Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Does the Red state-Blue state divide start with charity?

There's been a ton written and said about the blue state-red state divide in this country. According to the various stereotypes, blue staters are a bit more refined: an art-house film will often be described as having no appeal in the red states. Blue staters feel deep down that they're superior to the red staters, who, while they might not be rednecks, are just not as sophisticated. Those red-staters like simpler books, simpler TV shows, action movies, and are ultra-religious. Of course, all the southern states are red states, and many of the stereotypes about the red states are more or less the same as for southern states.

Here in Ridgefield, Connecticut (median household income: $107K), and in many other towns around here, the local church has an Appalachian Service Project. Every spring break or some other time of year when high schoolers aren't in school, they head down to Kentucky or Alabama or wherever and help rebuild homes and I guess do some of the things that those Sally Struthers ads claimed to do, albeit a bit closer to home.

I don't doubt for a minute that the organizers of it are perfectly sincere, and having been to rural West Virginia and Virginia, I understand that there are areas where the standard of living is, shall we say, not as advanced as it is in our little hamlet.

However, I wonder if at the same time, the church project serves to perpuate negative stereotypes about the south, and makes us northerners feel just that much superior. After all, I'm sure that many of the kids going on these projects haven't been to the south (Florida doesn't count), and when they are taken down there, they'll drive in a van to some really wretched area. And then there are the kids who don't go, but every week in the sermon for the four or five weeks before the trip they keep hearing about how this trip is so important because that place down there is so backward, and the people there need OUR help. Hear this every year from the time you're 7 or 8 until you're 18 and you must get the impression that that area of the country is really messed up.

I'm not against helping people, or even helping people in the South. I just wonder if this type of organization within the church helps to perpetuate stereotypes. Does it make high school students think of themselves as superior to students in other states? Does it make sense to always focus on Appalachia, and to call the group the Appalachian Service Project?

If the local paper in Connecticut ran a story about a group of kids from a South Carolina church who every year came to Bridgeport (where The Mayor has admitted to using cocaine while in office, and he replaced the mayor that went to jail for taking kickbacks) to help the nearly 20% of the population living below the poverty line, do you think you might feel a bit put off? Do you think the letters to the editor would be in favor of this mission?

I just can't help but think that this type of project is the first step in making local kids feel superior, without them realizing that the entire south isn't a prejudiced, backwards society that needs help from the north.

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