Monday, November 08, 2004

My Experience in the Red and Blue Cultures

As some of you know I was raised on a farm in a now red state, ND. The nearest town where I went to school was about 300 people until I was about twelve years old. At the time, ND was neither Republican nor Democrat. It was NPL, the Non-Partisan League, which a majority of residents belonged to. So my parents voted for the NPL guy. At the time mothers were essentially apolitical, having too many kids to attend to, too many clothes to wash, canning to do, cows to milk, etc. and they hadn’t had the vote for too many years at that time. The little town of Tioga had two Lutheran Churches and a Catholic Church. No synagogues or mosques. There was some minor feuding among the Lutherans over which had the right version of the faith, but nothing that would disturb the tranquility of the little village and the surrounding farm community. My father was the treasurer of one of the Lutheran churches for many years. He wasn’t that religious that I could tell, because before he got the job I recall us going to church about twice a year, on Easter and Christmas. But he was a dutiful servant, dressing up in his Sunday best to count the collections every Sunday once he got the job.

Of course, we kids were required to go to Sunday school, get confirmed (catechism), and go to the baccalaureate (religious) ceremony upon graduation. Since everyone else did, and particularly the girls we were interested in, we went to bible camp a time or two and belonged to the Luther League youth organization. All the wives belonged to the Ladies Aid which put on the pot luck dinners after all the weddings and funerals.

My first adverse reaction to the religious “treatment” came at one of the bible camps. Long daily sessions at the disposal of strict clergy had me convinced after a couple weeks that either I was going the hell or I better start believing in Christianity. Fortunately, I had a lot of friends, most who didn’t attend, who starting ribbing me about my transformation, and after a few more weeks I was back to being a normal kid.

Up until my sixth grade, there was nothing about this rural experience that interfered with my conforming to societal norms. Everyone from the farm community thought essentially alike, and not just in Tioga, but in all the other little villages as far as one could travel in those days. Everyone was from similar European backgrounds, settled the area together, and carried on the same religious and cultural traditions of the old country. But in the summer between my fifth and six grade, my first cultural change occurred. An oil company prospecting in the area struck oil on a farm a few miles south of Tioga. By fall the town had close to doubled in population, and we were sitting two to a desk in my sixth grade class. Most of these new kids were different! They spoke funny, liked some foods we had never heard of (okra, black eyed peas, grits, collard greens, etc.), had a different attitude towards blacks, (We didn’t call them that at the time. There was another word that was popular then.) and God forbid, they were building a Baptist church right in the middle of town! Other than that, they were pretty much like us, from rural places with similar values and we started to get along just fine. I recall we discussed race relations quite a bit, and had completely different perspectives on the subject. I had only met one black person up to that time. His name was Joe Bond, and he worked the harvest circuit from Texas to ND every fall, and my father owned a threshing rig so we got to meet all the “strangers”. Joe was a real oddity to us. And I remember the time we had a hearty laugh when my father was paying off the crew and he asked a guy for his name and he said “Stubblefield”! Having met only a few people whose names didn’t end in “son” at the time, this struck us as pretty hilarious. This guy certainly was in the right occupation, spending most of his time in stubble fields loading shocked wheat bundles into his wagon and hauling them off to the threshing machine.

As time passed, the NPL was absorbed into the Democratic party, causing some more independent souls to join the Republican party. As I recall, my father, who had voted for Henry Wallace in 1948, became a Republican until the late fifties, when he switched to the Democrats. It all depended on who was supporting the small farmer the best. At the time most people voted their economics, not their religion.

Then I moved to the big city. What a shock! Never having been very far away from Tioga, I headed out to CA with a buddy of mine in my new 1957 VW bug loaded to the gills with practically everything we owned, and we set up shop in Inglewood, CA which at the time was the most white town in SoCal. Boy, did I meet a lot of “different” people. But I relished it, not realizing that some of these different people were thinking, who is this hick from the sticks with this sing-songy accent. I didn’t know anything about other cultures or what they valued or accepted. It wasn’t until I was up at Berkeley finishing my education where I came to the shocking realization that a girl I was dating, who liked me quite a lot, and we always had a good time every time we went out, informed me that we couldn’t let the relationship go any further because she was Jewish and it was not accepted at the time for her to stray to far from her heritage. This was a real eye opener for this green as grass farm boy from ND. Up until that time I really hadn’t realized the substantial impact culture and heritage could have on people.

After 45 more years of water under the bridge I think I have become pretty wise to the ways of the world and understand the difference between people who have had a wide range of cultural experiences and those who have remained in their original culture most of their life. It think it accounts for quite a few of the differences in the red and blue cultures. I should point out that there are really no true red or blue states, or even red or blue counties. I think it’s primarily red rural areas and blue urban areas. There are still very red areas in CA, like the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys, while the urban areas are very blue. Even in Nevada, Clark County (Las Vegas metro) is blue and everywhere else is mostly read.

I think this can be explained by the people born in cities or moving to cities eventually encountering a wide variety of races, religions, cultures and values. You come to realize that the values you were raised with might not be the only values that are meritorious, and that you may hold prejudices against strange people, values, and behavior. Your devotion to a religion you may have grown up with is challenged when you see that people having a different religion or no religion at all are equally good people and treat you as humanely, friendly, and respectful as those of your own stock. It’s like the old adage that people who don’t have mountains, make mountain out of molehills. Even if they are essentially alike they find small difference to separate them from others. Whereas experiencing great diversity tends to wash out small differences and make only substantial difference important.

Some people, more than others, long for simplicity and eschew complexity. They long for the time when things didn’t change as quickly or as much. Or they long to get back to simpler times and recapture simpler values. They seek simpler answers and a more specific plan for how to cope. But, the past is past and the future is more complex. We know more about the world, more about people, more about how things work, and what’s real and what’s myth. In my opinion it is time to cast off our longing for the past and our fear of the future and look to make changes within ourselves to adapt a world that is changing ever more rapidly.

Words we once considered offensive are no longer considered offensive to some but more offensive to others. Behaviors that once were unacceptable become more acceptable to a larger number of people. We should closely examine whether we are resisting these changes because they are remnants of a past tradition that no longer serves us as well, or because they are genuinely destructive to our future. What is often referred as elitism among urban people by those with a narrower cultural experience is probably no more than a recognition that change is less threatening to them, and they can’t understand why people who haven’t had their experiences are so resistant to change and so protective of values and traditions, which they see as having outlived their usefulness. To bridge the gap between the red and blue cultures will require greater understanding of one by the other and less resistance to changes which are almost sure to be upon us sooner or later and which may actually enhance our life experience.

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