Can We Cross the Great Divide?

cult coverWhen my book The Cult of Individualism: A History of an Enduring American Myth appeared in 2013, I thought it’s Afterword (included below) both naive and overly hopeful–even though I had written it.

Over the next few years, especially after that infamous escalator descent in Trump Tower in 2015, I began to feel positively embarrassed by it. Lonesome Rhodes couldn’t hold a candle to Donald Trump whose supporters had become worse Christians and Americans than even those other fictional Americans from another negative depiction of ‘red state’ culture, the townspeople in the play and 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind.

As the last couple of years passed and Trump began to trash our government and our system, I became angrier and angrier with my fellow descendants of the Scots-Irish culture that has so dominated one half of the United States and, now, holds us all in thrall. Though I am descended from three Confederate soldiers, I began to hate the Confederate battle flag and despise those who flew it–or who continued to support Trump.

I called them, still do, “racists,” and they call me “libtard.” My reaction to them has been Hank Stamper’s “Never give an inch” from Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. They are destroying the country I love and I can’t let them push me aside.

Still, though it always seems to have been the liberals and progressives who are willing to negotiate, who will give something away to reach an accord for the common good, I am beginning to feel that this has not always led to our defeat. Perhaps it has also been our own ignorance and intransigence. Conservatives, many of whom I hold among those sharing the blame for the rise of Trump, though they may now be ‘never Trumpers,’ still seem to be calling to amity by asking that the liberals be the first to put down their fists (David Brooks being chief among these). But that does not mean that we on the left will lose by lowering our guard.

Perhaps its time to do that:

In late September 2012, my wife and I spent almost a week in Mount Airy, North Carolina, for what is known as “Mayberry Days.” The festival, in Andy Griffith’s hometown and near where my mother grew up, celebrates not only his popular television show of the 1960s but also the culture portrayed in it. There were guitar and banjo pickers and fiddlers in some of the stores, on the streets, on the small stage in the old Earle Theater, in the Andy Griffith Playhouse, and in the town’s small open-air amphitheater. People crowded the small cafes and diners for sandwiches in wax paper and for chat about characters who lived in the fictional Mayberry. Mount Airy’s Main Street, which looks pretty much as it must have in 1960, would probably be as desolate as that of most small towns were it not for the festival that has grown up in the wake of the show’s popularity.

While there, I spent time talking to local historian Thomas Perry, who had set up a table in front of a novelty store to sell his most recent book, Beyond Mayberry: A Memoir of Andy Griffith and Mount Airy North Carolina. He and I discussed Griffith and Appalachian culture, and I told him that, when I was a kid, I had distrusted The Andy Griffith Show, never watching it. I was used to television depictions of Appalachia that really made fun of the region, and I had suspected that The Andy Griffith Show, on some level, was doing the same thing. Perry nodded and told me that a professor of his at Virginia Tech had felt the same way, saying that Griffith’s put­downs were like a knife so sharp that the victim never felt it.

That reminded me, though I did not mention it, of Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes character in his first big film role for Elia Kazan’s 1957 movie A Face in the Crowd written by Budd Schulberg. Close to the end of the movie, Rhodes says, “To those morons out there? Shucks, I sell them chicken fertilizer as caviar. I can make them eat dog food and think it’s steak. Sure, I’ve got them like this. You know what the public’s like? A cage full of guinea pigs.” And that, I realized, is exactly what many in the secular-liberal culture think of the Borderers. They are morons who will buy anything. The secular-liberals know no more about them and wish to learn less.

The Rhodes character is an amazing individualist-but he is also a stereotype of the Borderer individualist preying on the stereotype Borderer. A Face in the Crowd, though it is a fine movie, is a secular-liberal film reflecting stereotypes secular-liberals concocted, even though it has a Borderer star. It was an attempt to explain a culture by and for people who had absolutely no understanding of it-who did not even know that it was a culture distinct from their own.

The filmmakers were faced with the same frustrations that many of the secular-liberal culture face today, over half a century later. To them, the Borderers often seem too stupid to believe, gullible, open to flimflam from the most obvious con artists-and the question is “Why?” Why was Senator Joe McCarthy so successful? Why is Senator Ted Cruz so, today? What is going on with America? Because they had no real experience with the ‘other half’ of America, the secular-liberal culture created their own answers, A Face in the Crowd being one, but only one out of many.

The suspicion I had that The Andy Griffith Show was simply another put­down of Borderer culture was founded in the reality of popular media from as far back as the founding of the United States. It was a suspicion of a type shared by many Borderers for generations and with good reason. In this case, however, I think I was wrong.

In one of his last film roles, in Waitress (Adrienne Shelly, 2007), Griffith plays a wealthy old man who, knowing he is about to die, writes a large check to one of the employees of his pie shop. This I never would have been expected of him, early on in the movie. Having watched a lot more of The Andy Griffith Show over the last few years, I realized that I was wrong in my evaluation of Griffith’s earlier work, too. He was not playing Sheriff Taylor for a secular­liberal audience or to explain or demonize the Borderers. He was playing to the Borderers themselves, presenting a gift to the culture he had grown up in. In a nonjudgmental way, he was poking fun at Borderers—but for themselves, not for snickering outsiders.

Judging from the visitors in Mount Airy, Griffith certainly did connect with a generation ofBorderers. Most of the people on the streets were in their 60s or older. They knew the shows well and had come from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and otl1er states with large Borderer populations. We did not meet a single person from New York or New England.

The focus of talk was the characters, not so much the plots of individual episodes. Even minor characters were talked of with affection, their personal­ ity quirks chuckled over anew. The week seemed more of a celebration of the individuality of these slightly peculiar but extremely familiar ( to any Borderer) personality types. It almost felt like the creators of the show­ including Griffit h- had decided to create an answer to negative media portrayals of Borderers by showing that , yes, they have weaknesses but that those weaknesses are different in each case. And, yes, they have strengths, strengths as different as each individual.

What they had done, I realized, was to create their own gentle study of Borderer individualism, but individualism quite differeflt from that of the “cult” I write about in this book. What they present was and is the real individualism of Appalachia and, indeed, of Borderer culture anywhere, the individualism behind the cult. Though when they reflect stereotypes, the characters of The Andy Griffith Show rise above them. Even Barney Fife, the archetypal fool, has real human dignity that comes through just when he is looking his worst.

If there is ever going to be a reconciliation between the nvo dominant white American cultures, it is going to have to be through recognition by both sides tl1at what they see of tile other is not the entire story. There may be- the re are-cults of individualism in America that are strong enough to destroy the country, but there is also a great deal more, even in the realm of individualism. Seeing this may allow each of us to emerge from our own cultlik e beliefs long enough to reach out, one to another.

I hope that can happen.


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