Friday, November 10, 2017

The Value of the National Petroleum Reserve

From Gates of the Arctic National Park, just south of the National Petroleum Reserve
Christopher Solomon has a lovely piece in NYT's Sunday Review. 

I have lived near the National Petroleum Reserve (a cold and undignified name, sadly, for this beautiful place) in Alaska, on and off, for years. I have never stepped foot in it, but I know the reserve by reputation and I am familiar with the Alaskan Arctic’s surrounding lands, which are breathtakingly wild and inspiring and full of life. It’s likely that I will never step foot in the reserve, yet I am grateful that it exists. It brings me comfort to know that, although we are altering the climate, removing forests, and losing other species, there is at least one place on earth where ecosystems are strong and intact, or, at the very least, where nature gets to exist, change, and evolve without our meddling.

A few nodding donkeys in an empty land may seem harmless, but when we drill for oil we do more than just drill for oil: We build a network of sprawling roads. Other extractive industries move in and plunder the land. Businesses spring up, buildings are erected, tourists flood in, hunters exploit fragile animal populations, and the tentacles of civilization creep up and around and strangle yet another wilderness. You can talk me into agreeing that, some of the time, this pattern is good and okay. But to let this happen everywhere, all of the time 
 from the East Coast to the West, and finally the Great Alaskan North  will always seem to me shortsighted and uncivilized.

When we think of the best of civilization we appropriately think of our cathedrals, our cities, our cars, our beautiful art, our music, our films. It’s stuff we’ve built. It’s stuff we’ve made. I admire these things too, yet I think sometimes the most civilized thing a civilized people can do is to leave an already-perfect piece of artwork untouched, to let alone one great big expanse of land. Not only so that we have something to revere, imagine, dream about, and enjoy, but so that we can, in our most enlightened, our most civilized state of mind, refrain from thinking purely of ourselves when we can do something bigger: give space for a healthy ecosystem, an animal kingdom, and the whims of nature to exist and thrive. I wish we’d think of our wild lands less as random areas we’ll never photograph or hike in, and more as astounding human accomplishments than can imbue national pride in us all. The deliberate protection of a great, wild land ought to be thought of the way we think of national independence, the moon landing, the abolishment of slavery
grand feats of ingenuity, passion, and sacrifice. Protected land, when you think about it this way, is also something we've built. It's something we've made. Wild land is not something we've merely refrained from developing; it was built by philosophizing, planning, conserving, and protecting, and thus should be admired not just as pretty scenery, but as a product of our ingenuity, enlightenment, and labor.

I understand that oil is valuable, and that we are dependent on fossil fuels. I understand sacrifices and compromises need to be made until better answers are found. I understand people need jobs. But I can only hope that wants are not confused for needs, and that we will recognize that places we value as profitable “commodities” can actually achieve a greater value if we embrace them for what they can be—sacred places, reminders of our humanity, examples of our enlightenment, landscapes of our dreams.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The making of "This Land Is Our Land"

So I recently finished my third book, This Land Is Our Land, to be published in the spring of 2018 by Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint.

The book proposes something many will consider radical: opening up private land for public recreation. I have much to say about the “right to roam,” but I’d like to use this space to talk about how the book came to be.

The idea for the book came about during a dinner table conversation at my friend David’s home in North Carolina. I was living elsewhere at the time, but I was driving through North Carolina on my Trespassing across America book tour.

Either I was talking about the recent Scottish law that opened up private land, or I was moaning about all the No Trespassing signs in North Carolina. I don’t know how it started, but I’m sure I at one point said something like, “Roaming ought to be considered a natural right!” David, seeing that I had more than a bit of passion for and knowledge of the subject, suggested I write a book about it.

Recognizing that I had this topic more or less to myself (in the U.S., at least) and reminding myself that I’d already done a great deal of research, I figured I could pump out a 20,000-word treatise that could be an e-book accompaniment to the paperback version of Trespassing across America. It would ultimately be an extension of my New York Times Op-Ed, “This Is Our Country. Let’s Walk It.” That one NYT article gave me the standing to write the book, and the reaction it got (many hundreds of reader comments) made me think this subject needed expanding.

Once my book tour was over, I went to work, crafting up a book proposal and planning chapters. Soon, I got the okay from my agent, my editor, and my publisher, and I had my third book contract and a $20,000 book advance.

Over the next few months, though, I began to see that the topic was too big for a 20,000-word book. I felt like the book should not just propose a radical idea, but that it should describe how land is being seized from the public, and how we’ve for decades been losing our green spaces to either development or private landowners. The book should go deep into American history: It should chart how our present understanding of private property came to be. Moreover, the book should go deep into human history: It should describe how different cultures and different peoples understood property differently, from our hunter-gatherer past to urban-suburban present.

In time, 20,000 words would grow to 70,000. Six months turned to twelve. An e-book accompaniment turned into a legitimate paperback book. And, finally, I’d have to deal with the mess of 575 footnotes.   

I often asked myself, “Why am I writing the book?” I have little hope that Americans will gain a “right to roam” anytime soon. I may very well be the only American, out of the 324 million of us, overtly calling for it. There are no groups or politicians calling for a right to roam. There are no magazine articles advocating it, nor organizations. Nothing and nobody. [There are about half a dozen law scholars in favor of a right to roam, but their works usually deal with the issue obliquely, often (and very helpfully) describing other countries’ systems.]

This was exciting: I had the subject all to myself. But it was also discouraging: I wasn’t sure if there would be an audience for the book. Being the author of a book that proposes something nobody else is advocating can be lonely, even a little scary. Will I be ridiculed by critics? Will I be attacked by the Twitterverse? Or, worst of all, will I be completely written off and ignored--an author’s worst fear? But one ought not write a book that has nothing new to say, and mine certainly has plenty to say. And as scary as the book was, it was exciting: I’d get to be a sort of “thought pioneer,” even if a lot of my thinking draws from current countries and centuries-old history.

My work, though, began to feel particularly pointless when, halfway through, Trump got elected. The whole country seemed to be sliding into the Dark Ages and here I was, talking about something as terribly important as… walking rights?

The election took the wind out of my sails, but I sailed on when I began to think about the book not as a book for the twenty-first century, but as a book for the twenty-second. It’s critical we work to fix the concerns of the present (no one would argue that), but I also think it’s necessary for a few of us to set aside the immediate now to think about the possibilities of the deep future.

I’ll be the first to admit that we have graver problems than our problems of nature-deficit disorders and recreational access. Racial inequality, environmental justice, prison reform, climate change, a broken political system are issues more serious and more pressing. So, at times, I’d feel guilty for focusing on something so un-immediate and faraway. It was like I was planning for a far-fetched future while the rest of the country was hard at work, focused on fixing the difficult problems of today.

But the truth is that the difficult problems of the present already have their champions--champions with greater expertise and greater passion for their subjects. The right to roam, though, was practically my own. That’s not to say that I care about the right to roam more than anything else. That’s not the case at all. I care about climate change, wealth inequality, and a number of subjects more. But those subjects have their share of experts, whereas the subject of roaming only had me.

I remember listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast interview with co-founder of Wired, Kevin Kelly. Kelly said that he has had tons of ideas for books, but that he tries to give those ideas away. He only writes a book when he knows he’s the only person who can write it. And I suppose I felt this way about This Land Is Our Land, that I was the only person who could write it.

Why? Firstly, it’s emotional: I have always been unusually irked by unnecessary "No Trespassing" signs. The idea that someone could selfishly close off access to land for one’s exclusive use has always seemed plainly unjust. Let’s say I’ve always been predisposed to an open roaming culture. Secondly, I literally trespassed across America when following the Keystone XL, an experience that gave me a one-of-a-kind perspective on private land and what natural glories lie behind all our fences and barbed wires. Thirdly, from my research, I'd been acquainted with the roaming laws of Scotland, Sweden, and England. Knowing that these systems not only existed, but worked, made the idea seem less fantastical and more possible. It made me think that it’s something we should discuss, whether in this century or the next.

There are a few property law scholars who could write this book, and who could have written the legal parts of it with much more ease, but I felt that the subject wouldn’t gain a proper audience if written purely from a legal point of view. I thought that my voice, which combines interests in land use, philosophy, pop culture, history, and nature writing (plus a memoirish touch here and there), might do a better job helping the idea spread than that of a more restrained legal voice. (Legal scholars tend to be dispassionate in their prose and conservative in their ideas, always judging what can or cannot be done based on a few Supreme Court cases. My healthy distance from the law gave me a bit more room to be bold.)

Looking back, I see a book crammed with research and interviews and I ask myself how I did it in the space of a year. But this is how it works: one question leads to another question, which leads to another and another. Once you’ve answered all your questions with research, you’re done. This book was propelled by curiosity. Every enthusiastic researcher, I think, has a bit of the explorer in him, because to him the uncovering of a long-hidden fact, or quote, or idea may be just as exhilarating as cracking open a chest of buried treasure.

But it was also propelled by something else, something close to heresy. There is something exciting (dangerous, even) about saying what has yet to be said, about trying to make a country think critically about itself, about being the first to stick your neck out there. In ways, I welcome (even desire) the criticism, the malice, the ire, as any true heretic might. 

I mentioned before how I thought the right to roam was somehow irrelevant to our present times, but after researching the subject I began to see that many of our present-day issues are tied to how we use and own land. We see the same sort of inequality in land ownership that we see in wealth. We see racial groups underrepresented in their ownership of land and their access to green spaces. We see an isolated Bowling Alone society, cut off from one another and scared of everything. We see growing obesity in adults and kids. We see an America that is blind to the ecological atrocities committed on private farm land. We see forces that want to privatize the public, exploit the sacred, and favor individual liberty over the common good. And so my book went from the twenty-first century, to the twenty-second, and came back again to the twenty-first, oddly relevant in the age of Trump.

It remains to be seen how the book will land when it comes out in 2018, when our backwards-looking president and Republican-led Congress will likely still be in power. Readers may very well be too fixated on the slow-motion train wreck we all can’t look away from, or just maybe we’ll all be itching for something new.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Best books I read in 2016

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (2014)
Perhaps my favorite sci-fi book of all time. It’s about a man who gets to relive his life over and over and retain the memories of each of his prior lives. Tense, engaging, fun, with the occasional profound insight and quotable moment.

“The secret to being unafraid of the darkness is to challenge the darkness to fear you, to raise your eyes sharp to those few souls who stagger by, daring them to believe that you are not, in fact, more frightening than they are.”

But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking about the Present as if It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman (2016)

Chuck Klosterman is our best writer on contemporary culture. The premise of the book is to think about today's culture — our TV shows, music, and movies — from someone's point of view hundreds of years in the future. Who will be the one rock band future students study? What '90s TV sitcom will have best represented ordinary American culture? And plenty of stuff on science and politics, too. It’s just such a pleasure listening to Klosterman think, following him in whatever direction his seemingly-boundless curiosity takes him. 

“The ultimate failure of the United States will probably not derive from the problems we see or the conflicts we wage. It will more likely derive from our uncompromising belief in the things we consider unimpeachable and idealized and beautiful. Because every strength is a weakness, if given enough time.”

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2012)

This book tells a very research- and statistic-based story about black men afflicted by structural racism. I will never look at policies like “Stop and Frisk” and the “Drug War” the same way. The book can be a bit redundant at times, but it should be assigned skimming for every American.

“The deeply flawed nature of colorblindness, as a governing principle, is evidenced by the fact that the public consensus supporting mass incarceration is officially colorblind. It purports to see black and brown men not as black and brown, but simply as men — raceless men — who have failed miserably to play by the rules that the rest of us follow quite naturally. The fact that so many black and brown men are rounded up for drug crimes that go largely ignored when committed by whites is unseen. Our collective colorblindness prevents us from seeing this basic fact. Our blindness also prevents us from seeing the racial and structural divisions that persist in society: the segregated, unequal schools, the segregated jobless ghettos, and the segregated public discourse—a public conversation that excludes the current pariah case.”

Demelza by Winston Graham (1946)

I’m currently on the seventh of twelve books in the Poldark series. Each has been fantastic, but to simplify things I’m only listing the second in the series. I can’t get enough of Graham: the high dramas, the minor tensions, the lovable characters, the mixing of the classes, and the unfairly skillful way he captures each class’s sayings, dialects, and cultures. It’s written with the elegance and interpersonal brilliance of a Jane Austen novel, but with the somewhat darker and more contemporary attitudes of a modern-day author.

“And although he was a great worker and a craftsman, he hadn’t the learning or the initiative to be able to rise even in the mine. She saw it all clear enough. He was a goat tethered to the peg of his own character and could only consume the riches of the earth that came within his range. And she had bound herself to stay in his circle for the rest of her life.”

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (2015)

It's exactly what the title suggests: 200,000 years of history crammed into one book. (And, amazingly, it doesn't feel rushed.) Harari does a particularly marvelous job making the point that to develop civilizations and unite disparate peoples, national myths are just as important as our great technological breakthroughs. And his final chapter on the future of mankind is provocative: Harari suggests we won't be human much longer, as biotechnology and genetic modifications will allow us to become an altogether different species. His sequel on this subject, Homo Deus, just came out and looks just as fun.

“Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

Game of Thrones series (Books 1-3) by George R.R. Martin (1996)

In fifty years, if not now already, I think George R.R. Martin will be considered the greatest fantasy writer of all time. Tolkien may have a mastery over the English language that Martin (and perhaps any writer) will ever surpass, but Martin, in this series, I’ll argue, is doing something that I consider superhuman. To craft a story with so many threads, to have them all heading in some preconceived direction that we will not get to for thousands of pages, to create a world inhabited by knight-errants, teenage queens, barbaric horsemen, brazen girls, thoughtful boys, and a hundred other full-fleshed characters is to me an astounding, stupendous, and unequaled literary triumph. But it’s not just the scope and the number of characters. This is an author who exhibits genius in describing the breadth and complexity of his characters’ emotions. There are countless subtle and small moments of human insight, which make the read not only wickedly entertaining but unexpectedly edifying. And then there’s just a simple down to earthness to his prose and a real and hearty sense of humor. How Martin is able to dwell in the minds of all these characters, organize and plan out an epic that is unrivaled in scope, and still be emotionally intelligent as well as down to earth and funny seems simply impossible for a thousand writers
 —  let alone one —  to achieve.  I haven’t started Book Four, when the series allegedly begins to go downhill, but so far through Book Three I’m willing to call the series an unparalleled achievement. 

“What is honor compared to a woman's love? What is duty against the feel of a newborn son in your arms . . . or the memory of a brother's smile? Wind and words. Wind and words. We are only human, and the gods have fashioned us for love. That is our great glory, and our great tragedy.”

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (2016)

In one evening I watched Captain Fantastic and finished Tribe, leaving me with the feeling that our society is fundamentally flawed. Captain Fantastic is a lovely little movie about a family growing up in the woods, which pokes a playful finger in the soft gut of suburban America. Tribe points to how people are often happier in war and after environmental catastrophes because society, in the worst of times, reverts to a sort of tight-knit, egalitarian tribal society in which individuals suddenly get to feel like they're truly necessary. Junger points out how American colonists often fled to join Native American tribes, but Native Americans almost never fled their tribes to join the colonists. He also points to how military veterans often suffer upon returning from war because their tribal bonds have suddenly been severed, leaving them adrift in a society where, at best, only a couple of people care about you.

“Whatever the technological advances of modern society—and they’re nearly miraculous—the individualized lifestyles that those technologies spawn seem to be deeply brutalizing to the human spirit... [Sharon Abramowitz:] ‘We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents. Our society is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.’”

Best friends’ books

Oratorio in Ursa Major by David Dalton (2016)

This is my pal David’s book—a sci-fi fantasy in which an apocalypse has wiped our modern institutions off the face of the planet. A group of modern-day survivors use alien technology to travel back in time to 48 B.C. Scotland to retrieve the superior culture of the ancient Celts. Plenty of wild ideas, pretty prose, and shining moments of superlative literary excellence.

“And thus in unexpected moments, thought Jake, do abstractions — beautiful abstractions but elusive — suddenly take form, like spirit entering a body. Just for a moment, thought Jake, I do believe that I actually saw it, heard it, touched it, felt it. There is only one moral universe, and as it bends toward justice it might brush against us. My great shame is that I saw it in a moment of joy that I don’t deserve. Others have seen it from the blackness of despair.”

Best books read in 2015 
Best books read in 2014

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Getting out of grief in Trump country

In those first miserable days after the election, we progressives spent the beginning stages of our grief torturing ourselves with hindsight. We allowed that Clinton was the wrong candidate. We asked ourselves if we lived in a bubble. We self-flagellated late into the night, wincing with each cleansing lash of the whip—for being so out of touch, for being so wrong, for abandoning sixty million voters.

I went through this stage as well. I was shocked that Trump won. He’s just so vile. So obviously unqualified. So patently full of shit. Have I, too, been living too much in my own bubble? Am I missing something?!

I’ve since emerged from the soul-searching stage with clear eyes and far less patience for all the navel-gazing and self-loathing (though I think this has been a good and necessary stage for the Democratic Party to go through).

In short, I think we need to stop thinking of Clinton as a flawed candidate when the real problem is with Trump’s flawed voters.

We are in denial about this group of voters. We progressives are so understanding and empathetic that oftentimes plain truths cannot be seen through the fog of our own moral relativism. We believe it’s all about their economic struggle. Their jobs shipped to other countries. Their disappearing mining jobs. These, no doubt, are serious and legitimate factors that affect how these people think, act, and vote, but they’re only half of the story. These voters are also driven by factors far more hideous than rational economic self interest—they’re driven by “identity politics,” a euphemism whose dull syllables hide a fire-breathing religion, sociopathic racial and class resentment, and a baseless paranoia about everything from our Kenyan leader to Hillary’s emails to the giant magnetic crane coming to snap up everyone’s guns—all neatly stoked by fake news and rightwing propaganda.*

I do not write this from one of those much-maligned East Coast liberal bubbles. I write this from Stokes County, North Carolina, where I’ve lived off and on for the past six years. In Stokes, 76 percent of voters voted for Trump. Two houses to the left of me, a neighbor waves a Confederate flag (in the middle of which, oddly, is a picture of a bass). Two houses to the right of me, a neighbor (who rides his truck with his Trump/Pence bumper sticker to fire his weapons all afternoon) erected a gate over our road and hung a wooden cutout of an assault rifle painted in black.

On the week leading up to the election, I volunteered for the local Democratic Party to be a designated poll observer and to hand out flyers supporting local Democrats running for office. In front of one polling station, a friend of a Republican candidate went up to the candidate and cordially remarked, “I can get anyone to come out and vote for you, except the niggers.” One of the Democrats running for office (a very sweet, soft-spoken gentleman) was approached by a Trump supporter who called him a “baby killer,” which escalated into a heated verbal confrontation. In King, North Carolina, an Afghanistan veteran holding a “Veterans Against Trump” sign outside of the American Legion polling place was struck by a car. Let me repeat that: a Trump supporter used his car to assault a person he disagreed with. The driver opened the door and yelled out, “What were you in, the gay guard?”

In the local newspaper, we have a local pundit who writes letters to the editor once a month that are so regular and so long they’re more like commissioned Op-Eds. With a strange penchant for 18th Century-style capitalized nouns and a curious fascination with same-sex marriage and transgender-friendly bathrooms, he writes hateful gobbledygook like this for us each month:
The same-sex unions, which some call marriage, are fraud; not truth, since truth does not change, it is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Same-sex unions have been illegal for thousands of years: since the commands of law. Marriage has been defined from the beginning, as between one man and one woman. Right and Wrong cannot logically be reasoned equal by any honest person, nor can one say definitions that are different, are the same for marriage.
This isn’t just some looney uncle with fringe beliefs who we all roll our eyes at when he talks in public forums. This guy actually has influence over our county commissioners, who’ve passed resolutions in favor of ending gay marriage and North Carolina’s odious HB2 bill that discriminates against transgender people.

To round out my “rural-living” cred, let me add that I’ve lived in rural Alaska, rural Nebraska, rural Utah, next to Jerry Falwell’s church in Lynchburg, Virginia, and I spent 4.5 months walking across the reddest, most conservative section of America—the “flyover country,” which voted for Trump in large numbers. (I come to these places more for the scenery and inexpensive rent than the politics.)

The people around me, the people I watched fill out their ballots, may have convinced themselves that they were voting for Trump out of love of God and country, but often behind this thin surface of do-gooding decency is something far uglier, and we need to stop mincing our words and pulling punches when describing it: it’s hatred, it’s racism, it’s horse shit.

When I walked across the Great Plains talking with folks about climate change, I did not have rational discussions with folks in which we presented facts, confessed our ignorance to some issues, and engaged in healthy intellectual dialogues. It was more like this: they’d spew nonsense while I politely listened. From Trespassing across America:
Each person spoke to me as if they were doing me some great service, as if they were imparting sage wisdom from ancient texts. But more often than not, I saw that they were propagandized, only regurgitating rumors they’d heard at the local cafĂ© or half-remembered falsehoods they saw on the TV. They talked in absolutes, spoke expertly on every issue, and rarely if ever would you hear someone say, “Well, I guess I don’t know much about that.” They weren’t free-thinking men, but stone tablets onto which dogma had etched its wicked creed.

When I started this trip, I wondered if I had been living too much in a bubble. Perhaps I’d been reading too many New York Times articles. Perhaps I’d put too much faith in peer-reviewed science. Perhaps—surrounded by open-minded, well-educated, progressives—I was missing the bigger picture. Perhaps if I left academe and went out to the Heartland, I’d tap into the wisdom of the prairie and the farmers who worked it. Maybe they knew the land and skies and environment in ways we suburbanites and city dwellers didn’t. Maybe I’d find that they had good reason to deny man-made climate change.

But not one person I encountered had said anything even halfway intelligent when denying global warming. No one had read books or articles on the issue, and they couldn’t begin to understand how peer-reviewed science works. They saw themselves as too freewilled and independent to be duped into accepting something that an accomplished and well-trained scientist says is true. But these skeptics are only selectively skeptical. They think themselves enlightened for resisting all this new proof and remaining steadfast in mistrusting any- thing that someone else says. But it is a false enlightenment to accept only those ideas that align with one’s worldview and reject those that don’t.
I’m not the only one who’s moved on from the initial stages of grief. Paul Krugman of the New York Times writes how these working class whites would benefit far more from Clinton’s proposed policies than those of Trump:
Democrats have already been pursuing policies that are much better for the white working class than anything the other party has to offer. Yet this has brought no political reward. Consider eastern Kentucky, a very white area which has benefited enormously from Obama-era initiatives… Independent estimates say that the uninsured rate fell from 27 percent in 2013 to 10 percent in 2016. That’s the effect of the Affordable Care Act, which Mrs. Clinton promised to preserve and extend but Mr. Trump promised to kill…

Nobody can credibly promise to bring the old [manufacturing] jobs back; what you can promise — and Mrs. Clinton did — are things like guaranteed health care and higher minimum wages. But working-class whites overwhelmingly voted for politicians who promise to destroy those gains.
In a brilliant Alternet piece, the author says the Democrats shouldn’t worry about their political bubbles since it is rural white America that has closed itself off to the rest of the world:
The real problem isn’t east coast elites who don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because they don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe….
For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God…

Rural, Christian, white Americans are entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems; don’t trust people outside their tribe; have been force-fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades; are unwilling to understand their own situations; and truly believe whites are superior to all races. No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe. No amount of niceties will get them to be introspective. No economic policy put forth by someone outside their tribe is going to be listened to no matter how beneficial it would be for them. I understand rural, Christian, white America all too well. I understand their fears are based on myths and lies. I understand they feel left behind by a world they don’t understand and don’t really care to. They are willing to vote against their own interest if they can be convinced it will make sure minorities are harmed more. Their Christian beliefs and morals are truly only extended to fellow white Christians. They are the problem with progress and always will be, because their belief systems are constructed against it.
You might argue that poverty, oppression, and marginalization inevitably lead to desperation. They inevitably lead to anger and resentment and hellfire religion. They inevitably lead to the election of the personification of a middle finger. No! These things aren’t inevitable. Poverty, oppression, and marginalization can lead to cooperation, to resolve, to dignified action. They can uplift and bring out the best in people. When blacks want their rights, they march, perform sit-ins, go on freedoms rides. They follow principled men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Reverend William Barber. They quote the best Bible passages and sing “We Shall Overcome.” They act with dignity, patience, perseverance—the same way Native Americans are taking water cannons to the face in South Dakota right now. The same way women, LGBTQ groups, and environmentalists fought for equality and justice. (Yes, there are sometimes riots and violence, but they normally occur only after peaceful protests have failed to result in progress.)

What have these “oppressed” whites done to fight for their rights? What have they done to make their plight known? What marches have they gone on, what dogs have been unleashed on them? How have they appealed to the rest of us? How have they tried to capture the country’s heart? What dignified leaders have they followed?

Instead of doing any of that, they just picked a foul-mouthed reality TV star, who runs corrupt businesses, assaults women, offends minorities, calls for his opponent to be killed and jailed, etc., etc., etc.

What can be done? How do we go about fixing something like mass hatred and mass delusion?

My short answer is: I don’t know. There are (implausible) long-term initiatives that would have an impact: namely enhancing income equality and promoting the liberal arts so we have a smarter, more scrutinizing, and less resentful, electorate. And Congress and our social media overlords simply must do something about controlling fake news.

In the short term, and on a more local level, I think we can do a couple of things.

First, we must acknowledge the problem. We cannot act as if we’re dealing with rational voters whose primary interest is their economic betterment. If we try to appeal to them in that way, like we’ve been doing for years (with promises of better health care, higher wages, infrastructure spending, environmental protection, and affordable college), we’re not going to get anywhere. We need to find ways to get to their emotions. Their guts. They are Republicans more out of a sense of tribalism than anything else. We need to strip off their surface of do-gooding decency to expose them for what they are—for them and the rest of us to see.

We need to have face-to-face conversations with the other side. The Alternet writer above seems to suggest that Christian rural white America is hopeless. I don’t know if I agree. It is possible to change people’s minds, as well as their hearts and souls. Author Daryl Davis, an African American, did just that. In Klan-destine Relationships, he describes his hobby of having conversations with Ku Klux Klan leaders. By following just a few principles, he got some of the most fervent racists in the world to turn in their robes and leave the Klan. Davis’s words from an Atlantic piece:
The most important thing I learned is that when you are actively learning about someone else you are passively teaching them about yourself. So if you have an adversary with an opposing point of view, give that person a platform. Allow them to air that point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be. And believe me, I've heard things so extreme at these rallies they'll cut you to the bone. Give them a platform. You challenge them. But you don't challenge them rudely or violently. You do it politely and intelligently. And when you do things that way chances are they will reciprocate and give you a platform. So he and I would sit down and listen to one another over a period of time. And the cement that held his ideas together began to get cracks in it. And then it began to crumble. And then it fell apart.
I remember in Texas I was speaking with a hardass about environmentalism, which he thought was a big government hoax. I told him about how I grew up near Love Canal in Western New York, where toxic chemicals led to unprecedented miscarriages, cancer rates, and birth defects. After I told this story, and how it factors into my environmentalism, he softened. He got it. He didn’t turn into John Muir, but he did learn that you don’t have to be a whacko to be an environmentalist. I listened, then he listened, and some small progress was made.

Move to the Heartland. Jobs may be few, but the scenery is gorgeous and the rent is ridiculously cheap. We can’t all concentrate ourselves in coastal liberal bubbles. And between the memes, the misinformation, and digital barrier between each set of eyes, Facebook divides us more than it brings us together. The only solution is face-to-face encounters and person-by-person cultural diffusion. Let's consider this the 21st Century's Bloody Kansas, where we move to rural states to change the fate of the nation. Romanticize it by thinking of yourself as a political frontiersman, heading out alone into a conservative, and rather gun-happy (bring an orange florescent vest), wilderness. Be a progressive missionary and come to the Heartland with nonthreatening stories of legal edibles and gay weddings. Join me in Stokes so I have someone to talk to. And bring some of those New York bagels, willya?

What if the left commandeered some of the right’s favorite issues? Let’s get out ahead of the right and use some stiff moral rhetoric to call for, say, drastically reducing the abortion rate (not by making abortions illegal, but by ramping up sex education programs and making contraceptives more widely available). If done in the right way, the Republican Party would no longer have a moral monopoly over the issue. In this way, with more than a little manipulation (and perhaps some legitimate moral motives as well), we can steal issues from the right.

Progressives also need to treat all religions equally, and that includes hating them equally: Fundamentalist Islam ought to get the ire that we don’t hesitate to heap on Fundamentalist Christianity. Our unrelenting praise for diversity and multiculturalism, and our moral relativism, have made it possible for someone like Trump to take a no-nonsense hardline stance on, say, Islamic immigration. We have enough extreme Islam-related incidents in our country, and have witnessed more than enough in Europe, to begin to speak of the religion with the scorn and intolerance it deserves.

Let’s talk about gun rights in positive terms. Instead of talking about restrictions, every Democrat should begin his line about guns with his dedication to protecting the Second Amendment before proposing a few sensible restrictions.

Think about every issue that’s important to conservatives and determine if there are ways that they may be rhetorically commandeered by progressives. None of this is going low or stooping to their level. It’s addressing their fears and speaking to their values in a way that will in the end help advance progressive principles. It’s really about framing progressive ideas for everyone, and not just progressives.

These might be silly ideas. They probably are. And I don’t know if they’ll work. But I know for certain that what we cannot do is use our same-old tactics and let them — with their fake news, rotten religion, and thinly-veiled racism — drive us back into the Dark Ages. We have truth and justice on our side, but that doesn’t mean much when they have the votes.


*I am not using the terms “fake news” and “rightwing propaganda” lightly. Here’s just a few stories about this problem:

Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income’

How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study

Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say