In February 2024, a new book took the latest shot at rural America – White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy by Tom Schaller and Paul Waldman. It has caused quite a stir. Does the subtitle sound familiar? it’s the latest word used to sell books, scare people, and recruit voters. The title is primarily applied to describe “those people” living in flyover, nowhere land. In the book (which I have not read – too much for my blood pressure) ruralness equals racism, xenophobia, conspiracism, and anti-democratic beliefs.

The authors attribute all kinds of beliefs and emotions to a vast number of middle-Americans, including those they never ventured out to interview or spent any time with.

I won’t belabor my dislike for this book, but will say that the term rage (eye-catching as it is) is eventually defined as resentment. It seems to me that if you are described by the elites as ignorant and “deplorable,” have desperate needs ignored by an indifferent Congress (especially by your own red-state elected officials), and are labeled a national threat, you might feel some justifiable amount of resentment. And let’s not ignore the word “white.” Where’s the “Why, that’s racism” outcry? If there’s one thing we can’t change it’s the color of our skin.

A more considered and accurate view of rural America was provided by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges. He wrote America: The Farewell Tour in 2018 and was interviewed by Matt Taibbi on his recent social media post. Hedges offered this: “City journalists now barely visit the rest of America, but when they do, they’re no longer conscious of the difference between visiting a place and living there. If you live somewhere long enough to see the former ‘downtown’ disappear and replaced by a Walmart or Costco two miles away, or watch the plant that was the county’s main employer shutter, rust, and grow over with weeds, you’ll feel different emotions than someone merely told those facts.”

In 1989, when Jack and I drove into downtown Salem, Missouri, after we moved to the farm, I was shocked. The two blocks of shops were mostly vacant save for the essentials – the donut/coffee hangout, courthouse, bail bonds office, hardware store, and a Christian bookshop. Sure enough, there was the new Walmart like a mantis “preying” on local businesses. And this was before NAFTA dispatched manufacturing companies overseas and the opioid epidemic hit vast regions of America.

It took living there and interviewing people for the local paper that allowed the locals to reveal to me a mix of dignity, bravery, and despair. Kids had to find work out of the county, leaving aging farm families to carry on. But generations of pride of place and what many of us, me included, called home is what made living there so special. In many ways, the farm was the best place I ever lived.

The people I came to call friends and colleagues at the newspaper didn’t gave a flying fig what the “smartasses on both coasts” thought about rural Missouri. They were happy enough for them to stay in their lanes and not bring their crime, drugs, and landgrabs with them. I’m not sure much has changed over time – poverty still reigns and hope for a good life for their kids and the next generation remains.

Wendell Berry at his home in Port Royal, Kentucky, in 2011. Berry doesn’t own a computer and writes his books by hand, in pencil. 

Wendell Berry, poet, essayist and novelist, writing in,  gave his response to the “rage” question. His focus was on New York Times columnist Paul Krugman’s February 2024 article on rural America. Berry gave Krugman something to think about. Excerpts from Krugman’s article are in quotes, mixed with Wendell Berry’s counterpoints:

  • They (meaning Krugman and the authors of White Rural Rage) think that the only advantages in rural America are “Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and more -financed from taxes paid by affluent urban areas.”
  • Men like Krugman believe that “technological progress is an absolute law,” beyond question or alteration. If it causes pain for some, if it is devastating for others, if it “undermines whole communities” they take notice, they are even sympathetic in their fashion, but such things are, as they will tell you, “inevitable.” There is nothing they can do about it.
  • They believe that “about two-thirds” of “the agricultural work force” could be, and has been, without significant costs to land or people, displaced by “machinery, improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides.” They give “thanks” to this technological progress even though, among its other faults, it pollutes with vast tonnages of toxic chemicals the streams, lakes, and rivers that supply drinking water to cities.
  • They are doctrinaire materialists, to whom nothing matters but matter. They see the reluctance of “many workers to leave their families and communities,” not as a potential of sanity and moral health, but as an obstruction to progress. To them the human economy rests upon the use of material things that are either not living or treated as if they are dead. They assume, therefore, that they are free to disregard the natural and human life of the earth.

Here is Krugman’s parting thought in his NYT column: “The truth is that while white rural rage is arguably the single greatest threat facing American democracy, I have no good ideas about how to fight it.”

In reply, Wendell Berry wrote: “This despair comes from an impoverishment of heart and mind. A person who has no idea of goodness can have no good ideas. If one cannot imagine dealing with rural rage except by fighting it, one is already too late.”

The next blog post will provide the current state of rural America. I hope you’ll join me – it’s quite an eyeopener.

You can get to know Wendell Berry and his love of rural life in the Poetry Foundation’s bio of him:

As for Krugman, Tom Schaller, and Paul Waldman, are they really worth getting to know?

Photo credits: Rural fencing – art wave, Protest sign – gayatri-gome-angel.