JASPER, Ala. — When my family moved to this little town when I was a kid, I thought we’d moved to the end of the world, because I’d never lived in a place this tiny. Although I came to appreciate some things about it by the time I left, I’ll always feel like a stranger in a strange land here. I’m just not a good match for the culture.
Jasper is the county seat of Walker County, about an hour northwest of Birmingham. That’s the county courthouse above, and the clock at the right is also located on the courthouse square. The city is home to roughly 15,000 people today, not much bigger than the 11,000 or so that it was when I moved here when I was 12 years old. After having spent my years before then moving around between somewhat bigger cities all over the South, it was a culture shock to me when we came to live in this place so that my father could take care of his aging parents. I stayed until I left to attend the University of Alabama and even came back to work briefly after that.
I came here today because I wanted to think about how people meld into cultures and how those cultures affect their political beliefs and actions. We like to think of ourselves as individuals — especially those of us who believe in individual freedom — but there’s something that happens to groups of people living and working and raising families together that shapes them in ways that are hard to understand.
More than we sometimes realize, much of what we are is a product of the culture in which we’re raised and in which we choose to live. This has implications for how we need to organize our societies.
I started thinking about this issue last weekend as I listened to a debate between interns from the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation about the differences between libertarians and conservatives. I was stunned at the final point of the opening remarks of the first Heritage debater representing the conservative position:
“Without a free society, you cannot have a free individual. But with an absolutely free individual, you cannot preserve a free society.”
My first emotional impulse was to call the guy an idiot for making such a bizarre and Orwellian assertion. But the more I listened to the speakers from the two sides talk as the debate went on, the more I realized that the differences between these people weren’t primarily their ideas. It was that they were part of very different cultures — and there’s no way to reconcile the two.
Most people are convinced that politics is (or should be) a battle between ideas, but they’re mistaken. Politics is a battle between cultures. The ideas are just the excuses the cultures use to go to war with one another. Today, I’m revisiting what is now a foreign culture for me — a very conservative culture, by my standards — to think more about the implications of culture for how we organize the world’s political life.
In politics, it’s a debate over which one way — out of two or more ideas — is going to win out as the One True Way. That’s an effort that will only lead to frustration for a lot of people. It will also lead to conflict. Sometimes, it leads to civil wars or revolutions. Can we avoid that if we would take differing independent cultures into account instead of dismissively assuming that our way is the only good way for everyone?
As I look around this little town, I realize that the culture is more conservative than the politics in many ways. Things don’t change that much here, but political affiliations have changed. When I first moved here, voters were solidly Democratic and strong supporters of unions. Today, it’s trending strongly Republican, especially in state and national elections. (I don’t remember the last time a majority in the county voted for a Democrat for president, and it’s been represented by Republicans in Congress for something like 12 to 16 years.)
It hasn’t always been this way. Republicans used to be a few scattered wealthy people who were seen as having elitist ideas. The “Solid South” was dependable for Democrats in each election. In the late ’30s, a speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was from Jasper. U.S. Rep. William B. Bankhead died in office in 1940 and President Franklin Roosevelt travelled to Jasper for his funeral at First Methodist Church, in the same building still in use today (above). Bankhead was a strong supporter of various Progressive-era programs from FDR’s administration.
By the political standards of today, the things the people of Jasper and Walker County supported politically at the time were downright socialist, yet the culture was still conservative insofar as being insular and socially uptight. Did the people make reasoned and conscious choices to change their political ideas? No, I don’t think so. The conservative thing in the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s was to support Democrats. Ever since the War Between the States, the people of the South supported what had been the party against the war. The conservative position was to keep supporting that party, regardless of what it stood for.
If there’s one thing even bigger than party affiliation in the South, though, it’s church affinity. If you doubt it, drive down I-22 near Jasper and notice the tiny church that built a huge 100-foot tall cross next to the road. (As a Christian, I’m bothered when churches spend money on things such as this that seem to say, “Look at us!” But that’s another story.) Even for many of those who don’t attend church, there’s a strong sense of identification with what churches stand for. And when the Religious Right emerged in the late ’70s and aligned itself with the Republican Party, many of those conservative Christians switched their votes, too.
First, it was just for presidential elections. Alabama was still in the Democrats’ column in 1976 when it supported Jimmy Carter. By 1980, the tide had changed and the state went for Ronald Reagan. The people themselves didn’t change. They were conservative — temperamentally and socially — in 1976 and they were still the same way four years later when they rejected Carter and voted for a Republican. What it meant to be a conservative changed. The people themselves didn’t change.
I think what this shows is that the culture was more important than the ideas. Yes, ideas mattered to the people who founded and led the Moral Majority and other Christian Right orangaizations, but rank-and-file voters were merely following what it meant to be conservatives by that point. In 1976, it meant voting for fellow southerner (and Southern Baptist) Jimmy Carter. In 1980, it meant voting for a man who was nominally a churchgoer, but who mostly just advocated what conservative religious leaders wanted.
Today, the people in this city and county would still call themselves conservatives, but if you’d drop by some hole in the wall eating establishment such as Reese’s — where I am right now — I doubt most of them could give you a philosophical justification for their positions. They’re merely following — unconsciously, I’d add — the path of what it means to be a conservative today. They would listen to the student speakers I heard from the Heritage Foundation and be completely comfortable talking about controlling the individual in order to make society free, because they’re ultimately part of a culture that values control and continuity.
(Just to be clear, I could make the same argument if I went to a liberal enclave and looked at the inconsistencies in their positions as their culture values different things at different times. This is a human problem, not just some deficiency in conservatives.)
The problem is that people don’t understand that they’re following a culture more than they’re following ideas. It’s certainly true that many individuals in areas disagree with the dominant culture and come to different conclusions political or philosophically, but there’s (almost?) always going to be one culture that dominates. (If you don’t think this dominant culture can be liberal just as easily as it can be conservative, consider the uniformity of opinion you’ll find on many college campuses.)
Why have schools been so problematic for this country for the last 50 years or more? I’d say that a lot of it has been the drive to slowly take away control from the local culture and put it into the hands of bureaucrats nationally. Even in cases where it was clearly the right moral thing to do — such as insisting that black children be given the same educational opportunities as white children — it caused culture wars because the change was brought about by someone else, not by the people inside the local culture itself. (Remember that this wasn’t just a southern phenomenon. People remember George Wallace and other southern segregationists, but they somehow forget about white people in Boston rioting in the mid ’70s when race-based busing was imposed on their schools.)
I walked through my old high school today, and it reminded me that a school strongly reflects the local culture, even if bureaucrats somewhere else are trying to force their ways onto the school. I had to sneak into an almost-empty Walker High School today because I figured the crew working on the floors would toss me out if they knew I was there. I’ve walked through many schools over the years, mostly when I used to be a journalist. There’s something very individual about the way schools feel in a cultural way to me, even if the buildings are pretty generic and the teachers all learned how to decorate their doors and bulletin boards in the same goofy ed school classes.
At this risk of anthropomorphizing too much, it seems as though a culture is like a single living organism and the people who are part of it are the cells. Sometimes the parts fight amongst themselves for control, but everybody knows what the dominant culture is.
When I was in high school, I had leadership roles that would imply I was part of the community and the culture. Technically, I was. I was editor of the school newspaper. I was president of the youth group at the biggest church in the area. But in the time I was there, I never really assimilated into the culture. I was like a foreign cell or organ attached to a culture that tolerated me, but didn’t quite know what to do with me. Even after studying journalism and coming back to work at the local newspaper for a couple of years, I didn’t fit. (That’s the folding unit at the end of the press at the Daily Mountain Eagle that used to print my work. I started there in college as a part-time reporter/photographer and eventually held jobs as sports editor and then managing editor.)
I think we all long to be part of a tribe, even if we don’t like the ones we’ve been a part of in the past. We have a need to feel as though we’re part of groups who understand us and agree with us and value us. So people tend to become like the others in their culture or they leave and go somewhere else or they’re just plain unhappy where they are.
Those of us who believe in individual freedom and less regulation and less legal control over people’s lives feel that way because we identify with a culture that feels that way. (That’s why online communities for those who agree become so important for those of us with minority opinions. As we discover that there are others like us, we gravitate to them and they’re the new culture we’re a part of more than the people we’re physically around.) We believe that everyone should live in a more free life. We don’t believe governments should tell people what to do with their lives. In our gut, we just believe that people would be happier and better off, even if they don’t understand that yet.
In the same way, people who are culturally conservative believe — in their gut — that others would be happier if they would just live more like what their ideal world would be like. They see completely free people the way the Heritage debater did — as a threat to the orderly society that is controlled along the lines that make them happy. I see the two groups as inevitably conflicting, because libertarians are more focused on the principles, even if the outcomes aren’t exactly what they want, and conservatives are more focused on getting the outcomes they want, even if they have to violate principles they say they believe in.
Even when libertarians and conservative agree on issues — and there are quite a number of economic issues for which that’s true — they don’t always come to the positions for the same reasons. So even when the two groups agree on issues and work together, there can be a sense of unease with both — because “they” are just plain wrong.
And when we disagree on policy, we each think the other has taken leave of his senses. Libertarians wonder why conservatives can’t see that the “War on (Some) Drugs” is costly, destructive and harms freedom. Conservatives can’t understand why libertarians would be in favor of something that only dirty hippies would do on their road to destruction. (The billboard at the bottom of this article is one I saw this afternoon here in Jasper. A conservative culture is happy to be reminded of drug arrests. It makes the sheriff look good to them instead of making them question why they’re having to pay to put people into prison and destroy families more effectively than the drugs could have.)
Libertarians (and various related others who go by other names) have a culture that values individual choice and a strong sense of rationality (to the exclusion of emotions, in some cases). Conservatives of various stripes tend to be more focused on the outcome they want in a society. They know what they want their society to look and feel like, and they’re willing to use freedom in some areas and coercion in others to build what they want.
The gap between those two is too wide to bridge. There isn’t any fusionist theory that can bring libertarians and conservatives together in anything other than a temporary and shifting alliance on certain issues. Each side is going to remain sure that the other is suspect — and just flat-out wrong. The cultural differences inevitably lead to clashes where no compromise is possible.
We don’t need a libertarian world or a conservative world (or a progressive world). We need a world in which cultures can establish their own cities or enclaves and make rules (or no rules) for themselves. We need a world where we quit trying to impose One True Way from the top. As long as we’re human beings, we’re going to separate into different cultures and strongly disagree with one another — and the notion that whichever group is biggest gets to make up rules for the rest is absurd and immoral. Historically, it’s led to conflict and it always will — until we understand that it’s OK for others not to be like us.
I’m not like most of the people here in Jasper. They’re not my tribe or culture. I’ve lived among them and have a pretty good understanding of them, but I’m not one of them. I never was.
Someone who heard I was here today asked if I was “home” for a visit, but I’m not home. This never really was home for me. Home is wherever my tribe is — people more like me, including a woman who matches me in culture, weirdness and maybe even craziness. Who knows what to call it? I just know that when people of the same tribe meet, they tend to know each other. Those people I need aren’t here and never will be. I have to find my own tribe and build a home and family with them.
Today, I leave behind a tribe of people for whom this is home. It’s comfortable for them and they don’t really see any need to change much. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m just saying that their choices and my choices will always be different — and that’s fine as long as we don’t try to make decisions for each other.
The political differences we have aren’t really about our ideas. They’re about the cultures we’re a part of. We need to structure the world in a way that accepts that.