Archive for April, 2008

A County Boy Can Survive, But His Culture May Not

Monday, April 21st, 2008

I am no fan of Obama. But I felt a little sorry for him give all the abuse he took for saying…

“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

If you listen to all those people spouting off about what Obama said, you would think that I should be offended by those statements. I have a lot of relatives in small towns in Pennsylvania. I work in with a bunch of guys from small towns in Pennsylvania. I live in a rural area myself. What’s more, almost everyone I spend any amount of time with is heavily into God or guns or both. So I guess I am amongst those who should feel insulted by Obama’s clinging remarks.

But I don’t.

It’s not that I think Obama’s comments were accurate. As I will explain latter, I think he got things completely backwards. But it is hard for me to get mad when I think someone is trying to defend me.

Even though he did not know what he was talking about, I think Obama honestly thought he was defending us folk. After all, he was talking to an audience in San Francisco were everyone assumes that we hill folk are dumb drooling idiots who are easily manipulated by those evil republicans into voting on social issues when if we knew what was best for us we would vote based on our economic interests. In that context, I read Obama as saying “Why shouldn’t they vote solely on social issues when neither Democrats nor Republicans have ever been able (or willing) to help them out with economic issues?” I think Obama was trying to remove the slur of stupidity that is so often imputed to rural folk by the more sophisticated urban dwellers by pointing out that rural folk could not rationally expect either party to do anything substantive about their economic issues. So why should it surprise anyone that they cling to social issues? What else can they realistically do?

In the context of how I have seen many urban people talk about rural folk, this constitutes a ringing defense. But it is also wrong.

To understand why this defense is wrong we will start with some music.

Now perhaps the above clip signals nothing more to you than the fact that country boys are overly macho, boastful ignorant slobs who like to celebrate their cultural backwardness and fondness for killing wildlife. Depending on your world view and personality, such a view is defensible. But if that is all you can see in such a song, you are as blind as a bat.

Ask yourself this: does anyone make songs boasting about living in the suburbs? Is there a class of music devoted to celebrating living in subdivisions that is the equivalent of country music?

The answer is no of course. So what does that tell you about rural culture?

While you are pondering that question, let me make some observations on the song.

In the first place, let me point out that anyone who hears the above song and thinks it is about the superior economic security supposedly enjoyed by country boys is missing the point. The focus is not one the economic superiority of the rural life, but on its masculine superiority and by extension its social superiority.

A Country Boy Can Survive does not seriously argue that a city boy is going to starve as result of rising interest rates and falling stock markets. Rather the implicit contrast is that economic bad times can cause the city boy to lose his 9 to 5 job. If that happens to a city boy, what is he worth? Chances are, none of the skills that made him useful to his employer have any relevance to the needs of his household. So a city man without a job is good for nothing but housecleaning. In other words, to the masculine mind he is worth nothing.

By contrast, if a country boy losses his job, he can still hunt, fish, or fix anything. His masculine role is independent of economic forces. He is worth something even if his employer no longer wants him.

This message of male empowerment is why the death of the singer’s friend is given such prominent role in the song. If you understand the country mindset, you will understand that the tragedy of the friend’s death was not the fact that he died, but that he was unable to defend himself from a punk with a knife. If you don’t get the message loud and clear that a country boy would not find himself in that situation, you are deaf.

But the story of the friend’s death also serves to highlight the social superiority of the country life. The implicit message of the song is that in the country we are all a band of brothers whereas in the city everyone is preying on each other. The bitter “for 43 dollars my friend lost his life” is meant to accentuate the broader point that in the city your worth is measured in dollars and cents, not your social ties and adherence to a cultural code of honor.

The social superiority and masculine superiority of country life are closely intertwined, as the line “We say grace and we say we say Ma’am” makes clear. That line conjures up the image of a close-knit community with strong shared values. But saying grace is a peculiarly male function in rural life. Thus, that line also highlights the fact that in the country men are men and women are women in contrast to the city, where males and females are interchangeable cogs in the economic machine.

I should note that though the song is from a male view point, the outlook expressed is not exclusively male. I know of one woman who comes from a country background, lives in the country, and has typically country attitudes. She is employed in a male dominated technology field and she does not act overly feminine (e.g., she is not afraid to express her opinions or get her hands dirty). Yet she will not look twice at any man, no matter how big his paycheck, unless he is rough and tough. Nor does she bother to conceal her contempt for all men who fail to measure up to her idea of what masculine is. And this is not because she lacks options.

I would not venture a guess as to how widespread this attitude is, since I am generally not privy to the honest thoughts of women. Truthfully, the only reason the above example sticks in my mind is because it violated my understanding of how the universe should work, to come across a woman who is more chauvinistic than I am. But I have seen and heard enough that I would be willing to bet that the attitudes expressed in “A Country Boy Can Survive” finds an echo in the female half of the race.

But so far we have been taking the song at its word as far as its depiction of what country life is like. It gets more interesting if you consider where the song stoops to a falsehood.

What makes the falsehood so remarkable is that the song is remarkably honest for such a boastful song. Oh, you might be able to quibble about its portrayal of urban life if you were so inclined (though you should remember that the song was written in the early 80’s when urban crime was more of problem than it is today and rural crime was less of a problem than it is today). But I don’t think that anyone who has lived in rural areas can fail to think of dozens of men who could honestly make almost all the explicit and implicit boasts in the song without the slightest exaggeration.

But there is one line that would sound false. That’s where Hank sings “I live back in the woods, you see, the woman, the kids, the dog, and me.” The impression given is that of nice traditional family living off in the backwoods. But a man who can honestly make that boast is a lot rarer in the backwoods than men who can do the rest of the stuff that Hank sings about. Certainly Hank can’t make that boast. He divorced his fourth wife not so long ago.

When I think about all the men that I know who could be called country boys after the model of Hank’s song, a lot of them follow the same pattern.

For example, there is this one guy I know. We will call him Tall Boy. He is an excellent hunter. He hunts anytime it is legal. It doesn’t matter if it is black powder or bow season. It doesn’t matter if it is deer or turkey season. He is always out there. If he is not hunting he will be out fishing. And he is an excellent fisherman. It doesn’t matter if he is casting for salmon, waiting for bass, or sitting out on the ice. He always does well. In between fishing and hunting, he hunts for mushrooms in the appropriate seasons, tends his honey bees, rebuilds his tractor, cuts his supply of firewood, bails hay for his wife’s horses, works on whatever construction project he had going, and occasional tends to the small business that he owns, just to name a few things that he occupies his time with. He is one of the few left around who butchers a cow by bashing it over the head with sledge hammer. A very humane way of killing a cow if it works, but if it doesn’t, you are dealing with a half a ton of very mad beef. I could go on and on telling you about all the skills he has and all the things he has done but it would take a small book.

He got his skills growing up on a farm. His father abandoned the family when he was young, leaving his family struggling. His mother use to send him out to poach deer so they would have something to eat. He only married once but his wife did not want to have any kids because of his drinking problem along with other problems. He often mentioned how much he regretted this and many other things that he did when he was younger. He had no happy home life.

I know another guy. We will call him Square Boy. He hunts deer, coons and many other things. He goes after mushrooms himself, but not to the same extreme as Tall Boy. He raises beef cattle, horses, dogs, and homing pigeons (so that he could race them against other flocks). He gets firewood and bails hay. He was an iron worker, a tree man, a sawyer, and a landscaper among many other things. He built his own house and barn. He has blotches all over him that he acquired in Vietnam from Agent Orange. He is known for his huge capacity for hard work and inhuman toughness. He once cut his arm almost completely off with chain saw. He pinched it tight with his free hand and walked over to the neighbors so that they could take him to a hospital. Once there he refused to allow the doctors to give him anesthesia and when they insisted he turned and started walking out. They gave in and sewed up his arm without anesthesia. I never did find out why he did not want anesthesia. I suspect it was because he did not have insurance and did not want to pay for it. He is a very tight with his money. Again, to tell the full tale of the range of things can do and has done would take a small book.

He grew up in a dirt poor family. He told me how he used to pull the blankets over his head and hold them tightly down because he was afraid of the rats that lived in his house. He said he used feel them running over his bed at night. His father died while he was a still a teenager. He dropped out of school so that he could help support his family after that happened.

He married and had a couple of daughters. But he is divorced and he never sees or hears from them anymore. He says his ex-wife turned them against him. This saddens him greatly. He also wishes he could have had at least one son.

I know another guy. We will call him Small Man. He is a big time hunter and fisher. He loves to shoot off guns and he has a gun collection that would outfit a small army. But what he was really known for was his black powder shooting skills. He used to win shooting matches at a hundred yards with him using a black powder rifle and his opponents using scoped rifles. He made his living as a butcher, a welder, and by working in stone quarries amongst other things. He had a bit of small man complex and would often get involved in fights with people much bigger than him. Typically he would win, because when he loses his temper he would go insane and wouldn’t even realize what he was doing until it was all over. Once when he was angry he hit a door so hard he knocked it off its hinges. Again those are only some of the highlights.

He grew up in large family. But his brothers and sisters came from several different fathers. For a while he lived in a house without any indoor plumbing while he was growing up.

He got married and had a daughter. But he divorced and his daughter lives many states away. He rarely sees her but she will send her son to stay in the summer time. He loves to teach his grandson how to hunt and fish and other such rural activities. He is proud of what a good shot is grandson is and plans to leave him his gun collection when he dies. He will be heartbroken if his grandson decides he is no longer interested in visiting his grandpa once he hits his teenage years.

And I could tell many other stories like this. Most of the country boys I know don’t have nice little nuclear families to go home to. And I don’t think my experience is atypical. The statistics tell of a lot of teenage pregnancy and single parent homes in rural areas. And those numbers are all the more jarring when you look at them in context of the rapid aging of most rural areas. You get the feeling that very few young people in rural America have their life together.

Don’t get me wrong. There are happy families out in woods where the men of the family can honestly make all the boasts in Hank’s song without having to fake the happy family bit. I know of some of them myself but I won’t bore you with their stories (if are interested in reading about a happy rural family you can go over to the Pioneer Woman’s site). To truly understand the concerns of most rural folk, you need to understand that the permanent problem facing rural areas is the absence of children. And you will not be able to understand the problem of the absence of children if you examine the happy families.

If you doubt that missing children are a big concern in rural areas, just pick up any old hunting magazine. Odds are you will find at least one article in the magazine that laments that the fact that few young people are taking up hunting. It is common knowledge in hunting circles that the number of hunters is going to implode in the coming decades. The average age of your average hunter keeps climbing. And all attempts to bring in more young people into the field have fallen flat on their face.

The causes of this coming implosion are also well known in hunting circles. It has to do with the declining number of children being born and the sharp increase in single parent homes. It is the latter that gets the most attention in hunting magazines. Over and over you read that kids don’t go hunting with their dads like they used to. The biggest reason for this is that often their dads are not at home anymore.

Now it occurs to me as I am writing this, that the three example country boys I gave might not support the idea that fathers not being around to teach their kids to hunt is anything new. But I can tell you the vast majority of hunters I know learned to hunt from their fathers. Those who did not learn from their fathers learned from their grandfathers.

Tall Boy would be a good example of this. He learned from his grandfather who lived on the farm with Tall Boy when he was growing up. Contrast that with Small Man who is trying to teach his grandson who lives many states away and you will understand why the kids today are less likely to learn from their grandparents. And since the majority of hunters that I know are divorced and no longer live with their kids, it is not likely that they will learn from their dads either.

As hunting goes, so goes rural culture in general. But you should understand that rural culture or even hunting in particular is not just about blowing up furry critters with large caliber rifles. If you don’t understand what I am talking about, you didn’t listen to Hank’s song very close.

It is this love of their culture, and not any economic insecurity, that causes rural folk to “cling” to social issues. After all, those whose primary love was money and other materialistic things left for the city a long time ago. Those that are left were self-selected to care about other things more than money.

To be sure, we can overstate this. There is more than a few people who are bumming around the countryside because they lack the ambition or the brains to leave the place where they were born. And there are others whose primary concern was the privacy or fun that that they could find in the country.

But the love of many for the culture that can be found in rural areas is very real and not just a faked artifice of country music. In my neighborhood there was a couple who were having serious financial problems due to the problems their small business was facing. As a result, they were thinking of selling their place and moving to cheaper place 20 minutes away in an effort to save money and extract some equity from their land.

Tall Boy became very upset with them over these plans. He took it as a kind of betrayal. He had made efforts to help them out and he thought they could cut down on their expenses a lot more than they had. He felt that the fact that they were going to move even though they could have tightened their belt and stayed with help from their neighbors showed that they did not value their friends very much. When I observed that they were only moving 20 minutes away and that it would still be possible to visit back and forth without too much trouble, he retorted that you can’t be a good neighbor to someone who lives 20 minutes away.

As turns out, they did not move. But the incident demonstrates how Tall Boy placed a high premium on living in a place with a tight social network in spite of the moral failings which made it impossible for him to raise a family. His conception of a good community was a place where anyone would jump in their truck at a moment’s notice to fly down the street to help out a neighbor. Or conversely, where anyone could jump in their truck and go borrow a tool that was needed. It was his conception of what a community should be like that lead him to join the volunteer fire department when he found out they were short of people (he is now the captain). In other words, even though he led a wild life (and still does to an extent) he always sought out and tried to foster the rural ideal of community.

This paradox between being unable or unwilling to live the type of life that is necessary to raise a nuclear family, but at the same time deeply attached to a tight-knit community explains the social conservatism of rural areas, even though statistics show they don’t live that much differently than urban people do as far as personal morals. Every man who loves rural culture knows that it is doomed without strong families. For without strong families they know there will be no hunters. They know that without strong families there will be no neighbors who will help them. They know that without strong families there will be no tight-knit communities.

And if you get to know the men who love rural culture, you will hear them regret that there is no one for them to pass all their skills to. They express the wish that they could go back and do things differently. They are horrified that that they are aging and facing death and there is no one to carry on after them. They loved the patriarchal ideal of being men in a community of men, but now they find themselves facing the most horrible of the patriarchal curses. They have no descendants.

This is why Hank felt obliged to fake the idea that country boys were all out their raising happy families. If the culture dies, there will be no more country boys. And that is a thought that Hank does not want to face. It is also the fear that Obama does not seem understand.

Why I have not been posting

Tuesday, April 15th, 2008

I am taking classes at a local trade school at night. You should not confuse this place with the various technical schools that are around. This place is where the mentally handicapped are sent from the various school districts. This is the place where all the people who are considered too dumb to go to college are sent to learn a trade. In short, this is a school for losers.

In keeping with the school’s mission to take care of the losers, the school also offers adult education programs that are geared towards helping those poor blue collar saps who have lost their jobs and don’t have much in the way of marketable skills. It also tries to reach out to those who dropped out of high school and/or were thrown into jail before they could figure out what they wanted to do with their lives.

I started taking a class at this institution for losers back in January with some trepidation. I already have a good job for the area in which I live and I am not looking to find another job. But there has been a shadow hanging over my job for a little over a year now. It’s not that I am in any danger of losing my job per se, it’s just that in my current job title I can be transferred into a paper shuffling job at the blink of an eye.

I don’t want that to happen. I really don’t want that to happen. But there are people in positions of influence who do. And in one sense, I can’t blame them.

Most of the people who hold my job title have more experience in the field than I have been alive. It was the occasion of some bitterness on many peoples’ part that I got my title so easily and with so little experience. The only real advantages that I offer to offset my inexperience are that I know how to handle a computer and I am reasonably hard working.

So it makes a certain amount of sense to put me behind a computer and let me solve paperwork problems, write proposals, and generally make my bosses look smart. That is why I felt it necessary to make myself as valuable as possible out in the field. And the only way I could see to do that was to get some additional training.

Still, I was not sure that the school for losers would help me out any. I could easily imagine myself being bored out of my mind and not really learning anything.
On the plus side, I had a brother who took a class at this intuition and he got a decent teacher. On the other hand, almost all my brother’s fellow students were big time losers. For example, most of them did not take a test that they were told had a good chance of getting them a job because they did not think that they could pass a drug test. Pot was too dear to their hearts to give up for an employment opportunity. Who needs a job when you are a young single male?

And if deep within your evil soul you are imaging that all of these losers were black or Hispanic you can guess again. We are talking about a class full of white guys here. There were a few exceptions, of course. But the exceptions tended to be the better students in the class. Like an immigrant from Africa who was holding down a job, taking the class, and sending money back to Africa. He wasn’t afraid of no drug test.

But such people were exceptions. Most of the class was white and on drugs. And they just did not care.

Now maybe I am weird, but the thought of spending a major portion of my free time with people like that does not exactly fill me with joy. Moreover, I had good reason to think that my brother had just gotten lucky with his teacher and I thought that it was unlikely that I would be as fortunate.

Happily, I can report that everything has gone just about as well as I could have possibly expected. For one thing, I managed to pick up a decent teacher myself. I don’t know if that is because there are a higher percentage of good teachers at this institution for losers than I had previously supposed or if it is because my brother and I have been receiving preferential treatment from on high. I do know for a fact that there are some teachers at this school that would drive me up the wall if they were my teachers because I had one of them for a sub for a few days.

Regardless of the reasons why, the fact that my teacher really knows his stuff has been a major plus. It helps that he has a real enthusiasm for teaching us. I guess that it helps that we are a breath of fresh air compared to his day class. While he is waiting for the official class start time he will usually tell us about the things that have gone wrong in his day class. One day the story will be about how he had to confiscate a knife from one of his students. Another day it will be about how he gave everyone in his day class an open book test for the third time and they all failed it (for the third time). And every so often he lets us know how great it is to be teaching a class where everyone wants to learn which makes everyone feel good about themselves.

And I have to say that it is nice being in a class where everyone wants to learn. I have to say that the quality of my classmates has been an even greater surprise than the quality of my teacher. When the lady who was giving us orientation made a general announcement that the people who had test scores that indicated that their math and reading scores were too low for the class, (they make you take an assessment test before you register) but were being allowed to take the class anyway, had to understand that no extra tutoring would be provided, I assumed the worst.

But only one guy seemed like he was on drugs and he dropped out in the first week. Almost everyone in the class already has a job, and most of those who don’t are without jobs by their own choice. So they are all a pretty responsible bunch. And these guys are not spending their evenings in class because they want to fool around. They are all there to learn and it shows.

Sadly, this does not mean that everyone is staying on top of the course material. In fact, I would say that about half the class is having trouble keeping up. The course is just too advanced for most of them. They might not have any trouble putting things together, but the abstract reasoning required for design and troubleshooting is giving them fits.

I am handling it all right but the class still sucks up enormous amounts of my time. That is why I have not been posting much on my blogs. I expect that will continue to hold true until August.