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Voxsplaining Rural America

'What's the matter with rural white people? Don't they deserve what they get?'

In this interview with Vox’s Sean Illing, Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow discusses his new book about the trials and tribulations of rural America in the 21st century. It’s a classic. The reader who sent it to me, himself a Princeton graduate, writes: “I don’t necessarily disagree with everything they say, but they’re shockingly patronizing. Give me small-town America over its cultured despisers any day.”


Sean Illing: Fair enough. The title of your book, The Left Behind, rubbed me the wrong way. It seems to me that many of these people haven’t been left behind; they’ve chosen not to keep up. But the sense of victimization appears to overwhelm everything else.

Robert Wuthnow: I make it very clear in the book that this is largely a choice. It’s not as though these people are desperate to leave but can’t. They value their local community. They understand its problems, but they like knowing their neighbors and they like the slow pace of life and they like living in a community that feels small and closed. Maybe they’re making the best of a bad situation, but they choose to stay.

They recognize themselves as being left behind because, in fact, they are the ones in their family and in their social networks who did stay where they were. Most of the people I spoke to grew up in the small town they currently live in, or some other small town nearby. Often their children have already left, either to college or in search of a better job somewhere else.

In that sense, they believe, quite correctly, that they’re the ones who stayed in these small towns while young people — and really the country as a whole — moved on.

Let’s stop right there for a second. “They’ve chosen not to keep up”? I guess not, preoccupied as they are, clinging bitterly to their guns and their religion. Believe me, the questions are almost all like this. Interesting, too, because Sean Illing is a native of Biloxi, MS, and a graduate of LSU. He’s not writing as a total outsider to the rural South.

It won’t surprise you to learn that I believe Illing’s question is extraordinarily ungenerous, to, and even hard-hearted towards, rural people. I imagine that he and I would agree on some things that they do to get in their own way, but I wonder if he would remark to a sociologist writing a book about inner-city black people that their sense of victimization overwhelms everything.

On second thought, he might be right to do that, and he might be right to do it in the case of rural white people. Neither the color of your skin, nor the dirt on which you live, make you a saint. I’ve seen and heard urban black people and rural white people both blaming forces beyond their control for their unhappy condition, when it is clear as day that if they would start making different choices, they would see different outcomes. Let’s stipulate that.

What sticks in my craw about that question is the idea that these rural people “have chosen not to keep up.” What does that mean? “Keep up” in what sense? I wrote an entire book about how I had “kept up” with the values of our commercial, increasingly cosmopolitan culture, moving around taking the kinds of jobs that people in Sean Illing’s and my class value — and how, when my rural-dwelling sister came down with terminal cancer, the incredible strength of those who stayed behind, who “chose not to keep up.” People who choose not to keep up with the modern world are not to be scorned if that world is, in fact, headed in the wrong direction.

That’s what’s embedded in Illing’s remark: the idea that these rural white people aren’t progressives, and they deserve their own misery.


Sean Illing: I’m still struggling to understand what exactly these people mean when they complain about the “moral decline” of America. At one point, you interview a woman who complains about the country’s “moral decline” and then cites, as evidence, the fact that she can’t spank her children without “the government” intervening. Am I supposed to take this seriously?

Robert Wuthnow: It’s an interesting question. What does it mean for us to take that seriously? I guess my point is that she takes it seriously, even if we don’t or shouldn’t. Does she still spank her children? Probably. Is she just using that as an example of how the country is changing and how Washington is driving that change? Probably.

Really? Isn’t it obvious that this country woman, whether she realizes it or not, is using spanking as a metaphor for the loss of a sense of authority? It’s not really about spanking; it’s about an awareness that the old verities are no longer operative, and that moral order is dissolving. You can laugh at the hick who wants to whale the tar out of her young’uns, and is sorry that she cain’t do that no more, but if you do, you are missing a profound reality in the lives of people like her.

Alan Ehrenhalt’s great 1990s book The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America, about Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s, discusses in detail the changes that came over the city during that period of transition. It’s a challenging book, because it makes you realize that there’s no way to have most of the good things we want from that more ordered world without most of the bad things too.

Ehrenhalt says that since the 1960s, American culture has been organized around the sovereign individual, and expanding choices to meet his desires. Though they draw the lines in different places, this is true for both conservatives and liberals. Ehrenhalt says that nearly all Americans today share a “belief in individual choice and suspicion of any authority that might interfere with it.”

I can’t stand outside this and judge anybody. In order to defend my socially and religiously conservative convictions in the education of my children, I send my kids to a private Christian school that educates its students according to the classical model. I do this because the moral and intellectual formation of my children is more important to me than social solidarity. I disagree with modern American culture on the question: What is education for? (A billboard in Baton Rouge today: “Children Are Learning Machines”.) The point is, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to most people in my parents’ generation and before to think that there was a conflict there, because people pretty much shared the same moral outlook. That has seriously fragmented now. You can go to my hometown and see it. In some ways it’s better, and in other ways it’s worse, but it is undeniable.

I wrote years ago a column about Ehrenhalt’s book. I said:

When looking out for No. 1 becomes the basic social value for individuals, as well as corporations, traditional community becomes far more difficult to sustain. A community in the older understanding is far more than a group of people who happen to live in the same neighborhood. In traditional community, the shared moral sense of its members is embodied, enforced and passed on through institutions, customs and personal loyalties. This is unquestionably hard on rebels, outsiders and other individualists — and post-’60s American popular culture privileges the dissenters’ stories.

Without that social authority, though, the everyday communal trust taken for granted two generations ago collapses. We are today living in the ruins and don’t know how to get back what we’ve lost. Mr. Ehrenhalt’s inconvenient truth: “There is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved. Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a dream in the end.”

I take it that this is what Spanking Mama laments, whether she knows it or not. A lot of people who stayed behind did so because they wanted to live by the old ways, and found meaning in its order. Now they are discovering that the narrative that told them that they would be all right if they stayed loyal to what they had been given was not true.

An aside — one I think about almost every day. If you read The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, you know that Ruthie and my Starhill family believed that there was a kind of magic to Starhill. They didn’t believe this consciously, but they believed it. It went something like this: we are safe here, as long as we stay here, and stay loyal to our people. Those who leave — like Rod — are violating the order of life, and are risking terrible things. 

Well, of my mother and father’s two children, the one who stayed behind and did all the right things got terminal cancer. The one who left and did all the wrong things prospered. This was a hard thing for them to deal with, the felt injustice of it all.

I came to see after I returned home that the story of what happened to my sister was shattering to them in a similar way that the failure of a god might be to an ancient people. I know that sounds exaggerated, but I think it really is true. Ruthie wasn’t supposed to die. The fact that Ruthie died turned their world upside down, because it wasn’t just the tragedy of Ruthie’s life ending. Ruthie stood for something greater. She was the best of rural life — and, to be honest, in her instinctive resentment of city people, a bit of the worst. But the good far, far outweighed the bad, and in my book, I tried to point out that the virtues she stood for, and that her community stood for, are worthy. And not only worthy, but also have something important to teach the rest of us who no longer live as they do.

Everything that happened after my sister died — well, it was sad, and it is not entirely my story to tell. I can say that the ideology of the Last Good Place — that is, the belief in the unquestioned goodness of their way of life, and resentment of anything that challenged it — proved ruinous in the wake of Ruthie’s death. It was a true tragedy, in the sense that the very best of my family’s way of life led to its ultimate dissolution and scattering. It didn’t have to be that way, but that’s what happened.

I tell you this because it has all been an education for me about the choices people make determining their fate. This personal experience is partly why I am generally disinclined to affirm the victimization narrative. Illing (and Wuthnow) are correct to say that falling into resentment prevents rural folks from taking stock of the reality of their situation, and acting in sensible ways to meet their challenges. (Though I would point out that you’re not going to find many left-wing publications like Vox saying the same thing about brown and black poor people.) In my own little niche, speaking to conservative Christians about cultural decline, it drives me . nuts how unwilling so many believers are to see the world as it is, and to change their ways of thinking and behaving so that the things they (we) profess to value most can be saved. Voting for Trump and raging against the liberals might have some justification, but it’s not going to be remotely enough to deal with our problems. It is primarily a distraction.

I guess what ticks me off about Illing’s questions is his contempt for these people, and what they’ve lost, and are losing. In my hometown, it’s now become the expected thing that people’s children will move away. There are economic reasons for this, and maybe those are the primary reasons. But there are also cultural reasons. You couldn’t get more of a homegirl than my sister, but today, her oldest daughter lives in California, and doesn’t intend to return home to live; her second daughter is off at college, but doesn’t plan to settle in Louisiana; and her third daughter, still in high school, plans to leave and not come back. Had Ruthie lived, would they see the world differently? Maybe. But Ruthie would have been fighting the tides of culture to keep her children at home. All the good things that she had, and that I wrote about in Little Way, will not likely be part of her children’s life — nor the life of my children.

Because we left.

I don’t blame my nieces for the choices they’ve made, given the hand they were dealt. I didn’t want to move away again either in 2016, but unforeseen circumstances forced our hand. Still, even if the reasons were good, we’re gone. If I were an old man living in a house down a country road in West Feliciana Parish, and I saw all my children and grandchildren had moved away, and those who stayed behind, if I saw that they weren’t forming families, but were having babies without getting married; and if I saw that even if my adult children wanted to stay, there weren’t any jobs for them; and if I saw — continued to see — people like me mocked and derided by coastal elites as backwards bigots who refuse to get woke and who deserve our suffering for preferring the Confederate flag, under which my ancestors fought, to the rainbow flag — well, yeah, I’d be inclined toward stone cold spite too.

More from the interview:

Sean Illing: Which is why I’d argue that the divide between rural and urban America is becoming unbridgeable. We can talk all we like about the sanctity of these small communities and the traditional values that hold them together, but, as you say, many of the people who live in these places hold racist views and support racist candidates and we can’t accommodate that.

Robert Wuthnow: Yes, this is one of the most difficult aspects of the discussion we’re now having about morality in America. What counts as moral varies so much from place to place. In the South, for example, you have clergy who are vehement about abortion or homosexuality, and they preach this in the pulpits every Sunday. But then they turn a blind eye to policies that hurt the poor or discriminate against minorities.

Sean Illing: I know a lot of people who don’t live in rural America are tired of being told they need to understand all these resentments.

Huh. I know a lot of people who do live in rural America who are tired of being told that they need to understand all the resentments of the the woke and the privileged. That doesn’t mean that they are justified in ceasing to try to understand people unlike themselves! But it certainly is the case that there are very damn few people who tell stories in this culture — that is, those in charge of the cultural means of production — who are inclined to view these rural white people with any sympathy, even as they live out the tragedy of America’s unsettling. Woke white people are the kind of educated elites who  read Wendell Berry sympathetically, but who have no use for actual rural white people who aren’t Wendell Berry.

Whole thing here.  I’m sorry Anthony Bourdain is dead; the man who went to rural West Virginia, where everybody believes the opposite of what he believes, and who came to love the people there even though he doesn’t share their beliefs, would have been a much better interviewer of Robert Wuthnow.

Here’s a passage from Wendell Berry’s essay “The Work of Local Culture,” collected (most recently) in The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry:

… but [it is] the story of rural families in the industrial nations from Wordsworth’s time until today. The children go to the cities, for reasons imposed by the external economy, and they do not return; eventually the parents die and the family land, like Michael’s, is sold to a stranger. By now it has happened millions of times.

And by now the transformation of the ancient story is nearly complete. Our society, on the whole, has forgotten or repudiated the theme of return. Young people still grow up in rural families and go off to the cities, not to return. But now it is felt that this is what they should do. Now the norm is to leave and not return. And this applies as much to urban families as to rural ones. In the present urban economy the parent-child succession is possible only among the economically privileged. The children of industrial underlings are not likely to succeed their parents are work, and there is no reason for them to wish to do so. We are not going to have an industrial ‘Michael’ in which is is perceived as tragic that a son fails to succeed his father on an assembly line.

According to the new norm, the child’s destiny is not to succeed the parents, but to outmode them; succession has given way to supersession. And this norm is institutionalized not in great communal stories, but in the education system. The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance that is it their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to say, the future, of the child. The orientation is thus necessarily theoretical, speculative, and mercenary. The child is not educated to return home and be of use to the place and community; he or she is educated to leave home and earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.

Why does this matter? More Berry:

The loss of local culture is, in part, a practical loss and an economic one. For one thing, such a culture contains, and conveys to succeeding generations, the history of the use of the place and the knowledge of how the place may be lived in and used. For another, the pattern of reminding implies affection for the place and respect for it, and so, finally, the local culture will carry the knowledge of how the place may be well and lovingly used, and also the implicit command to use it only well and lovingly. The only true and effective ‘operator’s manual for spaceship earth’ is not a book that any human will ever write; it is hundreds of thousands of local cultures.

Lacking an authentic local culture, a place is open to exploitation, and ultimately destruction, from the center. … My feeling is that if improvement is going to begin anywhere, it will have to begin out in the country and in the country towns. This is not because of any intrinsic virtue that can be ascribed to rural people, but because of their circumstances. Rural people are living, and have lived for a long time, as the site of the trouble. They see all around the, every day, the marks and scars of an exploitive national economy. They have much reason, by now, to know how little real help is to be expected from somewhere else. They still have, moreover, the remnants of local memory and local community. And in rural communities there are still farms and small businesses that can be changed according to the will and the desire of individual people.

Berry published that thirty years ago. I don’t know how true any of it still is. Very little, perhaps. I do know that the extent to which it is no longer true — well, that’s a tragedy. It’s a tragedy in which I am complicit, by the choices I’ve made, and that in which my people are complicit for the same reason. Embracing a narrative of pure victimization on our part is excuse-making, and that won’t do. But some of these choices were made for us, without our consent, and people aren’t wrong to wonder who benefited from these decisions, and why.

Still, as Alan Ehrenhalt said,

There is no easy way to have an orderly world without somebody making the rules by which order is preserved. Every dream we have about re-creating community in the absence of authority will turn out to be a dream in the end.

We have all been set free from traditional sources of authority. That has worked out for some of us. For others, it has been the freedom of the desert. What ticks me off about the Vox view of the world is that it refuses to see any tragic sense in what has happened. That’s progressives for you: history is a Grand March, and woe to the loser who can’t keep up.

I’ll leave you with this. When I was young and in college, and ardently progressive, I saw my Reagan-voting father as a reactionary troglodyte. He held all the wrong opinions! He was what’s wrong with the world! As often happens, as I grew older, I came to appreciate my father’s wisdom — even though I never came fully to share his politics. This is a cliché, I know.

He died in 2015, at the age of 81. An entire world died with him. We never talked about politics. He didn’t live long enough to vote for Trump, but he surely would have. I don’t think about that these days. And I don’t dwell any longer on how much I wish he would have seen value in the things his son loved. What I find myself thinking about is how few old folks like him we have left in West Feliciana. People of my generation and younger don’t know the land like they did, because we didn’t live on it, and with it, like they did. We don’t know the woods like they did. We don’t know suffering like those children of the Great Depression did. There’s so much we don’t know, and never will know, because they are gone, and there aren’t enough of us to carry on their work. I find myself filled with regret about all the things I wish I had asked him about our place, and his time in it.

There was that moment back in 1991, I think it was, when I took a trip to France — how nice it was to be making my own money, and to be able to afford things like this — and planned to meet some Dutch friends in Paris. When I returned home and visited my folks, I sat on the brick hearth in their living room and told them about the trip. When I got to the hotel in Paris, I said, there was a note from my Dutch friends saying something had come up at the last minute, and they wouldn’t be able to make it.

My father’s face turned white. “What did you do?” he said quietly.

“Checked in, and spent the rest of my time exploring the city,” I said, not getting his point. “What would you have done?”

“Probably sat in my hotel room and waited until I could take a taxi back to the airport to go home,” he said. He wasn’t joking.

That was a big moment for me. I hero-worshiped my father, because he was brave and resourceful in ways that I was not. He was a man who could go deep into the woods, plunge into the swamp, or hit the river in his boat, and conquer everything. He couldn’t get lost in rural south Louisiana, because he knew it all so well. And yet there he was, admitting to me that a challenge that I met with pleasure — being alone in a foreign capital — would have paralyzed him in the same way that finding myself alone in the swamp would have paralyzed me.

Well, then! So I have something over you, old man, I thought. We were made so differently, my dad and me. The world as it is today is made for people like me to succeed more than for people like my late father. The kind of skill and character it takes to be able to find your way around and thrive in a foreign city are more likely to be rewarded than the skills and character that made my father the lord of his rural domain.

And yet, I wonder: which of us was more a man of the world? I really do wonder. I think it would do Vox writers and their ilk a lot of good to ask themselves that question, and to resist giving an easy answer.

UPDATE: For a much more serious take on Wuthnow’s book, read Russell Arben Fox’s essay.



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