Using this type of data in a lot of my research, I'm a sucker for the periodic feature stories about extreme points of the Census; you know, America's richest / poorest / least populous / etc places. CNN had one recently about Franklin County, Mississippi. It's the place where, according to the Census, no one is gay. That's right. Statistically, it is 100% gay-free. It's some sort of Mormon/evangelical paradise!

Of course the premise of the story is not to be taken literally; there are gay people in Franklin County even if they do not report it on the Census. More accurately, Franklin County is the place where no one admits to being gay, even if the neighbors know.

Franklin County is, as the data and the author's description reveal, a shit hole. Let me put it this way. If your idea of heaven is the dead space between Natchez and Brookhaven, MS then you're in for a treat. Otherwise, I hope you like unbearable heat, poverty, and isolation!


And yes, that is the "Homochitto National Forest." Why? Because life is beautiful, that's why.

This is a good illustration of a dilemma I've been mulling over since adolescence. Why is it that we're always pining over "Real America" as a society when it's such a crappy place?
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These are rural communities where there is nothing to do, full of planted fields, white people, and humorless Christians. Their levels of poverty and ignorance give the most dilapidated urban areas a run for their money. Please remind me why we're supposed to want the rest of the country to be more like these places.

Seriously, does Franklin County sound like the kind of place you would live willingly in the deepest reaches of your nightmares? It has 8,000 people. It's in the middle of nowhere. The residents (all caveats about Southern hospitality and politeness to strangers aside) sound like the kind of people you would go far out of your way to avoid having to spend the rest of your life around.

Conservatives can't even pull the Liberal Elitism card here, because they don't want to live in these places either. That's why they're flocking to the suburbs over the last 30-plus years. This isn't about gay people being welcome or not welcome in rural Mississippi (hint: they're not) but rather why anyone wants to live in these places. Everyone who has the financial and professional means to leave these places does so. So why is it that every four years the media waxes eloquent about Real 'Merica and Hillary Clinton's "Hard Working Americans" (uneducated white people) and other symbols of the Norman Rockwell 1940s America that no longer exists, if indeed it ever did.

As Garrison Keillor wrote many years ago:

People who want to take a swing at San Francisco should think twice. Yes, the Irish coffee at Fisherman's Wharf is overpriced, and the bus tour of Haight-Ashbury is disappointing (Where are the hippies?), but the Bay Area is the cradle of the computer and software industry, which continues to create jobs for our children. The iPod was not developed by Baptists in Waco, Texas. There may be a reason for this. Creative people thrive in a climate of openness and tolerance, since some great ideas start out sounding ridiculous. Creativity is a key to economic progress. Authoritarianism is stifling. I don't believe that Mr. Hewlett and Mr. Packard were gay, but what's important is: In San Francisco, it doesn't matter so much. When the cultural Sturmbannfuhrers try to marshal everyone into straight lines, it has consequences for the economic future of this country.

Franklin County, MS sounds like a horrible place and I hope never to screw up badly enough at life to get marooned there. The lack of (Census-recorded) gay people there is not damning evidence in itself, but is a symptom of the larger problem with our cultural emphasis on the virtues of small, rural America. No thanks. Hell, I'll take supposed nightmare places like Detroit or Cleveland over the rural Land That Time Forgot. Whether you personally like living in one of these places is not relevant here; the point is that the country would do well to work at being less like these places, not more.

43 thoughts on “REAL 'MERICA”

  • If I may speak on behalf of my countrymen, whom I deserted as soon as my legs could go thataway, it's that Silicon Valley (my current region of residence) does not grow grain, cattle, greens, or taters, Precious, and you can't eat silicon chips. Santa Clara Valley is slightly east of here, and if you want to buy broccoli at $4 a pound, feel free to pay the workers accordingly.

    And that is why you need boring, unimaginative people. To grow the boring, unimaginative crops that go into your horridly underpriced foods.

    And all us Others will flee as soon as our legs can carry us to Sodom by the Bay.

  • argleblargle says:

    I can barely even imagine what life would be like, living in such a place. I think it would be more of a culture shock for me than going to most foreign countries.
    According to wikipedia it's a dry county, so I couldn't even escape my boredom there by drinking. What do people living there DO?

  • bingobangoboy says:

    Compare with soldiers and "working moms", two other groups that America couldn't lionize more, while simultaneously fucking them over at every opportunity.

  • @ arglebargle: I think we all know the answer to that question, or are you unfamiliar with CHILDREN OF THE CORN?

    ladiesbane gets it right–I'm offended by the notion of these places as "Real America"–a phrase that only politicians ever use when, every 2, 4, or 6 years, they need the hayseeds to show up to the polls–but I'll grant such places the title of "Necessary America." And holy shit do they suck balls. By necessity they are in the middle of fucking nowhere (crops and livestock needs them plenty of room), and thus are populated by the kind of people for whom living in the middle of nowhere is appealing–what you and I would call "weirdos."

    Yet they are the last remaining 'volk' of America (the industrial version of their breed having gone the way of the dodo), and it's small wonder that they demand to be acknowledged as such. Their lives are awful compared to ours, and we're still enough of a Puritan nation that we believe that those who suffer are 'better' than those who bask. Let it be so–there's really not enough of them for the rest of us to worry about–and they'll never invade where we live, on account of all the Negros, Jews 'n Homos what live next door to us.

  • Small towns are real America? I'm sure a few are decent but from what I saw in the army it's mostly methlabs and probably a fair bit of incest as well. And based on what one guy from backwater Georgia told me, there's definitely a few homosexuals in those small towns. Conservatives will repeat all this nonsense about small towns just because one of their pundits creates the meme, but like you said they aren't moving there.

    This highlights another issue which I often think of any time you hear that some shit state like Mississippi is considering giving fetuses full personhood status including the right to drive, and it is simply this- results. These jerkoffs like to posture as simple but "moral" people who have values. Well great, but where are your results? Why is it Babylon-like metropolises such as NYC or Boston have far greater living standards than Bah-bul-thumping Arkansas? Why do all these states with abstinence only sex ed have the highest rates of STDs and teen pregnancy? See if Bubbafuck county, TX were some kind of Dubai of the South, we might consider its laws differently. But since these places are all shitholes, they don't have a leg to stand on.

  • grumpygradstudent says:

    Well, I would be one of those "weirdos" who finds the idea of living in the middle of nowhere pretty appealing. Probably not THAT in the middle of nowhere though.

    If I can get internet and satellite there, I can live there and be happy. Lack of other educated people around would be hard, but let's be honest, who actually hangs out with other people face-to-face anymore anyway? Do suburbanites spend every night fraternizing with their neighbors about post modern art? No, most people watch tv or read or play video games or otherwise hang out at home.

    You can order your weird fancy codiments and organic food through the mail. Mail still exists (for now).

    But I would agree, these are not "salt of the earth" people. And with 80% of the country living in metropolitan areas today, they're certainly not "real America."

  • To take a well-worn phrase and make it anew in light of J. Dryden's post, necessity is not anymore the mother of invention. Necessity is the mother of squalor – the necessaries of our society demand exploitation, and boy howdy do they get it.

    To tack on to grumpygradstudent (Hi, I'm a not-so-grumpy grad student, but I've also been blessed by my department with a deferral from having to deal with students until this coming Fall, so I am certain I shall become grumpy quite soon), these are salted earth people. The world holds nothing for them, nothing good, anyway, and aside from a great place to get some salt, they don't provide much of note back to the world. Their contribution is forgotten in its banality.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Before Franklin county, MS, I want to make a comment about Clintons' hate rituals. Hopefully, your kids or grandkids will tell you that hating a Clinton is still classified as hate talk, it still shows your dedication to a myth never written. More importantly, The country has been gang raped by the Bush and Obama crowds since it was left blooming by a Clinton.

    Urban life is complex while small places are much simpler. This is probably the reason that the morons of public opinion have made small places idealized and "Real America." It appeals to the newly found conservatism of the moderate rich people who form public opinion.

    The people who form public opion are themselves a small place. In their eyes, they are Real America. They meet each other, and nobody else, frquently. They know each other. They stick knives in each others back. What can I say, Real America.

  • As a queer person who lives in the semi-rural South, I'd like to remind y'all of two things:

    1) There are plenty of people like me out here. Maybe fewer per capita than in the major cities, but I'm far from alone. There are also progressives, radicals, intellectuals, feminists, and members of every demographic the GOP uses as bait to rile up their base.

    2) Please don't leave us.

    Whenever there's a discussion about the fate of the godforsaken regions of the country, it takes about 15 minutes before someone suggests just letting the rednecks secede and leave the rest of the country alone. I understand the impulse, but c'mon. Letting those assholes run roughshod over everyone they can manage to oppress requires either believing rich, straight, white, conservative christian men are the legitimate ruling class, or that you just don't care so long as they're not bothering you personally.

  • I work in film production. I did a movie a few years back in the Mississippi Delta, and a couple of years later I did one that was partly filmed in the West Bank. Believe me, despite the presence of the Delta Blues and Doe's Eat Place, Mississippi is a dump compared to the West Bank. I know that's hard to believe, but it's true.

  • I agree that rural America–or whatever America–shouldn't be held up as the real America, but let's cool it with the classism. It's one thing to criticize the poor infrastructure in these places, another to ridicule the people living there for (supposedly) being dumb and poor.

    By the way: "These are rural communities where there is nothing to do, full of planted fields, white people, and humorless Christians."
    It really shouldn't matter, but 36.27% of the population in Franklin County is black.

  • And if any of you think America is unique in its glorification of rural life, consider the fact that idyllic poetry goes back to at least the ancient Greeks.

  • No one–least of all the politicians and pundits who wax lyrical about them–thinks these pathologically ignorant neo-confederate white racist christopath-infested hellholes have any redeeming qualities whatsoever. The point of constantly raising them as a model of Real America is to be able to smirkingly rally the broader white racist voting base against kikes, spics, niggers, towelheads, professors, faggots and other undesirables while remaining within the supposed bounds of "civility".

  • Yeh, hold off with the country hating. I was brought up 80 kilometres from the nearest town and there was plenty of educated people running farms. It isn't a simple task, requiring a lot of technical know how and business acumen.

    And if not another iPod was ever produced it would materially affect the world not at all. Try saying that about the food being produced for your table.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    So, besides religious extremism, Franklin County has something else in common with Iran – no gay people!

    Yeah, right…

    I'm sure more than a few of the folks down there, when they couldn"t find a port in the storm, have settled for the stern.

  • More people live in New York City than the entire states of Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas – COMBINED.

    Yet I constantly have to hear about how the rural South is the "Real America".

  • @bingobango: are you on drugs? Conservatards *love* to beat on working mothers, who are the.single.point. of all that's bad with Rill Murkkah. Ignore that fact that women have been working mothers since there have been women.

  • You make the assumption that all the people who live in places like this find them appealing or have no choice. I grew up in a rural area which I left as soon as I could, almost everyone who lives there was born there, so were their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. There are plenty who don't like it all that much and could leave, but they are afraid of the unknown and so they stay.

  • There are parts of Cleveland that are super grim thanks to foreclosure and poverty, but, Ed you are totally stuck in the 80s with your wasteland industrial shithole assumptions. I assure you that you would be happier here than in Peoria, because there's at least enough old wealth left here to keep some good Art museums and an orchestra going, not to mention an actual, small, comedy scene.mike polk's legitimately funny videos aside, the place is stagnant but not totally descended, and certainly not the Detroit in Robiocop you seem to have in mind. And I say this as someone who moved here from NYC.

  • @ Kong

    I'll take it one step further: 5% of the country lives in two counties. Los Angles (10 mil) and Cook, IL (5.5 mil).

    On the other hand traffic is better in Franklin County of the two I mentioned.

  • The "people who suffer" can be a potent political force for progress. Read a decent biography of Huey Long to see what could be accomplished. Rural America could be the basis for action on many fronts given the right "rabble rousing" leadership.

  • Cartmansdad says:

    O man. I spent a month trying a case in neighboring Jefferson County, a county that is notable for having the highest percentage of African-Americans in the entire country. If you don't believe segregation still exists in this country, check out the population mixes of the neighboring counties – 63% white in Franklin, 87% black in Jefferson). There are some pretty startling differences.

    I have lived all my life in Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina and what I saw in this area of Mississippi blew my mind. If you have not been there, you cannot even begin to imagine how bad the poverty and segregation is in this area of the country. We had an African-American lawyer from New Orleans trying this case with us. We learned to avoid two restaurants, where they were definitely not heppy to see us – one just a BBQ joint, but the other was one of the "nicer" country club restaurants in Natchez, where we waited 30 minutes to get our menus. There was no "We don't serve your kind", they simply just ignored us.

    Natchez, which is the closest thing to a "city" for this area, is built around tourism and includes Riverboat casinos that are the most depressing casinos I have ever been in. However, once you leave Natchez, it just gets worse. In addition to the blatant segregation, the communal poverty in this area is just stunning. Per Wikipedia, average household income is around $20,000, and it is the fourth poorest county in the country.

    The court house in Fayette, the county seat for Jefferson County, was the only brick building in "downtown" Fayette. Everything else was clapboard. There were no hotels, and no restaurants, and one gas station. We had to bring our food with us. Mongrel dogs freely roam the town getting into garbage. We saw a sign that advertised squirrels, and not for pets.

    All the results of grinding poverty are on display in these counties. The obesity and diabetes rates are off the charts (again Wikipedia notes a 26% obesity rate). Healthcare is vitually non-existent. The "hospital" is not a place you would ever want to be. The closest major hospital is in Jackson, about two hours away, or I suppose New Orleans.

    So, if you really want see what poverty looks like in this country, just spend a few days in Natchez with side trips to Jefferson and Franklin Counties. Oh, and if you are gay and live in an area like this, being gay is the least of your problems, but I would definitely not tell people I was gay if I did live there. That just would not work out down there.

  • Some years back a co-worker told me a Mississippi story. He'd been an electric linesman for a time, and after some big hurricane his utility in St. Louis sent a bunch of crews down to help restore service. They've spent twelve hours wrestling with cables, tree limbs, etc and decide to pick up a case of beer on the way back to their motel. They stop at some little country store, he goes in, finds the cooler, grabs a case, and gets in line. That's when things get weird. The three black people in line in front of him shuffle to one side, and the white guy behind the counter says, "Can I help you?" Our protagonist, who has been outside in the sun all day, looks at the black folks and says, "Uh, they were in line?" The cashier's beefy white helper comes out from behind the counter and asks, "Are you looking for trouble?" with the clear implication that he's all to willing to provide some trouble. On the house, too. Our protagonist finally makes the connection, chirps "Nope!" at the beefy helper, marches up to the counter, pays for his beer, walks out to the truck, gets in, and says, "We cannot get out of this f——g state soon enough."

  • I'm from a bit of rural New England that has a big streak of the kind of bucolic that you only get with lots of summer people and transplants to keep the money flowing in but when I look through the Facebook pages of all of the people I knew in high school it seems that the more I liked the person the farther they are from home. Virtually none of them now live closer than an hour's drive away with a big chunk (like me) in other countries.

  • I've never been asked about my sexual preference by a census worker. But if one county in Mississippi is the only place where no-one self-identifies as gay, I'll celebrate the advance of civilization because maybe, just maybe, one group of misunderstood Americans is gaining acceptance. (Note: I live in small-town America and I know more gays than I can count. It's just no big deal here.)

  • @ Greg: Yeah, I live in Cleveland, too, and while it's not a Shining City on a Hill, neither is it the Ninth Circle. Honestly, my reaction upon first moving here was "Oh! It's not *that* bad. Just a little…OK, *very* lived-in." Lots of people are shit-poor here, to be sure, but lots of people aren't, and like most cities of a certain size there are 'nice' parts of town and parts of town that make you question the moral order of the universe. Was it nicer once upon a time? Oh hell yes. But the vibe of the city is "just plugging along" rather than "oh when will Death's sweet embrace come for me, dear Lord?" That's Youngstown.

  • I just read the Wikipedia article….nothing has happened there….ever.

    Usually a small town has some claim to fame… Dillinger robbed the bank or a movie star was born there.

    Sounds like this place gives shit holes a bad name.

  • There are a lot of pest-holes in this country; some urban and some rural. I like living in the country, and really miss it. Unfortunately, my wife is a city girl, and can't abide the "boring dullness" of country life. So, I end up crammed in with a bunch pf people I don't particularly care for, in an area that's depressing and crime-riddled. At least out where I grew up you had less problem with that, because you didn't have too many people too close. You could avoid the real assholes. I'd bet that place you're all beating on is a pest-hole, but I haven't lived there and I'm not about to. Getting out isn't that hard; like most things, it's more emotional than financial things that hold us back. Inertia is the second-greatest force after entropy. Me, I'd as soon live there as a lot of the places where I am now; at least out there I'd have fewer people to avoid. And I'd have a nicer back yard. People are people – most of us hate somebody who's different; it just varies in what the differences are that you hate people for. My hates are normal and laudable; your hates are weird and unconscionable.

  • @ ladiesbane –

    I can't verify the exact numbers but it's worth pondering. I heard somewhere a few years ago that if lettuce pickers were paid $30.00 per hour the price of lettuce would go up 10 cents a head. That's a lot less than the seasonal variation, which can be around $1 per head.

    I just did a little thought experiment. With pickers making between $5 and $10 per hour currently (a blue sky guess on my part) you get a 10 cent per head increment at 200 to 250 heads per hour – about 3+ to 4+ heads per minute. If they're making more than that, the heads per hour number drops. Crude – sure, but doesn't flunk a laugh test anyway.

    At exactly 200 heads/hr and $10/hr, picker's labor is 5 cents per head; at $30 it's 15 cents.

    This is a far cry from driving broccoli up to $4 per lb by paying the laborers some decent amount. Labor drives only around 5 to 15% of the cost. This is about in line with manufacturing labor costs, as well.

    Like I said, worth pondering.


  • Cleveland has some nice areas: Ohio City, Tremont, University Circle, Little Italy, Cleveland Heights, etc. The rest of the city—bleh. But that's how it is with most cities. When you take the low housing prices and cultural attractions (a seriously world class orchestra and art museum) into account, it's pretty decent, all in all—a far cry from NYC, sure, but definitely not in the same bottom of the barrel tier of American cities as Detroit.

  • @JzB: There are loads of hypotheticals that seem reasonable, and probably are reasonable. So much depends on the crop, the location, the size of the farm, whether pickers are paid under the table or over it…on and on.

    But I grew up in Montana, the federally subsidized breadbasket of Russia, among the unimaginative, white, narrow-minded Christian wheat farmers and cattle ranchers. Conventional wisdom is that, like other artisans, they will never be paid what their labor is worth, and it doesn't occur to many of them that being a farmer doesn't guarantee being good at math or management.

    My point was mostly respect for the job itself — which did not diminish my own desperate urge to flee the bigotry and boredom. The backbreaking, unrewarding labor to grow food is just about all those "Real Americans" have going for them. Let not ambition mock thy useful toil, don't take any wooden nickels, and so long, Screwy, see you in Saint Louie. It's all the hat tip they'll ever get from me.

  • Charles Bird says:

    I was born in NY city and raised twenty miles outside. from my experience there is about the same percentage of racist, ignorant people as you find anywhere else. I have lived in the poorest places in the world with bad water, multiple diseases with no health care and yet managed to find interesting intelligent people who have remained my friends over many years. If I had my druthers, I would not want to live under a military dictatorship or in the racist states of the South, but when I have done so, I always found folks with whom I could get along.

  • Point well taken. I grew up in one of these places. I'm straight, white, and Christian. I'm their target audience, and I got the hell out the second I could. Never looked back.

  • SiubhanDuinne says:

    What do people living there DO?

    "But who calls that livin'
    When no gal will give in…?"

  • Cartmansdad already said most of what I was going to. I've done field work near there, and if you think Franklin sounds grim, you should go a few miles further up the road where there's always a black community that's much poorer, at least in money. The black townships reeked much less of bigotry (you know, no "God, guns and guts made America great" bumperstickers; no "Nuke their ass, take their gas"), so they felt better and happier. I have no idea if they actually were. Both communities were very helpful to a stranger with a butterfly net. (Yes, I'm white. Otherwise Franklin would have been a very different experience.)

    The poverty in the black rural communities really has to be seen to be conceptualized at all. I've travelled quite a bit in poor parts of what used to be called the Third World, and those towns are fully the equal of what I saw there.

  • My husband and I used to live in a small (pop. 800) town in North Carolina. It had two cross-dressers and a gay couple, but that was okay because Southerners celebrate eccentricities. Try being an atheist, however, and you were persona non grata. Make comments criticial of military intervention in other nations and you were Persona Non Grata. Say something derogatory about President Bus and you were PERSONA NON GRATA.

    I hated living there. We've since moved to the Pacific NW, where you can legally smoke a doobie at the wedding of two gals or two guys and where people drive around with ELUZABETH WARREN FOR PRESIDENT bumper stickers. There are no poisonous snakes, no fire ants, no hurricanes, for poison ivy, no mosquitos and no ticks. There are more microbreweries and coffee houses than there are churches. This is the real 'merica!

  • I have most of you beat. I live in Cleveland and work in Detroit.

    Nearly every place has its pluses and minuses. But driving through Queens I was reminded of driving through Mumbai, oppressing density and building condition, the only difference being the traffic was more orderly.

    But the poverty comparison kicks in when you drive through rural West Virginia and South Carolina.

    This desire to "get the hell out of here" transcends rural farming areas. Those small industrial towns dying on a vine, like the town where I grew up, people couldn't flee fast enough. Despite earning a second life as an exurb, of my graduating class of 440, only about 30 live locally, the rest of us fled as soon as we could. The trait of fleeing declining production centered towns in general, industry or farming, rural or exurban, they're all undesirable for the same reasons. No need to throw stones at just the southern rural ones.

  • But the southern rural ones are just so PROUD of their bigotry, their "culture". That's why there is the guilty pleasure of throwing stones at them!

  • I think you'll find that creativity/inventiveness – call it what you will, flourishes best, like plants, in richly fertilized beds. Humans, blessed with any of those characteristics, go where their efforts are most likely to be rewarded and where, let's face it, money is the fertilizer of choice. Ergo, it's not the artist/thinker/academician who sets the cultural tone but the people who can afford it.

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