The Divides that Blind

My uber driver had driven in 150 cities in the past year.

San Jose was his favorite, which was unsurprising considering the smell of his hybrid and the fact that he snapped the way you do at a poetry slam every time I said something he agreed with. So I asked him what his favorite Southern city was.

“Well I basically avoided the South altogether because I just—I refuse to deal with rednecks.”

I’ve been hearing things like this from other liberals a lot lately. This is what my friend said last month when I told her she should take a road trip through some places like Mississippi and Arkansas:

“Yeah but I just don’t want to go to a bunch of states that voted for Donald Trump. If I’m going to travel, I want to experience other cultures and countries…you know?”

Actually, I don’t. I love the South and I’ve spent a lot of my time in the past three years purposely shooting environmental documentaries in places where I could also have five country stations to choose from at any time and eat barbecue and fried chicken in an unironic way. When I wasn’t doing that, I was living in Vermont and Boston, dressing like the cover of a Bruce Springsteen album, trying to convince my mostly-liberal friends how great it is out there.

As someone who exists in this kindof lonely cross section, I have to say that I feel that I have a deeper understanding of Donald Trump supporters than almost all of the other liberals I know. The weird thing is that I wasn’t talking about national politics most of the time with the people I interviewed and hung out with on my documentary road trips: I was interviewing them about impending threats to their town. And the primary hadn’t even started so the name ‘Donald Trump’ was literally never uttered out of anyone’s mouth.

And yet, it’s true that I have a deeper understanding and I’m reminded of it every time I have a conversation about the election with other liberals. I know that most Trump supporters aren’t bigoted racists, and that’s more than I can say for most of my friends. I know and feel why so many Trump supporters have reached their final straw with the Democratic Party, and that’s more than I can say for most of my friends. When you stop and think about it, it’s not like my understanding is so deep and profound. It’s more like theirs is incredibly weak.

So if we can conclude that simply hanging out with people and in places that swing different than us…even if we’re not directly talking about our differences…leads to us understand them more deeply….then that begs the next question:

Why are my friends so reluctant to have that experience? Why are they committed to avoiding the South?*

The way I see it, there are two possible reasons.

The first is that they reject my hypothesis. They don’t think the experience will lead to deeper understanding. They’re scared they will have no way to bond with anyone they meet or appreciate any of the places they encounter, so soaked will the interactions be with bigotry and Donald Trump bumper stickers.

This is the fear of someone who has never been to a place before, but has seen it on the news a lot.

The second possible reason is that they fear the opposite will happen. That they will actually like the people they meet. What if they even came to understand why they voted for Donald Trump? What would that say about who they had become? That’s the type of fear you hide from yourself. The idea of future you being someone you currently hate is scarier than an imagined week of failed interactions. Even if future you is wiser.

Does ‘understanding better’ equal ‘becoming more like’? In their minds, at least, it’s a really risky gateway drug. As if it’s a linear plane where stepping closer towards the world you find wrong requires you to step away from what’s right. CNN’s on one end and The Blaze is on the other.

Spending so much time in deeply red states and making lasting friendships with people who I know voted for Donald Trump has brought me zero inches closer to condoning his policies. It has, however, drilled a deep well: under my bubbling political convictions lies a deep well. A deep well of compassion for the country we live in and the people who populate it all the while dramatically disagreeing with me. The well doesn’t go left or right; it goes down. For miles.



*We both know that plenty of people in “the South” voted against Donald Trump. And that hundreds of thousands of people in Long Island voted for him. But this is exploring how and why liberals reduce the South to a certain political ideology and subsequently avoid it.

Being shut up, shutting ourselves up

With more and more chains and big box stores dominating the highway that cut through Maryville, the Parkway Drive-In Theater was one of the last places left in town where locals could really talk. But they didn’t want to talk to me.

This was just about the last thing I anticipated when I came across their 15,000-signature petition to try and stop Wal-Mart from moving in next door. Without getting into the technical details, Wal-Mart has a long and well-established history of buying property next to small town drive-in theaters, which tend to be located on highways, essentially consist of an empty lot (all you need is a screen), and survive on thin budgets. They then drive the property value so high up that the owners have no choice but to sell them the land.

The local hang-out spots on Main Street Maryville had been dwindling for years because of all this big box action, and the manager of the drive-in and his employees weren’t standing for this shit. So Jennifer, the ticket counter employee, started the petition. It attracted 15,000 signatures, lots of local coverage, and…that’s all I knew when I packed my bag in Nashville on a Saturday morning and drove four hours east.

“Yeah, we’re not doing that anymore. Thanks for your interest though!” Jennifer said through the ticket counter speaker.

“Don’t forget to turn your headlights off before the show starts.”

Wal-Mart was still happening, she wouldn’t tell me why they suddenly stopped fighting it, and, no, I couldn’t have the manager’s number. Weeks ago, she had started the petition. Now she was doing this.

I transitioned to Plan B: covertly asking Robert behind the snack counter for the answers Jennifer wouldn’t give me. This was clearly a hot button issue, so before going in for the real question I thought I’d warm him up by asking whether the hot dog or cheeseburger was better. Just a little journalistic technique I know how to do.

“Personally, I’d go with the sausage. That’s the one I always get.”

“Awesome! Okay thanks so much I can’t wait to eat this. Do you know anything about that Wal-Mart coming in?”

He snapped his head up from the hotdog rotator machine.

“Is your name Alexa?”

“Yeah! Wait—how did you…”

“A little birdie warned me about you,” he said with a smile.

It hadn’t been twenty minutes since I bought a ticket. And for some reason, Jennifer was instituting an information lockdown against me.

The reason? It consists of a single phrase: Cease-and-desist. A few days before I arrived, Wal-Mart filed a cease-and-desist against the manager of the Parkway for speaking out against them…which is basically a legal warning letter saying ‘if you continue to do this we will sue the shit out of you.’ In legal terms, Wal-Mart was claiming that the drive-in was spreading “slander” about them: a.k.a., harmful information that’s false. So in order for Wal-Mart to have a case against the drive-in in court, they would have to prove that the workers at the Parkway were knowingly spreading straight-up false information about them. Which the workers, if this isn’t already abundantly clear, one hundred percent weren’t doing. They were speaking out about the facts and had every legal right to do so. But the point is, it stunned the manager and all of his employees like Jennifer into complete silence anyways. Even though they were unquestionably on the right side of the law, they got spooked when they realized that they could very well be sued for more money than they could ever amass in their combined lifetimes if they proceeded to do anything but shut up and bend over.

This is one way companies like Wal-Mart assault the freedom of speech of communities who stand in their way without ever actually violating a single law. It’s a soft obliteration of the fundamental rights that make Americans free, but to Wal-Mart it’s a wrench in their tool belt.

If you’re like me, though, you don’t even need the corporate lawyers to come for you. Two hours before I visited the drive-in, eating alone at the bar of a Maryville restaurant called the Gold Mine, I Wal-Marted myself.

A local woman a few seats over asked what I was doing in town.

I froze in a quarter-second of consideration. The audio transcript playing in my mind went something like ‘hippie….disconnected from reality for people like me…doesn’t know a damn thing about our town and here she is coming to tell us how to live.’

“I’m actually meeting a friend at Dollywood tomorrow. To celebrate our birthdays! Our birthdays are really close together, so…”

“Oh, well isn’t that just the cutest thing! You girls are going to have so much fun! Tell me, are you staying in one of those cabins?”

The woman proceeded to give me an enthusiastic handful of tips about the theme park I wasn’t going to and I graciously thanked her for getting me so excited about the theme park I wasn’t going to. The cute, hokey, decidedly Southern, and—most important of all—non-contentious theme park I wasn’t going to.

Hours before I learned that Wal-Mart was shutting up anyone at the drive-in, I shut myself up.

I suppose I shut myself up because some part of me has noticed that there are lots of fitness and weight loss coaches on the Today Show but never any activists. Or how the charities bands raise money for are always the ones doing things like addressing hunger or curing cancer, things you couldn’t really argue with no matter what your politics are. Or how, just the other day when I told the dentist I was an activist for communities fighting pipelines, she got quiet and didn’t respond. We had a great conversation about online shopping though. I guess I’ve internalized this type of social feedback so thoroughly that, almost automatically, I pre-determined that barstool lady was more likely to be enthusiastic about my trip to Dollywood—something merely for leisure, for my consumption…something that benefitted no one but me—than about the thing I was doing because I presumably cared about her town.

The majority of Americans may very well prefer to talk about theme park road trips over the injustice of Wal-Mart development practices and may be skeptical of political dissenters like me. The problem is this: even if that is the case, deep down, I’m desperate to be liked by the majority of people. And living in that space, I’ve never considered that maybe I am the majority–me, and people like me, so scared of rejection that we default to a social code assuming it’s what the barstool lady wants. And I’ve never considered that maybe the majority is the barstool lady, one of the fifteen thousand local petition commenters fretting about the Wal-Mart behind her home computer screen. I’ll never know, because I was too scared to speak up about the very thing that prompted me to drive across Tennessee twice in a weekend.

The way Wal-Mart used blunt force to shut the people of Maryville up disturbs me but maybe what disturbs me more is how I shut myself up when I wasn’t forced to at all.

The fight against powerlessness

The other day, I told my friend that I’m terrified of dying due to someone else’s mistake. With nothing I could do about it. That’s why I prefer driving over flying.

She told me that she’s scared of dying due to her own mistake. That she could possibly die from something minuscule that she did wrong. It’s driving that scares her.

That’s a better summary of the abortion debate than anything I’ve ever seen on CNN.

Can you imagine if someone pro-life, instead of citing “saving innocent children” or God’s ordain, said that it honestly scared them how easily they could have been cancelled at someone else’s hand? That, just like that, they could have been denied the chance to exist and they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it? Can you imagine if someone pro-choice, instead of citing a “woman’s right to her own body,” said that she’s terrified to think that her own tiny momentary decisions could lead to an irreversible consequence? That if she steps on a loose rock, even once, she could bear the brunt of it for the rest of her life and just have to sit and take it because it was her fault? The idea that life could be so unforgiving of our mistakes is terrifying.

When you put it that way, you realize that we’re both operating out of the same exact fear: the fear of powerlessness over our own lives. It’s a universal human fear and always has been. To explore it, we’ve taken that fear and cast ourselves in a play—just, different characters. Same fear.

Opening ourselves up this much, understanding each other this deeply, may not change anything about how we feel about abortion, but it would change everything about the way we treat each other when we talk about it. Which would change…just about everything we did from there.