Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Big Mistake That Small Towns Make

The following news story has me a bit agitated, because I grew up in a small town not unlike--or that far from--Creston, Iowa.

Photo of 5 males in KKK hoods leads to discipline against students in Creston, Iowa

These high school students--presumably football players, based on the local high school's response--staged a KKK-themed photo shoot in someone's field. To nobody's surprise--except, perhaps, the five males'--the damned thing went viral. Which brings us here, now.

I saw it when a fellow former Iowan shared on Facebook and asked, "What do you make of this?"

Well, since you asked, fellow former Iowan, here's what I make of it.

I don't think this is necessarily an Iowa thing. It's much more of a small town thing. Having grown up in a small Iowa town, I can say that small towns historically have been closed-off places. Once you get past the surface hospitality you'll find hostility to outsiders and even their own who might be perceived as smart, creative, ambitious or non-conforming in even the most harmless way. A kid with even one of those qualities soon learns at the hands of his or her contemporaries that it's best to get out and go where they can find opportunities and like-minded souls.

Until recently the disapproval and banishment was only a strong undercurrent in small towns. But in Trump's America hate has become the new country-chic, and its subtle expression a lost art.

Here's what I think is at the heart of this: small towns suffer from deep-seated inferiority complexes. They see the rest of the world competing and creating, they know they don't measure up, and this drives them crazy. They'd be much happier if the rest of us would just sit down, shut up and accept the status quot. Or, barring that, get out of town and stop rubbing their faces in it.

It's classic bully behavior.

It's classic bullshit, too.

There's a great documentary on Netflix (and YouTube!) that sidles right up to these issues--If You Build It. Here it is.

Watch it--I promise it's well worth your eighty-five minutes. You'll see how a small, down-on-its-heels North Carolina town lures an idealistic young couple (an architect and product designer) to help revitalize their struggling burg and its education system, then systematically cuts them off at every turn. And yet the couple persists, and in the end the town takes everything they have to offer before making it impossible for them to continue their work there.

It reminds me of certain advertising clients I used to work with, who said they were all for "innovation" but just didn't have the stomach for new ideas.

The result is that smart, creative, ambitious people flee small towns in favor of places where they can live and work in peace. And who, with a brain in their head and a dream in their heart, wouldn't?

Meanwhile, these little towns are left to jockey for a few handfuls of small manufacturing and meat-processing jobs, wondering where all their strength and vitality went.

It went with those smart, creative, ambitious kids when they left for college and the world's greener, more welcoming pastures.


iver iverson said...

Thanks for a spot on analysis. Another aspect of this that I have thought a lot about is that when we migrate from the rural areas to the urban areas we pretty much give up our voting rights. The rural areas are over represented in Congress and the Electoral College. The families and neighbors we left behind have got us over the barrel. I have not lived in an area where my vote really counted for anything in 27 years. (If only our system was like the Romans. No matter where we lived we would remain a citizen of our birthplace. This is why Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem rather than at Joseph's house in Nazareth. LOL) There is no possible way to pry electoral power away from the rural areas without a Constitutional Convention. And the uglier it gets in the rural areas the greater the flight to the cities. We will continue to pile up votes where it doesn't matter. I don't see a happy ending to this weakness in our founding documents.

albertellenich said...

I remember hearing stories from my grandmother about the KKK burning crosses in the fields near my hometown Catholic church in Michigan's Upper Peninsula when she was a child. I never saw anyone other than other white people and native American Indians until I went to college, so the cross buringing was an anti-Catholic thing. Never knew that side before. Small town minds. It's unfortunate because there are those small towns that are more informed and progressive to live in harmony with all their residents, but I think they're overshadowed by the larger numbers of the opposite.

C. Michael Cook said...

Appreciate the comments from both of you. Thanks for stopping by, taking a read and letting me know what you think.

Iver, I get the "vote not counting" thing. In a lot of ways, here in deep blue Chicago, my votes haven't counted since 1986. I wish I could bring some optimistic facts and figures to your argument about redistributing electoral power, but I just don't have them. Maybe only seeing the effects of certain votes and mindsets will bring about some change. Oh! And thanks for posting the article that originally inspired this.

Albert, the idea that a certain group of people could be that hateful toward Catholics is kind of mind-boggling in 2017 America. But then, the Irish and Italians also experienced similar prejudice and I think we've somehow gotten past that, so maybe we can leave behind these more current prejudices as well. At least I hope we can