Janus is the Roman god of portals. With two faces, he watches our comings and goings through doorways, bridges, passages and, of course, January. And so he must be looking this month at America with two puzzled expressions.
I imagine him perched on the Gateway Arch at St. Louis, with blue-ish Illinois on the east and a long line of reddish states to the west. It's a festive, purplish landscape with plenty of room for hope.
The "Purple America" map by a Princeton professor puts it into perspective, and you can see it at www.princeton.edu/~rvdb/JAVA/election2004. He used county election returns from USA Today and found the states were anything but solid blue and red. But, according to other mapmakers, 2004's election painted rural America all red and urbans all blue.
Lewis Lapham of Harper's spent his January column attacking the heartland. Either we're loony with religion or corrupt, according to his theory. Either way, we're delusional in our sense of self-reliance. "The red states live on the charity of the blue states, more abjectly dependent on government subsidy than a Harlem welfare mother or the owner of a California football team," he writes, and more.
Next time Lapham strolls past the Board of Trade, he might check in and talk to a trader. He might ask about the prices of wheat and pork bellies. While the trader will probably shrug it off, Lapham might investigate and find that traders pay prices lower than the cost to produce what they trade. Low prices are convenient to industry that wants to supply city folk with cheap food.
Then Lapham might check at the New York Stock Exchange where the food sector -- processors and shippers like ConAgra and Phillip Morris -- has performed brilliantly by raising prices to consumers each quarter and, thus, raising their own stock value. They even get subsidies for import and export.
Folks on the coasts labor under illusions of their own self-reliance. For generations, rural resources and children built urban buildings and raised urban suppers. Appalachia gives up its mountains for coal to heat their apartments. Montana steers give up their hides to cover seats in their waiting rooms.
North Dakota's water raises city wheat. Nevada will shelter their nuclear waste, trucked out through dozens of heartland states. As resources get more precious, California's valley farmers are giving up their water for San Francisco bathers whose vegetables will be shipped in from farther away.
City dwellers would like to think they make their own ways in the same way that they make fashion, but cities live on the abundance of the rural countryside. Destroy a downtown building and we'll replace it. Destroy our countryside, and what will the cities do?
Meanwhile, American producers compete for a slice of the pie with poor people all over the world. In our cell-phone-and-jumbo-jet era, cities take resources from ever-widening nets. When the twin towers are rebuilt, the steel may come from a remote area in China rather than Pittsburgh. The marble and wood paneling may come from Africa rather than Missouri. But one thing is sure: Rural folks will give up their homes and forests to rebuild those new structures.
I am as disappointed in the 2004 elections as anyone, but in the future, rather than attacking the red states, Democrats need to quit the blame game and accept the failures of the party -- no candidates, no platforms. Let's all resolve to accept the yin and yang of rural and urban destinies.
Speaking of resolutions, an email campaign suggests we spend not one damn dime on inauguration day. And just as soon as that was in the In-Box, another followed whining, "If I do that, I'm just a child crying in the wilderness."
Let's take out the No. 2 pencils and connect the dots between our consumer habits and the world we've created. Better yet, take out the boldest marker. A one-day purge is valuable.
Stepping back from the consumer treadmill as this administration inaugurates itself is a good way to separate ourselves from its greed and glitter. Wear your oldest clothes. Eat leftovers. If you've lost your gloves, wrap your hands in old scarves. Remember that new stuff comes from far away. Rejecting new stuff means rejecting the oil-based transportation system that brings it here which, incidentally, has us in a major war.
In fact, celebrating "not one damn dime" is a good practice. Once a month, perhaps, practice a ritual that includes steeping yourself in your community. That means using food and clothing made in your neighborhood, recreation in a nearby park instead of a crosstown gym, visiting someone who can't get out. In short, rather than seeking refuge for your despair in the mall, practice gestures that benefit the people who live nearby.
It won't be the first time that cries in the wilderness have changed the future.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email Margotfulton@aol.com.