Left Elsewhere brings needed conversation to a topic that too often comes as a one-dimensional portrait.
Since 2000, the US has been conveniently divided into red and blue states, but after Trump, a fine-tuning in the perception of rural areas—Appalachia in particular–seemed to be in order. Who were these people, and how are we, or at least those unfamiliar with the region, to understand this alien lifestyle stranded in poverty and coal mining? J. D. Vance’s 2016 book Hillbilly Elegy gave readers a clear and easy narrative that made Appalachia look just like citizens of the coasts thought it would. Fortunately, not everyone succumbed to standard takes on a decaying culture. Historian Elizabeth Catte’s What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia offered a more nuanced take, addressing the way white men, outsiders and tourist journalists have all got it wrong. While urban liberals wring their hands and conservatives complain about lazy welfare recipients, Appalachian represents a much wider range of voices, motivations and experiences exist than are usually portrayed in the media. In Left Elsewhere, a recent Boston Review collection, Catte continues to develop her complex picture of rural America while looking for possible futures for its political left.
A series of progressive thinkers responds to her initial essay, and the benefit of this sort of dialogue is less in finding levels of agreement or disagreement than in making the picture increasingly complicated. The writers, regardless of their varied backgrounds, make understanding a usable history a through line of this section. Drawing on a functional understanding of rural America’s past allows us to see continuity with the present as well a way forward.
The focus of that way forward can take different faces. Michael Kazin finds it in “one lesson from the bygone days of working-class power”: the need to create institutions that can organize and educate people. Nancy Isenberg warns of the dangers of “optimistic messaging if it causes us to forget that “change through legislative victories is an arduous process.” Her vision involves rethinking class and class-based prejudice without simply bowing to a pleasing historical narrative. Catte concludes, “What people desire from the past often reveals what they hope for the future.” That idea reveals the role that both memory and historical work play in how we talk about the present, an important point as the rural left finds momentum.
The second half contains somewhat isolated essays connected to the book’s broad theme, including a pseudonymous writing on guns in schools and one with a unique look at the opioid crisis. Each of these pieces is fascinating, but provides just short glimpses into scattered ideas. Most compelling, professor Toussaint Losier interviews activist William J. Barber II on current movements. Barber explains that “almost every progressive achievement … grew out of some form of fusion politics with a moral underpinning, not a policy underpinning.” He further says, “You must have a deep commitment to civil disobedience and be willing to put your bodies on the line in a nonviolent way, rooted in love and justice, to dramatize the ugliness of what’s going on.” We can’t forget that political movements aren’t only abstract ideas carried out in newspapers or civic buildings. Historical work like that of Catte and her colleagues help us remember the risk involved.
Left Elsewhere brings needed conversation to a topic that too often comes as a one-dimensional portrait. It’s best read as a starting point on a few interrelated subjects, although the articles from the second half float on their own. Readers looking to pursue deeper understanding of rural America might want to start with Catte’s book on Appalachia, but those interested more in where we go from here, while keeping history in mind, will likely find the discussion rewarding in its presentation of multiple options.