03 February 2017

Two Ways of Looking at Coastal Elites

As the title implies, the immediate catalyst for this post is the recent election and its fallout, where suddenly the term "coastal elites" seemed to gain major currency. But the thoughts behind this post have been percolating for a whole.

Where Are These Alleged Coastal Elites, Anyway?
I live in Connecticut. Connecticut voted for the Democratic candidate for president in the past seven presidential elections, since 1992. Connecticut is one of five states where Democrats control the governorship and the legislature. If you mention "Connecticut" to people not from New England, most of their understanding of it (if they have any at all, I sure didn't before I moved here) seems to derive from Gilmore Girls--  a tv show about the granddaughter of rich people who goes to Yale.

But my apartment is in an old mill town that went bankrupt in the 1980s, and once had the highest rate of heroin usage per capita in the country. It's a lovely place, and I'm happy to live here, but when I ride the bus with people working shitty jobs at the grocery store, or walk from the bus stop to my apartment past dilapidated buildings, I don't feel very elite. There's a guy I talk to at the bus stop most mornings who spent some time in jail (I'm not sure what for) and goes on rants about how much he hates Donald Trump. I don't think he's a coastal elite promoting radical identity politics. (The county I live in actually went for Trump, though, 51-43, something I wonder how many people who live in it even actually know.)

This article on coastal elites suggests that "[i]f you care about poverty, relocate to West Virginia or Memphis." But there's plenty of poverty on the coast. Polarizing America into the "heartland" and the "coastal elites" is a gross oversimplification that has very little to do with my actual experience of living on the coast.

Yet, They Exist
However, as someone who grew up in the Midwest, I have definitely encountered a bias against the noncoastal parts of America while living in Connecticut. As I am an academic, I mostly find this attitude in the way that academics think about working in the rest of the country. Do you know what's a fate worse than unemployment? Having a tenure-track job in the fourth-largest city in Pennsylvania. And the way this is expressed is often in a sort of taken-for-granted way-- like everyone in audience agrees with you that having a job like that would just be dire.

And also in my experience, it's a bias born of a lack of real experience. Now there's definitely a subset of folks who came to Connecticut from the Midwest and have this attitude that they're glad to have escaped it, and though I disagree with them, I know their opinions are at least founded on experience. But I have heard people say they could not work somewhere other than Boston, New York City, or Los Angeles who I know have almost been to no states that don't share a border with New York.

I guess I find it particularly disappointing because most English academics are all about diversity and open-mindedness-- but being willing to live in West Virginia or South Dakota is apparently a bridge too far. Heck, there are some who apparently find living in the part of Connecticut I reside in a bridge too far, and exude resentment that they've been exiled to a whole two hours outside of New York City. If you can't represent yourself and your values to people who don't necessarily share them, and you're an educator, I sort of wonder at your commitment to, well, education. You should be able to do more than preach to the choir.

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