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Charles Kopp - Contributor

Charles Kopp is a graduate of the New School for Social Research. He is a composer and musician, and an ardent lover of poetry. He has been a teacher and a systems analyst. In Lafayette, California, he now designs websites and works on creative projects. He can be contacted at [go to Kopp index]

California Roots
America is strong in the heartland...
[Charles Kopp] 6/14/04

Last Sunday, I went with some musical friends to perform at “49er Days Fair,” a benefit for a little Gold Rush museum along the eastern edge of the great Central Valley of California. The Centerville Museum is well up Butte Creek Canyon, and driving up Honey Run Road and Centerville Road one passes a variety of Americana: some newer estates of well-to-do entrepreneurs, older homes of working class families, here and there a trailer or cabin of the rural poor, and a few homes showing signs of hippie remnants. The canyon is lined with impressive high rocky buttes, and the creek is ornamented with swimmers, inner tubes and rafts. There are oak trees aplenty, and a few tall pines, but plenty of open vistas from which to admire the buttes.

Along the road, and amongst the crowd at the Fair, there were significant signs of conservatism and religion. Caps, bumper stickers, pins and flags; though our state is famous abroad for wacky left coast liberalism, most of the state's geography is fairly conservative territory. California has 58 counties, most of them rural, only 18 of which favored Gore in 2000. Many of these counties have never voted for a Democratic party candidate. The state has vast farmlands and ranchlands, and even vaster mountains and deserts.

My music partner and I both grew up in the northern end of the Central Valley, and its ways are familiar to us. We know the friendliness and courtesy expected, the wry and earthy humor that prevails, the normalcy of industrious work and frugal expenditure. No one at the Fair arrived in a luxury car, or wore ostentatious clothing.

As different musicians performed, we had opportunites to wander among the crowd. The Fair had games, demonstrations of old trades like gold mining and rope making, a busy barbeque operation, arts and crafts vendors, games and activities. Raffle tickets were being sold, and prizes contributed by various businesses and individuals were being won in drawings each hour. Many folks stopped to compliment us on our music, to thank us, to remark on particular songs, and such. The music being played was a broad collection of American folklore, from Hank Williams to Bob Dylan. I was noting the beauty of this small community, and the fundamental value of independence. The community had created from within itself this little museum, and the community was sustaining it. Nothing was being mandated from distant agencies, or paid for by taxes imposed upon far off citizens who’ve never heard of Centerville.

I think of it as an important part of the formative influence that created America, the basic unit of community that identified its own needs and found ways to provide for them, internally. It is a generous realm in important ways, historically willing to help those who needed help, while at the same time expecting every person to contribute something as best they could. The gathering reminded me of a celebration I attended in 1978, a village in the ridges of southwestern Wisconsin where two of my great grandfathers were blacksmiths late in the 19th century. My mother’s aunts were there, many of them widows by that time, very much the matriarchs in charge of things. The eldest of them said Grace before the meal, and none of us (other than toddlers) touched our food before she was done.

I find in such places the heart of our country lives on in excellent health. There is an inclination deep in our character, to regard our neighbors in as positive a light as we can. We are inclined to notice the difficulties and tragedies faced by those around us, and to do what we can to lighten the sorrows of others. We have a simple inner confidence in our own ability to do what needs to be done, come what may. We notice the contributions others make to the general well being of our community. We honor those who make special sacrifices to preserve this way of life. Individual liberty and self-reliance are still crucial to the well-being of any people, and those who seek happiness and prosperity by other means seek in vain.

We knew at our 49er Days Fair that President Reagan had died the day before, and flags were at half staff. There were no speeches or ceremonies, it was enough that we knew. I suspect that eastern Europeans were well aware of the day’s significance. I had a three hour drive alone, returning home afterward, a wonderful time to think about things as I passed west and south through this amazing valley so full of memory for me. I was thinking how little this core of our national experience is known or understood by many today. Many folks who have grown up and lived in more liberal parts of the nation seem quite confident that country folk are unintelligent and uninteresting, that religious people are stupid and boorish, that conservative values are greedy and selfish. Because of these misperceptions, many are astonished that a film about Jesus might be popular; but the reverence and the morality found in Ben Hur is still common within our people, though it is forgotten by many in the media; it is scorned with a contempt which believes itself clever and sophisticated, while it is really basically ignorant and bigoted.

To judge by media and Hollywood content, or even by the content of many school textbooks, the heart of our country is not really there at all. They see a myth that was never true and an idealism that never was. But then, it is hard to find Americans who have read so much as 100 pages written by Jefferson, or Madison, or Washington, or Lincoln. In my parent’s generation it was common to know passages of these writings by heart. Sadly it is the easiest thing in the world - through 16 years of schooling - to obtain a Bachelor of Arts without reading a single book by any of these giants.. Today Americans mostly know fashionable revisionist history. Widespread liberal attitudes toward religion have not been informed by actual study, say for example the writings of Thomas a Kempis, or Chesterson, or Abraham Joshua Heschel, to name a few. Indeed our left guard is virtually unaware of the existence of the entire intellectual history of western spiritual thought. They seem to suppose that Jimmy Swaggart represents the typical Christian.

But out in the countryside, a world lives on which is profoundly deeper and stronger than media elites can understand. It’s an honorable world, inclined to tolerance, to live and let live, to make allowances for the great variety of human situations and to keep going forward, whatever may befall. It’s a practical world responding to the tangible needs of life and living, but also a spiritual world of faith, of effort at being better persons. It does not need the latest fashions or the newest cynicisms. I don’t mean to detract from the important part of American life that is urban, or from the great industries and special challenges in all that. But wherever you may live, I encourage you to take a drive now and then, to visit the rural soul of our country. Many of the great forces that gave birth to the character of America are still to be found in abundance, and we still have the strength to give great and noble things to this world. CRO

copyright 2004 Charles Kopp



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