Cultural Loneliness

The following is a guest blog by Paul Gilk, a resident of Lincoln County in northern Wisconsin.

“The successful middle class and those who aspired to emulate them were satisfied. Not so the laboring poor—in the nature of things the majority—whose traditional world and way of life the Industrial Revolution destroyed, without automatically substituting anything else. It is this disruption which is at the heart of the question about the social effects of industrialization.”

E. J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire, page 84

There are lots of roots of resentment. And, no doubt, some of the roots are deeper than others. But here in northern Wisconsin, especially among blue-collar men who vote Red, two of those roots really stand out. One . . . . Well, both are right on the boundary of rational consciousness, and both contain a lot of unrecognized and unexamined emotional energy, an energy of ongoing political consequence.

One of those emotional roots is sustained aggravation over thwarted childhood and obstructed adolescence, an obstructed thwarting caused by compulsory institutionalized schooling. Red guys may not be able to articulate or describe what life might’ve been like without all that mandatory indoor sitting, but they clearly know the dead feeling of enforced confinement. Few people alive today may be able to remember a “way of life” destroyed—its remnants faded, thinned, and essentially disappeared in the decade or so after World War Two; but twelve years of compulsory schooling was (and is) no substitute for a banished culture that, whatever its shortcomings, actually was a way of life.

When former governor Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature hatched Act 10, legislation that crushed all public sector unions (except those for cops and firemen), a lot of blue-collar men either approved or were indifferent. Those guys didn’t necessarily hate unions, and they certainly weren’t “anti-government”—if for no other reason than it was government doing the crushing. They stood watching because of a deep, mostly inarticulate anger over the stupid, rigid schools and the (mostly) female teachers who had wielded more controlling power than their own mothers. Busting the teachers’ union therefore hit two targets simultaneously: perceived middle-class privilege and female police power in an aggravating and confining compulsory institution that supposedly was there for the students’ long-term good, even if the students were too immature or stupid to recognize the benevolent blessing.

That’s one of the roots. The other is more elusive. It has to do with the pervasive absence of tangible rural culture. And the absence of tangible rural culture has to do with the virtual liquidation of small farms—and, to a more ambiguous degree, the disappearance of one-room rural schools. We might call this a condition of cultural loneliness. (Though, in my experience, there’s nothing to brag about with the curriculum of the 1950’s one-roomers, only that they could’ve—and certainly should’ve—transitioned to ecological and social relevance. That they didn’t was partly due to conventional acquiescence on the part of farmers; but mostly it was due to the presumed higher wisdom of educational authorities, both local and state, to which farmers deferred out of habit and a lack of political vision.) And, since there’s so little coherent cultural analysis in this dimension, cultural loneliness remains a collectively felt thing lacking in intellectual affirmation or lucid articulation. It’s the felt thing that the cynical propaganda squad of Fox and friends has exploited with such audacity and consistency: not an articulation of real issues, just relentless massage of underlying resentful feelings.    

Working-class Red voters would resonate with a Blue critique that seriously and deeply explored these issues, if only Blue thinkers could reach beyond conventional patterns of thought and perception. Fox and friends think the issues stupid. They could care less about the disappearance of small farms, the extinction of one-room schools, or the evaporation of rural culture. They’ve just capitalized on the cultivation of resentment and its electoral harvest. Blues, meanwhile, are just beginning to emerge from a civilizational hangover called “progressivism.” Only the CSA/homeschooling rural radicals have sufficiently sobered up to clearly perceive the mass social—the mass political—control of childhood and adolescence engineered by this system; but they’re so busy with their demanding lives that public policy formation feels to them a luxury they can hardly afford. And there’s no northwoods Highlander Folk School to facilitate and concentrate a policy formation process. Even the greener Blues consistently imply that solar and wind, if we’d just get our political act together, will adequately substitute for a radical decrease in the use of fossil fuels. Hardly anybody is seriously talking planned and focused decentralization with a major reorientation toward local and regional food production. And that takes us right back to the issue of rural culture; and the reconstruction of rural culture quickly implies a restoration of small-scale farming, an enhanced rural population, and the creation of localized rural schools. It’s actually pretty simple. But getting there intellectually requires getting out of some well-worn ruts.  

Meanwhile the old movers and shakers in the county Democratic Party are mostly retired teachers who always want more money for schools and won’t hear any criticism of consolidation. That is, the dominant Blue political perspective aligns quite tightly with the “educational” status quo. These retired teachers are, for the most part, really decent people, some of them deeply committed to various civic projects of high quality. (The Wisconsin River runs west to east through my home town, and an ongoing civic project—which has already taken years of effort—is to build a walking/bike path along the river from one end of town to the other, all the way to Council Grounds State Park. It’s a fine effort.)

One of the dinosaur skeletons in the closet is climate change draped in an ever-thickening robe of fossil fuel emissions. That is to say, Blues could—and will soon have to—forcefully say that a steep, graduated decline in fossil fuel usage is crucial to slow down (or at least not continue to accelerate) the heating of the oceans. The physics is pretty simple. It’s a readily understandable thermal blanket of atmospheric fossil farts that’s trapping solar heat. The radical shrinkage of fossil fuel usage means serious decentralization and the reconstruction of rural culture. Yes there will be a lot more solar and wind; but, overall, our energy consumption is going to take an enormous hit—and, given our current energy usage and its ecological consequences, it urgently needs to take an enormous hit. But Blues first have to get over their “progressive” addiction to energy-intensive civilizational progress, including reflexive protection of the existing school system and a kind of sophisticated contempt for rural culture, before they’re sober enough to feel the cultural loneliness that Reds experience as a daily fact of life.

Paul Gilk, N3920 County E, Merrill, Wisconsin  54452  715-536-5889

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