Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The amazing true story of bitter small towns... John Brown explains rural America...

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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  1. I grew up in very much the same type of towns and environment that you did, except I did it in the 80's and 90's. That's the tail-end of the tail-end of the small midwestern town.

    I got to watch firsthand as Walmart shut down local businesses and grocery stores closed.

    We didn't have much of the prejudice against black people that you grew up with, just stereotypes. I never met a black person in person until I got to college. In high school, there was a rumor that the town up the road had black kid and that he ran track. We were all scared to run against him, becuase, you know, black people are fast.

    He turned out to be a dark hispanic guy. Nice kid.

    Obama's comments don't anger me. I moved out of the midwest long ago and I'm not as in touch with the area as I could be. But I know that when I talk to my folks and my friends that stayed, there is always a hint of frustration and anger in their tone. Whenever we talk about the good old days, it's with a twinge of sadness, because they know that those days aren't coming back and they don't know what to do about that.

    So, I'm glad that he made those comments. It shows me that he does understand what's really happening and that he cares enough to actually say it, instead of offering the empty "hardworking, salt-of-the-earth" rhetoric that Hillary and McCain would have us believe is the case.

    Of course, he would have done much better to not say it in San Fransisco, at a closed-door meeting. That's just stupid.

  2. Nate-

    Thanks for the comments. I think it's good for all the folks who don't have a past in rural America to hear a little bit about it from those of us who do.


    John Brown
    I'm Doing Laundry

  3. I'm 34, and grew up in small-town (2400) southeast Kansas as well. I agree with the gist of your post. It's the level of this phenomenon I quibble with. I moved away to "the city" after my KSU years, got a law degree, and have moved back to raise my kids. Guys like us just wanted to 'get the hell out of Dodge', so to speak, after high school, and did. Deer hunting in the fall and dirt track car races are still not my cup of tea, either, but I've noticed something having relived this rural life the last three years.

    A level of "bitterness" exists. The prevailing stereotype is real, I grant you, but it is, at best, 25-50% of the families. Every small town has the 10-20% socialite class: the professionals necessary for even small town existence. They are often either 5th or 6th generational to their town, and will always be there, passing the torch to their kids, or they are semi-transient--in the area only because they like the idea of raising kids in this environment, and picked a spot that needs a banker, lawyer, or doctor. These folks' kids leave after high school and never return.

    It has up to 25% or so sub-working class: the meth heads, recent immigrants, and families whose poverty is ingrained through four generations--who have never had the agricultural wealth base to fall back upon. It is this level which has advanced in the decade or so since I lived here last, and whose voice has trained your ear.

    The middle class of small town America seems fairly stable to me. They are the remaining farmers who still have enough land to profit, the teachers, the shopkeepers; they are the factory workers who make a nice living off of two-parent x $10/hr jobs. They populate the Methodist and Lutheran churches more than the Baptist or Assembly of God (although this is shifting, too, I feel). They are more moderate Republican, fiscal conservative, than they are social conservative. The upper end of this class may even be overtly Democrat.

    It's this last group that is not fairly portrayed by your broad paintbrush. Yeah, they hunt, they watch Nascar, they still identify with Hank Jr. and his 'country boy can survive' culture. Half of their kids grow up and stay, or return to the area to be close to grandma and grandpa. I agree that they do not fully understand the advance of immigration, and are not as widely exposed to other cultures as their more urban (even working class urban) contemporaries. But I can say with certainty that their hearts are, over a great majority, in the right place. Sheltered does not so easily transition to bigoted. Churched does not necessarily translate into social conservative fundamentalism. I think they are the silent majority. They do not force their values, or even express them directly much; they are not quick to combat the "n****r" comments by those minority of bigots in the community, but neither are they quick to adopt that viewpoint.

    I miss the time I spent in Wash DC and Johnson County: I miss having something to do on Saturday night; I miss having a selection of restaurants. But I feel the overall mood, ambience and quality of small town Kansas is still, by far, a net positive.

  4. anon-

    Hello from one Kansas to another. I understand your argument and I think, after reading it, that my post here may seem to have been painted with a broader-than-intended brush.

    There are plenty of good folk and decent human beings in small town America. I do, however, think that the towns hardest hit by change hold more "bitterness" than those that may have avoided as much collapse.

    Great to get your perspective and thanks for reading.


    John Brown
    Resisting the Urge to Make a KSU Joke

  5. Agreed. There is a great deal of variability in even the communities in my county. Those that were/are economically isolated are decimated to the point that all that is left are the bitter.

    Those who have fled communities like this tend to consolidate in the county seats, or towns with a still solid farming/industrial base. Those left behind stay for the lowest-of-the-low property values, the relative lawlessness, or because they just can't fathom life outside.

    I've traveled through the mountains of Pennsylvania, and they seem to be a lot closer to these isolated, culturally decimated smallest towns of Kansas.

  6. anon-

    interesting you should mention your pa experience. my travels across pa have been limited (2x), but i had a gut feeling that those towns share a great deal in common with ks.


    john brown
    watcher of ballgames

  7. The adage says "As goes California so goes the rest of the USA in 20 years.

    In 1973-74, in small-town California, in the agricultral intense Central Vally, where the family moved after departing the San Francisco bay area, I witnessed hot the Chicanos regularly beat/harass/harm the Anglos for not dropping out of school. For attempting to educate themselves.

    I witnessed the influx and outgo of illegals following jobs. The crime rate rose and fell with their numbers.

    I learned of certain neighborhoods to avoid, the ones where the illegals live year-round. Anglos, enter at your own risk due to the hatred held against you and your culture.

    I learned the hard way when eight Chicanos told me with their fists and feet of their feelings to wards me. Their words also hit hard; I was to stay out of THEIR part of town.

    Yeah... tell me about that small-town dislike of outsiders. It IS politically incorrect to mention there may damn good reasons to dislike the flood of MILLIONS of illegal aliens flooding in from the south.

  8. Since I grew up in the populated parts of Ohio and then did some more city environments and about 30 years ago left that stuff behind for small places I'll toss something in. I've lived in a NE OR town of 10K population in a 3500 sq mi county with a total population of 14K for 20 years - next month.

    This place is in a valley at 3500 feet at the foot of mountains going to 10K feet. We're armed to the teeth and there are a lot of churches (no, a lot). We don't kill each other or anybody else. The beatings happen once in awhile outside a bar or mostly at home. Unemployment runs about 7% pretty constantly and the median income sucks. The last timber mill closed about 5 years ago, there's a little small scale gold mining. There's just enough manufacturing and business to keep things limping along. The next town of 10K is 45 miles north or 90 miles south, E & W there's not much but space, trees, mountains.

    There are a couple black families, usually the intake is federal hires transfered in (would you choose to be a 0.01% minority?) The Hispanic population is larger, but Chinese is larger yet - a hold over from mines and ditch digging (irrigation). We pretty much know who is gay, not very many. There is some racism, nothing overt, particularly nothing impolite. Walmart is 45 miles away and it's not really polite to shop out, that's an occasion.

    You won't find much bitterness, oh outsiders shutting down timber and trying to make us their parkland pisses people off and nobody much has the illusion that we get a fair shake. The Fed owns half the county, pays no taxes and then tells us timber payments are welfare - as if they weren't here. They are and cost us.

    Dumbasses from crowded impolite frantic places tell us we can't be trusted with firearms because their culture teaches them to kill each other and tolerate their frantic violence. They blame a thing for their failures. People who use keyboards for a living sneer that jobs aren't taken by cheating bastards who hire illegally and wages aren't depressed by a flooded labor market they're no part of.

    Once the bottom starts falling out of the middle class they start to discover that wages are held up by the bottom not passed down from the top. Construction crews work for 50% of 1984 wages but that's no concern. If you save 5% on the price of a house the legality of the workers is dispensible.

    People who are suffering due to forces beyond their control hold tighter to the things they can control, things like religion. Arms are a bit different, still a thing they can control, but also a symbol of resistance or at least its potential. There certainly is an element of 'you may be rich or powerful, but I let you keep it, MFer.' The 'not us' is more exotic and not understood than an object of antipathy, right up until it becomes an economic threat. Once that threshold is crossed, all bets are off. Then the stinking part starts, the blame and anger isn't put on the cheating employer, the rat bastard victimizing poor people from somewhere else, it falls on the 'other.' The difficulty with calling BS on that is it takes the two to tango.

    Obama did himself and whole bunch of us 'out here' a real disservice by ruminating outloud in public. I may understand exactly what he meant and even agree, but what he said isn't something I'd have said and that's a bit discouraging. Nuances are hugely important.

    Just FYI, I'm a way left Democrat, JB knows.

  9. obbop

    I'm sorry.

    I don't really know what else to say, because I'm not in the business of making psychiatric referrals.

    Yours with sympathy,

    John Brown
    Sort of Creeped Out

  10. Chuck-

    I agree with you. Nuance is important when you're trying to win votes and Barry certainly failed to tiptoe around the tulips with anything approaching elegance.

    That was a disservice. The message itself, however, didn't bother me and it actually resonated with my experience.

    There's that whole honey vs. vinegar thing happening here and Barack went the wrong route.

    However, his stock actually bumped up a little bit with me because he broke pandering's fourth wall, if only for a moment.

    Yours truly,

    John Brown
    Zany Character

  11. That is one hell of a post, John.

    Seems like I'm finding something moving and provocative everytime I visit here.

    You should really Marsh yourself a little more.

    - dag