Letters to the Editor of The Free Press: Rural America Isn't, and Evil Technology will win us Cold War 2.0
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Letters to the Editor: Rural America Isn’t Evil

Plus: Technology will win us Cold War 2.0.

By The Free Press

July 10, 2024

What if the most notorious murder of a gay man wasn’t a hate crime? This is the question that motivated Ben Kawaller’s recent report from Laramie for The Free Press. A generation ago, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in what appeared to be a homophobic attack in the Wyoming town. In the aftermath, gay activists, supported by the media, presented small-town America as backward and unsafe.

Ben was fourteen at the time, six months shy of coming out, and, as he writes:

The crime left me with a fear of my fellow citizens—more or less anyone outside the tristate area. Venture into the heartland, it seemed, and you could very well end up meeting a bloody death at the hands of a couple of rednecks out to teach a fag a lesson.

After Ben’s piece was published, our inboxes filled up with thoughtful, passionate, and deeply personal responses to Ben’s investigation. Here are just a few of them:

Thank you for daring to challenge the politically orthodox version of the Matthew Shepard story.

I was a young pastor at the time, and I noticed how quickly Shepard’s death became an excuse to viciously attack any and all who, for religious reasons, were uncomfortable giving their full, unconditional support to the agenda of gay activists. 

For the record, I think the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is relevant only to those who are trying to follow the Bible. If someone doesn’t want to follow Jesus, it is silly to try to make them live according to his teachings. I have never denigrated another person for their sexuality.

But after Matthew Shepard’s death, even following the Bible within conservative Christian circles was criticized with great rancor. People like me, who hold to a rigorously thoughtful, scholarly interpretation of the relevant Biblical texts, were labeled hateful, ignorant bigots. The way I actually treated my gay friends and family members did not matter. The fact that I always supported civil unions was irrelevant, if my conscience kept me from performing a gay wedding.

I remember that traditional Christians, and traditional Christian organizations, were all but explicitly blamed for inciting Shepard’s murder. Many a pundit speculated that discussing traditional Christian ideas about sexuality should be labeled hate speech, and perhaps even prosecuted. For some people, the murder gave them a reason to simply hate conservative Christians—an excuse to stop listening, to stop trying to understand.

The “bigot” and “hater” labels have clung to conservative Christians ever since that horrible night in 1998. From my perspective, it was one of the watershed moments in the culture wars, a moment when reasonable dialogue became much more difficult.

Rev. Tom Hilpert, Lebanon, TN

I’m a conservative gay. I didn’t come out till 2016, when I was 45. Your piece was very eye-opening about what really went on in Laramie. 

If anything, what the narrative did was make it harder for someone to come out in conservative or rural areas. When I finally decided to come out while living in east Tennessee, I found people were far more accepting than I had dreamed they would be. My friends there were very kind. Many were older than me, and of the generation that was supposedly less accepting.

I did lose a few friends in my church circle who were more hardcore in their beliefs, but it was never nasty. It was basically ghosting, and I am able to accept that, and respect their right to believe what they want to believe. I don’t want to be around anyone who doesn’t want me around.

In my journey, what I’ve found is that being a conservative gay invites more hate from the gay community than being a gay Christian does from the church. When I am talking to other gays—whether in person or on a dating site—once they learn I’m politically conservative, the hate often spews out. I won’t repeat the worst of what has been said. It’s made the dating pool very small for me. 

Steven Black

I am grateful to Ben for stepping out of his bubble and talking face to face with real people. I pray that he is able to present the counternarrative to the rural rage nonsense to his big-city buddies.

City friends used to say (before cell phones) that they would be frightened to drive the rural roads where we live. I responded that I knew everyone out here by name, and that they would have to walk only about a mile before they got to the door of someone who would help.

Ben’s video reminds me of a student I worked with in Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, WA. He was a bright student and I wanted to encourage him to continue his studies after his release. I pointed out that there were two excellent state universities just down the road, and he said: “No way! I am not going to go where everyone is racist!”

I told him: these are my people you are talking about. If your vehicle were to break down by the side of the road between here and Pullman or Moscow, one of them would stop and help you. If they could not fix your car themselves, they would either drive you where you needed to go or invite you to stay at their home until someone could come get you. They would tow your vehicle for you if needed. All of this would be done as a matter of course without asking for anything in return, because that is what we do out here.

These are all things my friends and neighbors, and my husband and I, have done countless times. And if Ben ever passes through Washtucna, WA, I will buy him a beverage of his choice at Sonny’s Tavern, where he will be welcomed as family.

Trish Harder

In his debut Free Press column, “We’re All Soviets Now,” Niall Ferguson argued that the U.S. has declined to the point of resembling the USSR at the end of the Cold War. The discourse about this column has been lively ever since—so much that we promised we’d stop publishing the responses. But this one is really good, so we’re making an exception—it’s from Jordan Hirsch, who is a senior counselor at Palantir Technologies and a senior fellow at the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

Niall Ferguson misses the one element that separates us from Cold War Soviet analogies and present-day Chinese adversaries: our software dominance, and the culture that defines it.

Among the litany of ills that Ferguson identifies, he cites anemic U.S. economic growth over the past generation. The much-ballyhooed “productivity miracle from information technology, most recently AI,” Ferguson argues, yet eludes us. Annual growth in nonfarm business “has been stuck at just 1.5 percent since 2007,” only slightly better, Ferguson notes, than the “dismal years 1973–1980.”

Ferguson’s passing reference to the 1970s is telling. Then, much as now, the United States suffered from economic problems, bungled wars, political listlessness, and renewed superpower competition. But Ferguson fails to mention what happened next: America surged past the Soviet Union in economic and military strength, powered by a technology revolution that few saw coming.

During the 1980s, Microsoft pioneered personal computing. Venture capital networks matured, spurring hundreds of start-ups—from Apple to Oracle—that would become tech giants. Employment in software industries more than doubled. The late Hoover Institution economist Martin Anderson cited software as one of the 10 key factors in the “Reagan boom” that lasted through the late 1990s, calling it a “lubricant” for the “machinery of free enterprise.” Relying on new technologies in precision-guided munitions and electronic warfare, the United States developed new strategies that financially and tactically bankrupted the Soviet Union.

We’re pioneering another software revolution today—one that Ferguson overlooks. Seventy percent of the top technology companies are American, including eight of the top 10. The United States dominates innovation in artificial intelligence. Our AI supremacy is in turn spurring advances in biotechnology, robotics, and manufacturing. Ferguson rightly notes ongoing tepid growth, but given the ’80s software revolution fully flowered only in the ’90s, it may take several more years for AI to provide a measurable GDP boost as more companies determine how to operationalize it. From my own vantage at the software company Palantir, I can see the early movers using our AI platform to drive hundreds of millions in savings and revenue.

American culture is particularly conducive to software development. Building software is more art than science, and despite our many problems, we continue to cultivate thousands of flexible-minded, free-thinking artists and give them a canvas untainted by ideology or fear of failure on which to paint. Our companies are, by necessity, pragmatic; they try new things, study what worked and why, learn from and spread ideas to competitors, and adjust accordingly. It is that very capacity for rebirth, adaptation, and virality that gives us a buoyancy that our brittle Cold War 1.0 and 2.0 opponents cannot match.

Jordan Chandler Hirsch

On June 26, we published an essay by Eli Steele, “I Was Born Deaf. I Feel Lucky.” He began by telling the story of a podcast that ghosted him after finding out he’s deaf and needed to lip-read his interviewer. “A friend asked if I was angry,” he writes. “To my surprise, I said no.” The experience made him only more grateful for all the things—from his parents’ attitudes to his cochlear implant—that have allowed him to thrive.

Here, one reader responds:

Thank you for sharing Eli Steele’s beautiful story and empowering message. I’m 37 and have struggled with severe sensorineural hearing loss for the past twenty-some years. When I was a teenager, my father (Free Press contributor Sergiu Klainerman) urged me never to feel sorry for myself because of my disability. This is a lesson that seems to have fallen out of fashion in a society that fetishizes victimhood, but it is one that I lean on quite frequently.

Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed by the pain and frustration of my hearing loss, I like to play a little game with myself: Would you trade your happy marriage for perfect hearing? Would you trade your financial stability for perfect hearing? And so on. Invariably, my answer is no, and I remember that I am unbelievably lucky, hearing loss and all. 

One final note: Eli’s article is particularly timely for me. After years of putting it off, I’m finally biting the bullet and getting a cochlear implant. My surgery is scheduled for September 20—wish me luck! 

Lara Hochstein

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