This isn’t the first time Barack Obama has “chosen his words poorly,” but may be the most significant event of his campaign. Being somewhat of an Obama supporter and also having lived in rural America for the majority of my adult life and a good portion of my childhood, I was drawn far more to this controversy than to Hillary’s “sniper fire” comments for two reasons. First, it doesn’t seem surprising to me that any politician would offer their experience in terms of hyperbole. They all do it. Hillary waves her “First Lady” experience in the same way that Barack waves his “raised by a single mom” flag and we all know that neither experience was as ‘big’ as they’d like to make it out to be (Barack did attend an expensive private school and eventually Harvard, after all, something that most “impoverished” people can only dream about, not to mention that his mother remarried when he was young). The second reason Obama’s comments inspired me to explore them is that there is within them an element of truth that cannot be ignored, but has obviously been misunderstood by Obama and others.
In his comment, Obama links two issues that are actually separate issues. The first issue is this “bitterness.” People seem offended that he calls them bitter, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we absolutely are. We are bitter because our towns are severely impoverished, but we are equally bitter because the answer given us from government is consistently “more industry”—something that we don’t really want because it would change the entire culture of our home. Those who want a more “city” feel move to the city—or do what I did and move to a city that is somewhere in between urban and rural, the best of both worlds, if you will. Rural Americans do, in fact, want solutions to the problem of poverty but they want it on their terms and consistent with their culture.
The second issue is that rural Americans “cling” to religion, guns, and anti-immigration law because of their “frustrations.” The reality is that religion and guns, at least, are part of an established culture and represent rural American values. Obama’s comments highlight a second reason that rural Americans are bitter. Their values are not accepted as culture. Because Americans don’t have a culture, right?
Rural Americans tend toward a significant religious culture (in some places more than others). Most of them don’t go to church because they aren’t making ends meet. They don’t go to church because they’re frustrated or angry or bitter. They go to church for the same reason that most urban Americans go to church: because they believe in a particular set of religious values. Those values often say that abortion is murder, that homosexuality is morally wrong, that birth control impedes the will of God, that children are to be seen and not heard, and that women do not belong on the pulpit or in the workplace. They might also say that people should come together as a community to help the poor, that husbands should provide for their wives, that fathers should provide for their children, and that people should actively help the sick. So if we reject rural American values, we are rejecting the good with the bad and we are rejecting essentially religious values—something that every person has the freedom to choose for themselves.
How anyone could see guns and poverty as lumped together in rural America is beyond me. We aren’t talking about Uzis or machine guns here. We’re talking about shotguns and hunting rifles, the occasional sidearm that, yes, people take with them on hunting trips. On the one hand, hunting is a cost-effective way to provide for a family. But there’s more to it than that. Hunting, like religion, is part of a historical culture. “Coming of age” for a young rural boy often means that first hunting trip with Dad. It’s a way for fathers and sons (and more recently, mothers and daughters) to bond. It’s a tradition equivalent in emotional value to a graduation ceremony. Beyond that, rural Americans see the right to bear arms as a primary constitutional right. For all of these reasons, they defend that right vehemently, and because those outside of the culture consistently view it as a value based on ignorance or apathy rather than the historical tradition that it is, rural Americans do become bitter.
Anti-immigration sentiment in rural America probably holds the closest relationship to frustration with poverty, but even then, Obama’s comment misses the mark because it inherently assumes that rural Americans are wrong to be angry—and on top of that, assumes that every rural American shares that sentiment. In reality, farmers and ranchers are often the biggest advocates for an expanded migrant labor force. It is white collar rural Americans who struggle with this issue and as with anything, there are several facets to that struggle. On one side of the token, illegal immigrant workers often displace long-time resident workers in minimum wage jobs (and too often, minimum wage jobs are all that’s available) and as they do so, they are sending their earnings back to their home countries rather than contributing to the community in which they are living. Is this anti-immigration sentiment or is this just cold, hard fact? Recently, a new phenomenon has arisen in rural America (and other places) that exacerbates the issue. All of a sudden, standard white collar professions that have historically been open to young women are closed to the individuals who have lived in these communities all their lives. How? Bilingual requirements. In many of these rural communities, every social service agency requires their workers to be bilingual and those that don’t require it at least pay more for that particular “qualification.” In some situations, this leads to a reverse discrimination situation in which only individuals of a particular ethnicity are employed by an agency—and only individuals of a particular ethnicity receive assistance. If we understand that these are often the best paying jobs in rural areas, further understand that communities sometimes begin to see poor white families being ignored or refused services, and add that to an already insufficient job market and a declining economy (in part because money leaves the community as soon as it is earned), we realize that so-called “anti-immigration sentiment” is actually a fight for survival. And that the most affluent rural Americans—farmers and ranchers—don’t want the status quo to change because it will lower their profit margin.
Whether or not I or anyone else agrees with these values is irrelevant. What is important is recognition that 1) a culture exists, and 2) that culture may or may not be consistent with our own values or beliefs. I’m a strong proponent for rethinking rural American culture, but so long as we continue to assume that the culture is based on ignorance and poverty, we won’t convince anyone that has consciously chosen rural American life that such a direction is prudent or necessary. By refusing to acknowledge that a culture exists, we also refuse to acknowledge their inherent right to their own culture and belief systems. And bitterness stems from such negligence. One can always hope that people will learn from Obama’s mistake, and in particular, that politicians can learn, that they might begin to approach the problems of rural America on rural America’s terms and with the dignity that any culture deserves.