Our redneck heritage

Letters from readers can be very useful in showing me where I’ve gone wrong. On balance, I encourage them. It is better, usually, to be right than wrong. But ignorance is not always a bad thing. Sometimes it is the only thing that might preserve us from damnation.

In several recent posts I now realize that, on balance, I could have been clearer, or even perhaps more accurate. We’ll see if I can restrict myself to providing only one (now unseasonal) example today.

This will have to do with the “divine irony” I discerned in my account of Roman Palestinian events, during the recent Passiontide. Christ looks upon crowds who will one moment laud and praise him, yet in the next mewl and pule for his blood. This is not an especially amusing irony, but it is there, and I insist it is there. In a longer Idlepost, however, I’d have been obliged to introduce an important qualification.

As several critics have suggested, I could have made that ancient distinction between the city mouse and the country mouse. For as they note, it is a distinction I’ve often raised myself, in other connexions. It may appear more debatable in the world of two thousand years ago, when the cities were considerably smaller in relation to the countryside. Today, our cities are so huge that I’m inclined to call them “conurbations” instead; and such is their consumptive power that the country around them is absorbed, over a radius sometimes more than a hundred miles. Not only is this vast area besucked of its agricultural potential, by the spread of new and ever more sterile sleeper suburbs. The arable land remaining must focus upon feeding the city. For all practical purposes it now belongs to the city.

The point has been brought home to me by rural acquaintances, who come into the Greater Parkdale Area to shop. The penny dropped a few years ago, when one of them explained that he was shopping for fresh food. It is no longer easily available “out there,” amid the vast industrial farms. All the distribution lines lead into the big city, and so one must come into the big city to find where they come out. “Out there” they have what has washed back, in commercially processed and packaged form, in the narrower range available to the SLIMs. (This is an acronym a big-businessman once used in my hearing. It stood for, “shitty little insignificant markets.”)

Now, Jerusalem in the generation of Jesus was mostly within the walls. The area was perhaps slightly larger than that within the walls today, but not much, and today we find perhaps 25,000 souls (plus tourists) within the later (Ottoman) walls. Through most of the Old City’s four quarters, they are rather crowded; but pack them in tighter and we might fit double that. Tacitus somewhere estimates Jerusalem’s population much larger, and Josephus gives some very large sums, but I don’t believe them. “Lots and lots” is really what they are trying to say. Jerusalem today, spreading far beyond her old walls, has perhaps thirty times that ancient population, even if culturally and spiritually she is now only a minuscule fraction of her former self.

From having spent some time there as a walker, lodged usually within the walls (in the old Franciscan hostel, Casa Nova), and moving among frequently mischievous Palestinian lads, I know how claustrophobic the neighbourhood can be, and how small it is within the modern conurbation. And yet by twenty-first century standards, Greater Jerusalem is a small city.

When we contrast “city folk” with “country folk” today, we work from different assumptions. One could live as if Jerusalem did not exist, back then, only a few miles out of town. Only along e.g. the (single-lane) “highway” to Damascus would one be aware of the milestones. From the top of the Mount of Olives, Jerusalem and her Temple would be extremely apparent; but down the other side along the road to Jericho it would disappear. Though a place, it was more familiar as an idea.

Even so, Jerusalem was a city. And as we grasp from within the Passion narratives, it had city ways. There is some analogy to the urban/rural contrast of today. In fact this would have been more vivid, in the absence of that sprawl from one into the other, and the global-village technology that now links every place to every other in live time, and thus homogenizes and emulsifies what was formerly distinctive, and human.

Balancing this, was a greater non-virtual interpenetration of space and time. Time was simply more continuous: travellers in the nineteenth century found a landscape still essentially unchanged from biblical times. But with respect to space: I must have explored every accessible corner and crack of modern Jerusalem-within-the-walls, and walked over many of her roofs, too, and can report that it is an incredible labyrinth. Yet from gate to gate is less than half a mile, as the nightjar flies, and from any point, with a knowledge of the streets, I could walk across town in ten minutes, or get right out of it in five. (Slower, however, if one is carrying a cross.)

Where are we getting? Back to the crowd hailing Jesus to Saint Stephen’s Gate on Palm Sunday (and thus fatefully directly into the Via Dolorosa). They would have been mostly country folk: bumpkins if you will. But the well-rehearsed crowd accusing Him before Pontius Pilate, with their punk-musical refrain of “Crucify Him!” — would have been recruited mostly in the city. From the evidence of the Gospels it was “rent-a-crowd”; something easy to do among the urban masses. And whether or not people were literally cash-bribed to get the show started (as they invariably are, in one sordid currency or another) few were likely to have been country bumpkins.

Still, “none” would be too low an estimate.

There is a more general point I should have drawn in passing, from human experience, reflected in the Gospels. Riots, anywhere, don’t “just happen.” As every accomplished leftwing activist knows, riots need planning. And Caiaphas was a first-rate “community organizer,” who’d gone right to the top — always ready to pay his bills (to Judas, for example).

Then, as now, the demographic profile of the “Christ-killers” would be, urbane. Or to translate into contemporary American terms, Democrat Party. Whereas, those “naïvely” impressed by Jesus were in the main, Red State; they were from “flyover country.” In demographic profile, the more faithfully Christian, or Christian at all, tend to be rednecks: they who cling to their guns and their bibles (still their Hebrew bibles, back in the day: the Torah with its many delightfully redneck passages).

Yet, to follow the analogy, both groups were “patriotic Americans” in our twenty-first century sense. So were the Roman provincials in the sense of the first century. (Oh say did you see how that crowd pledged its allegiance to Caesar!) One type could be converted into the other type, by migration and resettlement, then as now — the children of the migrants becoming city-slick, the children of urban-evacuee hippies becoming rednecks again.

I hope I have made this clear: that the hicks are not gooder, just less tempted.

In other words, both principles apply. Rural people are not entirely saints, nor urban people entirely devils (in most cases), and the original sin of human nature applies to them both. Yet then as now, city life had a pervasive corrupting effect; it was a formidable influence for evil. And this I think because, then as now, the country folk are surrounded by the works of God, from the vault of the stars, to the murmurations of the animal kingdom, the miracle of the harvest, and death in new life. Whereas, the city folk are encased within the works of man, however beautiful or (as today) ugly.


There is a book just out, a bestseller in Israel, that casts light on this from another angle: a distinction between the gathered and dispersed which long predates the foundation of Jerusalem. It is by Yuval Noah Harari, of Hebrew University at Jerusalem, and the English translation is entitled, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

It touches upon the “prehistoric” agricultural revolution which, in the tradition of Plato and other ancient conservatives, Harari depicts as a mixed blessing. Or worse, for he calls it “history’s biggest fraud.”

The propaganda for this agricultural revolution has been intense, in our modern academies. What a wonderful thing, we have been taught: that it brought people together, begetting literacy and progress; that it socialized them in comfortable “civilizations” with ever-improving technology. Which is to say, that it made big cities possible, big government and so forth.

Professor Harari — this gay-married, moshav-dwelling, macro-historian by whom I am so impressed — looks back over the aggregation of evidence and asks: What was there to like? The cultivation and selective breeding of new stocks, from grain to farm animals, came at a terrible price, in habitual over-specialization of diet, and debilitating disease, to say nothing of the loss of personal independence.

Carnivorous man, who had once run free, now became by comparison an “ethical vegetarian,” with devastating material and spiritual consequences. In purely material terms, life expectancy for the individual was considerably shortened (as the data of palaeontology have revealed) from what it remained among humans who stayed out in the wild — visiting the settlements only to get sick on what they pillaged.

Yet, thanks perhaps to dairy, fecundity increased among these pocked, unpleasant, short-lived people, and with this the proliferation of a new human stock, smaller and nastier. Or to put it in my own terms, to which Plato and Socrates would immediately subscribe: the world began to fill with liberals.

But of course, God makes and will make the best of this. One must not be trapped within one’s own ideology, as our beloved Pope keeps saying, from within the trap of his. It is sufficient that we learn to see through the illusion of “progress” — and understand that only God can save us, from the mess that only we have made.