The author, Andy Johnson, with his Aunt Betty in 1972 or thereabouts. (Photo submitted)

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, worrying. Most of you have been there.

My worry today isn’t about prices or debt, though. The cattle and sheep are happy on their grass and hay, and the Christmas trees are too preoccupied with deer to anticipate families with noisy kids and saws.

My worry is about the toll that cultural tribalism and nativism is taking on our rural communities. And on ourselves, and our kids.

As I ponder the growing divisions within not only our country but our communities and even our families, the importance of voting for community values like respect and dignity grows. And as I ponder what “community” really means, I remember the long-gone watering hole of my younger years: the “Café Deluxe” in the corner of the old Armory building of the small town where I live once again.

And pondering values, I remember sitting in the café with my older brother – about to head off to college – and my visiting Aunt Betty. We were feasting on the best beer-battered, deep-fried cheese curds for counties around, when Betty asked my brother, “So Eric, do you have a social conscience?”

Betty was a high school English teacher. She spoke with great gentleness and original intelligence. She was a keen observer of people and society, but I never once in 40y-plus years heard Betty speak badly of a person or group. Her usual questions were about the books we were reading, so this question took me by surprise and stuck with me.

“Social conscience”: It was an unfamiliar phrase, yet it felt right. I knew it was expressed in the way my aunt lived, and in the way my parents had raised me and my siblings. It was deeper than politics, it was about humanity and responsibility. Somehow in the asking, my aunt was triggering a consciousness of conscience.

Do you, dear reader, have a social conscience? What does it say about the levels of incivility and tribal righteousness that permeate our lives and our politics? About our responsibility to be better?

My oldest daughter is off at college now … bringing more worries around the kitchen table. The worries are financial and cultural. She’s at an amazing place, full of different ideas and people … and also full of “social justice warriors.”

Full disclosure here: I’m a Democrat. Like many of you I also resist labels and am my own hybrid: a liberal who values liberty; a conservative who values responsibility; a moderate who values wisdom; and a radical who believes in localism, and that we still have much to learn about designing and implementing effective government “of, by, and for the people.”

I also believe fully in social justice. The values of dignity, inclusion, fairness, and equality fit well within my rural upbringing, my sense of community, and my social conscience.

I admit I have some trouble with the “warrior” part. Not because I reject the idealism of the young, or the need and willingness to take a stand. Warriorism, however, like all forms of tribalism, is not the answer. It is born out of anger and righteousness, and however just the origins, anger and righteousness are always directed against an “other.” They drive wedges deeper and feed more tribalism.

To be clear, there is no equivalence between misguided social justice “warriorism” and the pure bigotry of the political nationalists/nativists attempting to rile us all up like a herd of cattle. Riled up cattle, as many of you know from experience, can quickly become uncontrollable and highly destructive.

Rural Iowa has long been a place of co-existence, mostly (though certainly not always, or for everyone) built on the mutual respect and decency that make community work. If we’re not careful, we’ll become so riled up against imaginary “others” and each other, we will destroy the very community values that make rural America good.

The fearmongering and scapegoating have gone too far. To remain silent is contrary to all the values I was taught as a farm kid, learned from my community, and carry in my conscience.

We must rebuild civitas – our individual responsibility as members of a community to the health of that community at all levels, including everyone. As a friend who recently passed away was fond of saying, “We all do better when we all do better”.

Aunt Betty (Photo submitted)

My Aunt Betty passed away a year ago, and today would be her birthday. I dearly miss her. I miss those cheese curds too, though maybe that’s mostly nostalgia for another time. A time when we rural citizens weren’t so quick to judge and to demonize.

Betty was a lesbian and one of the most decent human beings I have been blessed to know. You didn’t know that about her until now, and you probably wouldn’t have known it had you known her. Nor do you or I know much of anything about the “others” the political nativists are attempting to terrify and divide us with.

But we know better. We are our sister’s keeper, our brother’s keeper, our community’s keeper.

In Betty’s honor, and in honor of the decent people in your own memories, I ask you to please vote. I won’t tell you how other than to vote your conscience.

Andy Johnson lives on a farm near Decorah, Iowa.

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