Monday, August 10, 2009

Heel America (part two)

I should give some background and dull the blade a bit on my attack, since I appear to be drawing more blood or causing more damage than I had intended.

I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." -- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, Book II, King of Brobdingnag.

"Real America" is a term that Sarah Palin uses -- one endorsed and gathered into the flaps of the cloak of Republican discourse -- as code. For her, given her most recent usage of the phrase, it seems to mean only "my supporters," with the dullard's implication that those who do not support her are not only not patriotic, but not American. However, in the nibs and mouths of other Republicans, the ones who urged the phrase into her in the first place, the term refers to a geography that the party believes it can win and a demographic that interlaces a different geography.

The geography implied is the "blank America," the America between the cities, the America of the towns without names, the unincorporated America, the rural America. Facing an election in 2008 where they believed that they had lost the northeast and the west coast, they began to speak of "Real America" as everything between. In fact, the target of such talk was not altogether between the coasts, and it certainly wasn't really the 20% of the population living in the blanks on the map, but it was the South, which perceives itself as rural. The target was a demographic that believes itself to be rural, even as it commutes to work an hour on interstates in an SUV instead of a pickup truck, listening to anger radio the whole way in and back.

The demographic of angry (white) (male) voters isn't my concern, though. My concern is the reality of the "Real America" that Sarah Palin herself actually does represent. She may mean to represent angry white men with fixations, but her actual story as small town mayor and her rise are true representations of the microtown and the rural real.

This blank America is an artifact of the Interstate Highway system. Prior to the Eisenhower Interstate system, many, if not most, of these small towns had a reason to exist. At the very least, it had a deterrent to evacuation. Prior to the interstates, the few national routes slithered through hundreds of small towns, giving hotels and restaurants and novelty architecture and regional raree shows boosts. There was neither a possibility nor an incentive to have a franchised, uniform business conquer the whole of the stretch, nor for one business or business model to homogenize the whole. For small towns like Louisville, North Carolina to be cut off from the nodes and cities of the state, there had to be a line to make the cut, and the interstate provided that line. Prior to the rationalized, massively freighted lines, small towns had their own transportation and industrial routes. River traffic that had once been a logical and profitable localism ceased before the reliability of road transport. Money, then agriculture, then people flowed toward centers nearer and nearer to the line that would connect to the big dots on the map, and the shaded parts of the states grew more blank.

Therefore, the Real America of Sarah Palin's discourse is a post-1960 phenomenon (yes, the interstate system is 50's, but they have to get built, and then they have to have an effect). After that point, regionalism, both in accent and manners and identity, diminished as the cities and suburbs came into their own, and the idea of family roots and localism were less and less adherent for the wealthy and educated. We have seen many, many politicians on the national stage who have come from small towns. Many eminent women and men, many sages and saints come from small towns. Indeed, it seems that being from a small town is a great thing, especially.

Jimmy Carter, for example, came from a small town in Georgia. His was a semi-patrician family (his dialect, though, is purely patrician and not native), but we note that he took his talent and his values and left the small town. He left in order to practice his virtues on a larger stage than his town could offer. He left first to the U.S. Naval Academy, and then he sought to be Governor of his state, picking up from the rather odd traditions of Lester Maddox and the Talmages. Jimmy Carter's small town upbringing shows in many things about him. His religion and his marriage and his attitudes toward forgiveness are all shaded by the values instilled by the post-bellum Southern rural world, but one thing he has never been is a small town politician, a happy small town mayor.

My premise, you will recall, is that the last thing we should want is a politician from "Real America." I should take the ambiguity out and say that we do not want a person who is a politician in "Real America," rather than a person who is a politician and once was in or of "Real America." The latter individual may be superior. The former is an a priori disaster.

The microtown suffers from blight and recycles itself every year. Because building is more beneficial than renovation, large buildings are left empty more often than they are refurbished, but each part of the town experiences a spasm of paint and beams, new banners, crowds, closings, decay, demolition, and then building again. Where I am, steps along the sidewalk lead to empty fields over and over. Once, houses perched there, and the steps led to their stoops. Now, the gardens of 1925 are wildflowers.

In a city, power comes from one's job. In the Real America, power is land. "Real America" is neo-feudal, in that land ownership is common, and it marks out the basis of power and wealth beneath anything so transitory as a particular generation's children's inclinations. That feudal structure had been in place in the South in the Reconstruction era, and it was famously written up by Faulkner. However, that was feudal, not neo-feudal. That came complete with noblesse oblige, education, and its Atticus Finches. After Faulkner's people went to their mixed rewards, the next up dispensed with the bother of families and kept right on with honoring the owners of the land. The owners of the land were, by the 1960's, the working class whites who had bought every time an aristocrat in distress had sold, every time a well trained noble had gone to the city to make a large impression on the world with a small town upbringing (and first class education), every time an antique family died without issue. The land remained the power.

In the "middle," the pace was accelerated, as there hadn't been the bother with ancient rites. Ranchers, farmers, any "original settlers" or "pioneers" (i.e. the people who came in and displaced American Indians or flooded into the vaccuum, legal or military, after they "had been" displaced) that had been town founders had been town powers and had been town owners. Being from a small town before 1960 meant being from a well established family that guaranteed a strong drive for education, as well as values of service to the less fortunate and, especially in the midwest and west, constructing a town. In other words, town founders worried about what makes a town work and had to have a touch of the altruistic in them. Again, though, as the microtown develops, the people "from small towns" who have these skills and values leave, and the power stays with the land.

In a movie Western, good or bad, one hears about some character or other, usually corrupt, and then that "he's a major land owner in this county" and so, "You can't buck him, Sheriff." Of course that is all a shadow cast by the Lincoln County War, as Hollywood (and I am, too) is on the side of the sheep against the beef. But, at the same time, that line resonates, if it does not telegraph out to the real land owners who watch movies, with small town America.

I am the scion of both the fallen and risen groups. I am mainly, though, the son of two people who are "from a small town." Both grew up, one in a family that had been very important before the Civil War and become impoverished during Reconstruction, and the other that had been part of the southern professional class during the whole time and therefore had remained prosperous, before the interstate system, and both had memories of their towns as important places with set social orders and strong value systems. My observation is starkly different, because I return after their professional lives, after the interstates made their towns otiose. I had seen before, though, what I have seen here, more than once.

In the blank American town, the person with land owns, and retains ownership. That person has the capacity to generate wealth when necessary, and usually to gain more wealth. More to the point, such a person gains the ability to rent. In the actual terms of Adam Smith, such a person becomes a naive capitalist. Because the microtown is cut off, because the Interstate is forty miles that way or that way, because "those people in [Big City]" do things differently, the landed individual inherits the social position of the founder without inheriting the values of the founder.

The pioneer who crosses the plains to set up a community and decides to put his life, wife, and future at stake to live with the rest of his wagon train in a particular valley is dedicated, vitally, to the concept of cooperation. Contrary to NRA pamphlets, such persons were not dedicated to shooting things and people and "freedom." Even if the people who settled were weirdos there to get gold, the ones who stayed were pretty passionate about the idea of a town that functioned by law and fairness. Those "founders," like the aristocratic families of the south, took care to inculcate in their children a code of compassion and fairness (at the end of a lash, if necessary). The person who acquires simply to overcome the unfairness of the capitalist system, on the other hand, may inculcate a different set of values, may have a different lesson to teach. In microtowns now, that is the person, through abdication and abnegation, who is the town leader.

[I've detained you enough for one essay. I will continue with part three, but it will come sooner than this one did. Rising gorge wants out.]


K. Scott said...

Still finding myself in stark disagreement with some of your basic premises, but I'll reserve judgement until you have posted your last on the subject.

The Geogre said...

Uh-oh. Seriously? I thought the neo-feudal thing was pretty acute. From that bit of lumber the flag will fly.

Anyway, I reckon tomorrow. I tend to get all essay-ish after church.