The Great Urban-Rural Divide and the Feudal Pyramid

“The Monday morning after the 2016 election, in a gas station in a logging town in north-west Wisconsin, I asked a group of retired and working men what they thought Trump would do to help them. Ron, a logger, replied: ‘Nothing. Nothing. We’re used to living in poverty, we’re used to it. It ain’t never going to change. How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.’”[1]

The problem is the Feudal Pyramid.

Seriously.

Rural has been on the bottom of the pyramid for a long, long time. The only way it will ever get out of the bottom is if urban sprawl overtakes and gentrifies it. And then where will it go?

The Feudal Pyramid had God at the top. Then came the king, the nobles, the knights, and finally the peasants. The peasants were farmers, sheep herders, shopkeepers, tradesmen, crafters, crofters—like they still are today. Rural. Country. People “used to living in poverty.”

Where did this system come from?

It came down from the top. From the people at the top of the pyramid. Of course that’s where it came from. Where else would it come from?

God at the top meant challenging the system was challenging God—not a good idea when the church stood ready to torture and burn people who did that. God is what philosophers call a “first cause”—the missing link when you’re trying to explain something by tracing it back through a cause and effect chain and get to the point where you can’t trace it back anymore. That’s when you put a “first cause” in place that gets the whole thing started. You know you’ve reached a first cause when you sound like a parent, “Because I said so, that’s why.”

Nothing caused God, God caused himself. God existed because… because he said so, that’s why. There’s no God exam he had to pass, no professional credentials he had to acquire or memberships he has to maintain, no ethical standard of conduct, no required professional education to stay current, no review board to call him to account. God isn’t accountable to anyone, for anything. He just sits up there on top—way on top—of the pyramid, doing whatever he wants, and everybody else just has to deal.

How would we ever know anything about this totally autonomous and authoritarian God who sits on top of the pyramid dictating everything and everybody all the time without being accountable to anybody or anything?

Because somebody higher on the pyramid told us.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

Rural people like God more than urban people. God in charge? Check. Right below God on the pyramid is God’s “Anointed,” whose job is… well, I’ve never been quite sure what his job is or when or how he gets appointed, which allows for all sorts of improvisation, but as far as I can tell the position can be filled by various people at various times. In Medieval times, they kept it simple:  God’s Anointed was the king.

The USA imported its law from England, where “crown immunity” declared that “the king can do no wrong.” Since God put the king in place, there was no higher human authority than the king. If he screwed up, God could always take him out, which theoretically would keep him under control, but to avoid any debate about whether the king was screwing up or not, crown immunity also declared that the king was endowed with God’s absolute perfection, so it was impossible for him to do wrong—in fact, he couldn’t even think about doing wrong.

Seriously. That was the law. The king wasn’t accountable to anybody—other than theoretically to God—because he could do no wrong. There was nothing to complain about. It was all good.

The New World colonists thought all that sounded like a plan, so they brought the legal concept with them. And when they got tired of the King of England doing no wrong they kept the legal concept of “crown immunity” but gave it the new name “sovereign immunity,” which meant that their newly anointed President (and people in certain other governmental positions) can do no wrong while they’re governing the people who are lower than them in the pyramid. And if their buddies get in trouble, there are also Presidential pardons to pass around.

Seriously. That’s what our law says. Nice to know our legal system is doing its part to keep the feudal pyramid intact.

I still remember learning about all that in law school. “Government has to be free to govern,” our law professor explained, “If you start holding government liable, nobody’s going to want the job.”

Oh well yes of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

God in place? Check. President and his buddies in place? Check. Next came the nobles and then the knights. The nobles were the capitalists and demagogues and one percenters of their day—the wealthy and powerful, elitist and entitled captains of land and industry who hung around the halls of power and fretted over whether they were extracting enough blood from turnips. The peasants grew the turnips. They were also treated like turnips when it came to blood-letting. The nobles funded the knights—the military-industrial complex of the day.

The nobles bitched about the king and his taxes, but not too loudly, and the knights could go rogue but their Code of Chivalry mostly kept them in line, so the whole thing went along mostly as planned—every level of the pyramid accountable to the one above and free to mess with the people below all they liked, and every lower level careful to give due respect and pay their duty to the level above.

Except for the peasants. Being a peasant was a one-way proposition. They owed a duty of servitude to everybody above them, but had no one to lord it over. All they could do was bully each other and complain about the people above—pointlessly, fruitlessly, vainly. Mostly, their duty was to suffer their solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives. Every now and then some idealist would lead an eventually brutally-crushed rebellion on their behalf, but mostly they carried on silently, sullenly, hopelessly… if they knew what was good for them.

That’s what it meant to be Rural. It still does.

“It ain’t never going to change.
How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”

It seems that civilization isn’t ready for the people on top governing for the general welfare that poly-sci idealists occasionally dream of. Doing that would make the people on top accountable to the people below.

Not going to happen.

We’re apparently okay with the feudal pyramid and crown and sovereign immunity because we need government and laws and institutions to keep life from being even more solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short than it already is. Which is why the guys (the Founding Fathers’ pronouns are definitely male) who talked about “live, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and wrote in the Preamble to the Constitution that one of its purposes of their new government was to promote the “general welfare” also declared that a slave counted as 60% of a person.

The Bible helpfully explains that God never meant for the pyramid to be necessary—what he wanted was a direct relationship with his people, but the ancient Israelites looked around at the kingdoms they were destroying and thought it would be good to have a king like them. The request made God mad and the people were clearly acting like the sinners they were, but God complied with the request, and since then we’ve had the pyramid.

So the pyramid is all our own fault. We asked for it. We wanted it this way.

And where do you suppose that explanation came from?

From somebody at the top of the pyramid. We’re definitely seeing a pattern here.

But like everything else, the pyramid has changed with the times. Now we have another reason to keep it around:  so we can climb it. Or more accurately, to keep the myth around that we can climb it.

Climbing the pyramid is one of the greatest frauds ever foisted on the human race—right in there with “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” As usual, the fraud lands hardest on the people that could most benefit it if were actually true.

The member of the month at the gym where I used to work out was a guy in his early 20’s. One of the “get to know me” questions asked “Who motivates you the most?” His answer: “My dad, who taught me that hard work can give you anything, as long as you can dedicate time and effort.”

The answer is predictably, utterly American. “Hard work can give you anything”—yes of course, everybody knows that. Parents tell it to their kids and the kids believe it. America is the Land of Opportunity; it gives you every chance for success, and now it’s up to you. “Anything you want” is yours for the taking – and if you don’t take it that’s your problem not America’s.

But don’t blame the Republicans, because they’re doing their best to banish government and its character-destroying handouts from our lives so the free market can make everything all better, which is why they voted in unison against the infrastructure bill and since then have been lining up for its evil socialist handouts.

A lot of those Republicans lining up are Rural. They just get smaller shares out in the hinterlands.

Back in the day they’d have a greased pole at the county fair. Guys (always guys) would try to climb it. Everybody would watch and laugh. That’s the myth of upward mobility in action. The pyramid doesn’t want to be climbed. Climb it, and you bring it down, expose it for the system of servitude it is. The pyramid says hey don’t blame the rich if you’re not rich. I mean, give ‘em a break—they’re up there making you work your butt off so they can get rich enough for their riches to trickle (trickle, not flow) down to you. If the people on top help the people below they’ll get lazy, the nobles won’t get rich anymore and then where would we all be?

And Rural is okay with it. Rural loves the Republicans, loves capitalism, “free” enterprise, the “free” market, everything “free.” Rural don’t need no stinking handouts. Rural is content to wait around for the trickle that never comes down.

Go away. Just go away. Leave us alone. We can take care of ourselves out here. That’s what we’ve always done while you townies namby-pamby around. Nothing’s going to change anyway. Thus our hyper-inequitable hyper-privatized hyper-monetized hyper-capitalism keeps Rural in its place. That’s how the pyramid works. All that onward and upward isn’t true, and we know it. Rural people work really, really hard and still don’t get what they want. It’s part of the deal, down at the bottom. Like the man said:

“It ain’t never going to change.
How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”

Of course, plenty of Urban people are also game to tackle the greased pole. Why? Why do we keep saying and believing something that isn’t true? Because to do otherwise would be un-American. This is where Rural steps up again. Rural is where the Real Patriots are. Patriotism elevates the boast:  America doesn’t just offer opportunity, it gives everybody equal opportunity—just like Teddy Roosevelt said:

“I know perfectly well that men in a race run at unequal rates of speed. I don’t want the prize given to the man who is not fast enough to win it on his merits, but I want them to start fair.”

Equal opportunity means everybody starts together. No, not everybody wins, but still… no matter who you are or where you’re from, everybody has the same odds. None of that feudal pyramid class system here.

Fair. Free. Every man for himself. That’s Rural.

Except equal opportunity is not true either, and we know that, too. And it’s especially not true in Rural.But that’s another self-evident truth that’s been grooved into our American neural circuits since the beginning:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the .pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”[2]

We’re all equals here in America, divinely ordained to pursue the good life. That’s our creed, and we – “the governed” — declare that we believe it.

Even if it’s not true.

And one place it’s especially not true is—you guessed it—Rural America. But Rural doesn’t care, because equal opportunity is a foundational American cultural belief. Cultural myths are sacred – they’re afforded a special status that makes them off limits to examination. And national Founding Myths get the highest hands-off status there is—especially in Rural, where they’re especially not true. History and hindsight have a way of eventually outing cultural myths, but in the meantime the fraud is perpetrated, and attempts to expose it are shunned and punished as disloyal, unpatriotic, treasonous.

Welcome to Rural, where American myths are sacred. You don’t mess with American myths out here, even if they’re killing you.

If we can’t out the myth, what do we do instead? We blame ourselves. We confess that we weren’t smart enough, didn’t work hard enough, didn’t “dedicate the time and effort.” Or maybe we did all that but in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, frustration, depression… we take them all on as personal failings, in the name of preserving the myth. God helps a lot with all of that—reminding Rural people every week that they are, after all, a bunch of sinners.

Ironically the ones who see through it are—you guessed it—the people at the top who got in before they closed the gates behind themselves.  Meanwhile, the people below—the decimated middle class, the new poor, the working poor… keep blaming themselves.

“I can’t pay my bills, afford a house, a car, a family. I can’t afford healthcare, I have no savings. Retirement is a joke. I don’t know how I’ll ever pay off my student loans. I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m poor. But it’s not my fault.”

Try saying that to Dad at the dinner table.

Horatio Alger is dead, but the equal opportunity myth stays alive on life support as American parents teach it to our children and elect politicians who perpetuate it, while all of us ignore the data that no, it really doesn’t work. Maybe 150 years ago when Horatio Alger was around. But now? No, not now.

“It ain’t never going to change.
How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”

There’s no more enduring version of the American upward mobility myth than the rags-to-riches story codified into the American Dream by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the Gilded Age of Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the 19th Century Robber Barons. If they can do it, so can the rest of us, given enough vision, determination, hard work, and moral virtue — that was Alger’s message.

Except it never worked that way, especially for the Robber Barons. There’s a reason they were called “Robber Barons.” They were ruthless opportunists aided by collusion and cronyism carried out in the absence of the antitrust and securities laws that would be enacted under the New Deal after history revealed the fraud.[3] But never mind that — according to Roughrider Teddy and politicians like him, government’s job is to guarantee equal opportunity for all, then get out of the way and let the race to riches begin.

There’s just one problem:  Horatio Alger told an urban story—you didn’t go from rags to riches by staying down on the farm.

Oops.

Still, every Rural high school is haunted by the local boy makes good story (usually male pronoun, although these days it’s usually a local girl who makes good). The local boy/girl is an underdog, and everybody loves an underdog—loves the upset, the incredible comeback, loves it when there’s no way but then all of a sudden the bigger, stronger, tougher, richer, better equipped opponent gets a comeuppance. The Rebel Alliance, La Résistance, the Miracle on Ice, David vs. Goliath—too many examples to list—we love them all.

The underdog story is about the reversal of power. The underdog tips over the pyramid. The peasants rise up, storm the gates. It’s not just that the weak win, it’s that the weak win over the strong. The pecking order is reversed. There’s always somebody with more brass, more money, more creds, more of whatever it takes to put us down and keep us there. In school it’s the principal. At work it’s the boss. In life, it’s death. But not this time. This time we win.

Underdogs and Horatio Alger and local kid makes good are the best kind of heroes. Their kind of heroism gives our lives meaning and purpose, sends us on quests and missions, makes us something other than the small, confused, barely getting by people living in a big confusing scary world that we really are. Heroism makes us suddenly bigger, better, grander, nobler, transcendent, immortal—the stuff of legends. Heroism makes us live forever.

Except heroism is Urban, too, and in its heart Rural knows it. Urban is where heroism gets funding. The only heroism funding out in Rural comes from government handouts, which we God-fearing Republicans know are evil.

So don’t get uppity. Who do you think you are? The people on top don’t owe you anything.

And don’t you have some work to do?


[1] The great American fallout: how small towns came to resent cities | Cities | The Guardian

[2] The Declaration of Independence.

[3] A great source for all the American history we never learned is Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017).