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Liberal elites and Rural White America: a failure to understand or a failure of skepticism? November 16, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Religion.
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The internet is ablaze with various opinions as to whether the lessons that the DNC, and liberal America in general, need to learn is that we don’t understand the struggles and anger of most of America or whether it’s something else entirely. I’ve been sort of moping about trying to make sense of this, and then today something snapped into place, for me.

Now, in some sense I cannot answer this question on my own. I am a life-long East coast liberal elite, and so I’m looking at this through that lens. I am (over-)educated, I’m economically comfortable, I’m a progressive, and I’m privileged as fuck. But what I can do is tease out some complicated questions which are colored by some issues with which I have ample experience and understanding.

White American Christianity, Dominionism, and lack of critical thinking skills are a huge (yuge?) part of this story, and we cannot afford to lose sight of that while ruminating about what to learn from the US election of 2016. From fake news articles spread via social media, the conspiracy theories thrown about by conservative media for decades (including Trump’s chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, who worked with Breitbart.com), to the theocratic fear spread by Christianity since the 1960’s here in America, this past election cycle was a perfect storm of un-skeptical bullshit, perpetuated by a con-man and picked up by millions of American idiots all over the country.

Let’s start here. Read this post by Forsetti:

On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem

No, seriously, go read the post now. I don’t have to wait for you, but this perspective is what compelled me to write today. It was this article which sparked something to snap in place in my head.

If you didn’t read the post, (because I know you most-likely didn’t) here’s the conclusion, for context:

What I understand is rural, Christian, white America is entrenched in fundamentalist belief systems, don’t trust people outside their tribe, have been force fed a diet of misinformation and lies for decades, are unwilling to understand their own situations, truly believe whites are superior to all races.  No amount of understanding is going to change these things or what they believe.  No amount of niceties is going to get them to be introspective.  No economic policy put forth by someone outside their tribe is going to be listened to no matter how beneficial it would be for them.  I understand rural, Christian, white America all too well.  I understand their fears are based on myths and lies.  I understand they feel left behind by a world they don’t understand and don’t really care to.  I understand they are willing to vote against their own interest if they can be convinced it will make sure minorities are harmed more.  I understand their Christian beliefs and morals are truly only extended to fellow white Christians.  I understand them.  I understand they are the problem with progress and will always be because their belief systems are constructed against it.  The problem isn’t a lack of understanding by “coastal elites” of rural, Christian, white America.  The problem is a lack of understanding why rural, Christian, white America believes, votes, behaves the ways it does by rural, Christian, white America.

Them be some strong words, and they fly in the face of the narrative which I have seen dominate the liberal blogosphere, social media, etc in the last week. You know, the idea that Hilary Clinton didn’t win because she and the rest of the DNC have failed to understand the plight, fears, and anger of the parts of America which are not the metropolitan, elite, largely-coastal parts of the United States. That if only the elite Hillary campaign could have reached out better, addressed more of the concerns that many Americans have, and stopped being so damned arrogant and dismissive then perhaps Trump’s America would not be so opposed to the messages of those of us who want an inclusive, open, and diverse culture.

And maybe Donald Trump could not have rose to the power he so very much craves, and which threatens the future of so many.

It’s a compelling story.  It strokes the introspective and self-deprecating nature of most liberals and progressives. But isn’t that the very problem? Don’t we, liberal, educated, elites who live mostly in larger towns and cities, spend too much damned time making sure we are being understanding and respectful of those who don’t see the world the way we do? Are we too introspective and self-deprecating? Aren’t we failing in the very same way we failed in the George “Dubya” Bush era?

OK, let me breathe here, for a second, and spend a few moments reflecting on that message. For me, the strongest case made for the view that we didn’t sufficiently understand Trump’s America, written by Emmett Rensin several months ago (long before the election or nomination of trump) and which has been making the rounds recently, is the following article:

The Smug Style in American Liberalism


Here’s the conclusion I draw: If Donald Trump has a chance in November, it is because the knowing will dictate our strategy. Unable to countenance the real causes of their collapse, they will comfort with own impotence by shouting, “Idiots!” again and again, angrier and angrier, the handmaidens of their own destruction.

The smug style resists empathy for the unknowing. It denies the possibility of a politics whereby those who do not share knowing culture, who do not like the right things or know the Good Facts or recognize the intellectual bankruptcy of their own ideas can be worked with, in spite of these differences, toward a common goal.


In other words, we, smug elites will look down upon the rural, angry, and politically powerful (we know now) people but fail to understand them. And it’s true; I do not understand their perspective very well because I’ve never lived it. But I have been arguing, for years, that the tribalism, religious ignorance, and unwillingness to look past one’s own bubble is the cause of people’s continuing religiosity (in this case, white Christian privilege), conservative attitudes about relationships (default monogamy), sexuality (hetero-normativity) and the pervasiveness of gender binary among other staples of the conservative worldview underlying Trump’s message.

I have been arguing, for years, that conservatism (especially the Alt-Right) is anchored in fear, tribalism, and lack of understanding. I’ve seen, from the point of view of a polyamorous, atheist, skeptic, that the lenses through which most of our culture sees the world are skewed and built out of a lack of understanding. So yes, I live in a sort-of bubble, but that bubble is one mostly of privilege and the comfort that comes along with that; the world I live in is safe to be abnormal and marginalization is less severe here. But I do understand that ignorance and fear exist and informs worldviews–and I know what those worldviews are because I have seen pockets of them even here, and I make a point of listening to them when they aren’t.

But do those people in conservative rural America understand my perspective? Hundreds of conversations, over my lifetime, about religion imply that the majority of our culture does not understand the nature of their own religion, let alone other religions or atheism.  Similar conversations about relationships and sexuality indicate that most people have never really questioned why they are monogamous or why they are afraid of homosexuality/bisexuality in many cases. And most of the conversations I’ve ever had imply that basic skeptical attitudes are foreign to the majority of people, everywhere.

So, is the problem a lack of understanding? Yes. But I think that the majority of the lack of understanding does not come from those of us who are elite (but yes, some of it does). I believe the lion’s share of that lack of understanding comes from the people who do not understand how their own worldview, beliefs, and anger fits into the larger set of ideas about the world. Whether ignorance, fear, or simple inability to comprehend are responsible, the simple fact is that the majority of people do not understand the arguments of the elite communities everywhere. The privilege of a good education, including the skills of skepticism and doubt, supply some people with a greater understanding of the world around us. And cosmopolitanism provides an environment for that to exist, where rural areas tend to stifle it.

Those of us able to see that Donald Trump is a con man, unprepared for his role are POTUS, and a representation of almost everything wrong with our culture were screaming, for months, how dangerous he is. And a significant number, about half of those who voted, could not understand that. Or didn’t care. Or weren’t paying sufficient attention. I’m not sure which of those is worse than the others, but they are all bad.  This was the wrong time for an establishment candidate, so people were tired of it all and either protested at the ballots or stayed home on election day. They failed to understand how bad Trump’s candidacy was. And so we will all be forced to deal with the consequences of that ignorance, apathy, or deplorablility.



The Future

But let’s not forget that there is something to take away from Emmett Rensin’s article. Our reaction cannot simply be to call them idiots, morons, ignoramuses, etc and then go about sitting in our comfortable shells, feeling superior, with our “Good Facts,” feeling smug. No, we need to organize, reach out, and at least try to improve education, filter out poor sources of news and opinion (I’m looking at you, social media), and actually do the work to raise the level of dialog in our culture.

You know, like the good parts of the skeptic/atheist movement has been trying to do for years.

The time for blame is past, and now is the time for action. If we want our dialogue to change, so that our culture can change, and so our politics can change, then we need to do a lot of hard work.

We, skeptics and atheists, have been honing these skills for a long time now. Well, some of us have (I’m looking at you MRAs; You are part of Trumps’ America). Now we need to start utilizing those tools in wider circles. We need, in our culture right now, a serious injection of skepticism, curiosity, and (perhaps most of all) empathy and patience.

Because wherever the truth is, introspection, skepticism, and communication will dig it up. Not bigotry and fear.