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More rural thinking - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
More rural thinking
Well, I talked about my hometown a couple of entries ago, and on ashtur's recommendation, I'm reading Harvest of Rage, which deals with the sense of betrayal and rise of militias in the country's rural areas, so I still have it on the brain. I should probably do this in miss_w's journal, since that's where I was going to do my "serious issues," leaving this for fannish things. But Fern's is turning into my real voice on things instead of just my fan voice--don't know when that happened--so I'm going to go ahead and do some thinking here.

The rest of the story was but another version of of a tale Roland of Gilead had heard many times and had, in some measure, lived through himself. It was fragmentary and incomplete, undoubtedly shot through with myth and misinformation, its linear progress distorted by the odd changes--both temporal and directional--which were now taking place in the world, and it could be summed up in a single compound sentence: Once there was a world we knew, but that world has moved on.
--Stephen King,
The Dark Tower 3: The Waste Lands

In Harvest of Rage, reporter Joel Dyer travels around the disintegrating heartland, looking at the kind of desperation that's spreading, causing first a wave of suicides as farms were foreclosed on, then a rising wave of violence and rage. A way of life is falling apart around people, and no one seems to care.

Along with a general rage at the government, personal pathologies are also on the rise--I grew up in the '80s in rural America, and didn't realize this was a change, but apparently rates of spousal and child abuse went up astronomically during that time (and, to the best of my knowledge, have not fallen), as well as drug use, alcoholism, suicide, and various mental disorders (mostly related to stress and depression). People lost farms and homes that had been in their families for generations, not because they'd stopped working hard or the land had stopped producing, but because the world had changed around them, and even though they had done everything right, as they had been taught, it all slipped through their fingers anyway. Cries for help went largely unheeded by the government, and while charities like FarmAid could help with stopgap measures, they couldn't rebuild the rural economy, which just kept disintegrating.

In truth, I don't think there was a lot that the government could legitimately do. It can't force banks to forgive loans, and it can't force factories to stay open. The government doesn't--and shouldn't--have that much control over the economy. It can float ideas here and there, but ultimately, the market will win that argument every time. Laws could be made forbidding certain kinds of collateral on loans, I suppose--something that would prevent borrowers from losing everything--but of course the net result of that would be that banks would make loans harder to get. That might not be a tragedy in most cases, as part of the problem was too much loaning in the 1970s as institutions rushed to sell loans to farmers to expand their operations, but there are enough cases where loans are necessary that making them more difficult might not be a good idea.

Of course, the argument can be made that the borrower is responsible for having taken out loans for expansion, and should have known better, but a lot of scare tactics were used, all of which boiled down to "Expand or watch your farm die." So maybe some laws about using scare tactics?

Heck, that would put environmentalism and mass market pharmaceutical advertising out of business, too.

No, the unfortunate truth of the matter is that ultimately, it's no one's fault. The economy changed and developed, and while there were undoubtedly unscrupulous loan officers and farmers who maybe should have known better, there was really nothing that could have stopped the world from moving on. Stephen King's haunting (and, of course, haunted) rural landscapes, in both the mundane and fantasy world, capture the sense of it. Yeats understood it when he wrote "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" (The Second Coming).

But when things happen, when a hurricane blows through time, we need to take some steps to help people deal with the destruction, no matter whose "fault" the situation is or is not. That hasn't happened in rural America. At the same time the economy was was falling out from underneath them, they became culturally invisible to most people, and completely denigrated by others. While politicians fretted themselves into apoplexy over the state of the inner city schools, rural schools dropped below the radar. While city pathologies were analyzed and blamed on environment and economy, rural problems, more often than not, were just labeled "backward" and expected to clear up when people magically became enlightened. While shelters and unemployment offices sprang up in the cities, the ranks of rural unemployed were callously told to just move, as if breaking away from the land were as easy as changing apartments.

So far, I've basically been saying, "Gosh, we should have done something, but I don't know what," and actually, that's pretty close to where my thinking is. I suspect a lot of politicians would be in about the same place, if asked. But there are so many other problems, and after all, pretty much by definition, there are fewer people (read, voters) in rural areas, so they're skipped over, not thought about, and the problems just get worse.

All of this can certainly explain the depression and stress, but what about the rage? Why in the world turn to something as patently self-destructive as the militia movement, the cults, or (in particularly traditional areas) the Klan? Isn't that pretty much a sure-fire way to make the people who might help despise you?

Logically, yes. However, logic isn't at play here. Once, during a long talk with a_p_, the subject had turned to religions, and I was talking about my choice to convert to Judaism. I wondered why such a choice was not more common, especially in black inner city areas--I mean, here was a religion with a ready-made up-from-slavery iconography, a proud history of survival, a tradition that encouraged rising up out of ghettos... But instead, the antisemitic Nation of Islam was gaining adherents. Why? The answer was obvious, of course: the NoI goes there. They talk to people, they help out, they build institutions, they bring pride, and they legitimate rage over helplessness. That rage is just another face of helplessness doesn't matter; it feels better than despair.

Well, guess who goes to the rural areas.

Wherever there's despair and helplessness--abject conditions of diffuse fear--the rage vultures settle in and start to eat. They play on the idea that it has to be someone's fault, because that means that if only such-and-such were different, everything would be all right. It removes the niggling idea that maybe it's the fault of the person who's been hurting, changing shame into a sense of having been wronged. In a case where the person who was hurt did nothing morally wrong nor anything so wrong economically that it should justify what's happened, this is a very appealing message.

To stop this, something has to be done. As usual, I think that attention to education would be of immense help, and possibly some reviews of lending procedures, though the latter is really closing the barn door after the horse has come home. Maybe some tax incentives from the government could convince start-up businesses to plant their roots in Perry, NY, instead of Manhattan.

But ultimately, a lot of the changes need to be on a cultural level. Colleges should make an effort to recruit rural students (I think can count on one hand the number of rural students I went to school with; one finger for the only one I know for sure). TV shows and movies might try looking realistically at small towns--not just angsting about the pathologies, and not just as weird little eccentrics around the "real" character (Northern Exposure), but normal, everyday plots for sitcoms and dramas (we need a rural Cosby Show, actually). Most pressingly, these problems need to be talked about, listened to.

And someone who can help, someone who can build--without preaching hate and violence in the process--needs to go there.

(Of course, hypocrite that I am, I'm not volunteering. I don't have a lot of useful skills anyway, and am not a driver, something that's necessary in the country. But I'm more than willing to do my part as a writer.)

I feel a bit...: quixotic quixotic

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lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: February 4th, 2004 01:19 am (UTC) (Link)
I agree with everything you've said, and thank you because I didn't know any of this. I do know someone who lives on a farm, but seeing as how where I was born is literally a stone's throw away from Amish territory, that's really not a surprise.

One point:

But instead, the antisemitic Nation of Islam was gaining adherents. Why? The answer was obvious, of course: the NoI goes there. They talk to people, they help out, they build institutions, they bring pride, and they legitimate rage over helplessness. That rage is just another face of helplessness doesn't matter; it feels better than despair.

As you probably know, Judaism isn't a missionary religion. Which is one of the things I do like about it. :)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2004 01:33 am (UTC) (Link)


You're more than welcome. I didn't know the mechanics of the farm crisis until I started Dyer's book, but of course I'd seen farms lost, and seen people getting angry and depressed.

As you probably know, Judaism isn't a missionary religion.

Actually, it is, it was just suppressed for over a millennium by threats of execution, so the culture developed an aversion to the practice. Granted, it was never a "Convert or you'll be killed" or "Convert or you'll rot in hell"--the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come, so you lack the kind of immediate impetus that Islam and Christianity have--but Jews do both accept and seek converts. I wish they'd get back to it; it's a good religion. More to the point, we live in a world now where not doing so is seen as somewhat standoffish, like we don't really want to deal with new people.

I am quite glad, however, not to have Jewish missionaries knocking on my door at six in the morning, asking me if I've been saved, though. I think Jewish missionary work would look just a tad bit different. Mostly, though, it's a question of telling people that we do, in fact, accept converts, and explaining what the religion is about. You have no idea how many people have told me I can't really be a Jew, since I wasn't born one. Guess the rabbis on the bet din at the mikveh were all playing Let's Pretend. ;) (Of course, there's an Orthodox problem with my conversion, as it was conducted by two Reconstructionist rabbis and a Reform rabbi, one of the Reconstructionists being a woman. But that's an intrafaith argument.)
ashtur From: ashtur Date: February 4th, 2004 01:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow, you found the book quickly. It's an interesting book, isn't it? Like most books of that nature, it's a bit alarmist, in that it makes it sound like every last rural family is in the same cycle of despair (which is an overstatement), but it is very much something to think about.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2004 01:49 am (UTC) (Link)


Wow, you found the book quickly.

I'm a librarian; it's what I do. :D

(Seriously, it was a question of going upstairs and pulling it off the shelf.)

It is interesting. And yes, I recognize the alarmism in it. I knew some darned successful farm families as well as those who lost land, and some well-off professionals as well as rural welfare queens.
ashtur From: ashtur Date: February 4th, 2004 01:53 am (UTC) (Link)


Ah, I thought it might have been sitting in the library you worked in, though I also figured it might end up being a bit too obscure a book. My compliments to your libarary :) I'm entirely too used to ours out here where the non fiction section is sadly tiny, and out of date.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2004 01:55 am (UTC) (Link)


My library happily accepts the compliment. I love my library. Libraries and museums are the main reasons I won't leave the city in the first place. (I'm an iconoclast. I don't believe libraries exist to support city life. I believe cities exist to support libraries. :))
mafdet From: mafdet Date: February 4th, 2004 05:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Libraries truly provide "hyacinths to feed our souls," don't they! I am lucky to have a really good library near me.

Your post reminded me of a series in the NY Times about how the rural Plains are losing their population at a very rapid rate. The region was dependent upon agriculture which is now in the hands of corporations, and young people (especially women) increasingly leave and go to the cities or college towns.

Interestingly - all the way back to the Middle Ages and the rise of cities, women have flocked there. Rural life, it seems, is particularly uncongenial to women especially of the free-thinking sort. I myself think vacationing in the country is great, but I prefer living in a suburb or small city where I don't have to drive a half-hour if I run out of milk or cat food.

People have this idea that rural life is idyllic and it isn't. I want to get my hands on Harvest of Rage which you and ashtur have recommended.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 4th, 2004 05:05 am (UTC) (Link)


Oh, yeah. I wouldn't go back and live in Perry for love nor money. I hated it there. But I do feel compassion for what's happening, and frustration that no one seems to care much.
ashtur From: ashtur Date: February 4th, 2004 05:31 am (UTC) (Link)


It certainly isn't idyllic, it has it's good and bad points. On the bad side, no libraries, a bit tricky to purchase things (the net is wonderful, though I still won't buy clothes online, sizing is too much of a problem), and the like. Lots of other things as well in terms of the culture, but that also has good and bad sides.

On the other hand, I can breath the air, if I forget to lock the door, it's not a great big problem.

I'm rather flexible about where I live. I've lived in towns as small as 1000, I've lived in St Louis.
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: February 4th, 2004 11:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Huh, looks like America's rural economy is about as badly off as ours. Ireland is different in that the country population is still large enough to have a significant chunk of voters, so it has to be taken into account more. But what with daft EU policies (tag the cattle in BOTH ears! With large yellow plastic things instead of metal clips! Despite the fact the plastic tags cost ten times as much as the metal ones and get caught in hedges and pulled out all the time), and other countries refusing to buy our meat (even though they have BSE too, they just aren't letting on), and cheap imports from Hong Kong, and diseases (BSE, foot and mouth, TB, bru...), we're in deep trouble.

The only thing is, the cities here are so close to the countryside that there isn't the same separation. Everyone is only a couple of generations away from a farm (or else a dock worker). The whole economy still depends on the rural economy.
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