As the primary election season drags on interminably, I have officially reached my breaking point for the media trope about Salt-of-the-Earthiness and the reverence with which journalists and Pundits await the pronouncements of Real America; you know, the one represented by the (unironically) mesh-hatted, F-150 driving, no-fancy-haircut-gettin', barely-literate, Evangelical Protestant EveryMan from Pigsknuckle, Pennsylvania. One of the remaining candidates bases her viability entirely on her appeal among these Authentic Americans who are far more important than the sneering intellectuals, effeminate urbanites, and unwashed coloreds on the prowl for government handouts. Real Americans live in rural areas, the cultural mythology of which recalls the Norman Rockwell America that, of course, never existed but sure was perfect in the Good Ol' Days.

Well, fortunately I live in southern Indiana. So I count, according to the media, although my lack of truck, chewing tobacco, favorite NASCAR driver, and screaming risk factors for adult-onset diabetes may reduce the value of my opinion. Nonetheless.

If you are like me and you have spent some decent amount of time living in an area that qualifies as Real America in the standard Pundit Narrative, something feels odd about this premise. I find inescapable the feeling that if Bedford, Indiana or Rantoul, Illinois or Somerset, Pennsylvania somehow "are" America, then America is well and truly Fucked. Chris Matthews may look at the backward, uninformed, anti-fancy-book-learnin' Guy in Flannel Shirt and see the soul of the nation, but if that person is America then America belongs in the darkened corridors of a Dickensian state-run mental institution, picking corn out of his own shit and throwing it at the doctors who make the mistake of trying to go near him.

Neither Pundits nor candidates question this assumption that if Bedford, Indiana is America we should be OK with that. Hillary Clinton and David Brooks look at Bedford and see our romanticized, neglected national virtues. I see crushing poverty, virulent and endemic racism (a KKK Grand Wizard calls it home), oppressive ignorance, fast food diets, Third World teen pregnancy rates, bile-spewing conservatism from people on food stamps, unplanned development that sprawls idiotically across the land, xenophobia, and knee-jerk demonization of the pretentious liberal elites who think they are too good to live like Bedfordians (i.e., in their own filth). I see people fighting to ban science from their already pitiful schools and replace it with a religion to which they slavishly adhere but minimally understand. I see people voting Republican to stick it to the queers and the liberal media and the snotty college professors and the goddamn feminazis while their right-wing heroes institute economic policies that decimate Bedford and its residents. I see everything bleak and hopeless about America, everything that suggests people have given up and, unable to understand why their lives are so miserable, wait for Rush and Glenn and BillO to tell them who to blame (hint: anyone different).

The media dutifully muse over accusastions of Obama's Elitism or Nancy Pelosi's "San Francisco Values" or out-of-touch East Coast wannabe-European leftists who can't understand Real Americans. It never occurs to them, at least not on camera, how most Americans (not to mention the reporters and pundits themselves, making six figures and living in the most elite communities in New York and D.C.) would choose if given the chance to live in Bedford or San Francisco. Janesville, Wisconsin or New York.
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Odessa, Texas or Boston. The Americans who would pick Bedford are not representative of anything other than their own ignorance and inflated conception of Virtuous Rural America. It shows the extent to which they have invested their lives in an ideology that regularly fucks them but excels at re-directing their anger.
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Bedford isn't America; Bedford is a garbage heap we should look at only as a reminder of what happens when people politically mobilize to screw their own tangible interests in pursuit of "social issues" and moral outrages that will always be dangled and never addressed.

26 thoughts on “SOUL SEARCHING”

  • So I recently went down to my previous place of residence (good ol' Venice, FL – yes the same place where the 9.11 terrorists trained) to visit some people for 3 days. As I was down there I went to a party with a friend. A guy came up to me in his typical southern regalia (southern pride t-shirt, confederate flag hat w. clip on bill, boots, etc) and wanted to talk politics since he heard I majored in political science. Please note that this whole time he was drinking beer and had dip in his mouth, which made it even harder to understand him. He went on and on about how the "commie liberals" are screwing up the world. His arguments (if that is what you could call them) were absurd (e.g. Obama wants blacks to suppress the white man, liberals want to take his guns away so he can't protect himself, etc). At that moment I thought of the way you felt, Ed, in your post about a year or so ago (see May 4, 2007 post –

    Sadly, I was surrounded by about 30-40 people who felt the exact same way as this stellar gentleman. Based on this, among other events in Venice, FL, I decided to never return. I learned that I cannot escape ignorance as much as I may want to. Likewise, I found that I must avoid making any political comments or express any opinions in a rural area such as Venice. Had I continued to argue with this guy I surely would have died. So I repeat it here since, at that moment, I thought these exact words:

    I need a drink and a shower. My soul hurts.

  • I love the "I need guns to protect me from the government" argument. Guns worked very well for David Koresh. And Randy Weaver.

    I mean, let's buy the paranoid Government Is Coming to Get Me mindset for a moment. Hypothetically. If "The Man" is intent on taking down someone they know to be an armed-to-the-teeth nutcase, "The Man" is going to surround his house with 100 guys and drive an armored vehicle through the front door. It's ludicrous, even if we accept the paranoid argument, to claim that guns are going to "protect" anyone from state power.

    Then again, it's a little silly to be applying logic to an argument provided by someone wearing a Confederate belt buckle.

  • I am from a small, podunk Indiana town. I couldn't wait to get out, and one of my proudest achievements is getting the hell out and not looking back. There are two terms that sum up areas like this: shithole and ass-backwards. You really do not want to be in rural America for any reason, and pundits that glorify it do not actually know what it is really like. Believe me, Hillary does not fit the mold of rural America. About the only common denominator she has with rural America is she is white.

    I really, really hope most of America is not like this. This is not a good thing for America. I agree with Mike Q: it really is hard to escape ignorance. Even here in Bloomington, I hear about 50 rednecks in trucks daily peal out at the many stop signs around my apartment near campus.

  • To an extent, I think the "guns vs. government" argument is valid, insofar as were things to get really fucked up (i.e. martial law, full-on police state, suspension of elections, etc, etc.), 80 million gun-owning Americans would make a difference, even if only 2 or 3 percent actually did anything. This, after all, is the whole point of the Second Amendment. Given the trouble American forces are having in places like Iraq, and then add to that the difficulty in getting Americans to fire on their own countrymen, in the event of all-out tyranny or civil war private ownership of firearms would actually be a significant factor in the outcome of whatever happened. This, of course, is entirely hypothetical and a wee bit paranoid, but also not out of the realm of possibility. In terms of one survivalist nutjob in a compound somewhere, you're correct that the government will always have overwhelming force, but on a larger scale I think it's foolish to dismiss the potential for armed civilians to make a difference in a domestic conflict.

    The downside of holding this opinion, obviously, is that I end up being accidentally aligned with crazy racists who worship Randy Weaver.

  • Is it really that strange a thing to think? I don't trust the government enough to want it telling me what/where I should smoke, who I should sleep with, or what medical procedures a woman should be allowed to get. Why, then, should I trust the government to be the sole possessors of force? Even if my owning guns doesn't make a difference in the end result of whatever happens to this country, I'd like to have an option besides getting shot down at a peaceful demonstration if it comes to that. I never understood why people who are cynical about the government, in favor of civil liberties, and filled with a seething disdain for George W. Bush want agents of the state to be the only people in the country who are armed.

  • I agree with some of the sentiments expressed in the post, specifically your fatigue at the media's near-fetishization of rural America and the pitiful spectacle of Ivy League-educated candidates trying to one-up each other in the pandering game. But I am also somewhat disheartened by the rampant cynicism expressed both in the post and in comments from people such as Chris, who informs us that "You really do not want to be in rural America for any reason." Well, I can relate to some extent, as I too grew up in such an area and have since moved on to the big city (if one could refer to Bloomington, IN in such a way), mainly because blue collar jobs are about the only option in my hometown. Similarly, I too have encountered racist, jingoistic, xenophobic, and downright ingorant comments. Nonetheless, some of the ad hominen attacks I've read here indicate people unwilling to look past preconceived stereotypes of "rural folk." It has been pointed out that rural America is confronted by a host of socioeconomic problems, and I am perplexed that liberals, who typically pride themselves on their ability to empathize with and use the power of government to fix such problems, often feel compelled to laugh at and mock communities facing such problems, as long as they are populated by people who drive pickups and listen to country music. I don't mean to gloss over the racism and ignorance that has been alluded to, but hey, I don't need my social science education to know that such things are positively correlated with poverty, economic scarcity, and isolation. Basically, I think that portrayals of "the heartland" can cut both ways. I certainly don't commend the slavish devotion to small town ideals exhibited by the media, and their unwillingness to confront the white elephant of racism in much of the anti-Obama vote. At the other end of the spectrum, the almost equally vitriolic condemnation of rural people and their entire lifestyle (not to mention the insinuation that they are brainwashed) I see here is one that barely jibes with my own personal experience.

  • For all those who think that you have "escaped" your "backwards, podunk" towns because you decided to go to school in the "big city" of Bloomington… oh, please. How about you get out of the midwest for a while, or at LEAST leave your state for a year or two.

  • "For all those who think that you have “escaped” your “backwards, podunk” towns because you decided to go to school in the “big city” of Bloomington… oh, please. How about you get out of the midwest for a while, or at LEAST leave your state for a year or two."

    Umm…maybe because not all of us want to?

  • What I meant by you don't want to be in rural America is the cons way outweigh the pros. I realize that not all people who live in rural areas are ignorant, racist, etc, the hillbilly stereotype. But, I'd hate to say it, but most are. I mean, I lived in an area that was 99.9% white. A lot of people pride themselves on being rednecks, most aren't rocket scientists, and racism and xenophobia are apparent. Rural areas are pathetic situations, and I have a lot of sympathy for the people from where I used to live.

    Plus, there are absolutely no jobs in the area I am from, which is around Muncie, IN. It is a factory graveyard. Think Flint on a smaller scale. This area, like many other rural areas, used to be big manufacturing areas, but are not anymore and there is nothing left. Basically, you can get bureaucratic type jobs, be a teacher, or work at Wal-Mart. After you combine the economic hopelessness, low standard of living, and ignorant people, there isn't much motivation to live in rural areas. Trust me: I lived in such a place for 18 years and I encountered much more bad than good. If you are ambitious in anyway, rural areas do not pertain to you. About the only saving grace is the nature is kind of pretty, and you can find better nature examples in many other places.

    How this relates to politics is, I find it really hypocritical that pundits and Hillary Clinton glorify and hail rural America as the real America when they wouldn't touch these places with a 10 and half foot pole and have no idea what rural America actually is. It also bothers me to see poor, ignorant country folk state they are conservative. No, if you are on food stamps and unemployed, you aren't a high roller and fit the conservative ideology.

    And, I do plan on getting the hell out of Indiana. I graduated and plan on furthering my education out of state. And, believe it or not, I have traveled outside of Indiana before. Thanks for the dose of big city pretension.

  • Brandon, *I* believe in the power of government to fix the problems, but the people who live there and suffer from said problems reject that. I express hostility toward them because they are happily putting themselves in their own predicament. They certainly have the option to vote for the candidates who will use government and the political process to address rural America's problems. Instead they have chosen to vote for the one who is against abortion for rape victims because Every Life Has Value. They have decided that, in Reagan's words, "government is the problem, not the solution." Good for them. They can live in their own mess, and I can use them as an example of what happens when people convince themselves that Neocon economic policies are anything but a tool for redistributing wealth to those who already have it.

    Ad hominem arguments? Guilty. I'm expressing my opinion and sometimes I'm a cock.

    Nick, when did anyone say you can't have your guns? People can own however many they want; I simply stated that it's ridiculous to think that your guns are going to protect you against The Man. No one's suggesting that your rights should be curtailed, at least not here.

  • Ed, I understand your argument about rural people being responsible for their own predicament because they vote for the party that cuts back public services; I'll get back to that.

    But in regards to my overall point, I don't want to come across as PC or averse to open mockery and scorn (I think you know me better than that).
    But I think that arguments are more effective when they confine themselves to mocking things which deserve to be mocked. By all means, heap scorn on rural folks for their racism and homophobia (as long as you don't pretend they are the only demographic group susceptible to such beliefs). By all means, mock them for their ignorance of modern science, for the hypocrisy they exhibit when rejecting evolution at the same time they avail themselves of the benefits of modern technology. But of what conceivable relevance to your otherwise valid argument is the fact that they wear flannel shirts? Or the fact that they drive trucks (setting aside the obvious fact that there are perfectly rational reasons for rural people with blue collar jobs to own pickup trucks)? It is perfectly reasonable to poke fun at such peculiarities, but I am inclined to agree with arguments that reserve outright condemnation for things that are actually relevant.

    About rural people voting "against their interests," I largely agree with you. This is why I often find myself leaning towards your view that they should be left to wallow in their own mess. However, I don't think it is quite that simplistic. I would be inclined to agree with you more if the Democratic Party had over the past couple of decades consistently offered clear, feasible policies for how to revitalize peripheral areas. If that were the case one could easily say that rural people had rejected clearly superior, economically rational policies because they were distracted by Republican emphasis on social issues. Furthermore, one could use your argument to justify apathy regarding the plight of urban inner city areas, where levels of voter turnout are often very low; if they can't be motivated to vote, screw 'em. Finally, setting aside these other concerns, I ultimately think that the socioeconomic decay of rural America is a matter of public concern. The idea that the negative externalities of that decline will be confined to rural areas, so that we can ignore them, is an illusion.

  • Didn't you recently write something full of vitriol at those who move to New York (and the blue coasts more generally) and look down at those who are in the midwest?

    Where's left to live? Canada?

  • Nonetheless, some of the ad hominen attacks I’ve read here indicate people unwilling to look past preconceived stereotypes of “rural folk.”

    The people that have spoken most vehemently against rural society have also said that they themselves grew up in small towns. Were these preconceived stereotypes conceived of in the womb? I hear liberals get good press in there. Come on… these attitudes were formed from an average of 18 years of experience after which they got the fuck out of there and hoped never to return.

    – Recovering ex-rural dweller

    P.S. By what standard could Bloomington, IN possibly be considered a big city? Good grief…

  • Mike, it's not much of a stretch to think that I would be against all sides in an issue. I do that sometimes.

    Brandon, you are keeping me on my toes here. Let me try to dodge a couple more bullets:

    The inner city analogy does not hold because apathy is a different question. If rural people simply stopped voting, then I'd see a solution – educate them, encourage participation, and produce candidates that would meet their needs. But that's not what we're seeing. Rural America has become the most ardent, over-the-top supporters of the GOP. They are actively making decisions that mess up not only their communities but the rest of ours as well. Their high turnout and lock-step GOP loyalty presents a different context than inner-city voters who would vote Democratic if they bothered to vote.

    As far as the Democratic Party failing to offer viable alternatives, it's worth noting that "the good ol' days" rural folks remember happened under New Deal ag policies. Had they not elected people dedicated to tearing down every edifice of government outside of the military, we can assume that they could still be enjoying the benefits of those policies today.

  • While the 2nd Amendment "protect ourselves from Hillary" theme is commonly heard when gunnuts congregate, that isn't the whole picture at all. Having lived in rural areas and among blue-collar folk around the country this is a topic I hear about regularly. Many consider gun-ownership a part of their heritage along with hunting. There is also skepticism of Law Enforcement's abilities and so protecting self, family, and property from criminals is often a huge motivator. "Don't wait for 9-1-1, protect yourself NOW!" Of course racism and xenophobia usually comes up at this point. These days, most of rural America is no longer 99% white, it's 20% hispanic, philipino, etc… and the newcomers are often seen with fear and distrust.

    Those of a survivalist bent generally are planning to crawl into their compound and shoot everyone coming up the drive who wants to steal their canned food. Overthrowing the government isn't really part of the fantasy. The assumption is that Government will fail during a crisis, at least locally, and that the prepared individual will have to survive alone. David Koresh and Randy Weaver are not usually seen as heros for their beliefs or actions but rather martyrs to the Clinton anti-gun Justice monster.

  • I have been and will be a gun-owner again. I get a kick out of my friends back home when they get going about how Gov. Blagojevich is going to take their guns away because "that's what them Democrats DO." I ask them why, and they say, "Because that's what they do." Ask them who "they" is, and respond to "Democrats" with "Which ones?"
    They don't know.
    They don't care.
    It's so, so much easier for them to simply grunt affirmatively at each other.
    There are plenty of decent, intelligent people in rural America, they're just not spread very evenly. For example, in Mississippi I'd say it's about zero, whereas in rural Iowa I'd go 15-20%, minimum.
    Unfortunately, for those who don't think much and/or at any real depth about serious issues affecting their life—whether out of despair, circumstance, or choice—the fetishism inherent in voting America has gotten pretty bad, and the simplicity and emotional fix provided by key issues ("the right to life"/abortion, "Der nit gin'take eur ginz!"/gun rights, "They're going to burn in hell anyway."/religion, or "The United Nations is trying to take over the world!"/xenophobia (or perhaps category mistake?).
    I won't be surprised to see a macropsychological study showing that many Americans are emotionally addicted to the illusory America that is a mile wide and an inch deep anywhere below the bottom quartile of white rural citizens, whether by education, income, or, inversely, age.

  • I wasn't trying to be pretentious and I wasn't implying that people should necessarily leave Indiana if they don't want to (though the job market may be better elsewhere for them). I was simply saying that you cannot credit yourself with escaping your rural roots by moving to the "big city" of Bloomington.

    In response to Ed, simply look at West Virginia, redneck capital of the country and largel blue state. Many people that I know in rural Indiana are wealthy, and conservative social values are what is trumping economics for them (not all rural citizens are on food stamps). I think that poor conservatives are a minority in the party and are not really what is going to affect the outcome of the election. This is why populist candidates like John Edwards and Hillary Clinton (this is really the only part of the electorate she can still count on) thrive on rural votes.

    You are making it sound like most of these people are conservative, which is not true. I don't doubt that many people are like you are describing, but you make it sound like a majority – which in fact it isn't.

  • Cassie-

    I realize that some of the people behind the comments I take issue with are from small towns, and like I stated in my original post, I sympathize with some of those views. But that doesn't mean I can't disagree with their depictions of rural life, especially when the general tone seems to be that rural areas possess absolutely nothing of inherent value and that the problems they face should be of no concern to us.

    When you say you are a "recovering ex-rural dweller," what exactly are you recovering from? I guess my experience just wasn't as bad as you claim your's was. The county I grew up in was among the most rural and most conservative in Illinois. As an atheist liberal, I don't have much in common with many of the people who still live there. But I certainly don't feel traumatized by my growing up there, I can still carry on a decent conversation with the people there, and there are many aspects of the town, lifestyle, and people that I can appreciate.

    "P.S. By what standard could Bloomington, IN possibly be considered a big city? Good grief…"

    Holy frickin' christ, I was speaking tongue in cheek, ok. Maybe you didn't notice the qualifying statement in parentheses about how one could hardly call Bloomington that. I've also lived in Milwaukee and Moscow, Russia if those meet your definitions of big cities.

  • By getting out of my rural home town, I mean going to college and getting a degree. You don't have to go to LA or NYC to get a degree. If I went to the University of Tennessee, University of Kentucky, etc., these would also provide an avenue for escape since they have colleges, even though they are in the "Hillbilly Midwest". If I went to Bloomington just to live in the hills and be a farmer, then no, I would not be escaping my so called "rural roots". I've lived in Indiana long enough to know that Bloomington isn't a "big city" and that five miles in any direction is redneck country. My point is, somebody pursuing a college degree and placing themselves in the position to leave Indiana and get a good job is different than the burnout who lives at home with his/her parents and collects unemployment. I consider myself a temporary resident of Bloomington.

    Also, no offense, but you would have to actually live or travel often to other parts of Indiana than Bloomington to realize the socioeconomic conditions of Indiana. Bloomington IS NOT representative of Indiana in general. Yes, there are affluent people from the suburbs of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and Chicago. However, there is much more land area in Indiana besides these big cities, and I'm guessing you probably know the wealthiest and smartest people, probably students, from either the big cities or rural areas. Trust me, you will not see very many BMW's outside of Bloomington or Indy.

  • YIKES! Reading through these comments, Agnew's quote of "effete corps of impudent snobs" comes to mind. What happened to the great call to "bring us all together"? If you can't love your red neck neighbors, what hope does this world have?

    I live in the "outback" here in Indiana. I am white. I have neighbors who are black, retired, young, gay, Mexican. We all get along GREAT! We all have jobs. We are not standing in bread lines.We share vegetables from our gardens. From time to time, my neighbors bring by cookies. We talk to each other in our yards in the evenings. There are even some Obama yard signs on display in the neighborhood!! I often help my disabled neighbor carry in her groceries.We don't shoot our guns at each other!

    I really don't think that my world is too far from the norm in Indiana. What in the hell is happening in BTown to give you all the perspectives that you have?

  • Jim: Dad, is that you? If so, let me redirect you back to the Rush Limbaugh show where you can have him tell you all the talking points you need to know without questioning them.

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