I’ve decided to return to writing my Southernisms posts here at Progressive Redneck Preacher. At a recent time chatting over lunch with my long-time friend, the writer and activist Chuck Fager, he suggested if ever there was a time for progressive voices of faith to engage what is going on in our culture, it is right now.
My Southernisms posts have always highlighted a phrase, a word, or a theme common to southern culture, both light-heartingly giving some space to laugh at our little foibles and particularities but also at times to discuss some of the in’s and out’s of what is happening here in the south-land. Many of our readers from other areas, like the mid-West or even the northern part of Appalachia, have been quick to remind me that often these phrases and things are not particular to the south but pop up in other areas too.
In thinking about what is the most appropriate southernism to express our current cultural situation, I couldn’t help but think about a phrase I remember my momma saying many times coming up. I first remember it when, for some reason, I had fiddled with a bracelet of hers she left laying out on a table, and somehow absent-mindedly managed to bend it all out of shape.
“This here is why we can’t have nice things, y’all!” mamma said exasperatedly.
Anyone growing up in a less than upper class home in the south, and I would wager almost any small town, probably heard that.
Friends and readers gave a few descriptions of times they have heard or said these words:
Chasity, from the NC Sandhills, told the following story of when she found herself saying this:
“[I p]ut the Christmas tree up on Monday. My crazy cat likes to play soccer apparently. Come home and the entire bottom of the tree is wrecked and he’s kicking all my glass ornaments around looking up at me like “what mama?” This damn cat.
“This here, is why we can’t have nice things.”
Rev. Sharon Wheeler, from Elon, NC, writes:
“Have been wanting a new chair or recliner because the dog sits in and has scratched it up so bad, it is almost torn. “this here is why we can’t have nice things y’all!” My sweet husband however did buy me a slipcover to cover it because “company’s comin’ to the the house” #thishereishwywecanthavenicethingsyall
Michelle from Denton, NC, writes:
“Once when deep frying a turkey for the first time, we got the oil too hot. Of course we were on the deck so when said turkey was submerged in the scalding oil, it over flowed and burned the deck. It also charred the brand new turkey fryer and scorched the turkey! So the 3 losses of the day were the fryer, the turkey, and the deck. Sheesh!” #thishereishwywecanthavenicethingsyall
Andrew, a transplant from Oxford, NC to Boston, writes the following:
“I was the reason we couldn’t have nice things. As a kid I walked on (and fell off) the back of the couch (onto a glass picture frame). I cut open a chilly Willy (and my finger) with a butcher knife. I played with legos, spreading them all over the floor. Like ALL OVER. I rearranged my room like 500 times.”
But he didn’t take all the blame:
“Between eating our tomatoes and plants and running in front of us on the road and smashing up cars, this deer here is why we can’t have nice things, y’all.”
Another friend and long time reader from Florida shared the following picture and comment:
“That’s a bottle of red bath bubbles they poured down the slide. …” #thatswhywecanthavenicethings
I wonder if any other folks have poignant stories about why we can’t have nice things?
This phrase doesn’t just connect with the difficulties in keeping up nice things in the home, but is one I have found myself jokingly using about our failures at building sustaining, life-giving communities and changes in the places we live.
While working in a military town in North Carolina as pastor and advocate who spoke up for women’s rights, LGBT rights, the rights of the poor & minorities, I was always touched to see people working across the divide, joining together regardless of religion and background, to make the community better. But I was also discouraged to see how quickly the stress of the army lifestyle would spill over into toxic ways of relating in the community, so that folks turned to in-fighting, name-calling, and fights which ultimately would sabotage the good work being done.
I remember talking with a friend from town about it one day, and both of us shaking our heads saying “this here is why we can’t have nice things, y’all”.
In many ways, I think with the recent election, many of us are asking, “Why?” and feeling like many a person who on looking at the disarray in their home or neighborhood asked “why is it we can’t have nice things, y’all?”
Nationally, after years of expanding our ideas of welcome of all and human rights as a country to begin to include more fully LGBT people & their families, to further conversations about the importance of confronting systemic racism, we see as a country the candidate who spoke out in ways that baited people around race, that were misogynistic toward women, and who actively courted homophobic hate groups, was voted in as president-elect.
In the south, we see an ongoing struggle over our identity in terms of who we are. My own state, North Carolina, just re-elected a legislature that pushed discriminatory laws that hurt people of color, queer people, limit access to health care, and hurt education while at the same time by popular vote pushing out the governor who signed these laws.
Clearly, as a state, we are of two minds about who we are and what we need. And now, refusing to step down, Governor Mcrory is pushing to fight the election results tooth and nail.
One could see the fact that it is only by the Electoral College map, not by popular vote, which Donald Trump was elected president-elect, as a sign that we as a country have just such an identity crisis.
In a recent News and Observer article, a piece was put together entitled “Hi, America, It is North Carolina, and we know what’s next” (http://www.newsobserver.com/opinion/article114758628.html) . This article suggests that what has occurred in my state of North Carolina is a model for what can happen, if we are not careful, nationally right now. What has happened here? Pollution of the environment, through coal ash dumped in the water and removing protections on the air and water, so that we have less of a pristine nature to pass onto our children. What has happened here? Damage to the education system. Not fully funding appropriate healthcare for all citizens, especially those who are economically struggling. Becoming a symbol across the nation for discrimination, and rightly so, as voter suppression has gone on as well as laws that hurt minorities like queer people in our midst. This, folks, is why we can’t have nice things.
It is easy to scratch our heads saying, “why? Why is it we can’t have nice things, y’all?”
We all need to be seriously asking this question.
I don’t have all the answers, and really would invite my readers to share their insights.
Here are some suggestions, though, worth considering:
1. One reason we can’t have nice things, y’all, is we fail to listen across the divide
One of the shocking things we progressives have to face up to is that a part of why there was the sweeping win of conservatives in our country – and not just run of the mill conservatives, but many far-right, extremist conservatives too – is because of a failure to connect and communicate across the cultural and class divides that exist in our society.
One author who raises important points about this is J. D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy. A conservative author himself, who grew up with roots in Appalachia, Vance writes of how both political parties have failed to listen to the experience of struggling poor and working class people from his community, folks who do not identify with the way modern Democrats focus in on the experience of women and racial minorities. His book came to national attention as Donald Trump shocked pundits by successfully courting these workers. Asked about this phenomenon, Vance writes:
“The simple answer is that these people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries.
“What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by. Heroin addiction is rampant. In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes. The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a “stepdad” only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit (or at least in the home of an unofficial foster like an aunt or grandparent), watch friends and family get arrested, and on and on. And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops.
“The two political parties have offered essentially nothing to these people for a few decades. From the Left, they get some smug condescension, an exasperation that the white working class votes against their economic interests because of social issues, a la Thomas Frank. Maybe they get a few handouts, but many don’t want handouts to begin with.
“From the Right, they’ve gotten the basic Republican policy platform of tax cuts, free trade, deregulation, and paeans to the noble businessman and economic growth. Whatever the merits of better tax policy and growth, the simple fact is that these policies have done little to address a very real social crisis. More importantly, these policies are culturally tone deaf: nobody from southern Ohio wants to hear about the nobility of the factory owner who just fired their brother.
“Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears. He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas. His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground. He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.
“The last point I’ll make about Trump is this: these people, his voters, are proud. A big chunk of the white working class has deep roots in Appalachia, and the Scots-Irish honor culture is alive and well. We were taught to raise our fists to anyone who insulted our mother. I probably got in a half dozen fights when I was six years old. Unsurprisingly, southern, rural whites enlist in the military at a disproportionate rate. Can you imagine the humiliation these people feel at the successive failures of Bush/Obama foreign policy? My military service is the thing I’m most proud of, but when I think of everything happening in the Middle East, I can’t help but tell myself: I wish we would have achieved some sort of lasting victory. ” (taken from http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/trump-us-politics-poor-whites/ )
Vance brings up a powerful point worth considering: a part of the reason for the election going as it has, both nationally and locally, is the ways in which we progressives have failed to fully hear the needs and experience of a whole portion of the electorate. Though personally I see little being offered by either Trump or the Republicans both locally and nationally which will really address the concerns of poor & working class folks in rural and small town communities, Trump was able to communicate in a way that left them feeling they were being heard and understood.
Sadly, too much of our liberal politics talks down to those from these communities.
In her campaign, for instance, Hillary Clinton had the gaffe of calling many of Trump’s supporters a pack of deplorables. Though clearly Clinton intended this as focusing on individuals such as the leaders of the alt-right, who are in bed with white nationalists and racist organizations, to many a small town person it sounded like yet another voice of the liberal elite putting them down for the very different values they feel they have than folks in academia and who are affluent.
To truly connect across the divide, progressive voices have to ask the question, “Who are the folks we are leaving out in our messaging? How do we reach out to them?”
In my own circles, since moving to the larger Durham/Chapel Hill area after spending much of my adult life in rural and small town North Carolina, I have been amazed to hear so-called progressives talk down about poor and working class people. I often find myself in Bible studies, spirituality groups, and social justice groups I engage in, finding myself compelled to say “Hold on a second. Let’s not have this approach and let’s recognize how much of what we are saying only makes sense because of education, affluence, and privilege”.
I remember one such conversation in particular in a discussion of Sara Miles’ book Take This Bread, a conversation that somehow ended up being about vegan and vegetarian options, buying local and organic, in which people began to pat themselves on the back for their very expensive socially conscience food choices. I stopped the conversation and said, “Listen, folks, it’s great you can live like this. But it’s important to realize, you can only do so because you are fairly affluent and because of where we live: a place where these options are in abundance”. I then proceeded to share about living in Robeson County, next to folks in a trailer park, whose only food options were what were sold in the local market and Piggly Wiggly. Who when they gave me a dish welcoming me as a neighbor gave exactly the best they had, and who when I struggled to get by as a church planter, out of their own want consistently shared what they had in a way I don’t see consistently in the affluent circles I bump into here in a more metropolitan area.
What we in an affluent, liberal minded bubble of a university town patted ourselves on the back for had a deep disconnect to anything being experienced in the rural community I once worked. And yet, there, even among conservative people, important values of community, giving, and togetherness were at work that our talking down to folks from that community will prevent us from seeing.
My point of course is, these challenges and virtues that exist in a community very much different than the one I am in now are not observed because folks are not really getting to know the experience of folks in these overlooked groups.
To be fair, this also occurs across the political spectrum. Here in North Carolina, throughout the Mcrory administration, Rev. Dr. William Barber and the NAACP have been again and again asking for Mcrory and the Republicans in office simply to sit down with the NAACP to hear the experience and concerns of people of color in our state. It has not gone on.
This failure to listen across the divide, to really see the experience of others as equally valid to our own, is I think a part of why we are struggling to keep nice things in our state and country.
This brings me to the second barrier I see to us having nice things
2. We can’t have nice things, y’all, because we keep living in our bubble
One reason this all happens is we are content to live in our comfortable bubble. Since moving around 3-4 years ago to Carrboro, a suburb of the college town of Chapel Hill, I found myself comfortably surrounded by many people who think, believe, and ask questions all very similar to myself. When I lived as a progressive in rural and small town parts of our state, I found myself constantly having to question myself, question my values, and consider how what I believed connected with their situation.
Similarly, it is easy for folks with very conservative values to avoid conversations with those of us who identify as progressive.
Our new social media culture doesn’t help us with this tendency. It is very easy to only see points of view that match our own, to avoid difficult conversations, and to simply hole ourselves up.
Yet the way forward is really encountering and being a part of different communities.
I’m struck by the example of how some religious movements engage people in intentionally living, visiting, and reaching out to folks outside of their normal community.
For instance, in some of the churches out of the Radical Reformation – the Mennonites, Quaker, and Brethren traditions for instance – out of a desire to avoid military service, they developed a program for young adults where for a few years of their life, they are placed intentionally in parts of the world in which they live outside of their comfort zone, working among and learning from new communities.
In some of the intentional living movements sponsored by Christian radicals like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove in the last decade there has been an emphasis on getting otherwise affluent and detached believers to live intentionally in areas connected with poverty to come and build intentional relationships with others different than themselves.
And in his ministry Love Wins, Rev. Hugh Hollowell, a Mennonite pastor, seeks to build a community in which the lives and experiences of people experiencing homelessness are embraced. The answer to homelessness, he often says, is not programs or food but community.
I am not thinking most of us can have such radical shifts in living, since let’s be honest, most of us have to live near where we work. Most of us have bills to pay and families to raise.
That said, are there ways we can begin to intentionally move outside the insular bubble, be it conservative or liberal, in which we find ourselves? I honestly think until we learn to do this practice more, we will continue to find ourselves becoming more isolated, fractured, and unable to find healing and direction in our communities.
This is a part of what Desmond Tutu talks about in his writing about reconciliation. In his classic book No Future Without Forgiveness, Tutu writes,
““Ubuntu […] speaks of the very essence of being human. [We] say […] “Hey, so-and-so has ubuntu.” Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life. We say, “A person is a person through other persons…
“[…] A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”
Finding small and big ways to reach across the divide, to build bridges, and to both hear other’s stories and experience very different than our own and share our perspectives, can be a deeply transforming and healing practice for all of us to engage.
3. We don’t have nice things because too often we embrace ideology rather than people
You can see this in the extremes of both parties.
How can we choose to stand against keeping children’s parents together, making sure they can raise a family in peace just because those parents are of the same gender, if we are prioritizing truly caring for our neighbor above our ideology?
Yet we progressives can be quick to tear down and talk as if those in our communities without our ideas are ignorant, dumb, uneducated, and hateful; or be unable to break down our ideas of justice, equality, freedom into everyday common language understandable outside the academy. Such extremes, too, only make sense if our focus is not individual people but ideas.
As I think about this problem that keeps us from having nice things, I am reminded of some words of John Amodeo’s in his book Dancing with Fire. Amodeo explores the Buddhist idea of nonclinging, discussing perspectives and approaches to life and others in which clinging to our perceptions and beliefs can hold others at be, keeping us from seeing the fullness of who they are, who we are, and what is possible together.
Amodeo first talks about “ideological clinging”, in which our holding onto beliefs about others or the world, ideology, can become a barrier to true connection:
This “is often so pervasive we don’t recognize it. Our beliefs shape our worldview and set us up for heartache when reality fails to match it. . . Our beliefs are only approximations of reality; they never fully capture what is real and true, so clinging to them keeps us caged in a dim reality. To avoid solitary confinement, we may try to lasso people into the same shadow prison to keep us company. We may attempt to convert people to our religious or political viewpoint so that we don’t feel so alone…”
This ultimately, according to Amodeo, can inspire a squashing of other’s freedoms politically and communities of injustice, something many of us are working every day to resist. Yet, more importantly to our discussion, he argues that such pushing people into a box keeps us from fully experiencing them.
It “removes us from the present moment and deposits us firmly in our heads. We usually don’t notice how we restrict ourselves by clinging to fixed images and limiting stories… Instead of living out of some myth or story about who you are … live in a state of openness, of welcoming everything that comes into your awareness,” and every person too.
He also notes the other types of clinging which can stand in the way of true encounter: clinging to a desire to change people rather than accept them as they are, holding tightly to our perceptions and negative interpretations of other’s motives, holding on to a person who is continually abusive or emotionally/physically unavailable, and clinging to patterns that disconnect us from those around us.
Writing of this last barrier to true connection, Amodeo writes about the four factors that ultimately tear relationships apart according to social science research – “contempt (sarcasm), stonewalling (shutting down), criticism, and defensiveness”. He fleshes these out by saying “these slayers of intimacy” are “manifestations of clinging. We desire connection but we are so consumed by old hurts or fear of rejection that we resort to sarcastic comments and hurtful criticisms. We’re so convinced that love won’t be forthcoming that we scratch and claw for it. We cling so tightly to the shame of feeling wrong or undeserving of love that we get defensive or shut down”.
At heart, this letting go of clinging whether to one’s beliefs (ideology), one’s expectations, or to outcome is a part of the apophatic path of embracing a bit of not knowing in our relationships.
You can see how what Amodeo talks about in terms of how clinging to ideology rather than real encounter with others not connects with his immediate focus – our relationships with friends, partners, coworkers, and family – but also to the larger problem of why we fail to keep nice things in our communities.
It takes remembering that real people are involved. It takes taking the time to really connect to another, hear their story.
I want to close with two references.
First, I want to point to a great piece on This American Life from a few years ago. This piece discussed studies into how people change their minds. In it, and in a later updated due to some flaws in the study it was based on, the team at This American Life explores evidence that what changes other’s point of view is not badgering people with facts but instead real human encounter.
Here is the link to the original story: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/584/for-your-reconsideration
And here is a piece that is a followup on some flaws in the original study:
Also I want to close with a quote I used in a previous post. Often our fear of connecting with others who are different, a lot of the fears which drive us to not live so we can keep nice things in our communities, is a fear of scarcity. In his The Source of Life, theologian Jurgen Moltmann rightly challenges this approach, saying,
“The ideology of ‘there is never enough for everyone’ makes people lonely. It isolates them and robs them of relationship. The opposite of poverty isn’t property. The opposite of both poverty and property is community. For in community we become rich: rich in friends, in neighbors, in colleagues, in comrades, in brothers and sisters. Together, as a community, we can help ourselves in most of our difficulties. For, after all, there are enough people and enough ideas, capabilities and energies to be had. They are only lying fallow, or are stunted and suppressed. So let us discover our wealth; let us discover our solidarity; let us build up communities; let us take our lives into our hands, and at long last out of the hands of the people who want to dominate and exploit us”.
What is your experience of this saying and theme? What answers do you have?
In the midst of questioning , cynicism, and fear, let’s embrace hope, compassion, and tearing down walls of division. We are not this. We are better than this. At heart, we all know it.
Your progressive redneck preacher,