Being rural poor here is a whole lot harder than not having money. Healthy relations—the very basis of being a healthy human—are mostly nonexistent. Not relationships. Those are big complicated things; they are nouns. Relations are everyday events, momentary happenings between people. Relations are verbs. We do relations, and they are the stuff that hold human existence together. The everyday authoritarianism expressed in rural relational patterns are created by top-down systems and processes. Those severe power imbalances destroy healthy human relations by dissolving human connection in a bunch of ways.

Power scarcity produces extraordinary defensive measures if you happen to have just a little. Tiny centers of power are fierce, policing what little territory’s been gained. Eye contact that excludes; lack of acknowledgement at first approach; addressing only old people by their names; no response to friendly small talk; stealing time with imposed history lessons; feigning important distractions during the conversation; intentionally slowing things down; the “you’re new here, aren’t you?” question; whatever the opposite of curiosity is. Passive aggressive warfare’s casualty is acknowledged existence. Every day. For whole lives.

It’s not just talk that’s so damaging. It’s how people are forced to relate with one another, one-on-one, in a power-scarce culture. Passive aggressive maneuvers dominate; without power, passive aggression protects intention, doesn’t give anything away. Keeps the exercise of personal agency quiet and safe from those with the power to punish.

Overwhelming power intimidates into retreat and silence. Be small and quiet around power. Don’t appear too obvious. Don’t stand out. Stand out without power, get smashed. Do not take chances. Do not make yourself vulnerable. Avoid changing your mind at all costs. Do not appear weak, unsure. It is dangerous to do so. Supplicate to power, even as it offers only crumbs, grudgingly. Submit to power that demands obedience for support, dignity for care. This power-scarce orientation is second nature in this top-down rural culture—it is a pose, a posture, a way of being that’s like air. It’s everywhere, and it pushes to isolation.

Rural isolation is devastating. Connect a bunch of isolated people’s anger and fear—people whose pain and resentment keeps them company in their dark worlds–with a person who makes them a friend, who plays confidante and savior, and they will do anything for him. Anything. They will believe anything. They are not alone anymore. They have someone. They have seen the light, and now they exist in more than their own world. A friend with power who seems to listen to them, and now they affect the world, too. It’s like magic, and it changes their lives for the better. It lifts out of their ugly actualities, at least for a little while, into something that feels like belonging, like usefulness. Purpose.

The powers that be are pleased. And that is worth everything here.