This weekend I wrote about rural America and how I, as a progressive gay man from the city, am doing what I can to find common ground between my new rural neighbors and the lower and middle class in urban areas.
I had planned to take it in the direction of politics and finding political common ground, but the discussion that resulted has me thinking that there may need to be a middle step - finding understanding and common ground among us as people.
Economically and socially, we are very much in the same boat. Whether it's an African American single mother working as a CNA and living in the inner city or a white single mother working as a waitress in rural America and living in a trailer in a small town (to give but just two examples), the realities of our economic and daily lives have many similarities.
It's often the differences that those at the top of the wealth ladder take advantage of, instilling fear in us. The inner city is a scary place filled with drug addicts on welfare. Rural America is filled with racist hicks from Deliverance that carry guns to the grocery store.
While these themes are varied, some basic version of this serves not only to make us into the "other", but also serves to make us feel superior to the "other". In this way, the wealthy - along with all of their advantages of access, comfort, and power - are able to keep us seperated and from working together.
I would take a look at how we might use our modern day culture to try to bridge this divide and to lead us, even in a small way, to see each other in a different light, and highlight our similarities. I believe that this step is vital to actually forming a more Populist political movement.
Paris Hilton Goes To The Country - Reality TV
A few years ago, Paris Hilton and her bff Nicole Ritchie did a reality series where they went into an environment that was foreign to them and to their hosts. I don't remember the name of it, and honestly, I'm not sure I want to look it up, but this "rich girl lives with the hicks" theme, while the opposite of what I have in mind, actually gives me an idea.
What if we did the same thing, but with real people at the same socio-economic level? For two weeks, the waitress works - and lives - with the CNA and her familty. Then for two weeks, the CNA works and lives with the waitress and her family.
I think its important to do more than "switch jobs", we have to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the other person and their culture as a whole. By putting this on television, it allows us to do so in some way at the same time. The rural parent needs to see the challenges her host's children are facing in a school system that is not funded adequately and crumbling around their children and the urban parent needs to see the challenges of taking their kids to the doctor that may be 1/2 hour away and only in town 2 days a week, for example.
I use reality television as just the basis of the real idea, which is to find a way to put ourselves in the reality of the other's shoes, and in that way finding our shared commonality. There are other options, of course. I would love to see this, even in a small way, become a program in the way we use cultural exchanges with other countries, but instead in our own backyard, so to speak.
The ultimate goal is to break they myth of other. There are differing cultural norms to be sure between us, but they do not have to divide us - especially if we can find the basic common ground that is indeed a part of each of our lives.
The Meaning of our Music
Here in the country, our radio consists of talk radio, a top 40 station, and 4 country music stations. In cities, it's more likely to have a wider variety, including hip-hop/rap, r&b, and pop/rock.
Our music has meaning. It tells the story of our lives. It attempts to reflect the reality of how we live, what is important to us and what our values are.
On CMT (Country Music Television) there is a wonderful show called "Crossroads", where they take a country music artist and a pop/rock artist, and they spend an hour talking about each other's work and singing each other's songs.
It is a great program for the most part. Dolly Parton and Melissa Etheridge were fantastic together, with Dolly singing "Come to My Window" and Melissa singing "Jolene" and bringing a whole new way of viewing the meaning of the words. Admittedly, sometimes it doesn't work, as with Taylor Swift and Def Leppard, but still, I believe the idea has merit.
Using television is fine, but I think it would be even more powerful to use the star power as a draw to bring people together to hear each other and to see how we may view the experience from a different perspective.
Imagine Billy Joel discussing "Allentown" with Coolio discussing "Gansta's Paradise", for example, travelling from Chicago to Edwardsville, from Memphis to Yazoo City, from Bethlehem to Presque Isle, not just performing but discussing, not just what they are speaking about, but asking each other, and their audiences what they are hearing when they hear the music.
The combinations that could be put together in themselves are fascinating. And the reality is that we don't even need to go to the expense and complications of "concert tours". We can do this at a community level. What if we asked people to describe what they are hearing and exchange the information? What does someone in the Bronx hear when they listen to "Rain is a Good Thing"? What does someone in my current hometown hear when they listen to "8 Mile"?
I wonder if our exchange of views could go even a small way toward breaking some of the stereotypes and bringing a bit of understanding to each other's world views by using our music to see each other in a different way.
Ambitions Are Nice, But What of Reality?
As I stated at the end of each of these grand ideas, there are ways to turn the "reality tv show" or the "crossroads concert tours" into something that might work at a much smaller and less expensive or less complicated level. And these are just two ideas - I'm sure there are many more that are probably much better thought out and realistic.
There is an even more basic level that we can begin to do this work right now. I saw just in the one diary I wrote over the weekend a number of people come out, so to speak, as being in the same situation as I find myself.
We have a choice to either look back with derision and mockingly on the places we left, as we often hear when we hear of people from rural areas talk of "escaping" this life to go to the city and vice versa. When we do this, we reinforce that there is something wrong with the people and the humanity of what we left behind.
Or we can take a step back and look at ourselves as ambassadors and bring a different view to our new neighbors and friends of where we left, the lives of those we left behind, and possibly begin to bridge the gap of understanding and lay the foundation for working together to help all of us.
We will have our differences regardless of whether or not we find a base of understanding. There is after all a reason that LGBT people flee rural America for the safety and understanding of the city. The farmer in rural Alabama and the environmental activist in New York are going to have differing views on pesticides. And as I talked about in my last diary, guns in the South Side of Chicago are viewed very differently than they are in Western Kentucky.
While I hope that we continue to discuss these differences and stay true to our values, I hope that we can find ways to find a basis from which to be able to discuss these views without talking past each other but rather to each other, and therefore keeping the door open to working together when we can.
I am a progressive, and I will continue to stand up for LGBT rights, against racism and sexism, and other areas where my view may be in the minority in my area, and I will continue to try to change hearts and minds.
There are many areas, though, that we face the same challenges and have the same fears. The New Deal safety net, after all, is important to all of us whether we are in Los Angeles or Eastern Kentucky coal country. Access to and the cost of health care is a huge problem for anyone in the lower and middle classes regardless of location. And it is the lower economic classes both in the inner city and the country that bear the brunt of our wars including taking care of those that come back broken physically and mentally and burying our young.
While I remain a committed progressive, I also commit myself to being a populist and working with those that differ from me on some admittedly very important issues that are used to keep us apart on issues that affect us all. The Glenn Beck's, Roger Ailes', and some corporate leaders of the world depend on us and our neighbors reacting to their dog whistles not only to enrich themselves but also to keep us in fear of one another and therefore apart from one another.
If we are able to begin seeing each other as perhaps different in some ways but equal in our daily reality, maybe we can begin to build a Populist movement in our country and actually return the possibilty of the American dream of improving the lot in life in both rural and urban America.