by Abe Sauer
Last week an Awl contributor opined that a boycott was not the answer for Arizona’s recent immigration law. The essay posited that the best thing for Arizona’s backwardness was for you, the enlightened, liberal person, to visit there, spend your money to boost the economy and engender in its people “new ways of thinking.” It added, in conclusion, “if you really want to change Arizona, move there.” I will preface my criticism of this idea by saying that, in the larger picture, we’re on the same team. But I wholeheartedly disagree with the logic, or lack thereof, behind some of this argument. And I find the tone of so much of this kind of creative-class liberal hand-wringing condescending and dismissive of the great many activities and cultures these communities have. I say this as somebody who did “move there.”
For starters, the idea that occasionally interacting with bigots will change their minds is wildly naive. The sociopolitical divisiveness that exists in these hotbeds of reactionary thought can reason its way around anything. When Wisconsin Public Radio’s Ben Meren’s “At Issue” program covered the recent Gulf oil disaster, one caller posited that it was very possible that environmental activists on the left had dismantled the blow out valve on the well in order to cause an disaster that would force politicians to vote against more off-shore drilling. (That call was days before Limbaugh himself echoed the theory.) Just what kind of mental space does a man need to be in where that is his first explanation? Can you reason with that?
Or how about the numbskull whose Chevrolet Silverado I was behind this week? The one with the sticker reading “My truck was made with wrenches, not chopsticks”? Sanctimony tourism really does more to make liberals feel altruistic than repair entrenched prejudice. So, by all means, visit if you like, spend some money, but don’t pretend you’re changing anything and making the world a better place in any way.
More reasonable is the idea of foregoing a boycott to assure Arizona’s poor don’t get poorer. But the truly destitute cannot really get much poorer. Continuing to spend money in the places that already pay them less than a living wage only reinforces the appropriateness of this business behavior while at the same time demonstrating a complete lack of moral support for their quality of life struggles.
The second part of the no-boycott reasoning is that simple economic development goes hand in hand with progressive thinking. There are plenty of states with reactionary, backward policies that boast very robust economies-Texas and North Dakota, just for starters. The latter of those two economically-healthy states openly refuses to recognize the Constitutional rights of a whole group of American citizens, let along immigrants. Where’s the left’s concerned essays about engagement there? Social progressiveness in communities is tied to “creative class” economic development, which does not include Arizona’s resorts, or North Dakota’s oil wells. A boycott of Arizona does more than punish just Arizona; it sends a message to all the other states that are right now considering very similar laws, and there are several.
(A side note to all those on either side of this boycott issue: yes, part of the state’s recent draconian law has its roots in flat-out racism, but it also has gained much support from reasonable Arizonians who, after seeing a spill-over of drug crimes and no action on the federal level, find this a necessary evil to force the fed’s hand. The reasons for that violence are numerous. But if you, in your liberal, coastal community enjoy smoking a little illegal weed, know that you are an actor in the dire circumstances that have brought those less enlightened to the legislative action you now condemn.)
Finally, there is the real-change action of moving there, be it Arizona or some other small-minded bit of America where all policy blossoms from fear. Do this and you will almost certainly fail in your lifetime; but that does not mean you shouldn’t.
Any such discussion should begin with Main Street. Not the CNN news ticker “Main Street” of recent battles where “Main Atreet” was a placeholder opposite for “Wall Street,” but the Sinclair Lewis novel of the 1920s. In Lewis’ tale, an educated, liberal couple moves from the big city to settle in small town Minnesota. The wife, Carol Milford, makes it her crusade to improve the social character and progressive attitude of the town:
“She reverted to her resolution to change the town — awaken it, prod it, “reform” it. What if they were wolves instead of lambs? They’d eat her all the sooner if she was meek to them. Fight or be eaten. It was easier to change the town completely than to conciliate it! She could not take their point of view; it was a negative thing; an intellectual squalor; a swamp of prejudices and fears. She would have to make them take hers. She was not a Vincent de Paul, to govern and mold a people. What of that? The tiniest change in their distrust of beauty would be the beginning of the end; a seed to sprout and some day with thickening roots to crack their wall of mediocrity. If she could not, as she desired, do a great thing nobly and with laughter, yet she need not be content with village nothingness. She would plant one seed in the blank wall.
One seed. Which seed it was did not matter. All knowledge and freedom were one. But she had delayed so long in finding that seed. Could she do something with this Thanatopsis Club? Or should she make her house so charming that it would be an influence?”
It’s a disaster. And as she runs into and stumbles over one absurd petty local character after another, her will is finally broken. The conclusion of the book exemplifies why Lewis won a Pulitzer for the work (even though it was later rescinded):
“She looked across the silent fields to the west. She was conscious of an unbroken sweep of land to the Rockies, to Alaska, a dominion which will rise to unexampled greatness when other empires have grown senile. Before that time, she knew, a hundred generations of Carols will aspire and go down in tragedy devoid of palls and solemn chanting, the humdrum inevitable tragedy of struggle against inertia.
‘Let’s all go to the movies tomorrow night. Awfully exciting film,’ said Ethel Clark.
‘Well, I was going to read a new book but — All right, let’s go,’ said Carol.”
The backward town of Gopher Prairie, despite Carol’s best efforts, is a lost cause. But they’re all lost causes for the crusading city idealist who decides to “move there.” Lewis knew this 100 years ago.
Lewis was exploding the myth of the idyllic tranquility of wholesome small-town America. Today, thanks in part to Lewis, that stereotype no longer exists. Today, for much of the country, small town America is a whole different stereotype, the punch-line that often ends with the words “meth,” “Wal-Mart,” or some variation of “married his cousin.” To the average modern American sophisticate, small-town America is, at its intellectual worst, a racist beer-swilling brute, and at its intellectual best, Sarah Palin.
If you do move to one of these places to engender change, you should probably not expect a lot of fun. First, what exactly are you going to do? The kinds of jobs that many coastal progressives excel at are not available. In the places we’re talking about, the ones that really need progressive thought, being “creative” is not rewarded monetarily.
Do your interests revolve around poetry? Soccer? Many kinds of food? Are you a vegetarian? A single professional parent? Jewish? Gay? Your life is about to drastically change, especially if you’re the last one. This is not to say people with a wide variety of interests, intellectual and otherwise, don’t exist in small or conservative communities; it’s that they are few. You will be a pronounced minority. But just a minority, not alone.
There are many liberal progressives living amongst all these “bigots.” One of them is Jonathan Liu, writer for Wired.com’s Geek Dad blog, and self-professed “idealist coastal elite” who is in western Kansas, in part, to “enact change.” He says that the idea that large swaths of America are devoid of progressive influence is bunk.
“One of the biggest reasons we chose [here] was that we were surprised with how progressive it was already. I mean, certainly it’s a very conservative community and it’s quite different from a place like Portland…,” he said. “So my assumptions about rural living were proven wrong, at least here, and I was pleasantly surprised. My advantage was that the people here were primed for change.”
Liu has had some success engendering change, but he says realistic expectations are key. “I have lofty ideals: for instance, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone drove less, or at least didn’t leave their cars running while they shopped for groceries? But I can’t let myself be discouraged when that doesn’t happen right away, and I celebrate the small successes. We had a ‘Don’t Drive Day’ but we had to accept that folks who lived outside of town were going to drive to work. [Yet] it was a pleasant surprise to see that a lot of folks were out walking downtown.”
Finally, he cautions about the approach a liberal idealist should take: “You’ll get a lot farther if people know that you’re acting out of a real love for the community, rather than a more paternalistic ‘I know what’s best for you.’”
One more consideration before you move: are you ready to see your gains go up in smoke in a short period of time? Should you find a job and settle down to the business of changing minds for the better, it may not be long-lived. Your child will almost certainly have to attend the local public school where his or her academic achievement, socially enlightened views and aims at a greater life elsewhere, a result of your influence, will probably result in him or her being at least moderately ostracized. This will likely drive him or her to go off to college elsewhere and never return. All the child’s engendering of change will happen on vacations, which means it won’t happen. And this is the most crippling element of a plan to “move there.” Such change can only happen over a couple generations’ worth of influence and that won’t happen because of brain drain.
The brain drain subject, especially in light of last week’s plea, is especially important. Maybe you are from one of these places.
Patrick Carr, Rutgers University associate professor and author of the spectacular book about America’s brain drain, “Hollowing out the Middle,” told me: “There is plenty of blame to go around and I believe that many Achievers, as we call them, feel ambivalent at best and remorseful at worst about leaving.”
The community that you may find (at least in part) repugnant spent a considerable amount of its resources, maybe even a disproportionate amount, making sure you could achieve. Then you left. So, let’s be honest; when you talk about going back to some Godforsaken place to save it from its intellectually regressive nincompoops, you’re talking about fixing what you’re partly responsible for to begin with. Those who leave are part of a phenomenon that has done a great deal to create the wild incongruity of modern America, where the reactionaries and the progressives huddle in their respective zones and fling invective back and forth.
A final piece of personal advice: If you do plan to “move there,” it’s a good idea not to write an essay in which you call most of those you aim to “help” ignorant, poor, racist, or any other things one might expect a person to not like being called. Boycott, or come on in and spend your money and “engender change,” whichever you prefer. One thing these communities certainly don’t need more of? The paternalistic expressions Liu mentioned, the kind that wonder aloud “Oh, what’s to be done about them?” as if our communities are handicapped children. If only because it makes it harder for those of us actually here generally failing, but still trying hard, to engender change.
Abe Sauer lives in your flyover country