All of this talk about Barack Obama and his sense that rural Americans might be a bitter... Yet all of the people talking about it on TV have never spent more than few hours in a small town at any one time.
I know a lot of people are confused about small town America, so I thought I'd take a few minutes to give you a firsthand perspective on the rural folk of America. I live in the suburbs of Kansas City these days and I can't really claim to be a small towner at the moment but, in the immortal but grammatically awkward words of John Cougar, "No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from".
I grew up in small Kansas towns. I completed my undergraduate degree in a small midwestern town. I was 23 before I lived anywhere with a population greater than 15,000 people. I know small town. I am small town.
And I'd like to tell all of you city slickers who are wringing your hands over the apparent insult Barry O. lobbed at rural America that he took it easy on us. Flyover country has an ugly side. It's not all amber waves of grain and Average Joes lovin' freedom. Those good simple folk who are credited with being the backbone of the USA aren't any more wonderful than anyone else. People in small towns have strained and silly political views born of a relatively isolated history, fear, ignorance and, yes, bitterness.
I met a black person for the first time when I was 7 or 8 years old. I remember the day his family moved in on our block and he walked over to the little ball diamond across the street next to the park with his glove in hand, wanting to play in our neighborhood 4-on-4 baseball game. Always short on personnel, we let him play. It took about 10 minutes before he left running and crying. That's because it took about 9 minutes before one of the kids decided to take out their baseball frustrations by calling the kid a retarded nigger and trying to start a fight.
I was fortunate enough to have the world's most wonderful parents. I told them what happened that night and they made damn sure that kind of language wasn't going to be part of my vocabulary. They asked me if I liked the kid. I said I did. The next afternoon, I was marched down the block to the kid's house. My mom helped his mom unpack and we boys played catch in the backyard.
The family was gone before the school year started. The idea of a quiet life in smalltown America seemed like a good idea when they made the move. The ugliness, unfortunately, made the reality less than tolerable. They moved away.
About five years later, now living in a different small town in Kansas, I learned a little bit more about the fine upstanding people of rural America. There were a few black households there and they consisted primarily of older people. The only black man in town of working age was John. He loaded and unloaded supplies at the lumber yard. No one called him John. The whole fucking town knew that guy as Nigger John. Some meant it in a way that was just as ugly as it sounds. Some did it out of ignorance. Almost everyone did it, though.
African-Americans were niggers. Mexicans were wetbacks. Kids who didn't play sports were faggots. If anyone in these little bastions of American tradition knew a Jew, they would've called him a kike. People came home from trips to the city or vacations and talked about all of the lazy niggers, sneaky chinks and thieving beaners. Everyone hated the Japanese, who were hellbent on taking over the USA by selling us Walkmans and Toyotas. Working women were an unfortunate economic reality that flew in the face of everything right. That was small town Kansas in the 70s and 80s. The 1970s and 1980s, not the 1870s and 1880s.
A lot can change in 20 to 30 years, right? Not as much as you'd like to think. The few black students at the community college still can't really hope to be part of the town. The Latino families are scapegoated for every economic ill, even though they're the only thing propping up what's left of the town economy.
No, I cannot forget where it is that I come from. I took a hunter's safety class with the other kids. I learned to shoot and I even went hunting a few times. I never really took to it. Pheasant and dove aren't THAT tasty and standing around in cold autumn winds waiting to see something to kill didn't excite me. It excited others, though.
The parking lot at my little high school featured pick-up trucks with gun racks visible through the back windshield and shells in the glove box. Like many people, I accepted it as part of the midwest lifestyle. It was, to me, a weird hobby, but it wasn't anything objectionable. By my senior year, though, I noticed a strange affinity for guns that went well beyond a sportsman's affection. I was both amused and a little freaked out when discussions in government class and elsewhere revealed a genuine fear that "they" would take "our" guns away. I started to really understand just what those "you can have my gun when you rip it from my cold, dead hands" bumper stickers were about.
I didn't go to church regularly, but I went to catechism classes and I was confirmed. It was more about keeping my grandparents happy than it was about my faith or the faith of my parents. Many people did go to church, though. Some went several times a week. They prayed and they prayed and they learned about "them"--those evil outside forces who wanted to steal those guns away and who thought it was okay to let all of those "different" people do their own things.
Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town. That's what the song says. It's accurate. Religion was a lot about love and doing good things. There was, however, an almost equal measure of fire, brimstone, bigotry, arch-conservatism and intolerance. You gotta take the bad with the good in a small town.
Now, let me stick up for my former friends, classmates and their parents. They operated under something of a siege mentality. They feared otherness and bent over backwards to fend it off at every turn because they knew, on some almost primal level, that change was finally catching up with the hinterlands. The old, controlled predictable world that had escaped so much of the 60s tumult was living on borrowed time and, reflexively, they protected what they knew and grew up with. I don't blame them. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch and a recognition that something that was "part of them" wasn't going to stay that way was undoubtedly frightening.
These small towns weren't filled with Klansmen, right wing militias and far-right wing evangelicals with axes to grind. These were little places filled with relatively uneducated people who were accustomed to living relatively simple lives just like the ones their families had lived for generations. As much as anything, they probably just wanted to be left alone. Times change. Economies change. Technologies change. The world changes. And change is hard. Very hard.
So regular people did the regular thing. The stood their ground and they stuck up for the things they knew and the traditions they held. Those traditions were white, outmoded, and "conservative" in the worst form of the word.
If you told them that old ghost story about the "jigaboo house"--an abandoned shack outside of town on a hilltop, haunted by the ghost of a crazy old black guy who would hang you from a tree and dance a jig while you choked to death--was a bit on the racist side, you were out of line. If you didn't laugh at your 5th grade math teacher's joke about black kids jumping on a bed and sticking to the ceiling because of their velcro hair, you were out of place. If you didn't want to go shooting it was suspicious. If you didn't want to join the prayer club it was going to be hard to be popular.
Time has passed and things are changing in those small towns. Those who cling to their versions of faith, their love of firearms and sick perspectives based on skin color, however, do so even more tightly these days. It makes sense.
John Cougar (I don't think he reclaimed Mellencamp at that time), sung about the farm crisis and the loss of family land and tradition in the 80s because it was happening. And while grandma was on the front porch with a bible in her hand and the scarecrow was covered in blood, people were getting more and more worried. And more and more bitter.
My generation is probably the last one that can really remember all of the "bus kids" working on the farm during harvest and bustling business at the Plainsman Supply Store. I was there for the tail end of small town Americana. Our grocery store didn't stock that "weird" Chinese food and tacos were an exotic meal. We had two car dealerships--one for Chevrolets and one for Fords. Kids played outside all day without parental supervision and we walked to school.
I just finished sharing a lot about the ugly parts of rural America, but it had a fantastic upside. Unemployment was rare and usually temporary. People were generous. There was a sense of community. It was safe and being poor meant you didn't go out to eat at the "good restaurant" on weekends--not that you were filing for bankruptcy or losing your home. The sun was bright, the grass was green and we were happy. It was, in many respects, the midwestern fantasy city folk sometimes imagine. But it was dying and the fear, in retrospect, was palpable.
Imagine what's happened in the intervening 20+ years. Family farms really are a relic. Wal-Marts crush downtowns. There are few new businesses. The "good restaurant" shut down 5 years ago. Everyone shops 50 miles away. There aren't many people moving into town and the departure rate continues to increase. The paper isn't really a daily anymore and everyone is sitting around watching cable TV wondering how in the fuck they got so poor, small and inconsequential.
The small town is suffering, the people are pissed and you don't have to be a particularly empathetic person to understand why. You don't have to be a sociologist to sense the bitterness--especially among those who remember better days. You don't have to be Barack Obama to know that these small town people are pissed off. They had relatively modest goals and fell short. They had relatively simple dreams and won't realize them.
And we know what happens when you corner someone. He or she lashes back in defense of turf. When the only things left to defend are attitudes because the substance has already eroded, you see a bunch of ugly. "They" took the farms. "They" took the money. "They" took the kids who moved on to greener pastures. "They" took the jobs, the downtown, the civic pride and the Sunday dinner restaurant. All that's left is the attitude and culture which, unfortunately, involves shotguns, the holy ghost and an undercurrent of bigotry.
That ugly underside of flyover country also, unfortunately, holds the easiest things to exploit in tough times. You can rally support to try to legislate the reality of homosexuals away. You can rev people up with the spectre of a New World Order that wants to take away the gun your daddy gave you. You can exploit the godlessness of modern America, blaming it for all the evils, foreclosures and changes. Nigger John wasn't uppity like Obama. Those beaners are ruining this country. Everyone is out to get small town America. They know it's true because change, history and, yes, even governmental error has fucked them seven ways to Saturday.
Does this mean that every house in middle America contains a bitter whitey who wants to turn back the clock? Of course not.
There are plenty of people who are more concerned with improvement and progress than they are in self-pity or rage. There are many people working to make things better, who understand that being pissed off can only carry you so far.
Not all small towners are bitter. Every town with only a few thousand people has a wealth of positive, forward-thinking folks. It's foolish to say that everyone from rural America is a bigoted gun nut who fears "the other". It's equally foolish, however, to pretend that many don't.
I was born in a small town. I've seen it all and had a ball in a small town. And I know it well enough to tell you that calling it out as bitter isn't necessarily wrong, elitist, effete or condescending.
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