Saturday, January 16, 2016

What makes us care (or not) about rural America? One lawyer's story

This is a question I often ponder in this era when the world's population is quickly urbanizing, at a time when the United States' population continues its metropolitan trajectory, rural populations dwindling.

In 2006, I published Rural Rhetoric, and in it I quoted demographer and rural sociologist Dan Lichter in saying that most people now “come to know rural America only through stereotypical media portrayals, through exposure to rural vacation spots . . . or by traversing the rural countryside from city to city by automobile.”  I have often also thought (and perhaps I read this somewhere but don't recall the source)  that some of us know rural America from visiting grandparents there.  I think this is one of the reasons that states like Arkansas have what might be thought of as a a rural frame of mind or perspective or mentality, even when they are no longer dominantly rural in terms of where the majority of the people live.
All of that came to mind when I read the New York Times Magazine cover story from last week, "The Lawyer Who Became DuPont's Worst Nightmare." It is largely the story of Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati lawyer who agreed to represent an Appalachian cattle farmer named Wilbur Tennant in a suit against DuPont, which according to the story was dumping near the farmer's land, outside Parkersburg, West Virginia, a chemical it knew to be highly toxic.  

This passage, from the first and second paragraphs of the very long article, really grabbed me, as it describes the farmer's initial call to Bilott--and what kept the lawyer from hanging up:  
The farmer was angry and spoke in a heavy Appalachian accent. Bilott struggled to make sense of everything he was saying. He might have hung up had Tennant not blurted out the name of Bilott’s grandmother, Alma Holland White. 
White had lived in Vienna, a northern suburb of Parkersburg, and as a child, Bilott often visited her in the summers. In 1973 she brought him to the cattle farm belonging to the Tennants’ neighbors, the Grahams, with whom White was friendly. Bilott spent the weekend riding horses, milking cows and watching Secretariat win the Triple Crown on TV. He was 7 years old. The visit to the Grahams’ farm was one of his happiest childhood memories.
And so Bilott did not hang up the phone, and he ultimately agreed to represent the farmer.  That sentimentality about visits to rural grandparents reminds me of my own regarding my maternal grandparents, who were only slightly more rural than I was, but also my 11-year-old son's sentimentality around visiting my mother in rural Arkansas.  He absolutely loves being there, and I'm sure some of his deepest memories and connections are being formed in those trips, just as happened with Bilott.  

Back to the story:  Interestingly, though not surprisingly given rural social dynamics and the high density of acquaintanceship, Tennant, the aggrieved farmer,  had been "spurned not only by Parkersburg’s lawyers but also by its politicians, journalists, doctors and veterinarians." He was thus pressed to look for an outside lawyer.  Thankfully, he found Bilott.

Of course, the broader story is also one of a corporation taking advantage of low-SES, working class, rural folks (who happen to be white, I might add).  The piece, by Nathaniel Rich, is well worth a read in its entirety, a real David-vs.-Goliath tale.  

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