An Anywhere--from Somewhere
"I'm from the West."
I've been saying that for a couple of decades now, first in Manhattan, then in Brooklyn, now in my New Jersey commuter town.
For a while, when I first got to the East, it seemed clear that being from the West was the main thing about me. People could tell I was different, and I was often asked, "Where did you go to school?" In fact, I was asked this more times in a week than I had been asked in my whole life out West.
People, I realized, were trying to place me somehow. Maybe I was from somewhere else but maybe I still had some East Coast credibility; maybe I had gone to Columbia or NYU?
The correct answer, though, was the University of Oregon. No one had much to say to this though once someone, apparently wanting to be open-minded, said, "I hear the University of Washington is a good school. "
It didn't take long to understand: in the mind of New Yorkers, being from the West made you less smart. You were probably smarter than a Southerner. But still clearly not up to East Coast par when it came being intelligent or informed or, generally speaking, knowing what's what.
Honestly though: I didn't blame New Yorkers for this. After all, I had come to New York to be in the intellectual capital of world, thereby conceding that something was lacking on that score in my own region.
Though I learned I would be instantly stereotyped, I never hedged: "I'm from the West," I always said. And when people made approving noises about LA or Seattle—and even though I could have claimed the latter, having worked there for several years --I always said: "No. I'm from the Mountain West."
"Way back in the hills of Eastern Oregon, I began saying. High desert. An hour from the nearest town with a doctor or a lawyer, a drug store or a supermarket."
I didn’t have to elaborate on my truly remote origins. But I did. I guess it’s because that’s who I am. I guess too I’m proud of it: of my pioneering great grandfather. My ferocious grandmother who held the home place during the Depression.
And, yes, I still love it: the tawny foothills that always reminded me of sleeping lions. The ring of snow capped mountains that surrounded our valley, and that glowed at dawn and again at sunset. The bronzed men who spent their days under the wide blue dome of heaven, men who felt a responsibility to inject a genial humor into every remark, especially when speaking to children.
I've been back East a while now. I have a Ph.D. and I publish books. Now I am myself a New York intellectual. Kind of.
Whatever. It hasn't really mattered for some time; I'm local. I'm not constantly called upon to explain myself to strangers any more.
But last year, all of that changed.
Because now I've become even more of a rarity, an Eastern "elite" from Trump country, indeed, from a county where they went for Trump by a seventy-two percent margin.
My New Jersey town, by contrast, a place full of lawyers, journalists, writers, artists, and theater people--most of whom migrated out from the City for a back yard, a place to park and a house where the kids could have bedrooms--is about as progressive as it gets. Here eighty-two percent voted for Clinton.
The morning after the election, as I remember, there was shock at the commuter train station. The usual convivial racket as we waited for the train into the City had gone absolutely silent.
In those first, horrified weeks, people in my town invited other people over to talk about what had happened and dozens would show up, sitting on the living room floor, standing in back. It was something I'd never quite seen; people just needed to talk about their shared grief. It seemed as if people couldn't bear to be alone with their thoughts.
And so we went around the room, giving everybody a say. Some said they were scared and sick. Some expressed anger and, I think it is fair to say, hate.
When my turn came, I said, "Well, I’m from the West. The Mountain West. Where they went for Trump by seventy-two percent. And I kind of understand this thing."
They stared at me. Only the woman who had previously identified herself as a psychotherapist gave me a smile and an encouraging nod.
"Life out there is over," I said.
In my allotted two minutes I tried to explain: the world of my childhood in the hills of Eastern Oregon was gone. Farmers could not compete with giant agribusinesses. Small towns had lost their schools, their churches, their few small businesses. Their populations. Thriving communities of only a few decades ago are virtual ghost towns today.
What do you do, I said, when the whole damn rug has been snatched from under you? What should you do? I don't know. They don’t know either.
It's no excuse someone muttered.
The psychotherapist smiled at me understandingly.
Then it was the next person's turn. He said, as I remember, that hatred and bigotry weren't the answers to anything.
I spoke up in another living room meeting, with similar results. So I turned to Facebook, where I tried to share some understanding, at least, of the people I had grown up among.
My father, I wrote, was a very intelligent man, a crack pilot in the Air Force, who could have made a good, safe living with an airline. Instead he returned to the precarious life on an 80-acre farm. As a child, this puzzled me. How could he not have wanted to wear that cool uniform, fly all over the world and, as I already grasped, make much more money than he could growing hay and corn?
Once, in high school, I got an insight into his thinking. When I speculated that maybe I would try to become a Foreign Service Officer, my dad said: "Well that might be OK if you don't mind working for wages."
Back then I thought that was just him. But he was, I now understand, expressing a widespread class value. In interviews for her book, The Dignity of Working Men, for example, Michele Lamont was repeatedly told: The main thing is to be independent and give your own orders and not have to take them from anybody else.
Furthermore, we begin to understand that the working class doesn't resent the rich as we would imagine they might. Rather they admire the rich. That's what they would like to achieve, business success: “I can’t knock anyone for succeeding,” a laborer told Lamont. “There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have."
Yes. This was my dad. He wanted to be a big operator and he admired those that were. It wasn't in the cards for him; all the same he just about killed himself trying to make it happen.
But if the working class often admires the rich, it resents professionals: the managers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and "intellectuals" who, every day, order them around and tell them what's what.
And, Hillary Clinton, as Joan Williams has written in a widely-circulated piece in the Harvard Business Review, "epitomizes the arrogance and smugness of the professional elite. . . . The arrogance: the email server. The smugness: the basket of deplorables. Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic."
This too rings a bell. I'm remembering how, when I would come home from college, my dad and I would argue ferociously, really angrily, about every political and cultural issue imaginable.
In retrospect, I had thought that those angry fights represented a kind of strange bonding; from the time I was a toddler, we had always talked and debated. We both wanted to keep talking, I've thought, even though we seemed to disagree about everything.
Maybe there was some of that. But now I think too that we were unconsciously playing our roles in a clash that has become a central problem of our country: I was becoming the educated know-it-all. I had to tell him what was what.
In those days, I overheard him say something that, at the time, I thought was just more dumbness. Now it haunts me: "I lost everything I loved," he said, "to the University of Oregon."
There's something else too, something that's not about how you earn your living or how you get information, but what you enjoy in life.
In a recent book, British author David Goodhart tries to get at this by describing a social split that has emerged not only in the UK, but around the world, what he calls the Somewheres versus the Anywheres.
Those in the first group are rooted in a specific place among people they've always known. Somewheres are generally small town or rural, usually less educated and more socially conservative. The Anywheres, on the other hand, are "foot-loose," college-educated urbanites who have a lot of opportunity and who are glad to go where this opportunity takes them.
The values of these two groups could scarcely be more different. The Somewheres, those who went for Brexit, have faith in community, extended family and well-loved places. Change is a threat to all of this.
What the Anywheres cherish is education, interesting work, varied experiences. It's a very different kind of faith. For them, change is the invigorating air they breathe.
The Somewheres worry about people who are different, people who, they fear, will change the nature of their communities and lives.
The Anywheres on the other hand deplore this xenophobia. They --we-- don't care who lives next door. We know such views are ignorant and usually racist.
(We know too, in must be said, that we have the money to self-segregate in well-to-do neighborhoods and communities where people look and live a lot like us.)
Certainly I have for some time, vaguely, grasped these differences in "beliefs."
Still, reading Goodhart, I have a sudden memory of my father's funeral, ten years after I had been in New York. I had gone home, of course, where the church --usually attended by five or six elderly women--was filled to overflowing. From the front-row mourners’ pew, I lifted my eyes to see the people filing past the casket to pay last respects, scores of them, many I didn't know. They must have driven in from all over the county.
Following the service at the cemetery, the local ladies had put on a potluck dinner in the Grange Hall. In a lighter mood now, everybody--including me-- talked and laughed about my dad, his crazy flying when he still had a small plane, his eternal readiness for a good story and a laugh. Just his general good-hearted humor and decency. Later, as things wound down, I was presented with a paper place mat in lieu of a condolence card; it was signed in pencil by all those who had brought a dish.
Even later that night, a few distant relatives, ranchers still hanging on in a nearby valley, came down to my dad's place. Though I had never seen anyone take a drink in this house, the relatives had a pint of whiskey; they were ranchers, after all, not farmers. And we sat around talking. It was my second cousin's husband we got on the subject of his sons. There wasn't much for them to do in this area anymore, he said, and one son had a job offer in another state. But he didn't much want to take it up.
"It's hard country to leave," my second cousin's husband mused in the tone of one uttering a well-known aphorism.
He wasn't talking about me. I had already left. I had long ago abandoned the home place that my grandmother had saved and that my dad had returned to, despite more secure and lucrative opportunities elsewhere. Too, I had turned my back on the leonine hills, the ice-cream-cone mountain peaks, the always-awesome blanket of stars in the night sky.
But nobody that night mentioned the choice I had made. Nobody noted that I, at least, hadn't found the country hard to leave.
Looking back I realize that throughout the day of the funeral, nobody asked me where I lived or what I did. I believe that nobody would have wanted to bring it up and perhaps make me feel bad. If people blamed me for being so hard-hearted as to forsake everybody and everything, well, they didn't say so. I was home now and one of them. At least for this day.
My second cousin and her husband are dead now, as are, I'm sure, many of those at the funeral and the ladies who signed the place mat that I have saved among my dad's things.
Those who are still living undoubtedly voted for Trump.
And my dad: if he had been alive, he would have despised Trump's crudity almost as much as the fact that he was from New York City. But he would have voted for the man. If you had drilled down, you would have found not xenophobia or hate; for one thing, no outsiders would care to venture into these dry hills and emptied-out towns. Rather you would find a protest against the know-it-alls who could never grasp who my dad was and what mattered to him. Who were sure they superior to him in every way.
Never mind that Trump was the last person in the world to understand or care about a guy like my dad. He gave off a kind of outsider vibe, a kind of insecurity, I come to believe, that, on some intuitive level, felt familiar. When he stood up to Ivy League, halls-of-power Hillary, it felt good.
Even if I can divine some intuitive reasons for liking Trump, I still don't excuse those who voted for him. I really don't. Even Somewheres know vileness when they see it. They should have acted like the decent people I know them to be. Shame.
Still: shouldn't we who are so educated and so smart try to understand and locate a way to respect those who are seeing their world vanish for no real fault of their own? Shouldn't we demand politicians who listen? A lot? And who find a way to speak with understanding and respect?
Even if these benighted people are white.
Even if they have guns.
(Yes, my dad had a gun. It stood up at one end of the bedroom closet. He used it to hunt deer and pheasants. That meat, some years, got us through the winter. Too, the nearest sheriff's deputy was fifty miles away along a winding river road. If there ever had been trouble, he would have had to handle it himself.)
After the election I put up Joan Williams's article on Facebook and wrote: I abhor the results of the election as much as anyone, but I know that the reasons for the Trump vote are not as simple as most people around me seem to think. People want and value different things. Everybody doesn't want to go to college and become a professional. Must that really be the only way to live with dignity?
The Facebook response I got was markedly less restrained than it had been in my friends' living rooms: people I had never heard of expressed hatred for me and my dad. How dare I make excuses for these ignorant, hate-filled, racist hicks?!
Throughout the last year, the living room meetings in my town have grown into a thousand-strong action group. Many people here are working every day to resist Trump. We write letters, make calls, turn out to march and send money to races all of the country that we think are up for grabs. During the national tournament of top women golfers, a half dozen of us even invaded Trump's New Jersey golf course, smuggling in T-shirts that—when we lined up-- spelled out: "Resist" and when we turned around, "This is Not Normal."
We are already working toward November, targeting the Friend-of-Trump Republican congressmen in nearby districts. One of them has already resigned as a result of our pressure. (I wrote this piece last spring: in fact we did get the FOT out and flipped his seat along with 4 our of 5 NJ seats.)
Despite my anti-Trump fervor, however, I still can't write off the people I knew at home.
Before the election I made one effort to contact somebody out there, somebody my age. Her name is Mandy and we were completely different in high school. I was the ambitious, smart one. She was the wacky, dumb one. Her dumbness was, as we would say in New York, part of her schtick. And she was one of the people I liked most. An old saying applied: she didn't have a mean bone in her body.
In those days, I remember, there was a boy Mandy liked. Bill. She was in love with him really. To make her jealous, I flirted with him. To make her jealous, he flirted back. But for Mandy it wasn't a game. She came to me: You know you don't want him, she said. I do. Can't you leave him alone?
So I did. A few years later Mandy and Bill got married and--as I see on Facebook--they've just celebrated another anniversary. Mandy, her posts show, is still crazy about her guy.
Looking back, I think, what a jerk I was. I think too, if everybody was as honest and open-hearted as Mandy, this world would be a better place.
So when Trump mocked the disabled reporter, I wrote to good-hearted Mandy: surely you can't vote for a guy like this. He's mean. He acts like a schoolyard bully. You want him running our country?
Mandy--never a scholar, like I said--wrote back: "Sorry. We are the deployables."
At first I though maybe she knew people who could, somehow, get called up to the military, who could then be "deployed" into danger.
But of course she meant "deplorables." She hadn't read it; she'd heard it on TV. Whatever it meant, that's how Clinton had described Mandy, her beloved Bill and most of the people she knew. It was an insult and Mandy wasn't going to let it go.
Now that we've had Trump for a while, I would really like to know what people out there are thinking.
Are they still part of some Trump "base," a group that just loves the guy, despite every insult. Despite the daily assaults he makes on intelligence and decency and honesty. Not to mention our democracy.
What about Mandy?
I consider sending her another message: How is she feeling about her president now?
Just, finally, disgusted?
God, disgusted at last?
I try to learn her views by scrolling through her Facebook posts. But her only interests seem to be family and friends, her pages full of congratulations, celebrations and condolences. Occasionally she will put up some poem or saying about how wonderful it is to have a husband you love. What joy children bring. Especially grandchildren.
Many "elites" would consider Mandy a loser. In fact, Mandy, as I only now grasp, is an embodiment of Somewhere success. Though she moved from our dying hamlet to a bigger town in Eastern Oregon, she's remains deeply rooted in her place and in the bosom of her community and family.
My father's life as a Somewhere was more problematic. Making it on a small farm had gotten almost impossible. Too, Anywhere-ism crept into his life, and nobody--least of all me--understood how to negotiate the differences that should not have separated us as much they did.
For my dad and me it's too late.
Perhaps the best I can do now is just refrain from asking Mandy pushy questions about Trump. I would only be another Anywhere, trying, once again, to tell her what's what.
We've got to see that this doesn't work.
And we need to remember that something we grasp easily in other parts of our lives is also true in politics: the way in which you relate, the respect and humility and empathy you bring, is as important as what you have to say, the information you impart.
If we don't find the way to speak respectfully and usefully to people where they are, we will, as former Labor Secretary Robert Reich has warned, leave the field to the authoritarian "populists" who are successfully conning Somewheres all over the world.
As a confirmed Anywhere, I came to parenthood late and thus may never see a grandchild of my own. But I am happy for Mandy's happiness with hers.
Still scrolling through her posts, I pause at a set of photos taken at a birthday party where Mandy and her turning-twelve granddaughter mug for the camera, their expressions identically wacky. They are clearly having a great time together.
I don't ask Mandy about Trump. I don't try to set her straight. It won't work. And maybe I could even make things worse.
Instead, given the circumstances, I do the most useful thing I can think of: Whenever I see a picture of her wonderful grand daughter, I post an extra-long string of emoticon grins.