RANDY HUFF: Hinterlands, Divided Electorate, and Love

Most Americans make up an “exhausted majority” whose views aren’t represented either by the orthodox left or the far right.

So surmised Ben Kawaller in a succinct piece in the Free Press. He is beginning a national road trip to find out — boots-on-the-ground — whether we are really polarized and if so, how badly. I dare to believe he is right: that we are not as deeply divided as we fear.

It brought to mind one of the finest people I know. I grew up in the hinterlands, “flyover country” as it is often called, a term that is surely not intended to be derisive or dismissive, but is in fact those very things. My beloved Kansas comprises all that makes a nation survive: farms, and all the folk, communities and values adjacent. These are people in the very throes of life, very little provided artificially, a way of life known as “rural.” And too many outsiders have little idea what that entails. They just fly over it.

This is why the electoral college exists — to tie the vote to more than persons. The land needs a vote. The seaboard electorate, try as they might, does not get it. If we nullify the electoral college we will cut off our nose to spite our face, despising the land which provides our life and wondering why there is a divide between flyover country and the rest of the nation.

But I was talking about Vernon, that person this polarization brought to mind. Vernon was born and raised in Kansas, and he embodies all that can make the world right if we will let it, though if he read these words he would tell me to shut up. What makes Vernon salt-of-the-earth, the kind of person that can keep us whole in the threatening polarization?

Vernon says what he thinks and doesn’t care if you don’t like it. He cares about you, mind you, and will listen at length to your perspective. But in the end he has that remarkable gift John McWhorter has. If he disagrees he’ll say, “No, I just don’t see it that way.” No derision, even a handshake when you’re done, but plain honesty.

And Vernon lives on the land, caring for a small farm and caring for his immediate and extended family. He also doesn’t mind living in a very small town, participating in church life, knowing all the folk of his growing up years – sharing life with them across 60 years and more. Since I know that town (Miltonvale) I know it has a rich heritage and people rich in soul. His dear mother lives there still. And Vernon will someday join his departed loved ones in the hillside cemetery across the railroad on the southeast edge of town where my loved ones for several generation are also buried.

I recently had a very long conversation with Vernon. I have a beloved but basic college education which I continued in Seminary for a Masters. I love literature and reading and ideas and all that stuff, though I know there’s a world of which I have no awareness (for example, I’ve read almost no Shakespeare and very little of the classics outside the Bible.)

Vernon has little or no formal education beyond High School, yet he could do a Ph.D. if he wanted. He is wise and articulate. He knows what matters and he will tell you. And he tells you not in order to show off or score points, but because he loves you. If he were to read this he’d have a choice word for me, but I think I am right. Vernon loves. He has that affection for the land and for people — (I sometimes wonder if that isn’t the right sequence) — of which Wendell Berry speaks. And this love means he cannot be silent even when he wishes he could.

Vernon is the answer to this polarization problem. Living, being, breathing, loving, ‘landed.’ Knowing what seems right to you, holding it loosely, holding it close, and holding others close as well, if they will let you.

When I started writing I didn’t know I would think of Vernon, but I’m glad I did. There is further analysis to be made, and I love the project that Ben from Free Press is doing. I confess I worry if there is not a bit of un-moored pluralism going on. That is, I wonder if our great nation can survive without a singular idea to anchor our founding vision: “out of many one,” e pluribus unum. For this vision goes to the core of reality and we are losing our way.

We need reality.

The hinterlands have it. Vernon has it. And if we will listen to one another, as Ben says, we may just find we can get along far better than we imagined. And that very goal of getting along, that very love, will be the unum that makes a strong nation possible.

I want a strong nation, a nation that can hold together because its soul is united. Yes, we have different ideas. The right needs the left and the left the right, or both will end up in the ditch, an uncomfortable proposition. Which brings me to an end of these meandering thoughts with an observation of the great Wendell Berry.

Mr. Berry is an American treasure, a man who is ‘landed’  as well. Mr. Berry knows what matters, and he isn’t afraid to take views which misalign with either side in turn. And he tells us we need to learn forgiveness for our neighbors, suggesting:

“If two neighbors know that they may seriously disagree, but that either of them, given even a small change of circumstances, may desperately need the other, should they not keep between them a sort of pre-paid forgiveness? They ought to keep it ready to hand, like a fire extinguisher.”

Berry is right and I am learning. Vernon helps me see it. At the end of the day we have to live together and doing so will require, sometimes, laying aside our disagreements so real love can win the day.

Randy Huff

Randy Huff and his wife lived for 5 years in Roanoke (Hollins) where they raised 2 sons. Randy served as Dean of Students at a Christian school and then worked in construction. For the last 8 years he has served as pastor of a church in North Pole, Alaska.

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