November 17, 2004
Mr. van Veen passes along this spirited postelection urbanist rant from the (Seattle)Stranger with a well merited request for comment. So here we go.
One part of me really wanted to hear what the Stranger had to say. Compared to 2000's red state vs. blue state, coast vs. center conceptions, the urban vs. rural rings far truer. A step or two towards accuracy. And as a lifelong urbanite, it makes for an easy fuck you explanation. But hating the rural America I all too rarely visit isn't going to win any elections, nor will it really help understand what's going on in national politics.
Fact is while the Stranger is essentially correct that cities voted for Kerry and rural areas for Bush, the line just isn't nearly as sharp as they slice it. Even in the "bluest" cities Bush still got 20% percent of the vote, and often he got more like 40-49% of it. And Kerry actually won a small but not insignificant amount of rural counties, especially in the Appalachias and Southwest. The urban/rural interaction is one of gradated tendency not sharp divide.
The same county by county map the Stranger writers use to craft their urban argument (a slightly better version is here), also shows large regions that just don't map to their ultra urbanist agenda. Most intriguing to me is what could be called the hidden coast, up and down the Mississippi River. A thin stretch as blue as either the Atlantic or Pacific coast. Then there's an echo of blue hitting the ports of the Great Lakes, and the hefty areas of Texas and the Southwest along the Mexico border. What about Columbus Ohio, Lawrence Kansas or that blue chunk of Idaho?
What's at work here is not as much a function of urbanism, but of a related but not attached concept of cultural flow. What ideas flow through a space? What sort of diversity is there? Does the world end on the horizon line outside of which are barbarians or does its spread out in a gorgeous meshwork? These are not thoughts bounded by geographies, rather they ideas that are attracted unevenly to geographies. Oceans, massive rivers like the Mississippi and populated national borders generate a natural flow of people that pushes the population towards diversity. But the same forces generate reactions and contractions, people who hide from or hate that cultural diversity.
Humans themselves can also generate these forces of flow. Universities circulate a world of people through them on a year by year, semester by semester. They become their own strange attractor independent of geography. Rural areas themselves have this capability, the ski resorts and idealized landscapes of Vermont and Sun Valley Idaho circulate people in a similar manner. And then again, one solo human can generate there own flow. A library, the internet, a DVD, or just a imagination can enough to enter a person into the space of cultural flow.
Now its essential to point out that I am NOT crafting an argument that maps the left to those open to cultural flow and the right to those outside or against it. Political leaders and funders on either side are almost by definition fully emerged in the flow of the world, tapped deep into the charges of capital, politics and resources. There are plenty of "conservatives" sitting deeply entrenched in the flows of culture. And plenty of "liberals" isolated from these flows (see again the Appalachias and Southwest). Rather what has happened over the past 30 years or so is that the right has realized that its far easier to construct new realities in the areas of low cultural flow. And all the meanwhile the left has forgotten these areas even exist.
This brings us to the infamous reality based community. The right wing has claimed large swathes of rural America as spaces that it can construct its own reality unimpeded. Spaces that once where constructed in deeply progressive manners. One space on the map that keeps calling my attention is the Appalachias an area I don't know enough about, but paints itself strongly blue. I suspect this is a remnants of a different reality, one constructed by the left. A reality born of hand me down marxism and populism in the hands of labor union organizers working the coal mines. A hidden reminder that the left once too played the reality construction game.Posted by Abe at November 17, 2004 06:05 PM