Singing the blues of melancholic journalists in the days following the November election, Henry Grabar of Slate magazine offered this assessment: “There are many explanations for what happened on Election Day, but the simplest one is this: We now have a rural party and an urban party. The rural part won.” The big coastal cities—those bastions of blue (now shades darker)—were overtaken by the brush fire of red voters that ultimately decided the election. Although this story of rural red and urban blue carries us some distance in explaining the current political crisis, I want to comment on what worries me about this seductively simple analysis.
My worries are bound up in my own conflicted relationship with the rural America that shaped my childhood growing up in Seattle. My parents had moved from rural Washington to Seattle when they were a young married couple but remained close to an extended family of farmers and loggers. I spent summers visiting many of these relatives in the country, enduring perpetual taunts as a “city slicker.” In returning to this region to carry out a documentary film on dairy farmers over the two years leading up to the 2016 election, I was struck by how progressive and reactionary ideas often coexist in complicated ways—for urban and rural people alike. My experience was limited to a region of dairy farming in the Pacific Northwest and a selected group of farmers that was willing to talk with me about their work. So this report is place-bound and overdetermined by my own history and the relationships that developed in the course of my field project. But I hope to call on my fellow city slickers to hesitate before re-tweeting journalistic reports based on broad-brushed pictures of rural America.
Some of the most widely circulated reports carry a quasi-psychiatric message. Unlike the “malignant narcissism” of Donald Trump, those who inhabit the hinterlands of America are diagnosed as suffering from severe depressive reactions. Academics explain how the seemingly delusional support for Trump’s far-right agenda perversely affects some of the very communities most penalized by those policies. Katherine Cramer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies rural voters, endorses a tragic/depressive narrative of rural America: “They feel like their communities are dying, and they perceive that all that stuff — the young people, the money, the livelihood — is going somewhere, and it’s going to the cities.” Many communities throughout rural America depend heavily on federal programs and have not fared well in the market-driven world of neoliberalism. But rural America is as complex and varied in its genealogy of problems as is urban life. There are deep differences between predominantly white Appalachia and the borderlands of the white and Latinx Southwest, for example, and among the more than 300 Indian reservations in the territory of the United States.
In her recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild introduces the metaphor of an “empathy wall” to describe the state of misrecognition between people living in cities and those in rural areas who cling to political values that seem counter to their own survival. Hochschild embarked on her study of white people living in some of the poorest areas of Louisiana to understand the seeming false consciousness that grips these communities. These are places where bitter hatred of the federal government runs deep, but no deeper than the dependency of these same people on the government and its safety nets. Yet denial of dependency operates on both sides of this wall. Cities depend heavily on the work carried out in regions increasingly removed from metropolitan areas, particularly for food production. Rural areas also have become hubs for vast data storage facilities, in addition to their longstanding role as sites for nuclear missile storage.
Whatever constitutes that wall of empathy dividing rural and urban America, it’s worth pausing to reflect on what is meant by empathy and how to think about barriers to mutual understanding. As a field researcher and documentarian, psychoanalysis has been a vital resource for me in entering politically foreign territory and thinking through the social symbolic power of geographical differences. Psychoanalytic thinkers know that sex differences are organized around defensive fantasies and that race is similarly constructed around projection of disturbing aspects of the dominant group onto the racialized Other. And we know how human relationships are fraught with ambivalence and how power is often organized around disavowal of dependency. Psychoanalysis helps to explain forms of hostile dependency—how people often do bite the hands that feed them. But there has been little effort to extend these formulations to analyses of the cultural divide between city and country and the conflicted ties that bind people through their regional histories.
To this end I want to present field notes on a recent documentary I carried out in the Pacific Northwest, followed by brief sketches of political work by rural activists. Most urbanites do not have these same opportunities for extended trips to rural areas. But I hope that my report encourages others to rethink conventional assumptions about rural people, and to find better ways of scaling that empathy wall.
I also enlist the metaphor of the wall in describing my work. Many of my documentary projects focus on jobs carried out behind high walls and fences—jobs that generate societal anxieties and projections because they are so out of view, and remain out of view because the work is difficult to incorporate into the dominant or hegemonic ideology. A number of these projects are set in rural areas, including MILK MEN, a film that explores how intensification and industrialization of dairy farming affects relationships within farming families and relationships between farmers and their cows. I started my field research by visiting local hangouts in the dairy region where I had spent summers as a child. These were cafes where farmers met for coffee at dawn before their morning trips to the barns. After asking if I could join them for coffee, I usually mentioned my Uncle Chap and Aunt Annie who had operated a dairy in this same region up until the 1970s. Some of the farmers knew them personally and others only knew that their dairy had gone under during one of the bad years. I told them that I was a psychologist (eyes rolled) but that my main work was making documentaries about stressful jobs that are not well understood. “Well you’ve sure come to the right place,” they joked. As a college teacher, I explained that many of my students expressed concern about the treatment of animals raised for food production. I thought this concern was a good thing, but I wanted my students to have a better picture of the realities of modern farming. Through the medium of film, I wanted to educate the public on the pressures on modern farmers—including how some of these pressures and stresses may be similar to those felt by people living in urban areas. We talked about farm policy, but also how I thought about dairying as a psychologist.
In preparing for this project, my research team had read Purity and Danger, a classic book on social anthropology published in 1963 by Mary Douglas. She points out how distinctions in many societies between “clean” and “unclean” are really about what is considered out of place. This notion of dirt as parts of human life that are felt to be out of place is an idea taken up by William James and Sigmund Freud as well.
For me, the working alliance—my tactic for scaling the empathy wall—centers on establishing a shared interest in understanding what sociologist Everett Hughes terms dirty work–those parts of life so readily extruded from public consciousness in bourgeois culture. In my conversations with farmers, we often joked that dairy producers were similar to psychologists in that they are often in a position to help people think about areas of life that make them uncomfortable. They work at the same cultural borders described by Mary Douglas in producing two very important products: milk and manure. The marketing side of dairying emphasizes the purity side of the equation—how milk is the purest of foods—but producers deal with a more complex reality. Modern dairy cows produce a lot of milk but they also produce a lot of manure. And the “dirty” side of dairying has been an area closed out of public consciousness for much of the past century, overtaken by the marketing preferences for romanticized images of what one farmer described to me as “air brushed images” of cows. As a feminist psychologist interested in “dirty work,” I brought a genuine interest to this aspect of dairying and its parallels with forms of dirty work often carried out by women.
In spending time with the farm wives, conversations lingered over the question of what this city woman with a camera was doing here in cow country. Although many of the farmers had turned me down when I approached them to be part of the film, five farmers had agreed to participate. And while their wives agreed to go along with the project, they wanted to know about my own assumptions about farm wives. They listed common stereotypes: hearty, hefty, fertile, and subservient. These were European-American women for the most part who had married into multi-generational dairy families. But they had their own views on the ups and downs of modern farming. And they warmed to my project because I was interested in featuring the behind-the-scenes contributions of women to the family farm. Having taught women’s studies courses over the years, I explained how it was feminism that brought the study of women’s work—housework, child care, nurse midwifery, and many forms of unpaid labor (and dirty work)—into academia as an area of serious inquiry.
As a community psychologist and documentarian, I also explained that I was interested in the intergenerational transmission of culture. I had come to believe that each generation had the task of deciding what practices to hold dear or fight to protect and which practices were no longer adaptive or useful. I wondered if they struggled with these same questions. I was surprised—because most of these farmers did not initially seem very psychologically minded—that they had thought quite a bit about these questions. Many talked about being more open than their own parents, more emotionally available to their children, and more open to progressive change than previous generations of farmers.
When I asked about political differences in their community, one farmer claimed that dairy producers tend to be less conservative than cattle ranchers. He went on to explain that dairies tend to be closer to urban populations and they entail a lot of interactions with inspectors, government agencies, and vendors. The work also brings dairy farmers into close proximity with the animals themselves. Ranchers are more apt to be geographically remote and to interact with government officials around land disputes—across fences—and they don’t interact with their cattle for long periods of the year. The cattle are put out to pasture in the fall and they may not see the herd until spring. Whether the farmer’s observations would hold up in some aggregate survey is not so clear. But his comments made me think about how differences in relationships to the animals, to other groups in the community, and to government agencies do shape the worldviews of rural people in complicated ways. Many of the dairy producers had complaints about government regulations, but they also knew they depended on state regulations to get milk safely to market.
Last year, I visited Sophie Smith, a young activist who has been living for five years in Arivaca, Arizona and working with No More Deaths, an organization that provides humanitarian aid to people crossing the borderlands of Arizona. In addition to this humanitarian aid, Sophie helped to organize a group called People Helping People to protest the intensive militarizing of the borderlands under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Sophie has written and produced a range of reports on the beauty of this high desert and mountainous region, and how these borderlands have become a corridor of death as federal policies push migrants into increasingly treacherous areas to cross the southern border. While the border guards are brutal agents of the state, she also notes that locals, including many of the white people that make up most of the local demographics, resent this militarized presence of the border patrols. (Listen to one of her reports on the Old Mole Variety Hour, KBOO Community Radio–Death and Suffering in the Borderlands)
In addition to resisting the border agents, activists in Arizona confront the growing influence of vigilante border patrols and militias that have organized in rural areas throughout the United States. The “Sage-brush rebellion” hit the national news in 2016 when activists held a march in Burns, a remote town in Eastern Oregon, to protest the prison sentence of two ranchers from Nevada who had long been fighting with the federal government over grazing fees. The armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns from January 2 to February 11, 2016 thrust Oregon’s Patriot movement into the national headlines. Although Oregon has a long history of right-wing populism, from the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s through serving as headquarters for Neo-Nazi groups in the late 20th century, the rise of Patriots groups since the Obama election in 2008 posed a new threat to small towns and rural communities. In many areas of rural Oregon these hard-right groups, such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, have taken advantage of the void in public services by using militias to provide policing and holding illegal courts. Their rhetoric echoes that of Trump in promising to “take back the land.” For years, conservatives have attempted to either privatize or transfer federally owned lands—over 50 percent of the land in some western states—to state or county governments in order to circumvent environmental regulations in logging, mining, and ranching. In their demands to “reclaim our stolen lands,” the Patriots groups build on the mythology of Manifest Destiny—a mythology that represses the history of violent seizure of these lands from Native Peoples, as well as the history of robber barons building fortunes on the backs of workers in the timber and mining industries.
Although the occupiers of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge expected townspeople to rise up in their defense, only a small number of locals took the side of the occupation. In a recent local election, supporters of the occupation failed to win at the ballot box. Rural Organizing Project has been active in small towns throughout Oregon to help people come together in town halls and community gatherings to resist the intimidating tactics of the Patriots—white nationalist groups emboldened by the movement of the Republican Party to the far-right and Trump administration attempts to “deconstruct” the federal government.
A Rural Organizing Committee report concludes with a basis for rethinking the ties that bind urban and rural people. And the report offers a progressive vision of government in response to anti-government rhetoric—rhetoric that sometimes courses through the left as well as the right.
It was government assistance and planning that pulled rural Oregon out of the Great Depression. To revive our economy today, we need a new plan and more government support—not less. The new plan should revolve around conservation-based logging, domestic production, clean energy production, and restoring the forests and waterways that everyone depends on, including city people. City prosperity depends on the bounty, the clean water, air, forests, and fields of rural Oregon, and the city must pay its fair share, not turn its back on its rural neighbors. (Up in Arms Report, p. 123)
Just as urban dwellers often disavow their deep reliance on rural labor, many rural areas of the country struggle with hostile dependency on the federal government. As counties outside metro areas become more dependent than ever on federal and state government, from Medicaid to economic supports, organized antigovernment populist currents seem to take hold with intensifying ferocity—to “make rural America great again.” Yet these communities never have really been in control of the resources on which they depend for survival.
As urban progressives, it’s important to support small towns as they organize in response to right-wing nationalism and other forms of reactionary populism. This means going beyond the splitting of large swaths of the populace into fixed positions of progressive and reactionary camps and finding grounds for common interests. The social psychological work must center on reframing boundaries between groups and countries as places of creative tension and sites of potential working alliances—and on questioning the interests driving the construction of zones of control barring entry for perceived outsiders.
And as psychoanalytic activists, we might attend more carefully to political imagery invoked in the left as well as the right, whether in inviting others to climb the “empathy wall” or in resisting deportations of “innocent children.” These rhetorical strategies can reify the very political problems they intend to address or reinforce a very conservative moral economy. In a form of counter-discursive practice, many activists refer to the “borderlands” rather than the border to reference to this dynamic sphere of human activity along the Southwest border with Mexico. Rather than the phrase “we are all legal,” we might rally around the idea that “we are all illegal”—we are all transgressors on an unconscious level. Oppressive regimes depend on the creation of rigid categories separating the clean and the dirty, the legitimate and the illegitimate. We can show how in both individual and societal development, rigid boundaries actually produce more anxiety over time than they effectively control. They make people feel less secure and more fearful of the power that remains outside of whatever fortifications are in place.