Who Condescends to Whom?

What’s the difference between the two sides of white America? Can we write off one because we haven’t been able to convince it of our own (white or not) superiority? Because we see its people as fools?

Frank Rich ends what will surely be a much-vilified column with “the best course for Democrats may be to respect their [Trump supporters’] right to choose.” Whatever else he says, his final words are on the money. The old ‘we know better’ what’s good for others needs to be jettisoned if the Democrats are going to regain any footing in the American political landscape. The ‘reaching out’ (though not the attempt at understanding) needs to stop. Democrats (like the news media, for that matter) need to start tending to issues and to stop pandering, paying attention to policy and not polls. Offer what’s best and let everyone choose.

Rich quotes a law professor from the University of California, Joan Williams: “The best advice I’ve seen so far for Democrats is the recommendation that hipsters move to Iowa,” she opines. That’s not going to do it. Certainly, it will not help anyone from the blue states understand the red states any better. If anything, it will only confirm the ‘hipsters’ in their rather neo-colonialist (at worst) or patronizing (at best) attitudes toward the other.

Let me explain.

When I was a kid, I attended a small boarding school in Yancey County, North Carolina. The Arthur Morgan School (like the planned Celo Community where it was located) was a real outsider institution. Few involved had local roots and not many at the school, at least (the Community was different), planned on making their permanent homes in Western North Carolina. Not there to interfere with lives outside of its own community but perfectly willing to interact with the broader population, the school and the Community were generally tolerated, usually with slight amusement. Not so, the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) people who arrived, my second year, to help develop the local economy and life. They were resented, seen as meddlers trying to tell people how to live.

A naïve ninth-grader, I didn’t really understand why this was. The VISTA volunteers were just like the people who had surrounded me at home in Richmond, Indiana and then Atlanta, Georgia. They weren’t like the people of the Celo Valley but, I reasoned, neither was I. Why were they hated and I tolerated?

What I didn’t then understand, something that has taken me a lifetime to learn, is that I am culturally Appalachian (whether I like it or not), my family roots extending deep into the mountains and the Ohio River valley. As a kid, I was comfortable among the people in the older community (I lived off campus in one of their houses) and easily slipped into local cadences and manners. Their culture, in the broader sense, was mine. The people along the South Toe River understood that even if I did not.

Today, after decades of living far from Appalachia, I find myself reacting in ways quite different from those I associate with in the northeast, carrying my ancestral culture with me, often unconsciously still. My New Yorker wife rolls her eyes when I’ll stop and chat with anyone, anywhere, something I can’t change, even in the city. A small thing, but the habit was learned in a culture where you don’t walk into a store, make a purchase, and leave. You talk a bit—or you are considered rude.

A better example of this sort of cultural baggage, one that doesn’t involve my own background but that also makes my point, is something I saw in Peace Corps in West Africa decades ago. If someone in Togo or Burkina Faso (I can’t speak for other places) came up to you while you were eating, you automatically offered to share your food; if someone offered to share their food, you automatically took a taste. Or a sip of the drink. Anything else was rude.

Such things, and the thousands like them, become part of all of us by our fifth year, acquired differently according to parentage and environment. When we are older, we can learn to respect such things, but they are not then so central to our beings that they can be forgotten and yet still exist, manifest in small daily actions that we tend to brush off as personal quirks (if we’re living far from home).

It took me a long time to understand: The impact of what we ingest during our early years cannot be overcome easily. One way we can try is to categorically reject the culture of our upbringing, diving headlong into the new one, as many of us displaced Southerners and Appalachians have done in California, New York and much of the rest of ‘blue’ America.

That, of course, carries its own dangers. Especially in the United States, where the two cultures have been at loggerheads for centuries.

Fundamentally, and learned before five, the two white American cultures stem from mindsets whose natures are oppositional, authoritarian and exclusionary on the one side, and sanctimonious, snobbish and certain on the other. Of course, either list could apply to either side, depending on how the words are used, but the differences between the two are quite real. One stems from the attitudes of the Enlightenment, the other from Calvinist traditions that completely sidestep Enlightenment influence. Even when they use the same words, the assumptions behind each school of thought are alien to those of the other. By simply moving from one cultural stronghold to another we aren’t going to be able to change that or improve understanding. That has to start with ourselves.

The Calvinist-descended concentrate on individual belief, revelation mediated only by faith (Jesus). At the same time, theirs is a top-down authoritarian attitude. Revelation is individual, but it comes from God—it comes from the authority of the Bible. Calvinist individualism, their freedom, stems from the acceptance of authority, something those formed through the Enlightenment have a hard time wrapping their heads around. The children of the Enlightenment see individualism resulting, instead, from lateral cooperation, from community established as a base for personal freedom—something whose contradictions make no sense to the Calvinists. Each side, seeing only the paradoxes of the other, blinds itself to its strengths. Neither side is willing to take a taste of what the other offers, each offending the other.

Rich writes of ‘Hillbilly Chic,’ seeing it as “self-righteous slumming,” and I think he’s right, and that’s what many Democratic politicians and activists seem to want to do, reaching from their pedestal down to ignorant Trump voters, most of whom they see as their inferiors. On the other hand, the Calvinists disdain what they see as the ‘artifice’ of the blue-staters, looking down on them as effete and removed from the naturalness that should be the real state of man.

This split, of course, is nothing new, descended, as it is, from the problems encountered by the Scots-Irish who entered the British American colonies during the decades before the Revolution, many of them coming from Ulster Plantation in Ireland. They weren’t wanted in the older colonies and were reviled by the colonists, so they ended up settling against the Appalachian mountains, where they became the springboard (and cultural base) for westward expansion. The most famous demonstration of the resulting cultural split (and one of the reasons for Donald Trump’s adoration of Andrew Jackson) is the election of 1828 between Jackson and John Quincy Adams:

Against a primitivist hero of this sort, who brought wisdom straight out of the forest, Adams, with his experience at foreign courts and his elaborate education, seemed artificial. Even in 1824, when Adams won a freakish four-way election, Jackson was by far the more popular candidate; when the General returned to challenge him four years later, there could be no doubt of the outcome. Adams was outdone in every section of the country but New England, in a battle fought unscrupulously on both sides and described as a contest between

John Quincy Adams who can write
And Andrew Jackson who can fight.

(Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, 159-160)

It was a lot more complicated than that, and continues so today—you could replace Adams with Clinton and Jackson with Trump and not be far wrong.

What you can’t do is believe that a bit of cultural tourism will bridge the gap.