Class, place, environmental activism, & Elvis

The March/April 2008 issue of Orion Magazine features a piece by one of my favorite essay writers, Rebecca Solnit. Here Solnit tells the story of how she came to love country music, and uses it as a launching pad for a frank and penetrating exploration of the culture clash between liberal environmentalists and many of the residents of the rural areas they seek to protect from degradation and exploitation. Solnit writes:

I grew up surrounded by liberals and leftists who liked to play the idiot in fake southern accents, make jokes about white trash and trailer trash, and…made gagging noises whenever they heard Dolly Parton or anything like her.

This, Solnit argues, is a viewpoint that is scarcely less intolerant than the racism and deep cultural conservatism of some of those country music fans that many liberals have been raised to hold in contempt. Ever since the Civil Rights movement, many liberals have effectively thrown out the baby with the bathwater: rejecting not only the repellent racism of southern culture, but everything else associated with it, too—including country music.

Solnit goes on to point out that country music’s history is far from purely lily-white and southern: that no kind of American music can claim a single racial heritage, given the ways in which American musicians of all races have always freely mixed forms like country, blues, and folk, whatever their origins may have been. The varied cultural reception of Elvis Presley provides Solnit with a helpful example. Some people denigrate him as someone who stole from black artists and exploiting their achievements for his own gain; others are scarcely aware of the source materials he’s drawing on. But for Solnit, both arguments miss the point—”Hound Dog,” for example, is a pop song written by two Jews, first made famous by a black woman, and which subsequently became a hit for Elvis, whose performance drew not only on the blues, but also on rockabilly, country, and pop.

Solnit then moves these same ideas into the context of the environmental movement, and the great resistance it has received from people living in areas where there are many country music fans, like the south and west. She argues that a lot of the problem here comes from the great distrust that rural conservatives and urban liberals towards one another—and further, that much of that distrust comes from cultural misunderstandings like the one about country music. If environmentalists and rural residents were better able to recognize the interests and values that they share, perhaps they could work together far more effectively in order to protect the environment. But in order for that to be possible, liberals need to come to understand and respect the value and importance of rural culture, and rural residents need to better recognize that the political right, despite its opposition to liberal culture, is fundamentally pro-corporate in nature, and thus is only interested in preserving rural culture or values so long as it permits them to defeat environmentalists and thereby gain the ability to profit from the exploitation and degradation of rural lands.

Solnit’s undoubtedly right that we need to look past red state/blue state divisions in order to recognize common interests. It seems to me that what’s going on here most fundamentally is a failure of empathy, and an overeagerness to divide the world into “us” and “them.” We have to recognize that the world is more complicated than this—that music is never purely black or purely white, and that our assumptions about other people are very likely oversimplified, if not simply false, whenever we start putting people into categories. At the same time, though, it’d be a mistake to smooth over differences in culture and opinions—to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist. Conservatives and liberals are still bound to disagree with each other, and so conflict is inevitable–not every situation will have a mutually satisfying resolution. But starting from a position of distrust and contempt and mutual ignorance certainly won’t help anything.

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