruption of American culture by Hollywood, is passing out damned inaccurate information to a whole generation. Not just inaccurate information but damned inaccurate information.

Red staters are worried about the loss of a "traditional America." (I'm worried about that too, as I'm tail-gated on every road I drive on, from super-highways to one-lane goat trails. I'd like to drive slow, which is a traditional American value.) But the way to save our traditional values is not to fall for huge fibs, not to close our eyes to the manifest truth, and not to deliberately lie to our children.

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