Two weeks ago I returned from visiting my family in the Mississippi Delta. My youngest son and I went to my uncle‘s funeral. His ashes were to be buried in the cemetery that contains the graves of my family going back to my great-great-grandmother (or was it three ‘greats’?) who was born in the first half of the 19th century. I dug the hole that would serve as my uncle’s grave close to my grandparents’ graves, and I led the prayer for the nine of us who came to the burial. Nine people attending a funeral in a cemetery bordered by a church and corn and soybean fields, in the Delta’s summer heat and humidity, the musical accompaniment courtesy of the cicadas rubbing their legs together. Not bad, not bad at all.
After the funeral we all came back to the house, and I barbecued some pork and beef ribs for those who came with us. My youngest son listened as my older brother and I talked with one of the attendees, a woman who was a distant cousin, and who, along with her husband, is a community leader. My youngest son later asked me why we were all talking about corn and other crops with such enthusiasm; after all, he’s a young scion of what I refer to as the Age of Wonders, the days of the Internet, cell phones, stem cells, practical applications of quantum physics, and miracle drugs. As I listened to my son (who thought the whole discussion was silly; pointless in the modern world), I couldn’t help but be reminded of a scene in the movie, Deliverance, in which Burt Reynolds and his sole surviving friend are at a dinner table with some locals, and two old women are discussing just how big their cucumbers and squash were in the past season. I told my son that just as grown folks in industrial areas will often talk about what they see as the finer points of industry, those who make their livelihoods in farming communities will talk about the fruits of the soil.
But while the woman and my brother and I were talking, I could see the conversation going in a direction I wasn’t comfortable with, so I told my son that if he wanted he could go play on the Playstation, and he happily complied. I did so because the woman was starting to talk about her opinions of blacks, and while I wasn’t afraid of her influencing my son in any way, I was certainly concerned that he might speak up against her. After all, a dinner after a funeral was no place for a political discussion. My brother watched me as I politely listened and struggled to keep a sincere smile on my face. He knows my political leanings and my opinion of racism, and he had to be laughing to himself about it.
This was — is — the Delta. Things are much the same as before: poverty, lack of education, racism simmering but never quite coming to a rolling boil, but I’m happy to report that there are some reasons for hope.
As I’ve said before, I’m a contrarian – how else can I refer to myself? I am a white man, strong Christian, retired military, raised virtually next door to ground zero for white racism, yet I am quite liberal. That fact doesn’t sit well with my family, and we’ve never had a visit where there wasn’t a lively discussion of politics. My brother is as strong a libertarian politically as I am a liberal: every day after work he’s got to have his hour with Bill O’Reilly, but at least he agrees that Limbaugh and Hannity are idiots. During the requisite political debate, my brother said how little we "really know" about Obama, how the media was so much kinder to Obama than to McCain, how the media paid "every bit as much attention" to McCain’s allegiance with Reverends Hagee and Parsley as to Obama’s relationship with Reverend Wright, and quite a bit more. There’s no need to argue these points again, these horses are dead, but I stood my ground, of course; all the while wondering how it could be that my highly intelligent brother could have been so easily drawn in by these false Republican talking points.
What leads someone to lean to conservative or liberal views? Is it nature or nurture? If it were nature, an inborn level of understanding or intelligence, then there would be no real difference between the ratio of conservatives and liberals between rural and urban areas. Also, it was recently noted that families that have more girls than boys tend to be more liberal than families with more boys than girls, so clearly the answer must be 'nurture' rather than 'nature'.
I suspect the reason goes back to something I posted on BC several months back, wherein I was attempting to prove a correlation between conservative political rule and lack of education, and poverty. I was castigated by the BC cognoscenti, and rightly so, because of a logical error in my premise that the preponderance of data show that conservative politics indicates a greater prevalence of many of society’s ills. My error lay in that I assumed that conservative politics led to poverty et al. I looked again at the data and saw that perhaps the key was actually a correlation between life in rural America and that same plethora of societal problems.
The error I made, it was said, was that I was assuming a confluence of factors indicated a definite relationship between those factors. My reply was that it is a matter of degree, that when the confluence consists not just of a few events but of hundreds and even thousands of events, there must be a relationship between the factors. The same logic can be applied when searching for the cause of a disease; there wouldn’t seem to be a logical connection between living in a certain part of the country and the prevalence of cancer or osteoporosis, but when the prevalence of a disease or disorder is too great to explain by other means, then there must be a correlation, as there was with cancer in the Delta (thanks to pesticides/herbicides) and with osteoporosis in Puget Sound (due to our lower-than-normal exposure to direct sunlight).
However, I also admitted that I was wrong, that it was apparent that the differences in income, education, divorce rates, crime rates, and life expectancy between liberal and conservative areas of the country wasn’t a result of conservative government, but due to a strong correlation between those several statistics and the level of urbanization of the region in question.
In other words, the greater the level of urbanization, generally speaking, the higher the level of income, education, and life expectancy, and the lower the rates of divorce and crime; and in my opinion, all of these are directly related to the greater level of education and the greater diversity of viewpoints and information available to those living in urban areas. Again, those who would seek to dispute this observation must prove how the "logical error" refutation trumps the confluence of hundreds or thousands of factors and events that skew the bell curve distribution of human development. The commonality of the confluence also begs another question, but I’ll save that for last.
So what the heck does all this have to do with the Mississippi Delta? First, I think it could be rightfully said that those who grow up in the country are more likely to have a greater level of self-reliance than those who grow up in the city, and as such have a lower level of understanding of the need for social programs. This is not to say that country folk don’t want to help their neighbors, of course they do! But having been raised in a community with few, if any, social programs to help the disadvantaged is (again, in my opinion) more likely to imbue one with a certain contempt of those who need those social programs i.e: “I made it by the sweat of my brow and so can you!” It’s easy to see how those who place a greater value on self-reliance would be more attracted to political parties that oppose social programs and emphasize the type of self-reliance that Ayn Rand popularized. In other words, country folk, rural folk, are more likely to be conservative.
Second, the Delta I grew up in had access to only one television station until the early 80s, and even now the great majority of the Delta receives only two television stations; cable TV (and cable/DSL Internet) is limited to the few small cities and towns which dot the Delta landscape. Furthermore, newspapers in rural areas have a limited budget with which to work, and are necessarily smaller. As a result, they give much greater emphasis to local and social news, and much less attention to national or world new,s than newspapers based in metropolitan areas. For example, if a newspaper in, say, Detroit, exposes inflammatory language by a preacher in a local church, that newspaper can easily withstand the loss of the business of the members of that church, but if a small-town newspaper exposes inflammatory language by a local preacher, that paper just might go under. What does this mean? It means that in rural areas, many grow up with less information at hand, a lower diversity of such information, and less of an appreciation of why they would need more (and a greater diversity of) information.
Third, in my experience, those in the country are less exposed to higher education, and it is more difficult for them to acquire it. For instance, young adults are often forced with choices of how to move from the country to the city, away from family and lifelong friends, and how to afford living in a city (much less affording higher education in that city). Yes, young adults tend to think anywhere is better than where they grew up, but many wind up staying anyway.
Put those three factors together and what does one get? People who grow up in rural areas are more likely to be conservative, generally have less information at hand and see little need for more information with which to make informed decisions, and generally have a lower level of post-secondary education.
And for a quick look at the other side of the political coin, those who grow up in the city: (1) are exposed to more social programs and is more likely to appreciate the need for those programs (and are therefore more likely to be liberal); (2) have more access to a greater diversity of information and viewpoints; and (3) have easier access to higher education.
A simple look at the statistics makes it plain that those in rural areas do in fact generally have lower levels of income, education, and life expectancy, and generally have higher divorce rates and crime rates. These are not the result of conservative government. I would instead think that these statistics result from the differences between rural and urban lifestyles. I would also submit that the greater strength of conservatism in rural areas is an indirect result of the rural lifestyle, whereas the greater strength of liberalism in urban areas is an indirect result of the urban lifestyle.
But earlier in the article I mentioned that I saw reasons for hope in my visit to the Delta. In listening to the woman speak of her opinion of blacks, I noticed she didn’t use the "N" word, which is very different from thirty years ago. In nearly all-black Shaw, I saw a young white boy walking down the street with a couple of black boys. This would not have been the case when I graduated from high school there a generation ago, for such was greatly frowned upon by the then-prosperous white community of Shaw. There are several middle-class housing developments opening in nearby Cleveland, and many of the residents are black (again, this was not the case a generation ago). No longer are they largely relegated to shotgun shacks with no air conditioning for the sweltering Delta summers.
What’s responsible for the rise of blacks in the Delta before the advent of Barack Obama? Obviously, a greater overall level of education and a greater overall sense of self-worth as they watched African Americans move into the political and social mainstream. Yes, they do have far to go, for the racial disparities in education, crime, and income remain considerable, but after this most recent visit, I believe that even those African Americans raised in the heart of the conservative base, and more specifically at ground zero for racism in America, have real hope for a better station in life.
Before I left, I noticed that the house that belonged to U.S. Senator James O. Eastland, a strongly conservative Democrat who was, for a generation, the most powerful racist in America, was no longer there. I was told that after he passed away, the house had fallen into disrepair and was torn down.Powered by Sidelines