Thursday, April 23: True North

I posted this pair of photos from Watertown the other day (which ran in two different news outlets). They’re a classic example of how two clicks of the photo shutter at two moments in time can feed (at least) two different narratives. In one photo, she is a noble, serious, unheard salt-of-the-earth working mother. In the other, she’s a screaming banshee, a “zombie,” a layabout inessential. Same woman. Same day.

We know that many of these protests are, if not astroturfed directly, then done so by proxy through the mass media. When trying to figure out who this woman really is, you focus on her sign: “It’s not about Trump.” Is she a Republican or libertarian who is trying to inject some logic into an emotional situation fomented by others? Is she a Democrat who is desperately trying to be heard above the noise?

This story about defiant participants showing up for a cancelled outdoor event would seem to follow the outsiders’ narrative of “dumb, fatalistic red-state rurals”:

The Gigliotti’s said if they had symptoms or had tested positive for the novel coronavirus they wouldn’t have come up and risked getting others sick, but they take a more philosophical stance on the danger COVID-19 poses for them. “We look at it if we get it, we get it. If we live, we live and if we die, we die,” Mr. Gigliotti said, “We’re not going to let it control how we live.”

Easy to ignore, however, is the fact that the majority of the people who had signed up for this event, didn’t show up after it was cancelled. North Country people, I find (even my own Trump-voting relatives who live there), tend to have the annoying habit of being mostly reasonable some of the time. This confounding quality has attracted the attention of national writers, including the recent finding of Watertown as being the least politically polarized city in the country, and this speculation about why some “red” areas in certain parts of the country (including New York) have taken social distancing pretty seriously.

Of all the unhappy people in the polity of the nation, the voters of the North Country have cause to be among the most unhappy. If they are liberals or Democrats, they are assumed not to exist. If they are Republicans, even MAGA Republicans, their hero will never come to their rescue. MAGA folk from Michigan or Wisconsin (or wherever Trump is calling for armed rebellion today) will command ready attention, for they are Swing Staters. But Trump, nor the national media of any stripe, will never give these North Country protesters a moment of attention. No one does. They are the most invisible voters in America.

It isn’t inherently a tragedy, of course, for white people like (most of) these protesters to be politically invisible — any more than it is for anyone else to be invisible. And when thinking of invisibility and lack of power among New York State’s political regions, I have to stop and think — who’s worse off — Queens, or the Southern Tier, or the North Country? (To clarify, I use the term “North Country” in its more specific sense — those northern parts of the state that are not within the Adirondack Park.)

But I can’t really give the nod to the North Country. They have prisons, but they also have colleges. They have pinched dairy farmers, but they also have tourism. They have MAGA protests, but they also have decent journalism. In a world that seems on the cusp of change, the North Country sometimes seems like it is sleeping inside a greater potential that is hard to define. It is the only part of New York State that “never was.”

More than just the pandemic is causing change. We are gradually starting to lose our antipathy to talking seriously about what climate change will (not “might”) actually mean for more than just polar bears. The Arctic will become a global shipping lane; it’s only a matter of time. Years ago, a controversial “Atlantica” concept was talked up by corporate interests; the idea met with strong resistance in Canada but was barely noticed on this side of the border. How would changes like this — or even an extended period of increased global hostility — affect the North Country, with its access to an international shipping lane and the presence of Fort Drum?

For the time being, the region is just trying to cope with the fallout from the pandemic, as everyone else is. “A United North Country” is a small nightly Facebook Live call-in show that deals with many on-the-ground topics and pandemic safety.

Addressing the situation on the ground there and looking toward the future, a North Country citizen writes,

We will overcome this retrograde states’ rights fiasco and COVID-19. We always do, and eventually Americans will find the grace of our democratic principles, based on freedom of thoughts and responsible actions. The strength of our democracy can take a mistake like Trump from time to time, but blaming all his supporters/voters will only ensure another four years of his total ineptitude, blatant corruption and borderline treason as his supporters/voters dig in. Eventually, everyone finds it difficult to admit when they’re just dead wrong.