North vs. South and the Politics of Identity

How compassion and neighborly kindness can bring us back together.

My grandfather and a neighbor, Aroostook County, 1950s

I grew up in ‘The County,’ Aroostook County, the largest county in the state of Maine. It’s as far north as you can go and still be in the state and country. It’s a beautiful and lush place in the summer, cold and lonely during the winter months. I wouldn’t ask for a redo of growing up anywhere else because the geography and people of The County shaped who am I today. There’s a part of me that still feels like Northern Maine is my true home, even though I haven’t lived there in over 20 years.

I left The County for college when I was 18 and never went back for very long. I didn’t go far for school — just to a small college in the mountains of Southwestern Maine, not exactly London or New York City. But it was different from where I grew up. So when I came home from my first year at college to my hometown, I was different. I’d met new kinds of people and was influenced by new and different experiences.

College made me question why family friends from home said stuff like they wouldn’t go south of Bangor without a shotgun. (And no, they weren’t kidding.) After becoming close to my freshman year roommate who happened to be bisexual, I cringed at the gay jokes and other comments that I heard when I was home from college for vacations. The jokes no longer seemed innocent. I ended one friendship after a childhood friend told me that AIDS was God ‘punishing the gays.’

Later in life as an adult, I understood that County people are like groups of people most everywhere — they can be kind, generous and loyal and also small-minded, fearful of change and kind of mean. The same could be said of the people I lived with in states and countries. That’s humanity for you — inconsistent, glorious and annoying all at once.

As I scroll through my Facebook feed lately and read posts and comments about the current political climate, I think of my County roots and what it feels like to be seen as the outsider, one of ‘them.’ I see a lot of name-calling online between rural people and urban people, County people and Southern Mainers, Governor LePage fans and critics, President Trump haters and lovers and between self-proclaimed conservatives and liberals. Each group paints the other side as monstrous, barely human and in need of extermination.

These divisions in Maine and in the United States at large — whether they are geographic, economic or cultural — are becoming more intense everywhere. We’re seeing the same ‘pick a side or else’ mentally in national and international politics. It’s hard to have a personal, rational discussion with someone from a different political party without it getting nasty, even when it’s over the dinner table among friends. It seems that politics is dividing us more than ever.

The reasons why these divisions exist are complicated in some ways, but simple in others. The development of technology, deregulation of government, inflation and trade agreements have shaped contemporary American life, wealth and general well-being. There are entire books dedicated to examining these factors and their effects. But really understanding how we collectively got here, to the point where we’re shooting up pizza parlors based on something posted online, goes beyond census numbers and statistics. It’s more personal than that.

What it all comes down to is that people are hurting all over the country, in rural, suburban and urban communities. For those who are living in poverty or who are working or middle class, it’s common to have to work two jobs just to have a roof over your head and food on the table. (I count myself among that crowd.) Taxes just seem to keep going up and we get fewer and fewer government services in return. Meanwhile, the national news tells us that the economy is doing marvelously well and that the rich are wealthier than ever.

For many of us, what we are living now is not the American dream. Eight to 10 percent of Americans are taking anti-depressants without a depression diagnosis, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychiatry. We’re taking anti-depressants to manage the stress and anxiety of life as an average American. Wages, adjusted for inflation, are remaining stagnant or declining. The price of everything is going up and more and more people are using credits cards to survive. People are struggling to make it and they are angry and desperate.

For people outside urban and suburban areas, the desperation can be more intense and it often is ignored. Rural poverty, which is now at 16 percent nationally, is not something you see much in the news or depicted in movies or television. The reality is that many rural areas don’t have the resources or organizational infrastructure to provide basic services to those who need it, while cities often do. In many rural communities, food insecurity is real and unemployment rates are high.

At the same time, rural America has been particularly hard hit by opiate addiction over the past year or two. Here in Maine, it’s been pretty bad. The state has the highest rate of prescription opiate addiction in the nation. In my home town of Presque Isle, population 9,700, there were five overdoses reported in a single day in December, a week before Christmas. At the same time, childhood poverty in Maine and in other rural communities has also risen dramatically over the last five years.

It is no wonder, then, that divisive politics and polarizing politicians are on the rise in America and around the world. For those of us struggling financially or otherwise, we are looking on a conscious or unconscious level for someone to blame and the narrative created by opportunists like Trump and other politicians and media outlets places that blame on ‘the other.’

Depending on your perspective, that other can be the ignorant, uneducated people in the country, the spoiled know-it-all liberals, the blacks, the whites, the Mexicans, the Jews, the Evangelicals or some other group who isn’t you. Northern Mainers call people from Portland libtards and think Southern Mainers don’t know what it’s like to go to bed hungry or work for a living. Portland folks say people north of Augusta are inbred, racist and uneducated. Real people are developing real hate for people they don’t even know and politicians are encouraging them to be suspicious of their neighbors based on political affiliations.

And that’s very un-Maine. It’s also very un-American. Like many people in states across the country, us Mainers pride ourselves on being independent, free-thinkers who are stubborn, fierce and gritty. Many of the state’s most famous politicians, like Margaret Chase-Smith, were and are known as mavericks who cross party lines, speak plainly and aren’t fond of using 10 words when five will do. Mainers also pride themselves in being quietly generous, helping neighbors by bringing them a cord of wood or a casserole when they need it.

That generosity and independent spirit is not exclusive to my home state, nor is it exclusive to rural folks. It’s really at the heart of what America is and usually does in its everyday life when the cameras aren’t rolling and the politicians have all gone home. As Americans, we have a shared history of helping one another, despite our differences, and it is what we usually do when life gets hard. Lately, though, it feels as though the Us versus Them mentality has taken over and everything is politicized–sports, music, movie stars, haircuts and more. We’ve let Us versus Them take over everything, out of frustration, fatigue, fear and anger.

To my beloved America, I say: get a hold of yourself and shake it off. Focus on being free-thinking, independent and generous again. We will get through this, but not without compassion and kindness for one another. Don’t be manipulated by empty political rhetoric. Recognize that our commonality as Mainers (and Americans) is the glue that binds us together. It is, after all, the most powerful thing we have, our ties to one another.