Quote of the day--when he's right, he's right edition

>> Thursday, June 30, 2011

Where does it come from, this silly and feigned idea that it's good to be able to claim a small-town background? It was once said that rural America moved to the cities as fast as it could, and then from urban to suburban as fast as it could after that. Every census for decades has confirmed this trend. Overall demographic impulses to one side, there is nothing about a bucolic upbringing that breeds the skills necessary to govern a complex society in an age of globalization and violent unease. We need candidates who know about laboratories, drones, trade cycles, and polychrome conurbations both here and overseas. Yet the media make us complicit in the myth—all politics is yokel?—that the fast-vanishing small-town life is the key to ancient virtues. Wasilla, Alaska, is only the most vivid recent demonstration of the severe limitations of this worldview. But still it goes on.

-Christopher Hitchens,
"Has Bachmann Met Her Waterloo?"
Slate, June 29th, 2011

I don't always agree with Hitch, but dammit: when he's right, he's right, and I happen to think he's right about this; I share his irritation with the idea that clinging to a small-town parochialism is somehow supposed to make one superior to a cosmopolitan.

Look, okay, small towns have their charms and even, sometimes, their virtues. The country, which often gets conflated with small towns, also has its charms and virtues. There are, inevitably, repellent and awful things about metropolises. But at the risk of committing the naturalistic fallacy, I think there are reasons that the general drift of humanity in civilization after civilization for millennium after millennium is towards the urban: it is because those teeming masses of humanity, whether in ancient Babylon or modern Tokyo, are gathering where there are the most opportunities to live and work and be on the cutting edge of whatever your current era has to offer. Cities are cultural centers, technological centers, social centers, and no matter what advantages rural life may offer, the trade-off is necessarily to step away from culture, technology and society; it is the definition of and inherent to "rural" that you are talking about decentralization of population and therefore the social connections that create culture and necessitate technology become fewer and more remote. On top of this, one must note that it is far easier for a small town or remote community to exist as an insular cultural monoculture than it is for a community to persist that way when it is constantly butting up against other cultures in a massively populated density; that is, diversity is a natural emergent from cities, perhaps an inevitable one unless there is some forcible intervention to create an artificial cultural monoculture.

I should also point out that I use "monoculture" quite deliberately for its negative associations: it is a quality of natural (and other) monocultures that they are unhealthy, that their lack of biodiversity makes them vulnerable to being wiped out. A cultural monoculture risks becoming ignorant and isolated and therefore unable to adapt to change, unable to evolve, whereas a diverse culture has some inherent capacity to embrace the new, to adjust to changes, to borrow those aspects of its subcultures that extend and advance happiness and prosperity. We might be saddened to witness the demise of a culture, yes, but the truth is that a culture that cannot evolve has no future and deserves less sympathy than we're usually inclined to give it. Better, if at all possible, that its best traditions are assimilated into a polymorphous mass culture and its worst ones relegated to that proverbial dustbin of history.

But anyway: we fetishize country living and heap abuse and contempt on the majority of Americans who don't live that way. Go figure. I suppose one might suggest Hitchens goes a tad far with any implication that rural Americans don't know about laboratories and trade cycles and urban Americans have some kind of automatic understanding of such things; then again, fuck that--if he's going overboard in his rhetoric, it's mainly a corrective to the smug perception of some kind of moral superiority in being a hick that is foisted off as conventional wisdom. You don't hear American politicians and pundits claiming so-and-so is someone from a small town who groks globalization and the diplomatic and legal tangles pertaining to the use of unmanned drones against individual belligerents in non-War Powers contexts, say; no, you hear these jackasses braying about how so-and-so has "small town Main Street American community values", i.e. by implication that so-and-so shares the bigotries and prejudices of the least-informed, most-cloistered yutz in some part of the country where the population density is behind the decimal point. If Hitchens hurt anyone's feelings, fuck 'em, I'm tired of their holier-than-thou country mouse bullshit, myself.


Phiala Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 6:41:00 AM EDT  

Hey, I like my small town. Just because it happens to be home to a major research university, with labs and technology, and arts doesn't make it any less small-towny.

Oh wait...

But you're right. In general, that small-town America thing is playing into the same fear of change and nostalgia that so much of the conservative right is targeting.

I see that peaceful small-town life has not prevented me from mixing my metaphors. Oh well.

Eric Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 8:11:00 AM EDT  

Phiala, you definitely hit one of the other problems with "small town" national politics: the "small town" of the symbol doesn't encompass actual small towns that are college towns. The college town has cultural biodiversity created by constant immigration and emigration of students amd faculty from around the region, country or world; and the purpose of the institution at the center of a college town is to preserve and spread culture, obviously. From this, it isn't hard to infer that "small town" as it's commonly used in America is really just a euphemism for "hick".

Megan Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 9:10:00 AM EDT  

I love small towns. I'm heading to one in a week for a month-long holiday. It will be perfect: an escape from my real life. But that's because I have a great job in what for my region is a city.

Phiala Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 9:16:00 AM EDT  

Eric, I don't think it's a euphemism for "hick" so much as shorthand for an America that doesn't exist and never has, that nostalgic "real America" that makes you a "real American."

You know, white, Christian, conservative, gun-owning, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-intellectual, etc.*

* Please note that I am a couple of those things myself. Most of them are bad, and collecting the full set makes for very scary people, but some, as individual traits, are not intrinsically horrid.

Eric Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 9:26:00 AM EDT  

Megan, I'm headed to a small town for a vacation soon, myself. O'course it's one of those darned college towns that escapes the penumbra of nostalgia....

Janiece Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 10:08:00 AM EDT  

I am not objective on this topic, and realize that is so - I hate small towns. Hate them, and would not live in one for any amount of money. While I recognize that "country" doesn't necessarily mean "stupid," it does mean a whole host of other things that leaves a bad taste in my mouth and psyche (as Phiala noted).

Which is why I'm so completely baffled by the inclination to think such narrow-minded, tribal cultures are something to seek out and emulate, especially in a global leader. WTF?

Nathan Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 11:47:00 AM EDT  

For an interesting corollary, try the "I understand you because I lived on a farm" fallacy.

I love the last four paragraphs of this article about Michele Bachmann.


Phiala Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 12:02:00 PM EDT  

I agree, Nathan, especially the "What the fuck is she talking about?"

I work in agriculture and have a passing acquaintance with US ag policy (only passing, though; not my area), and have exactly the same question.

I'm okay with people in that position admitting ignorance. You can't know everything; that's why you hire competent staff. But making shit up? Nope.

Mrs. B. Thursday, June 30, 2011 at 12:19:00 PM EDT  

I love me some of them there small town places. Also, too, I live in one. Population right around 8,500.

Your points are all well-taken and I do agree with the message. But, where you folks seem to thrive in a metropolitan setting, with an occasional escape to Mayberry, I'm just the opposite: I love the slower pace and the easy access to wide open, wild, green spaces, and only occasionally feel the urge to go somewhere more sophisticated.

One thing not addressed in the whole rural/metropolitan argument is that with the advent of the Internet and social networking, where you live is all kind of moot at this point. We all have the same access to the same information and ideas and people.

But yeah, trying to continue to sell the idea that a rube from the sticks has superior horse sense or American values is really kind of '50s bullshit. But then, that's really kind of what the conservative movement is all about.

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