Thursday, July 30, 2009

Heel America (part one)

Alaska "governor" Sarah Palin has resigned. William "Wrong Way" Kristol had praised her last year as a vice presidential pick for John McCain precisely because she represented both "energy" and "Real America." This latter theme is something that Mrs. Palin was eager to promote. She was consistent in telling all who followed her that she was "real" in a way that other candidates for office were not.

Now, there are all sorts of questions that arise from this.

One is George Chapman's statement from 1612, "Ignorance is the mother of admiration." The more we know about anyone, the less we admire that person, and Sarah Palin was completely unknown -- a set of cheekbones onto which we could paint the cosmetics of our own political desires. All of us who had been snubbed by the junior high school Pom-Pom, either for a date or friendship, could project our nastiness, and all of us who wished still to cuddle up to that same bundle of confetti on a string could do so again. Was that all that Palin was? Was she just Dan Quayle in drag?

I think, instead, of something Swift said in one of his sermons: "The power of fortune is confessed only by the miserable; for the happy impute all their success to prudence or merit." Sarah Palin was a happy woman, a "pitbull in lipstick" and a "hockey mom" and a "small town mayor," and, most of all, a success story from real America.

Long before I moved (back) to "real America," I knew what it was. Long before I moved to a very small micro-town, I knew what it meant. I knew what it was to survive and thrive in one. It is not quite the same thing as surviving and thriving in high school, although my suburban high school in a major city had more students in it than my current "city" does citizens, but it means that rules and conditions that apply nationally are simply in abeyance, and, in their place, a different set of expectations and demands function. These are not, Republican rhetoric designed to pander to its only voters notwithstanding, better or more "real" than other expectations and demands, and they are certainly not more sincere. They have only one claim to greater "reality," and that is a greater realpolitik to them, a thinner margin between personal greed and political gain.

The "real America" or "real American town" is always in economic crisis. Whether there is a recession or not, but more when there is, it has trouble with unemployment. Its "underclass" is not abstract, not dislocated, not in a vague "other" place. The unemployed and underclass are visible every day, wandering through town, and the Section Eight housing is a major feature of city architecture. The town usually worries about "the plant." It may be "the textile mill" or "the bag plant" or "the control" maker, but there is a single monocultural employer that will dominate and overshadow the town's economy. Similarly, a single merchant will overshadow the retail opportunities for the town (usually Wal*Mart).

Towspeople will not congregate at "the mall," and "mall culture" and such talk as that is as foreign to them as talk of sushi bars. Instead, whether it's Bill's Dollar Store or K-Mart or Rite Aid or Wal*Mart, there is a single general store that will expand to take in most of the retail activity of the town, and it will have virtual monopoly power. Grocery stores will be scarce. Usually, there will be two. One will be general, and the other will be low cost, with a featured section for immigrant cuisine (brands known south of the U.S. border, with packaging written in Spanish). There will almost inevitably be a crisis of empty store fronts. If the empty store fronts are not the vacated downtown, they will be the evacuated Wal*Mart, and they will prove impossible to rent, long term. Agriculture will take place around the town, and so the city's population will never reflect the actual economic residents. Fast food restaurants will proliferate, with perhaps two or three older restaurants barely surviving on slim margins. The population will flange out, with old and young, but little in between. Children and elderly will outnumber mid-life adults, and so there will be a constant tax crisis for schools and social services and therefore a constant need for state and federal assistance in these places where state and federal agencies can least find the population. There will be community colleges and technical schools, but universities and four-year institutions will constitute "going away" and going into debt, and therefore they can only exist as online degrees or for the children of the upper class. As a result, the independent businesses that really boom are loan and medical supply businesses.

The disparity between upper and lower classes is personal, not abstract. It is encoded in families, in names, in street and place marks, and in attitudes. "Fallen" families do not get respected the way that Emily Grierson did, at least not since the 1960's. Rising families do not have to endow public works and make the Snopes municipal building, or the Tweed City Hall. Instead, the signifiers are more dynamic, as the fortunes are, and more affected.

Open the door to the homes of the real America, and you will find satellite televisions and Internet connections, and these are, in my estimation, the only actual changes and erosions in what had been a petrified forest of certitude and cultural ideolect. Inside, you will see the women decorating in Martha Stewart's imagineered New England style, or Paula Deen's reclaimed South, or a neo-native Southwestern, or a clumsily distilled and purified northern immigrant cute, but it will be as expensive as anything could be, and it will be practiced as a debutante's bow or a best man's toast.

Go out the back door, and you will find the disturbed soil of acres of all-terrain vehicle tracks or vainglorious gardening. The men will have thrown themselves outward in a jovial, lite-beer, back strain and hoed or roto-tilled or chain sawed or fenced or shot, and land will be desired or damned for its recalcitrance or promise.

This is the town, the village, the dimple.

When you who live in cities look at a map of your state, or when you who live in other nations look at the United States, you will focus on the centers and then see shaded areas inside the lines, as if cartographers had too much color and too little data. Within that big box of "state," you will know of things -- Chicago, Raleigh, Kansas City, Mobile -- and then you will, if you are bothered enough, notice all of these freckles on the surface of the plain. They have unimaginative or improbably hallucinatory names, and they do not appear at regular intervals. No one lives there. For all the evidence you have, sitting in an apartment or flat, these are mere accidents of penmanship at the map companies. When the elections occur, you hear about them, and you hear that all of these divots on the surface of the nation have only one opinion, one mood, one thought, and that is resentment toward the people who ignore them.

Well, I'm here, here in "Real America," as Sarah Palin puts it. I will take two more posts to talk about it, to be your spy, to report on it as a fact and artifact, and I'd like to tell you why, of all the things the world may or may not need, a politician from Real America is the one thing we need least.


K. Scott said...

Stereotypes -- even when generally correct (as stereotypes, by definition, are) -- are nonetheless harmful. In the 64 years since World War II ended, we have had 12 presidents. Of these, seven were raised in what might be termed a "rural" setting, and five were raised in a more urban, or more privileged; setting. Giving them all a simplified rating of 1/0/-1 for their general effectiveness, the results belie your hypothesis.

Rural = HT 1 + DE 1 + LBJ 0; RN -1 + JC 0 + RR 1; BC 0 =
3/7 (0.429)

Urban = JFK 1 + GF 0 + GHWB 0 + GWB -1 + BO 1 =
2/5 (0.400)

Admittedly, these ratings are subjective, but I think that it at least illustrates the point that broad brushstrokes -- even when eloquently written, as you have done -- are rarely either helpful or accurate. That said, I look forward to reading your forthcoming posts on the subject, despite my disagreement with your premise.

The Geogre said...

Ah, well, you are speaking of rural vs. "real," and you are taking Presidents since WW2. To get those who were, in fact, products of the neo-rural, spiteful "real America," the post-Interstate America, you would have to look solely at Clinton (city, poor), W. Bush (suburbia, wealthy), and Obama (city, middling to poor).

What you will see that I isolate is the politician who thrives in the "small town America" of Wasilla is generally, well, I'll keep my powder dry until I have a chamber filled with shot.

K. Scott said...

I think, generally speaking, we're probably of the same mind regarding Palin particularly, and the broad stereotype, more generally. However, to leave out Jimmy Carter, who played up his "poor farmer" background quite extensively, is a mistake, in my view. Also, to classify Clinton as city, poor, mystifies me a bit. In what sense are either Hope or Hot Springs considered "city"?

The Geogre said...

Part Two, Coming Soon

I would like to respond more to the comments (you got me on Carter, absolutely, and he's almost a good counter argument, but Hot Springs, AR is a city; although we might not think of it as Miami, it's much larger than the dots and dimples of "real America," and Clinton was really not in Hope for more than a few months), but I wanted to say when Part Two would arrive.

I'm in the midst of Expectations. People have Expectations, and I have only expectorations. I hope that part two will arrive on these shores Thursday afternoon, by Greenwich's time.

K. Scott said...

Well, if we're going to consider sub-40K population centers "cities", then it seems to me that your theory becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even still, I am very much looking forward to seeing where you're going with this. I have a particular interest, as I was raised in one of these small places of which you speak a bit dismissively. The last school I taught in had a student population around twice what my entire town had when I was a child. My view is that we need non-dunces (read: not Palin) from these locations, who actually have a worldview shaped by -- but not limited to -- these close-knit communities. To dismiss the advantages that having been raised in such an environment offer, simply because the most prominent current example is a bit of a moron is patently unfair, in my view.

The Geogre said...

Fear not!

I am not going to entirely thrash the heart and heartland. I do, though, think, that the mythology needs to be beaten up a bit, because it is standing in the way of perceptions of truth. The moment myths derived from the best or worst of our past get bandied as a buckler to deflect examination of the practices and thoughts and practices of the present, we're in trouble (which is as much as saying we're in trouble).

K. Scott said...

I do look forward to reading your next post. While I think you may be letting your disgust with Palin color your views of America's heartland, I'm sure you will do so in a way that will be interesting to read.