The Illusion of Division: Monica Harris talks with Ben Klutsey about her decision to move from California to Montana, ‘the System,’ the misleading nature of labels and more (BEN KLUTSEY, DEC 8, 2023, Public Discourse)

I quit my job; we uprooted ourselves. We were living in Santa Barbara at the time, and we moved to this tiny, tiny town in northwestern Montana that, at the time (pre-pandemic, of course), 3,500 people. We bought this cute little—little by Montana’s terms—20 acres at the foot of the Rockies, and I basically retreated from the world into the woods, literally. I didn’t practice law; bought some chickens and goats, built a greenhouse, and we settled into a life where we just did less and wanted less.

I have to say I’m amazed by what happened when I fell into this life of simplicity. My head cleared. I started to focus, and that was probably the beginnings of me seeing my world in an entirely different way.

I think I mentioned this in the book: There was this aha moment I had. It was the year after we moved there, in the summer of 2011. I was watching CNN. The U.S. had just lost its AAA credit rating. Back then it was like we were falling from the gold standard, and all the financial experts were buzzing about, “Oh my God, is there going to be a collapse? What does this mean for the markets? How bad is it for the country?” I had no idea how it was going to play out; I’m just a lawyer. But I’m like, “This doesn’t look good.”

I went outside to do my chores, and I saw this young white guy who was a carpenter we hired to fix our chicken coop after a bear had mauled it. I ask him, “Man, I just was watching CNN. Have you heard about what’s going on?” He’s looking at me, and he says, “Nope.” I was blown away. I’m like, “You haven’t heard about the AAA rating?” And he’s, “No.” “How can you not be concerned about what’s happening in the world and how it might affect you?” He said, “I got no control over it. Do you?”

I’m thinking, “OK, you’re probably right.” At the end of the day, however the credit drama is resolved, people like us didn’t have any power to fix it. That was the thing. No matter what we do, how hard we work, who we vote for, it seems our lives just keep going in the same direction. I’m an educated gay Black woman, and he’s a working-class white guy who never went to college, but our lives were basically heading in the same direction. We were working harder to maintain our lifestyle in a world that was growing increasingly precarious.

I said, “I get what you’re saying. I guess I moved here to lose myself in the woods because I wanted to leave the real world behind, just like you.” Then he looked at me and said something I’ll never forget. He’s like, “You call what’s going on out there the real world? Nothing’s real about any of that.” It was funny because, in a single sentence, he encapsulated what had driven me to quit my job, drop out and just disappear into the woods. That’s because the world has stopped making sense because it no longer felt real. […]

HARRIS: It’s been enlightening to meet so many people. Most of the people, I’ll say the vast majority of people that we’ve met, are so accepting and welcoming. Now, they’re also very churchgoing—there’s a church on every corner of Montana. Weirdly enough, we didn’t even realize a lot of our friends sometimes would be going to church four and five times a week until we’d invite them someplace and they’re like, “Oh my God, sorry—I’d love to come. I’m going to be in church.” I’m like, “Oh, wow. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude on that.”

They weren’t hitting us on the head with their religion. It was very clear we were in an interracial gay relationship, my partner and I, and it wasn’t like they didn’t want to have anything to do with us so they wouldn’t invite us over their house, or they wouldn’t babysit our kid if we had an engagement. They were willing to be part of our lives. They wanted to be part of our lives. They would help us if we had emergencies or we had windstorms on our property. And they voted Republican. Most of these people voted Republican, and a lot of them were hardcore Trump supporters.

It became so obvious to me that these political labels really just didn’t apply. The folks that I was taught to fear or that I had taught myself to fear—they really were a lot like me, but I wouldn’t have known it unless and until I exposed myself, until I made them my neighbors, which was a risk.