Geographies of the conservative Other

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, I’ve been thinking, reading and writing a lot about the rural, conservative places I grew up. I’ve been looking through data on my hometowns. And I’ve been remembering my friends and former neighbors. I’ve been doing this mostly in a personal fashion but I’m also going to take it forward academically.

See below my call for a special session at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Boston in April 2017. This is a “late-breaking news” session, so the deadline is only 29 November.

CFP: Geographies of the conservative Other

Following the outcome of the 2016 U.S. elections, disbelief and shock still reverberate around late-night television, liberal newspaper opinion pages, dinner tables, college classrooms, water coolers, streets of protest and social media soapboxes. The success of Donald Trump’s campaign, often fueled by bigotry and outlandishly discriminatory proposals, has left many progressives feeling like “they’ve woken up in another country” (Davis 2016). Surprise has given way to sadness — that so many Americans could vote this way — and legitimate fear about lasting, future material effects — laws rescinded, judges appointed and renewed race, class, gender and other marginalizations.

Progressive denunciations of Trump’s brand of conservative politics are at once shows of strength and admirable cautions that intolerance must not be normalized. These reactions call for solidarity among a “we” who did not support Trump’s campaign as opposed to a “them,” backwards, hateful or regressive Trump voters. In the extreme, this discourse risks marshaling and inscribing a logic of intellectual and moral superiority by progressives over conservatives. Conservatives who voted for Trump are rendered irrational, even irredeemable, in the grips of false consciousness or possessed of impossible-to-change bigotries. Such a logic is potentially Othering — the process by which a group is repeatedly described or defined as deviant and positioned outside or marginal to a normal, acceptable center (Mount 2009). This demarcation of the Other has been routinely deployed by colonial and neo-colonial powers (c.f. Said 1978; Gregory 2004) to justify domination. Othering also overlaps Schmitt’s distinction of the political enemy as “the other, the stranger… existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.” Today, vehement progressive political discourse — especially the kind that lacks nuance — drifts toward an abstract of the conservative Other as a rural, white, male, bigoted enemy.

Few, however, would argue that the politics to which progressives now respond — manifested in the “surprise” win by Trump — are somehow new. They finds roots in myriad multi-generational forces: disparate effects of globalization, precarity brought on by neoliberal policy, uneven development, mutually constitutive relationships between urban and rural, campaign finance run amok, the historical legacies of slavery, cultural narratives of loss and more (Davis 2004, 2016; Frank 2004; Hochschild 2016; Wolin 2008). U.S. political division has a material spatial quality from the level of red and blue states down to red and blue neighborhoods (Bishop 2007). Of course, Othering of many groups occurs simultaneously in countervailing directions. Minorities have long been Othered throughout U.S. history and Trump himself reinforced an Othering discourse about U.S. “inner cities.” The Other is also complicated as categories slip and break: For example, rural America is neither exclusively conservative nor lily white. In effect, the political Other may be written into the messy landscape and history of multiple Americas, generating what Hochschild suggests are impossibly tall “empathy walls.”

This special “late-breaking” session seeks reflections and research that engage the subject position of progressive scholars and grapple with the geography of the conservative Other. What kinds of scholarship are needed to address the potential for conservative Othering by progressives? How might progressive scholars avoid or deactivate an Othering of a conservative “them” that “we” fear or even disdain? And how do “we” do so while still condemning expressions of hate or fascism?

The format of the session remains flexible, depending on interest and availability. Participation need not be limited to a traditional paper, but “submissions” might include:

  • Examinations of the process of Othering specifically in the 2016 elections (e.g. novel social media uses, Facebook algorithms, tenor of late-night comedy)
  • Deep dives on voting returns, polling or other types of electoral data
  • New or exploratory research post-election on political division or reinterpretation of old research in the context of the 2016 results
  • Reflections on the implications of “empathy walls” when progressive scholars study conservative communities
  • Methodological innovation/renovation (autobiography, autoethnography, “returning home,” etc.) for transcending “empathy walls”
  • Research specifically on cases (practices, movements, sites, experiments) that bridge or challenge political divides
  • Reactions or disagreements with the suggestion of a colonial logic of Othering conservatives or such categories/divisions.

References:

Bishop, B (2008) The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Davis, M (2004) “Losing West Virginia” Socialist Review.

Davis, M (2016) “Not a Revolution – Yet” Verso Books Blog.

Frank, T (2004) What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Metropolitan Books.

Gregory, D (2004) The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Wiley.

Hochschild, A (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New Press.

Mount, A (2009) “The Other” in Gallaher, C et al. eds. Key Concepts in Political Geography. Sage.

Said, E (1978) Orientalism. Pantheon.

Schmitt, C (1996) The Concept of the Political. University of Chicago Press.

Wolin, S (2008) Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton University Press.

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Thinking through lineage, family and politics

faminbeason

Those glasses were boss. Big boss.

Today, fourteen years ago, Dad died. I’ve been thinking about him of late, though to be honest, the anniversary completely snuck up on me.

Rather, I’ve been considering my Indian immigrant father — and my lineage and family in general — because I mostly grew up in small towns in Central Illinois. These are places that voted earlier this month for Donald Trump to be president.

Though I was born in Decatur, a city of 74,000 people today give or take, we shifted before I have memories to Avon, population: less than 800. When I was 5, we spent a year in Quincy (41,000 people) but moved again to the country. Those earliest years are indistinct in my brain.

Beason, Illinois, in 1988, represents the real start of my remembered childhood. That’s where the above photo was taken. Beason is barely even a village, an unincorporated census place. Which is to say it had a Post Office and a single soda vending machine. As of the 2010 Census, 189 people lived there. Beason’s primary reason for existing was a grain elevator and a grade school. The latter has since been razed.

I spent ages 6 through 9 in Beason. My family wasn’t a farm family, but I certainly grew up in that circuit. Dad was the town preacher. So many friends and neighbors also attended our church. In the school, there were about 80 kids in grades K through 8. I was often babysat by one or more church families, often on their farms. I taught myself to ride a bike in a country gravel driveway. I played with my babysitter’s children (my friends and school mates) in hay lofts. I developed my still-existing fear of cows in barns and pastures, where I also learned to ride a horse.

In the Methodist tradition, preachers are itinerant. They typically relocate every several years. So after four years, we shifted to Henry, Illinois. Population: 2,600. This felt like a big city, compared to Beason. The town had industry (a fertilizer plant and a tire factory). There was a community swimming pool. A grade school AND a high school. Grocery stores (two, as I recall) and a Dollar General. County fairgrounds. Gas stations. The Internet showed up when I was 12.

But there were still farm (or country) families, whose kids were my friends. I learned to drive on country roads. My neighbor’s dad took me mushroom hunting. My first W2′d job involved detassling corn during a summer. My second legal employment: Stocking shelves for one of those grocers. We lived there six years, before shifting back to Decatur when Dad got transferred again.

These memories of childhood in conservative rural America — with my immigrant father as a figure in those communities — have been in my head for a week and a half, since it became clear that indeed Trump would be the next president of the United States.

Today, I sit in a beating heart of so-called liberal America, a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley. My primary research focuses on capitalism, India, fishers and the oceans. In the last decade, I’ve spent as much time out of the country as in it. I read and generally agree with a fair bit of Marx. I embrace the majority of left, liberal, progressive causes. The Democratic Party is usually to my political right.

From the perspective of many places where I grew up, I’m a neo-hippie. Or a communist. Or out-of-touch coastal elite.

In my current circles, there’s a lot of head scratching at how an openly misogynist, racist, elitist, egotist, fascist like Trump could get himself elected. Why did so many of those folks in the “red” counties — places like where I grew up in — vote for Trump? Is that really the political fabric of a not-quite-majority of our nation? This concern among progressives is echoed hyperbolically in media and many late-night TV shows.

There are lots of assumptions embedded in things “liberals” say about conservatives, but many are grounded in real fear, justified by some of Trump’s outspoken and openly misogynist, racist, elitist, egotist, fascist voters. But this rendering of conservatives doesn’t fit neatly with my own upbringing.

To understand, look again at the family photo above. Dad was brown. My sister and I are mixed race. To be clear, we certainly met racism. My father especially. Family lore says he received death threats at different moments (though in Decatur, which is not actually the most rural of places). In Henry, I didn’t understand the term “sand nigger” the first time it was directed at me. I’m not denying that rural conservative America is not always welcoming of diversity.

But race hardly framed my upbringing in these communities. I’m sure my parents sheltered me somewhat (and my sister probably had a different experience), but discrimination wasn’t the overriding theme of my childhood. My family also knew kindness from at least some of the same people who probably also voted for Trump. In Henry, after the parish fundraised a few thousand dollars with a community shrimp boil, the church turned around and surprised our family by paying for a trip for Mom and Dad to go back to India so they could visit his parents. Dad performed baptisms and marriages and funerals for many people in these places. He counseled and prayed with and ministered to many people, some of whom today might be labeled as racist.

(There are also “blue” voters in majority “red” places. Thirty percent of Marshall County, where Henry sits, voted for Hillary Clinton.)

And in every church my father pastored, I had umpteen adoptive grandparents, who might have feared a person of color but nonetheless treated the preacher and his children like their own. I was given advantages in school — bumped up in math class, taken to state journalism conferences, pushed to be a good student. The local grocery store hired me before I was 16 (and did adhere to child labor laws); the owner hired my sister, too. Even an old man in the community, who I believe was probably a bigot, once paid me to teach him to use his computer.

The point of these anecdotes: The political, social, economic (and even ecological) reality in the rural America I knew was complex. I do not give racism, xenophobia and other bigotries a pass. But I also have sympathy for conservatives that is rooted in my own upbringing. I honestly do believe that progressives today engage in Othering conservative America as a place that is mysterious, irrational and sometimes — in a rather colonial logic — inferior.

I’m following political geographers here, who describe Othering as a process of distinguishing people and places hierarchically, of drawing boundaries between who/where/what is included in a collective identity and those people, places and things that are excluded as the Other. Think Edward Said’s history of denigration of Asia by European colonizers. More recent application of the process of Othering can be found in Derek Gregory’s analysis of the way Islamic people have been Othered as barbarians, particularly since the Bush years.

As a youngish geography scholar, I want to explore a deeper why behind the conservative vote, to overcome this process of Othering of conservatives by liberals. I’m now looking at voting patterns and economic data, for example, for Henry. The county last voted Democrat for president in 1992 and 1996. Before that? Johnson. Meanwhile, the county has also watched inflation-adjusted median income fall from 1990 to 2010 by 20 percent or so. Farm jobs are down. Population is flat. The tire factory? Carved up into units, one of which is owned by a global equity firm. The fertilizer plant? Now under control of the Koch bros.

These are material happenings that deserve consideration alongside socialpolitical reality. I suggest they need to be approached, perhaps by scholars with sympathy and method rooted in autobiography (even autoethnography), or at the very least transparent consideration of subject position. In this regard, I’m thinking of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas as well as Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land.

And today I’m remembering my father mostly because he lived as a brown man, raising family amid these places, and actively ministering to the emotional and spiritual needs of this Other. And I’d desperately like to talk to him about that.

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Working/conference paper: The value of schooling in traditional sectors, with special reference to Indian fisheries

Because I’m being slow in getting this in a better state for publication, I’m posting it here now. Trying to light a fire, as it were.

This paper was presented at the symposium Understanding and Eradicating Poverty in South Asia: Lessons and Options at the University of Rajasthan (Jaipur, India, Oct. 17, 2013). This remains in a draft format; please contact me before citing.

ABSTRACT: The international community has enshrined formal education as one of the key tools necessary to alleviate poverty, on par with ending hunger and fighting disease. In addition, education is often considered a key component of the “modern” geographic, demographic and economic transition off the land, out of the village and into wage jobs in cities. But what does education mean within the rural or traditional economy? What does education mean for the legions of villagers who remain poor farmers and fishers in developing countries such as India? This paper examines the relationship between education and poverty theoretically and empirically in traditional economic sectors. First, the paper sketches an outline of neoclassical economic growth theory, with specific attention to the basic Cobb-Douglas production function. Next, the paper reviews literature on the economic returns to education or human capital, with special attention to traditional sectors when possible. Finally, the paper conducts a quantitative analysis of marine fishery census data from India, testing the empirical relationship between poverty and education within a traditional sector.

The paper ultimately finds evidence to support the idea of returns to education even within India’s coastal fishery economies; in other words, education need not simply be a ticket out of the village. In line with much development literature, female education may have an inverse relationship to poverty stronger than male education. Furthermore, the effect of education can rival that of mechanized capital, often thought to be the key to improving poverty among fishers. However, the results may be attenuated both by the structure of the economy as well as socio-political institutions. Finally, the findings have a spatial quality to them. Some relationships shift when controlling for the fixed or unobserved effects of place, and the effects of education are not uniform across geographies. Taken together, these findings suggest the need for education that is locally tailored, decentralized and relevant specifically for traditional economies.

Click here to download.

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