Friday, October 17, 2008

Palin: Macaca Moment Sans Macaca

One of the things that conservatives have been trying to do is to promote rural or small town life as a symbol of traditional America along with the military, the flag, and the Pledge.

Everybody knows the rural mythology. The myth of rural people is that they are more oriented toward family and religion, closer to the land, and more traditional. People who live in rural areas therefore represent something more honest, less corrupt, and less manipulative than the cities and suburbs. Rural people are also less subject to popular culture than people in cities and represent something that stands apart from, and superior to, the American norm.

This is a relatively small part of what Sarah Palin is referring to when she talks about small towns and rural areas as "the pro-American" part of America, or the "real America."

But here's the rub.

The right isn't attracted to the "ideal" rural America at all. Otherwise, they wouldn't be such big supporters of corporate agriculture against family farms and mountaintop removal against local property owners. If they valued rural life, conservatives wouldn't be so eager to waste the lives of the guys who join the military either.

Conservatives are more attracted to the underside of the rural life--the suspicion of outsiders, the almost palpable sense of cultural inferiority to the urban world, and the traditions of male predominance in households, white elites running the towns and counties, and evangelical religion as an adjunct of the local elites.

They also work overtime to cultivate the resentments that many in small towns and rural areas have for the "liberals" who have undermined the legitimacy of the traditional hierarchies.

And it's largely worked.

I grew up in small town upstate New York and now live in small town Eastern Kentucky. But I've also lived among liberal urban elites in Philly (the academic history circles around the University of Pennsylvania) and college towns like Chapel Hill and Ann Arbor. Urban elites have their weaknesses. My liberal/left friends tend to measure people by the quality of their work and self-control in their manners. They also have a warped view of the United States as a nation because they don't get out of the urban belts very much. But my urban friends are also curious about Kentucky and other rural areas and generally eager to find out more. They like all things exotic and count rural America as having a kind of "friendly strangeness" that they're interested in.

That's not so much the case with rural folks. In upstate New York and Eastern Kentucky, the resentment of urban culture is often very intense. An unhealthy percentage of rural self-identification is bound up in "sticking it" to the liberal opinion they associate with the urban world. That's one of the reasons (although not the only reason) why Confederate flags, nooses, and casual racism and misogyny are so pervasive in rural areas.

It's also one of the reasons why people in rural areas are so emphatic about patriotic symbols like the flag, the Star-Spangled Banner, and the military.

That's why being "pro-American" in Sarah Palin's sense is often a way to express hostility to the "outsider Americans" that rural people view as judging them.

Actually, it's too bad that cultural bitterness has such a hold over rural white areas.

My town of Morehead, KY is a college town in the Appalachian foothills where there's a healthy mix of rural people, people who've moved here from urban areas, and academic types like myself. Given the general poverty of Eastern Kentucky, there's not much here that's very stable. But the lack of stability is also a constant prod to the ingenuity of people around here and Morehead is thus a very creative place.

It's also very friendly.

From the Morehead perspective, it's easy to see a fruitful amalgamation between American urban and American rural, easy to imagine us all as living in one country.

But then the Sarah Palin's of the world get busy stirring up the bitterness to further their own ambitions.

And then you find that the same battles need to be fought over again.

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