“I want my kids to grow up with values and ways of life that I had and my parents had,” he says, so his youngest son tools around the garage on a Big Wheel, and his oldest daughter keeps her riding horse at the family barn built in 1907, and they buy their drinking milk from Braun’s because he always has. “Why look for change?” he says. “I like to know that what you see is what you get.”
What you see is Sid’s Easy Shop opening downtown each morning at 6, where Sid will sell you gas, rent you a movie, make you a new set of keys or bring your soda to one of the classic red booths preserved from the 1950s. The post office, its roof painted red and white to reflect the stripes of the American flag, opens for business a few hours later. Next door to that, Casey operates her coffee shop with the help of her husband and five kids, who take turns working the register, Yes Sir and Yes Ma’am, and sell T-shirts imprinted with the phrase “Make God Famous.”
What you see is a parade of several dozen well-wishers lining the street and stretching out their hands to the bus every time one of the varsity high school teams leaves to play a road game, and a few hundred people gathering for community workdays to fix up the Little League field so Washington doesn’t waste money on parks and rec. Almost all of the houses in town are single-story ranchers, and more than 70 percent belong to married couples — few Hispanic, fewer black, none Muslim and none openly gay.
What you see are calves dropping in the spring, coyotes circling at night, shooting stars, roaring tornados and thick flocks of birds migrating across skies that round over the horizon.
“Is there anyplace else?” Tague wonders.
He looks more like a financier than a farmer, with wire-rimmed glasses, close-cropped hair and an iPhone he uses to check the per-pound prices for live cattle. He still travels every few weeks to Indianapolis or St. Louis for his job at a thriving mortgage industry start-up, but he dreams of expanding his herd and raising cattle full time.
If he can’t do it, maybe his children will.
“You want this place, Lily?” he asks.
She smiles and nods.
“Good,” he says, “ ’cause I’m going to make sure you get it.”
No gays, no Muslims? This sick hamlet, this slough of cultural deformation, doesn’t look like America. We should invade and liberate the place.
Ha ha! I kid. But seriously, the thing that strikes me about this portrait of a rural Oklahoma town is not how alien its way of life is to that of the rest of the country — though it is — but how the town, at least as depicted in this report, serves as a cultural Rohrshach test. To some, this town is a remnant and a redoubt of the Real America. To others, it is a vestige of an insular, closed-minded way of life, the passing of which is not to be mourned. What it made me think about was the anthropologist Wade Davis’s great book, “The Wayfinders,” a discussion and defense of the value of traditional cultures and communities the world over, and what humankind loses when they disappear. It is easy for us to stand up for the threatened mountain villages of faraway Diddywadiddy (even if we never rise from our armchairs), but much more difficult to feel the same sense of sympathy, much less urgency, about a place like Washington, Okla. Mind you, Davis writes, and writes beautifully, of the “ancient wisdom” of cultures disappearing in the face of modernity’s onslaught. But his insights could also be applied to places like this rural Oklahoma village. From “The Wayfinders”:
We too are culturally myopic and often forget that we represent not the absolute wave of history but merely a world view, and that modernity — whether you identify it by the monikers westernization, globalization, capitalism, democracy, or free trade — is but an expression of our cultural values. It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture. And it is certainly not the true and only pulse of history.
An anthropologist from a distant planet landing in the United States would see many wondrous things. But he or she or it would also encounter a culture that reveres marriage, yet allows half of its marriages to end in divorce; that admires its elderly, yet has grandparents living with grandchildren in only 6 percent of its households; that loves its children, yet embraces a slogan — “24/7″ — that implies total devotion to the workplace at the expense of family. By the age of 18, the average American youth has spent two years watching television. One in five Americans is clinically obese and 60 percent are overweight, in part because 20 percent of all meals are consumed in automobiles and a third of children eat fast food every day. The country manufactures 200 million tons of industrial chemicals each year, while its people consume two-thirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs. The four hundred most prosperous American control more wealth than 2.5 billion people in the poorest eighty-one nations with whom they share the planet. The nation spends more money on armaments and war than the collective military budgets of its seventeen closest rivals. The state of California spends more money on prisons than on universities. Technological wizardry is balanced by the embrace of an economic model of production and consumption that compromises the life supports of the planet. Extreme would be one word for a civilization that contaminates with its waste the air, water, and soil; that drives plants and animals to extinction on a scale not seen on earth since the disappearance of the dinosaurs; that dams the rivers, tears down the ancient forests, empties the seas of fish, and does little to curtail industrial processes that threaten to transform the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere.
Davis goes on to say that if the measure of success is technological mastery and material gain, then ours is clearly a superior civilization.
But if the criteria of excellence shifted, for example to the capacity to thrive in a truly sustainable manner, with a true reverence and appreciation for the earth, the Western paradigm would fail. If the imperatives driving the highest aspirations of our species were to be the power of faith, the reach of spiritual intuition, the philosophical generosity to recognize the varieties of religious longing, then our dogmatic conclusions would again be found wanting.
When we project modernity, as we define it, as the inevitable destiny of all human societies, we are being disingenuous in the extreme. … In reality, development for the vast majority of peoples of the world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past, propelled into an uncertain future, only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere.
To be sure, the people of Washington, Okla., live in modernity in ways that Kenyan tribesmen do not. Still, what you don’t see in this story, and can’t see, because you have to live in a place like this for a while to discern it, is how the social network provides for the common good, in a way that’s harder to manage in bigger, more modern, and, frankly, more diverse places. I do live in a place that’s more ethnically diverse than Washington — if half black, and half white, with a smattering of Asians and Hispanics counts as more diverse — but culturally fairly rural and Christian. (I went to a meeting of a local governmental body a couple of months ago, and was pleasantly startled and when the meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Our Father.) As I’ve been reporting this book on my sister, I’ve run across people telling me about her uncanny ability to keep straight who is related to whom. One of her friends and colleagues at the middle school said that when they would be having trouble with a particular student, Ruthie would draw on her knowledge of that child’s extended family, and all their travails, to help school officials better understand the social context for that child’s difficulties. More prosaically, Ruthie knew the families of everyone, from her students, to her colleagues, to the cafeteria workers, and everyone else, and could and would ask about how your Aunt Frances was feeling these days, and if your cousin Johnny had gotten married, like he said he would. After Ruthie was diagnosed with cancer, her school had a voluntary after-school staff and faculty meeting for people to pray for her, if they wanted to. I’m told that every single teacher, administrator, janitor, cook, and staffer showed up. And every single one spoke a word of prayer for her.
True, Ruthie was extraordinary in that way, but most people here can do that to a certain degree, because they’re from here, and this is how you live in rural America. I would expect that people in that Oklahoma town live the same way. For all the faults and challenges of rural life, this is a strength that I’ve not seen anywhere else. It is more fruitful, I think, to set aside the culture-war paradigm, and think of places like Washington, Okla., as Wendell Berry does. From a Berry essay in The Progressive (!):
That, I think, is true, but another reason that needs to be considered is modern society’s widespread prejudice against country people. This prejudice is not easy to explain, in view of modern society’s continuing dependence upon rural sustenance, but its existence also is indisputable.
Lewontin’s condescension to country people and their problems is not an aberration either in our society or in The New York Review of Books. On June 29, 2000, that magazine published this sentence: “At worst, [Rebecca West] had a mind that was closed and cold, like a small town lawyer’s, prizing facts but estranged from imaginative truth.” And on December 20, 2001, it published this: “The Gridiron dinner, as the affair is known, drags on for about five hours, enlivened mainly by the speeches of the politicians, whose ghostwriters in recent years have consistently outdone the journalists in the sharpness and grace of their wit (leaving journalists from the provinces with a strong impulse to follow the groundhogs back into their holes).”
It is possible to imagine that some readers will ascribe my indignation at those sentences to the paranoia of an advocate for the losing side. But I would ask those readers to imagine a reputable journal nowadays that would attribute closed, cold minds to Jewish lawyers, or speak of black journalists wanting to follow the groundhogs into their holes. This, it seems to me, would pretty effectively dissipate the ha-ha.
Disparagements of farmers, of small towns, of anything identifiable as “provincial” can be found everywhere: in comic strips, TV shows, newspaper editorials, literary magazines, and so on. A few years ago, The New Republic affirmed the necessity of the decline of family farms in a cover article entitled “The Idiocy of Rural Life.” And I remember a Kentucky high school basketball cheer that instructed the opposing team:
Go back, go back, go back to the woods.
Your coach is a farmer and your team’s no good.
I believe it is a fact, proven by their rapidly diminishing numbers and economic power, that the world’s small farmers and other “provincial” people have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime. They are the objects of small, “humane” consideration, but if they are damaged or destroyed “collaterally,” then “we very much regret it,” but they were in the way–and, by implication, not quite as human as “we” are. The industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of economic genocide–less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but just as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in ridding the world of a kind of human life. The small farmers and the people of small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to say not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which is to say socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior to “us.”
Am I trying to argue that all small farmers are superior or that they are all good farmers or that they live the “idyllic life”? I certainly am not. And that is my point. The sentimental stereotype is just as damaging as the negative one. The image of the farmer as the salt of the earth, independent son of the soil, and child of nature is a sort of lantern slide projected over the image of the farmer as simpleton, hick, or redneck. Both images serve to obliterate any concept of farming as an ancient, useful, honorable vocation, requiring admirable intelligence and skill, a complex local culture, great patience and endurance, and moral responsibilities of the gravest kind.
I am not trying to attribute any virtues or characteristics to farmers or rural people as a category. I am only saying what black people, Jews, and others have said many times before: These stereotypes don’t fit. They don’t work. Of course, some small town lawyers have minds that are “closed and cold,” but some, too, have minds that are open and warm. And some “provincial” journalists may be comparable to groundhogs, I suppose, though I know of none to whom that simile exactly applies, but some too are brilliant and brave and eminently useful. I am thinking, for example, of Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Kentucky, who for many decades have opposed the coal companies whenever necessary and have unflinchingly suffered the penalties, including arson. Do I think the Gishes would be intimidated by the frivolous wit of ghostwriters at the Gridiron dinner? I do not.
Yes, he’s talking about farmers, but also about country people in general. More sharply, he has defined “tolerance and multiculturalism” thus: “Quit talking bad about women, homosexuals, and preferred social minorities, and you can say anything you want about people who haven’t been to college, manual workers, country people, peasants, religious people, unmodern people, old people, and so on.” My point is that if you take off your culture war glasses and regard a place like Washington, Okla., with more anthropological eyes, it looks different.
“I want my kids to grow up with values and ways of life that I had and my parents had,” he says…“Why look for change?”
This is a normal, universal human sentiment. Is there a difference between this as expressed by a peasant of the Bolivian highlands, and as expressed by a rural Oklahoma farmer? Why or why not? Are we prepared to recognize the dignity of ways of life that are alien to our own, and indeed based on values opposed to our own? Where do we draw the line?