Monday, May 03, 2004

Fish out of water, fish out of luck.

Thoughts on life, liberty, and the pursuit of really expensive crap.

Living in Montana for the past year, away from mainstream evangelicalism and unbridled liberalism, has put me in an uncharted state of mind (though to be honest, Huntington wasn't really a hotbed of liberal idealism). I have come to truly understand and appreciate two things: (a) the power of rural/conservative patriotism, and (b) the fact that sub-cultured forms of the Christian faith are not ubiquitous in the United States.

Let's tackle patriotism first. This last weekend, I had the privilege to be a stage techie for a local song/dance production featuring regular old people from Lewistown. It's part of this theatre program, from somewhere in PA, that sends out Directors all across the country to organize these productions in small towns, the proceeds of which go to a local charity (in our case, they went to the Boys & Girls Club). Neat idea. So there I was, handing out mics to stage members, making sure everyone who had a solo, had a cordless mic in which to sing. Okay, so it wasn't all that hard. But it did give me time to enjoy the performances on Friday and Saturday night. And think about them as well.

Near the end of the show, the production takes a patriotic turn. During one of the numbers, (a solo of "Proud To Be An American"), where an American flag is draped behind the stage, I realized something very important. Rural people aren't stupid or ignorant when it comes to patriotism. Now I kind of knew this already, but I also had lingering thoughts about how urban folk were a little more educated about American history, and had a more tempered sort of patriotism.

I had a really good point, but then I started typing.

Take the issue of flag burning. This could easily be thought of as a conservative/liberal issue. Conservatives usually want to protect the flag from desecration because of what it stands for to them -- liberty and freedom. Anyone who would want to burn a symbol that stands for liberty must be either a communist or a tyrant wannabe.

Liberals seem to see something else, though. Namely, great injustices have been performed under the banner of the Stars & Stripes. While the vast majority of liberals might find flag burning disgusting, they usually stand up for an American's right to burn their own flag in protest of present injustice. While they might not like it, burning the flag is a form of speech they see protected by the Constitution.

For a few years, I've been in this latter camp. Flag burning just seems like an ignorant form of protest to me, but just as the Constitution allows me the freedom to express that view, it also allows others to express an opposing view by burning a flag. But something I finally got last night, is that this isn't really a conservative/liberal tiff, but a rural/urban one.

Maybe this is just a big, "duh," but I've got nothing better to do.

Small town communities tend to remain homogeneous. What I mean is that people who think or appear differently from the standard, are usually set apart from the community. In order for those to find a community of their own to participate in, they are forced to move to more diverse communities, like those find in urban areas. Here, though they might not fit in with everyone, they are able to find a sub-community in which they find a sense of belonging. In a small town, patriotism runs deep, because people haven't been exposed to the diverse opinions about the U.S. that one might find in urban areas.

But this doesn't mean that the small town mindset is an ignorant mindset. Rural people still have a sense of black and white when it comes to wrong and right. They can't imagine why someone would want to burn a flag in the name of freedom -- that sounds like a contradiction. And in a sense, they're right. The flag simply stands for freedom and liberty -- and anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't really understand this. This is where rural thinking becomes more complex than we admit it to be: It's not an issue of a rural ignorance; it's an issue of urban ignorance. In thinking that the issue is not a black/white one, but one in which the flag has flown above actions of great harm and great good, the liberal risks ignoring that the good has vastly outweighed the harm. The rural American sees more good than bad in his or her community. Poverty might be bad, but no one is dying of starvation and everyone has a place to sleep at night. The schools aren't bad. Kids aren't dying on the streets because of gang violence or drugs. And while some people might be out of work, for most it's a temporary situation -- either they find a job, or they move on to another community where the job prospects are better.

Am I really going to post this? (sigh) Yes.

The urban situation is much worse (when in some ways, it's not; things just seem worse because they're on a much larger scale). Urban Americans have to deal with the homeless, drug related murders, decaying schools, and parts of town you don't drive in after dark (if ever). This situational dichotomy leads to a conservative/liberal split between rural/urban communities. When you're living in a warehouse, because you were evicted from your apartment, because you were buying groceries for your family instead of paying rent, and had no where to go because your immediate family lives some 500 miles away, because you moved to the city to find a job, because they're weren't enough jobs in your small Mississippi town for you to hold a regular job, because the local factories were outsourced to China, because it's cheaper to produce goods there, because your government is encouraging trade with China, because they're in the pocket of big corporations who see China as the largest untapped commercial market in the world, etc., etc., etc., it's really hard to remain patriotic, and burning an American flag doesn't seem like such a ridiculous idea.

But to the small town mind, sitting in the high school auditorium, listening to the town's pediatrician sing, "And I'm proud to be an American/where at least I know I'm free," things seem alright. We're at war, yes. But it's for freedom -- freedom from the fear of terrorists and freedom for the Iraqi people. We're free to have this little assembly, and sing these little songs, and choose where we want to worship the next morning, if we even want to worship at all. And that flag, in all her glory, stands for those freedoms. To burn it....well, that just goes against everything they know. And the thing is, they know more than you think.

It's late, so I'll tackle the whole Christian thing sometime later.


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