Monday, March 03, 2008

Music and Movements

The Revealer linked to an article, entitled "One Nation Under Elvis," and the teaser copy hinted that it was one of those pieces arguing that country music is misunderstood, that it's really a voice for progressivism. I girded my loins for battle; a Steve Earle here or there may complicate the picture, but he doesn't really outweigh the scores of Toby Keiths and Lee Greenwoods singing on country airwaves.

That teaser didn't begin to do justice to the article, though. I love this piece, and I will remember Rebecca Solnit and Orion magazine. Solnit starts with a story of a group of environmental activists who walk into a bar frequented by lumberjacks, and the scorn and intolerance evidenced between the two groups over the issue of what music to play on the jukebox, Dolly Parton or Bob Marley. "It was not a great movement-building exercise. How far were you going to get with a community when you couldn't stand their music or even be diplomatic about it?" That's the peg for a really sharp analysis of the split in the environmental movement, between the coastal political elites advocating for environmental reform, and the white working class of the great American interior who bear the brunt of the environmental abuses that need reforming.

Admittedly I can be a bit of a Southern chavinist at times, but Solnit echoes an observation of mine: For Northeastern or California liberals to demonize white Southerners categorically, is sometimes a self-justifying move: "Racism is pervasive. The pretense that it belongs solely to poor people who talk slow lets the rest of us off the hook."

Here is her account of the origins (and unintended outcomes) of genteel environmentalism:

The environmental movement’s founding father, John Muir, was himself a Wisconsin farm boy, and he did not so much flee the farm for the wilderness as invent wilderness as a counter-image to the farm on which his brutal father nearly worked him to death. Muir worked later as a shepherd and lumber-miller in the Sierra Nevada and much later married into an orchard-owning family, but he didn’t have much to say about work, and what little he did say wasn’t positive. The wilderness he sought was solitary, pure, and set apart from human society, corporeal sustenance, and human toil—which is why he had to forget about the Indians who were still subsisting on the land there. This apartness and forgetting so beautifully codified in Ansel Adams’s wilderness photographs has shaped the vision of much of the environmental movement since them.

The Sierra Club, which Muir cofounded with a group of University of California professors in 1892, saw nature as not where one lived or worked but where one vacationed. And traditional American environmentalism still largely imagines nature as vacationland and as wilderness, ignoring the working landscapes and agricultural lands, whose beauties and meanings are widely celebrated in European art. More recently, as environmentalists have found themselves dealing with more systemic problems—pesticides, acid rain—they’ve begun to shed the sense that the rural and urban, human and wild, are separate in ecological terms, but that awareness has done little to actually connect rural and urban people and issues.

Today, rural citizens see themselves in an unappreciated, fast-shrinking middle zone between wilderness and development (even though agriculture is often the best bulwark against sprawl). In many ways, rural culture is dying, and that seems to push many rural people into near-paranoia. During the water-scarcity crises in the Klamath River region on the California–Oregon border, farmers spoke of “rural cleansing” and seemed to believe that environmentalists wanted to empty out the countryside. Some of them do. Rural life, other than sentimental fantasies of an idyllic past, cowboy fetishism, or the pseudo-ruralism of people who live in rustic-looking settings but commute to work in the white-collar economy, is largely invisible to most of us most of the time. It’s true that agriculture and wilderness are often in competition—the farmers of the Klamath Basin are competing with salmon for water. But if rural culture and rural life were positive values also being defended, the negotiations might go better.

Solnit finds reasons for hope in the racial and cultural eclecticism of the post Baby Boom generation, and the potential of global warming and sustainability to unite us under a broad perspective. From her closing paragraph:

The anti-environmentalist right has shot itself in both feet in the past few years, losing credibility and constituency, and a smart and fast-moving left could make hay out of this, to mix a few fairly rural metaphors. It would mean giving up vindication for victory—that is, giving up on triumphing over the wickedness of one’s enemies and looking at them as unrecruited allies instead.

I can't help myself: Right now, that sounds like an Obama campaign ad.

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