It was a curious point, that the cost of providing basic services to people in rural America was far greater than for those living in cities. After all, wire up one tenement on 207th and Dyckman and you’ve got 100 people covered. But a ranch in Wyoming could required 20 miles of electrical cable to provide light to five people.
The point was why should the city folk subsidize the rural folk by paying exorbitant amounts of money to string lines to their million acre ranches? If they want electricity, let them move to the city like all decent people. It’s not a crazy consideration, and it’s why government provided incentives to compel private enterprise to provide universal electricity (or, to be more modern about it, internet access). Good business would mean wire up the city. There’s little money to be made from running 20 miles of fiber to the Double D Ranch.
So why aren’t rural Americans rushing to live in the city? Kristin Shapiro* listened to NPR so you don’t have to.
During the episode, host Krista Tippett interviewed Reverend angel Kyodo williams, an ordained Zen priest who Tippett describes as “one of our wisest voices on social evolution and the spiritual aspect of social healing.” According to Rev. williams, “we are at a time, so incredibly unique in human history, where there is a meaningful number of us that are not driven by mere survival, and we are not defined by the work that we do or the place from which we come,” unlike “former cultures and societies that were limited in transportation and had a necessity to be able to put food on the table, and so we farmed, and so we did a whole bunch of things that were about fundamental necessities.”
Being unfamiliar with zen priests, ordained or otherwise, I was taken aback by the spelling of her name. Was this a typo? Why were the first letters of her first and last name in lower case, while the middle name was in upper case? What did I not understand?
In 1996, she and Rebecca Walker, daughter of novelist Alice Walker, opened Kokobar, the first cybercafe owned and operated by African-American women, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with financial backing from, among others, rockstar Tracy Chapman, filmmaker Spike Lee and Rita Owens (mother of Dana Owens, aka Queen Latifah.) Walker withdrew from the affairs of the business and left it to Williams shortly after it opened. Sheriffs began to remove the physical property of the cafe, allegedly because of Chapman’s unpaid loan. This caused the cafe to close in 1997.
That didn’t explain much.
After reading D. T. Suzuki’s Zen and Japanese Culture, Shunryu Suzuki’s, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, and receiving her first formal meditation instruction at San Francisco Zen Center while visiting California, Williams sought a community and teacher. Originally a formal student of Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara at the Village Zendo in New York City, she was ordained as a priest by Francisco “Paco” Lugoviña, from whom she also received denkai and hoshi empowerments, authorizing her to transmit the precepts to others and making her a dharma holder in the Zen tradition, respectively. As of October 2013, she is the world’s second black female Zen teacher.
That didn’t explain much either. But if NPR says she’s “one of our wisest voices on social evolution,” who was I to ponder her capitalization issues? Does zen explain why rural Americans are so deplorable that they won’t move to the city?
“[O]ur values and what’s acceptable to us — enough of us — is shifting at a pace that is just outside of some of our ability to even take in. And the problem is — that’s always been true, but the problem is, now we have a meaningful number, a substantive number of people that have those rapidly evolving values in confrontation with people that are, understandably, still working with the location-, survival-based orientation. This means a lot of things for us. This means that, in terms of values, we can be more spacious. There are many of us that can afford, literally, to be OK with people that are really, really different. In fact, we can be curious about it, because our sense of threat is diminished, because our identity is not prescribed by sameness and being afforded belonging because of sameness.
City folk have evolved to the point where they can be more “spacious,” accepting of people who are “really, really different,” because they aren’t threatened by the need for survival and have gained enlightenment.
Our own identities have evolved in such a way that, because we’re not merely trying to survive — I’m not saying we’re not trying to pay our rent and everything — but because we’re not identified with merely trying to survive, our sense of survival, our sense of thriving is embedded in a sense of movement and spaciousness and increasing allowance for more and more difference that is in direct conflict with people that are in a space-time continuum that is still place-based, survival-based, get-food-on-the-table-based. ‘If I don’t cut off the top of this mountain, where will I go? If those people are not beneath me, how will I know my own value?’ Et cetera, et cetera.”
Putting aside the zen aspect to this explanation, assuming there is anything zen-like about denigrating people for living in places where Reverend angel Kyodo williams (whose unexplained capitalization issues still disturb me) has yet to fail in business, there is some valuable insight to be gleaned from her observation. The difference between rural America and the woke city folk, because all the Latinx folk living on 207th and Dyckman are fabulously wealthy and woke, isn’t that the former are deplorable, but that they are unevolved, some lesser species of human who have yet to achieve the realization that city folk are on a higher plane of existence than rural folk.
If this strikes you as some religious belief, not merely troubling from the perspective of where williams thinks food comes from, but the idea that not everybody wants to live in a fifth floor walkup over a bodega, her zen cred surely suggests that’s the case. But the notion that people who believe as she does are a higher order of being, a better human for embracing her ideology, is informative.
Anyone who disagrees isn’t necessarily deplorable, but merely unevolved. If only you moved to the city, where food would magically appear in Whole Foods and you would grow above the need to survive by doing work so that you could spend your time appreciating your openness to really, really different people, you could evolve too. And it would save a fortune in stringing cable to Wyoming.
*I might point out that Kristin Shapiro is the wife of Cato’s Ilya Shapiro, but the buried lede is that Ilya watches Sunday morning cartoons before writing Supreme Court amicus briefs. Let that sink in.