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How Depoliticized White Rural Communities Allow Themselves to Be Taken Advantage of By Corporations

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There’s a whole industry out there trying to explain why poor whites don’t “vote in their own interest.” The problem with this phrasing–which Thomas Frank made perhaps the most famous in his extremely flawed book on Kansas–is that it reduces the idea of “interests” to economic in a way that perhaps might be the biggest influence of Marxism on American political culture since many non-Marxists use this too. But of course people’s interests are multifaceted. They have economic interests, sure. But they also have racial interests, gendered interests, religious interests, etc. Each person is a complex individual made up of many interests. The ones they prioritize when it comes to politics have to do with which they hold most valuable. This is why I am so skeptical when unionists point out the high approval rating for unions. Yes, OK, but when you have a working class person who supports unions but also thinks abortion is a crime against humanity, which do you think they will choose in the voting booth? We all know the answer to this.

We’ve moved to more sophisticated understandings of this recently, particularly in Jonathan Metzl’s disturbing but highly necessary Dying of Whiteness, where he interviews white people dying of preventable illnesses telling him from their death bed that they would rather die than have Obamacare. I mean, this is how these people prioritize their interests from their own death bed! So, you know, that’s pretty sobering!

All this is what came to mind when I read this piece by the sociologist Colin Jerolmack. He writes on fracking and he profiled a couple in the Times that testified about how fracking completely destroyed the water on their land but then wouldn’t do anything about it at all, even though lots of people wanted them to do so. Basically, it’s another example of the complex maelstrom of interests within it. These people were upset about what fracking did to their land. But they saw anti-fracking activists as coastal elite outsiders. They had a land use culture that is highly producerist and so were happy that others made money off fracking. They valued their small town community more than anything else. And they didn’t believe they could really stand up to corporations anyway.

I couldn’t understand why the Crawleys refused to go public with their story — which might pressure the petroleum company to remedy the situation, or speak with the Responsible Drilling Alliance — which vowed to help them secure a pro bono lawyer. They had nothing to lose, I thought. But as I sat and listened, I learned that the Crawleys’ decision to stay quiet wasn’t about what was in it for them. It was about defending their community.

“The couple that has the property the well is on now, they — I work with their daughter and she says that Mom and Dad really feel bad about this all happening,” Mr. Crawley explained. His wife chimed in, “They’re very upset. He’s afraid everybody would blame him.” Mr. Crawley emphasized that his “major concern with this whole deal is somebody harassing” his neighbors or “camping out” on their property.

The idea was not as outlandish as it might sound. Mrs. Crawley recalled driving past the Riverdale Mobile Home Park, whose residents were being forced out to make way for a facility that would withdraw water from the river to frack gas wells, in the summer of 2012 and seeing a bunch of “picketers” from “out of the area that just came in and camped up there” as part of what supporters called Occupy Riverdale. As Mr. Crawley put it, “These people have no interest in this area other than creating a stink.” Mrs. Crawley shook her head in disgust, “Just like over there in Susquehanna County when Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon came out.” She was referring to a tour bus that “Artists Against Fracking” had chartered in January, 2013 to ferry celebrities and journalists from New York City to the area to publicize cases of alleged contamination.

“Do you have the right to come protesting in my area because of something that’s not going to affect you and you live 100, 200 miles away?,” Mr. Crawley asked of the so-called fractivists. He wondered how many of them “live in a high-rise building that’s heated by gas.” Indeed, sociological research indicates that anti-fracking activism is not, for the most part, NIMBYism — it’s largely a not in your backyard movement spearheaded by progressives living in urban and coastal areas (most fracking occurs in the heartland, and most people who live there support it).

One might think that rural support for fracking can be explained solely through selfishness: Landowners (including the Crawleys) received compensation for leasing their subsurface mineral rights to petroleum companies, and fracking is purported to lift the economies of struggling areas where factories have closed. But what I found so striking about the Crawleys was that they insisted they were not against fracking, even after they came out losers in the fracking lottery.

I don’t really have an answer about what to do with this information. No one does. But we certainly can’t understand how to move forward with organizing white people without understanding all of this. Maybe there’s nothing that can be done until whites stop holding onto reactionary values. And in the case of rural Pennsylvania, an area that has been dying for a century, the ideal of community is reactionary, not because it is wrong per se, but because it loses time and time again without any path forward.

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