BY MILTON READY
First, I’m not really all that liberal, progressive, radical, left-wing, elitist or, in truth, any of the other dismissive, mocking labels hurled at college professors by those who inhabit the swamps of right-wing thought these days. Gosh, I enjoyed saying that. I suspect that few radical professors even exist in today’s threatened, insecure, volatile academic environment. I’m also not very snarky, whatever that term means.
I’m from rural Texas, reared by parents who never finished middle, much less high school, and you were considered privileged if you had indoor plumbing, green grass and spoke as well as Lyndon Johnson, George W. Bush or Rick Perry. Really. Of course, they all went to college and graduated, though I doubt that any of them had more than a C average. Heck, with those credentials, you could even be president. But I suspect that whatever dollop of liberalism I have came from living in other foreign countries, besides Texas, and serving in the Army, an experience that taught me a lot about diversity, other cultures, gender equality and real patriotism. So did Asheville.
Religion? Early on I attended a small Missionary Baptist church, and when my family moved into a larger home on a sand-packed road close to Mickey Gilley’s roadhouse, of Urban Cowboy fame, I became a real Texas Southern Baptist. We’re not like Southern-lite Baptists; in fact, we were fundamentalists long before evangelists became politically correct. Did you know that Gilley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Lee Swaggart, perhaps one of the greatest gospel singers and lap swimmers of all time, were all bad-boy cousins, born-again sinners and sort of Baptists? As the saying went, a whole lot of shaking went on in that family. You should also realize that Texas Baptists are going to take over the country, just as they took Texas, when Rafael Eduardo “Ted” Cruz becomes president. You betcha.
The myth of liberal college professors comes from the perceived failures of the Woodstock generation and the 1960s countercultural revolution. As the story goes, all those hippies and freaks stayed in college, became professional students who accumulated lots of degrees, infiltrated faculties and, having failed to directly change the country, decided instead to brainwash a new generation of students with their leftist ideas. Others supposedly migrated to cities like Asheville and San Francisco, where they set up hippie communes, moved to the countryside, attended Rainbow Gatherings, started an eco-farm, brewed a few craft beers, tattooed everything except their genitals, grew some pot and eventually became quite respectable, if apolitical.
I arrived in Asheville not as a liberal but, rather, with all the ingredients of an anti-intellectualism that never came together: a fundamentalist, radical Protestant religion; a rural belief that practicality trumped “book larning”; and a healthy distrust of institutions, whether they were governments, banks or schools. Frankly, that mirrored the sentiments of most of my students at UNC Asheville, who mainly came from Western North Carolina and had conservative parents. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the forum to discuss what humanists call “great ideas.” Asheville woke up from a 50-year slumber and reinvented itself while the rest of North Carolina, excepting Gov. Jim Hunt’s brief Camelot, went back to its reactionary roots.
Asheville, the new “Paris of the South” or “Appalachian Shangri-La” or “granola ghetto of the Carolinas” or whatever other alluring sobriquet you choose, became the living context in which UNCA students could examine not only “great ideas” but also their own lives. Mine, too. It was Asheville, not sneaky liberal professors, that changed them, just as it affected Western North Carolina and, to a lesser extent, the state as a whole. It still does.
In fact, except for a handful of professors who were mostly from Northern states, Asheville’s faculty hardly seemed liberal at all — not even close to those I’d known at the University of Georgia or in Texas. And in any case, liberalism died years ago, while most of the supposedly leftist professors have died, retired or taken up gardening. Take a close look at the UNCA faculty and alums who’ve served on either Asheville’s City Council or the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners — folks like Gene Rainey, Walt Boland and Nathan Ramsey — and you’ll find little hint of radicalism. That reflects Asheville’s organic nature. What other city in the South would have selected strong women like Leni Sitnick, from its Jewish community, and Terry Bellamy, an African-American, as mayors? They were reminders of the importance of determined, energetic women — blacks and gays, too — in the city’s history. Asheville changed the university, its students and me.
Asheville surely must be the protest capital not only of the mountains but maybe even of the region. You can rest assured that any issue involving women, gays and, to a lesser extent, race or ethnicity will inevitably draw women wearing black, gays wearing rainbow colors and the young wearing practically anything (or almost nothing) but with loads of tattoos and piercings as background. Remember the thong guy? Only in Asheville. Yet you will look in vain for any protests in such neighboring mountain counties as Madison, Avery and McDowell. Moreover, working-class students like those at UNCA simply can’t afford risky campus protests — nor can middle-class professors trying to establish a career.
That, however, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fear the “Bern” of the millennials, those 81 million born between 1982 and 2002, as Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have learned. Millennials have already decided, usually progressively, where they stand on almost all the issues that vex an older generation — abortion, gay marriage, immigration, women’s rights, education, the environment and America’s role in the world — and they don’t really care about Donald Trump’s hair, Ted Cruz’s birth or Hillary Clinton’s emails. And sooner or later, they will vote: an uneasy prospect for all.
The mean-spirited abuse hurled at college students and professors alike reflects a dying political paradigm coupled with a fear of the young. Yet the millennials’ inevitable parricide of conventional political thought may end up making today seem moderate, liberalism restrained and conservatism temperate, compared with what our children already envision. In other words, the world of the future just might look like Asheville’s present.
Milton Ready is a retired UNCA history professor and Mars Hill resident.