Check out my first two parts of my “Strange Places I’ve Called Home” series: Milwaukee, and South Florida.
At first blush, Knoxville seems like an odd fit for a boy like me. It is conservative and religious, and I am neither of those things. If anything, that is an understatement; I am vehemently and vociferously liberal and atheist. Still, East Tennessee has a talent for worming its way into your heart, and while I was not born there, “Rocky Top” will always be home, sweet home to me.
The first thing an outsider will notice about the region is its breath-taking beauty. The city and suburbs fill the valleys between the green, rolling foothills, and the Smoky Mountains stand tall against the backdrop, particularly on clear days. I hosted quite a few couchsurfers in Knoxville, and all of them said the same thing at the first sight of the mountains. “Oh, those?” the average Knoxvillian might reply, “Yeah, they’re beautiful.” Perhaps it is human nature to begin to take such beauty for granted, and once those hills became the usual vista, I began to as well.
Sometimes I found myself needing to snap out of my daily routine, just to look around and appreciate the beauty. And while it was difficult to fully appreciate the mountains then, it isn’t now. My heart fills with pride and longing when I see the Appalachians, even from a picture half-way around the world. I’ve traversed other great mountain chains around the world: the Himalayas, the Andes, and the Alps, but those Smokies are still the best in my book, simply because they are my mountains. Also, I can’t help but feel a deep link to the history of life on this planet with the knowledge that the Smokies are older than any of those other mountain chains, and by a great deal. The land was deformed by the ancient collision with Africa and Europe, creating Pangaea around 300 million years ago. The Appalachians stood tall over the landscape before the dinosaurs ever roamed the Earth.
The rugged terrain has led to a spirit of independence and rebellion. What most outsiders might see as a dangerously curvy, narrow country road, the average East Tennessean sees as “a road,” and one to be driven as fast as possible. When Christine suggested I buy a bike to get around during my last extended stay at my mom’s house, I had to explain to her that such an endeavor would certainly end in my own unfortunate demise. At best I would be run off the road, though the far more likely outcome would end with bits of me becoming a permanent fixture in the grill of a pickup truck, as they rounded a blind curve at 50-plus miles per hour. This ain’t Denmark, baby, and we don’t have Copenhagen lanes.
Considering speed limit signs as suggestions to be ignored (or more accurately, not to be considered at all) only scratches the surface of the rebellious nature of the region. They don’t like anyone telling them what to do, including their own state. When the rest of Tennessee seceded from the Union, East Tennessee remained loyal to the North. Some might argue it was ideological, but after years in Knoxville, I’m convinced it was just to be contrarian.
In the spirit of rebellious independence, comes a color so bold that it is almost never tried in the world of sports. Of course, I’m talking about Tennessee Orange, the color of the University of Tennessee. Sure, other teams might wear orange, but not like the Vol Nation. For some teams, orange is a color that must only be used to enhance other colors, as if it were a mere condiment of colors. They combine it with black, blue, green, or even purple; it is used as a secondary color, or a primary color only to be able to sell more merchandise. For other teams, they dilute their orange, making it more of a brown, or a red. Only Tennesseans (and the Dutch) are brave enough to wear their color, bright and proud, without need of other, lesser colors.
Tennessee Orange is loud, abrasive, and doesn’t care what you think. The Tennessee faithful have heard all the jokes about their beloved color, but at the end of the day, when they shout “Go Big Orange!” everyone knows exactly which orange they are talking about. Seeing Tennessee Orange on the backs of 100,000-plus fans on football game days is truly a sight to behold. Tennessee football, even in its current dark era, binds the Knoxville community like few other sports teams can manage. When Neyland Stadium is sold out, it holds over half the population of Knoxville.
Natural beauty, rebellious spirit, and a great sports tradition are all things that I love about Knoxville. And generally, I love the polite, warmhearted, caring people as well. But I would be remiss if I didn’t delve into the more perplexing religious and social attitudes of the region. I moved to Knoxville at a time when I first started questioning politics and religion, and while I may have come to my current leftist/atheist views on my own, East Tennessee went a long way in pushing me hastily in those directions.
Knoxville is in Tennessee, and Tennessee is in the South. The South is a strange place in general, and I could write several posts on it alone. The strangest aspects come in two related paradoxes: politeness (i.e. “Southern Hospitality”) vs violent crime, and religion vs. morality.
The South, and Tennessee in particular is know for its friendly and polite residents. I know this to be true. Manners are extremely important, and everyone is addressed as a long lost close friend. If you ask for directions, it is best to pull up a chair and take out a notepad, because you’ll get the longest, most thorough directions you’ve ever received. The best way to strike up a conversation with a local is by being within shouting radius of them. Privately, they may say they don’t like outsiders, but in reality they are quite enthralled by a “funny” accent.
Curiously, these same polite people (OK, maybe not the exact same ones) commit murder, robbery, rape, assault, etc at an extraordinary rate, even for America. Tennessee might be an unusually polite and friendly state, but its also the most violent. In reading that we had gained the dubious distinction as the nation’s most violent state, I was in a fair bit of shock, but the numbers do not lie.
There must be some sort of coping mechanism to deal with the excessive crime rate, because although I never felt unsafe in Knoxville, there were quite a few examples of horrible incidents happening in my general vicinity. Off the top of my head, I can think of several murders, and a couple of shootings. The murders involved several people connected with my former high school, but I was neither present to witness the tragedies nor connected in any way to the victims. The shootings, however, I witnessed first-hand. They happened in my apartment building near the University of Tennessee. The first one occurred on our floor, when a guy was thrown out of a party, came back with a gun and began firing indiscriminately into the crowded balcony from the parking lot below. I was on that balcony a mere fifteen minutes before the shooter returned, and I had a clear view of the shooter from across the street. Thankfully “only” two people were injured, neither fatally. The second happened in the apartment just below ours, which apparently involved a drug deal gone wrong. We heard the shots, and when we peaked out of our apartment, we saw a man brandishing a large pistol running down the stairs. As far as I know, no arrests were made in either case.
The pervasive violence would seem even more curious when paired with the overall religiosity of the region. Knoxville was where I first became critical of religion, in general, and religious hypocrisy in particular. And it was where I first realized the complete disconnect between religion and morality.
I moved to Knoxville as a freshly bar mitzvahed Jewish “man” of 13. From my previous experiences, someone’s religion wasn’t that big of a deal. I made the mistake of letting my Jewish heritage become public record early. I remember it clearly, some girls invited me, the new kid, to sit with them during lunch. They then asked if I wanted to lead a pre-meal prayer. I thought this was weird, I couldn’t recall praying for any meal my whole life, and certainly not over lukewarm pizza and tater tots. After a few uncomfortable moments, I reluctantly said, “Um, well, the thing is I’m Jewish.” Gaping jaws and a flurry of questions followed, most of which I was completely unqualified to answer. By the end of the week, the whole school knew, and shortly thereafter the verbal and physical bullying began in earnest. The fact that I was also a smart ass, pre-pubescent Yankee with an inability to keep his mouth shut didn’t help matters.
I can already hear my religious friends standing to defend their faith, “Those people are not true Christians,” they might say, to which I would reply, “Then what’s the point?” If you can call yourself a Christian, go to church regularly, believe in God, and still be a horrible person, then there absolutely no correlation between morality and religion. Sadly, many Christians in Knoxville proved Stephen Weinberg’s quote correct, “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.” The worst example in recent memory was the tragic shooting of the Unitarian Univeralist Church in Knoxville. I guess the physical and verbal abuse because of religious differences wasn’t so bad in retrospect.
Bullying and occasional shootings aside, the “Bible Belt” is curiously known for its high rates of divorce, teen pregnancy, and obesity, all of which seems odd for allegedly pious, caring Christians. Many like to think that there’s a correlation between Christianity and morality, and after seeing the way the this region stacks up to the rest of the country, there does seem to be a correlation, just not in the direction it is generally assumed.
This all doesn’t necessarily make Knoxville strange, as this trend is fairly widespread throughout the South, if not the world. I probably would have come to these conclusions without the help of the locals, but these clearly visible extremes created a clear contrast in which to better formulate ideas on religion and morality. This is not intended to be a blanket statement on all religions or religious folks; I’m thankful for the friendship of many good, honest Christians, many of whom I met in Knoxville. However, I can’t overlook the hypocrites who paid lip-service to God, while also causing great misery for others.
This post might seem like I am being overly critical of Knoxville, but that is not my intention. Knoxville shaped who I am today, even if I was always a fish out of water there. The area, with religious and political philosophies so different to my own, forced me to view my own opinions with a critical eye. To live as a bright blue dot in a sea of red allowed me to refine my views, like a blade that was constantly being sharpened. Deep down, I liked having my ideas challenged. Far too often, liberals and conservatives alike get caught up in echo chambers, rarely allowing their ideas to be challenged or new arguments to be considered.
However, I learned that this “Red-Blue” dichotomy that the media loves to play up is a false one. In the deepest of Red States, you’ll find liberals fighting the good fight, and in Blue States, you’ll find conservatives doing the same. Also, it’s not nearly as important as we are led to believe. Regardless of political or religious affiliations, we have to live as neighbors, and the vast majority of times, these philosophical differences do not matter.
My love of Knoxville is a complicated love, as it should be. It was my home for longer than any other city, and I lived there through arguably the most important time of my life developmentally, so I know it more intimately than any other place I’ve called home. It’s the difference between loving your family as kids, and loving them as adults: when you’re a child, you love your family without question, and as an adult, you love them despite (or even because of) their faults.
When I return to Knoxville, I inevitably find that I’ve changed much more than my home ever will. It is equal parts comforting and depressing. I miss it terribly when I’m away, and I love being back. But when I find myself back in Knoxville, I’m immediately itching for another escape. Still, despite being able to answer half-a-dozen different ways, when someone asks when I’m from, I proudly tell them, “Knoxville, Tennessee.”
The “Strange Places I’ve Called Home” series continues with my post on Nagasaki, Japan.