This diary has been on my mind for a while, so when I saw the excellent diary today written by Fishgrease I decided now was the time.
I live in conservative, rural Maine. Rural as in people don't walk to their neighbor's home - they drive. Rural as in the closest city (population of 100,000 or more) to us is 5 1/2 hours away - in another country. Rural as in our county is the size of the state of Massachusetts with a population equal to Portland, Maine or Delray Beach, Florida. Rural as in directions to my home include the phrases "Take I-95 north to the end, then turn north" and "No, the second red barn on your right, not the first one".
And conservative as in voting in the majority for our new Tea Party Governor Paul LePage when he received only 38% statewide. Conservative as in voting against marriage equality by a margin of 80%-20%. Conservative as in having only one member of our county delegation to Augusta that is a Democrat out of 12 - and he makes Blue Dogs look liberal.
Yet here I am, an openly gay progressive man that chose to move here after living in liberal (or at least moderate), urban areas all my life two years ago. What challenges do we face? And what lessons have I learned that might be helpful to progressives not only in rural areas, but everywhere?
You're moving where?
This was, to a person, the first thing people in Portland said to me what I told them I was moving to rural northern Maine. And I start here because this is acually an important point.
There is, for many reasons - some of them self-inflicted by people that live in rural areas - a lack of respect that urban dwellers have for those of us that live in rural areas. You see it here and elsewhere. Some of the adjectives I hear and read are "hicks", "uneducated", "stupid". We all know the jokes about finding "a full set of teeth" in a town, or jokes about scared sheep.
I get it, and I'm not saying that there isn't a place for humor. Hell, we say some of the same things here, but in a much different tone. But there is indeed a difference between humor and derision, and all too often what I and other people that live in rural areas hear are more derision than humor.
So let me tell you a little about what I have learned about the people in the rural area I live. People here have few opportunities when it comes to work. There isn't exactly a whole lot of diversity of choices here. There are potato farmers, loggers, waitresses, store clerks, cooks. The few "good jobs" around, at the gun manufacturing plant or the potato processing plant, are highly covetted and people fall over each other to try to get their foot in the door at these places when an opening comes up - and when the supply can't meet the demand, the pay is lower than it would be in other places. A job with the state is considered the holy grail. The result of this is I live in a town where 46% of the households make less than $30,000 a year according to the latest census figures.
People here are isolated. Like I said above about being so far from urban areas, we can't jump into our vehicles and just head to the city for cultrual opportunities, sports, concerts, or even just a night out. In fact, during "back to school", families sometimes team up and share rides and hotel rooms to go to "the city" for school shopping. Yes, hotel rooms, because its a 4 hour round trip just to get to and from the nearest shopping mall.
There is very little immigration here, but lots of emmigration. With few opportunities for work, and few cultural opportunities even if there are, we don't live in an area that people are itching to come visit, much less relocate to. Because of this, the community is very insular. Families that are here have been here for generations, often on the same land. We sometimes joke in our town that there are 900 people living here but only 12 last names, and its not too far from the truth.
Because of this, opinions become very set here, because there is little input from the outside - a lack of fresh blood and fresh ideas. Old ideas die hard here for lots of reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is there isn't much outside influence, and people don't travel much outside this world.
The reality is that people, especially the working poor, in urban areas face some of the same challenges that rural people do, but sometimes because the view is different we don't see it. Opportunities for poor minorities are limited as they are for rural farm families, but because our life-reality is so different, not only do we not discuss it with each other, we don't even know how to do it. Hopefully some of the lessons I'll talk about later will help us figure out how to close this gap.
You Aren't From Here, Are You?
Now imagine an openly gay liberal from the city moving here (I moved here to be with my partner, who grew up here and wants to be near his aging parents).
My appearance here had quite the ripple effect in town, for lots of reasons. I was an outsider in an area that isn't used to outsiders. I didn't know the people, or the customs, or the history.
One of my first hints of this was in just my 2nd week being a full time resident. My partner came in the door and told me that people in town thought I was being rude, which floored me. Why? Because when I would drive by them on the highway, I didn't wave.
Being from the city, my first thought was "Of course I don't wave at them. I don't know them." because, of course, in my background waving at every car that passed us would be impossible. But here, locals wave to show a community spirit. Lesson learned.
This lead me to really think about how I was going to present myself to the community, and what I wanted to accomplish, and I realized I had a very important choice. Either become a part of the community, or remain an outsider "from away". The reality is I could have chosen either. After all I still travel to Portland once a month for work, have readily available internet access, and I know of people that have moved up here for work that have stayed seperate from the locals.
But I made a decision to try to become part of the local community. I joined the working group for the local summer "Fun Days", using my fundraising ability to bring something to the table. I attended local suppers, went to the high school sports games, and made a small group of friends.
This is all nice, but, um, this is a political blog
So now that I've set the stage, I'll talk about what I've learned about politics in rural America, and how it might be helpful to all of us in some way.
The first thing I had to learn was how to communicate about politics with people that were on the opposite side of the political fence, and more importantly view the world in a completely different cultural context. As you might imagine based on the politics here, progressives aren't nearly as numerous as conservatives - or at least people that are reflexively conservative.
Because of this most of my friends are Republicans to some degree or another. And they all know that I work in Democratic politics and am a gay progressive. I want to be clear that I actively chose not to falsely become a part of the community by changing who I am - I have a set of core beliefs and values that are important to me. Had I chose to hide or superficially change who I am, I don't think I would have learned what I have been able to.
Combining my personal beliefs with my commitment to being a part of the community, I found that I have learned a whole new way of not only communication, but of listening.
My first lesson I learned was one of context. If we listen to the political talk in the media and in politics in general, you'll find that we do a lot of talking past each other, and there is indeed a place for some of this. Politics is a "contact sport" to some degree, and its important to be clear about where we stand, where our opponents stand, and to point out inconsistencies, so I'm not calling for an end to that. But when I'm talking to friends and people in the community, I work with the thought in mind of there's a time and a place for everything.
When I have a conversation with friends here about gun laws, for example, I actually have taken the time to listen and learn - and I have indeed learned a lot. The first thing I learned is that guns are viewed and used very differently here than in urban areas. Opening day of hunting season is the third most important holiday of the year, just after Christmas and Thanksgiving. That said, when there was a triple-murder recently in the county, people were horrified and, yes, shocked, because there hadn't been a non-accidental murder involving a shotgun in over a decade in this area.
With that background, instead of speaking about gun laws in a general way, I bring up my experience living in the city, where guns are used and viewed very differently. People with guns in the city are more likely to be dangerous or view owning them as self defense more than hunting in comparison to the rural areas. After talking about that experience, the conversation changes from an absolute - right to own guns vs gun control - to a much more nuanced one of community differences. It also goes from the political to the personal.
The conversation becomes much more complex, and both of us find ourselves having to answer questions that we probably hadn't had to consider before. And because we have a basis for respect for each other, both sides are actively looking for areas - however small - in which we can agree.
The next lesson is one of building trust. Now that I have had some serious discussions about some hot topics - gun control, LGBT rights, welfare reform to name a few - and come out of it having learned something myself and taught something to them, we now have a base of trust with each other.
This is very important because I now have the standing to repudiate some of the things that my friends and people around me have taken for granted as truth. For example, going back to gun control vs. gun rights, the most common thing you will hear is "Obama wants to take our guns away from us." We know this isn't true, but their basis for this reality is from the right wing echo chamber and has never been challenged by people they trust, but only by liberal "others" from away. Now its being challenged by someone that they trust and is a part of their inner circle, and they are willing to hear what I have to say. I won't say that I have been able to personally change this dynamic, but I have been able to get some people to at the least question their core beliefs and where they are getting their information from, and that is a great first step.
Another lesson was one of framing discussions. When we were talking about marriage equality here before the 2009 ballot proposal, I am convinced that although we lost here 80%-20% in our town, it would have been even a wider margin had it not been for my partner and I living an open life and integrating ourselves into the community. But I also found that the way we talked about why marriage equality was important to us meant something, too. Instead of focusing on the nebulous word equality, I spoke about the importance of marriage itself to being a part of the community. Marriage here is not just a commitment to each other, but it is the couple standing before their community and saying "We are a stable part of our society. You can count on us. We are not going anywhere." I'm not saying that it isn't that in urban areas as well, but in an isolated rural community it is a vital part of the culture. Using this example, I now think about how to frame my discussion on issues that are culturally relevant to the people I am speaking with.
And finally, I now keep in mind the phrase from the Kenny Rogers song - "Know when to hold 'em, and know when to fold 'em." Sometimes political discussions are going to get heated, and that's fine. In fact, it's part of what I enjoy about politics to some extent - nothing wrong with a good give and take.
But when I see a discussion turning into not just heated discussion but heated argument, I have learned to back down. Not back down from my position, but to back down for continuing the conversation at that time - and my friends do the same. Our friendship is more important that the short term conversation that can be picked up at a different time, with a different tone. We use humor to bring down tempers. We occasionally "let a comment slide". And more importantly, when we do go beyond the "point of no return", which happens, we are quick to go back and apologize to each other - again not for our beliefs, but for personalizing the discussion or hurt feelings. And we forgive readily.
Using these lessons is not going to change the world. The Baptist minister down the road and I are probably not going to be friends, much less agree on marriage equality. But by using the lessons of context, community, and time and place, I have found that I have not only been able to be heard by people that you would never expect to listen to me, but have even changed a few minds - on a few issues - here and there.
I think its important to note that the culture shock I felt would be just as dramatic if someone from here moved to an urban area, and often is, so I believe that what I've learned here has broader implications that the framework I'm discussing here. For the sake of continuity, though, I chose to concentrate on the rural dynamic for this diary. I would be more than open to working with someone on the larger context of getting rural and urban poor or middle class people to see each other differently and maybe work together much more closely politically.
I look forward to discussion on what I have written, and in my next diary I hope to write about taking these personal lessons and seeing how we can apply them in a larger context of state and national politics.