"To read the papers and to listen to the news, one would think the country is in terrible trouble. You do not get that impression when you travel the back roads. The small towns do care about their country and wish it well."
-- Charles Kuralt
"You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay. You know... morons."
-- Blazing Saddles
A few years ago, my wife and I, along with a close friend of ours, set out to do something we'd each dreamed about since we were in our late teens: We packed up a vehicle, grabbed a map, and hit the road with no clear plan in mind other than beginning at one ocean and ending at another. For almost a full month, we satisfied our Kerouacian wanderlust along the vast highways and off the beaten paths that run like veins and arteries through the heartland between Miami and Los Angeles. We spent obliterated nights crawling from one dive bar to another in New Orleans and Memphis; toured Graceland and marveled at every possible permutation of Elvis memorabilia available at every gas station a thousand miles in either direction; ate a steak the size of a regulation first base bag at the Big Texan Ranch in Amarillo; stood in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon and stared silently across the seemingly endless void of White Sands; stumbled upon a group of Navajo children dancing at sunset just outside the Petrified Forest in Arizona; lost our asses in Vegas and partied like rock royalty at the Standard in L.A.; began the 4th of July at the annual UFO Festival in Roswell, New Mexico and ended it at something called the "Firecracker Fandango" in Odessa, Texas.
We bought a souvenir coconut head in Okahumpka, Florida.
To say that our little cross-country expedition changed me fundamentally would be the grossest of understatements; the fact is that the things we saw, the people we met, and the ground-level view of the country I'd lived in since birth but had never truly come to know opened my eyes and allowed me to better understand what it means to be an American -- the pride that should unequivocally go hand-in-hand with being able to call yourself one. To this day, I consider the entire adventure to be one of the most profound and cathartic experiences of my life.
I wouldn't trade it for anything.
And one of the main reasons why is that it allowed me -- a guy who'd been raised in Miami and had chosen to live in one big city after another as he grew into adulthood -- to fully appreciate the singular and simple beauty of the small town.
While the heavily populated areas along our route provided plenty of entertainment, it was the barely-there blips on the map that seemed to stay with me. The quiet pull of places like Erick, Oklahoma and Holbrook, Arizona was undeniable and somehow resonated inside my head long after we'd moved on; these little towns, most of them sleepy pockets of stunted civilization marked by not much more than a water tower, left me feeling as if I were missing out on something indescribable by living in a metropolis; something unspoiled; something that spoke directly to a secret desire of mine -- to exist in perpetual slow-motion -- in way that was, for lack of a better word, magical.
I ended our journey believing that there was wonder in small town life.
I realize that my romanticism of the rural milieu probably stems at least slightly from the grass always seeming greener on the other side of the cow pasture (or these days, the Wal Mart). Whether I could fully succumb to the charms of small town living and not feel stifled by the lack of unadulterated crazy in my day-to-day existence, who can tell. But I know better than to automatically assume that anyone who does choose to call the sprawling American outland home is an uneducated rube.
I'm not sure the same can be said for the people running the John McCain campaign right now.
On the contrary -- they must think that small town America is overflowing with idiots.
That's the only explanation I can come up with as to why they're lying to it, pretending to give a damn about it and, worst of all, exploiting it: its people; its preponderance of faith, not all of which demands to be brandished like a weapon; its sense of patriotism.
A long list of clever opportunists, both Republican and Democrat, seized on the idea of using the little guy as the main prop in a carefully stagecrafted piece of bullshit political theater long before McCain took up the mantle -- but I'm not sure anyone's narrowed the culture war down specifically to a battle between small town and big city with the kind of assurance that he and his people have this election. They've raised not simply pitting the classes against each other but actually undermining the infrastructure of this country to an art form.
And they've done it by trumpeting a single dubious claim over and over: "Our vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, is from a small town and can therefore speak for every American in every rural area across the country; her God, guns, and guts belief system, along with her folksy "hockey mom" style, is not just what this nation needs, it is this nation -- far more than any of those overeducated elitists in the big coastal cities."
To say that this is presumptuous, if not flat-out ballsy-as-hell considering that it excludes and even demonizes a substantial portion of the country, would be like saying that John McCain isn't a kid anymore. What's worse, though, is just who the architects of this strategy are -- the campaign coordinators drawing up the battle plans centered around ingratiating their candidates to Little Town, USA.
They're basically K-Street lobbyists -- Washington neo-aristocracy.
They're Beltway-savvy future oligarchs using their Ivy League educations to cynically craft talking points written in faux-yokelese proclaiming the unassailable goodness of small town life.
They're the furthest fucking thing from the people they're pretending to give a crap about -- real elitists using the unwashed masses as pawns in a war against phantom elitists.
While no one would deny that the Democrats can be staggeringly adept at populist political manipulation, I've yet to see their own ability to divide and conquer through misdirection and outright bullshit come close to matching the GOP's. And this particular gambit -- claiming to hold the monopoly on "small town values" -- reaches new heights of lowness. It does it, first and foremost, by way of an underlying subtext with slyly racist implications. Even the densest of far-right acolytes understands that when he or she follows the talking points and parrots the virtues of rural tradition, there's another half of the equation that's left unsaid: that the opposite set of American values -- those of the country's "urban" areas, if you get my drift -- just don't measure up. Sure, when that white woman in the funny hat at the Republican National Convention last week spoke so highly of small town mores she meant "in comparison to those of the cosmopolitan 'elitists'"; but make no mistake, she was also subtly implying: "in comparison to those, you know, them -- Obama's people."
Back in 1992, the GOP attempted the same kind of crafty, nudge-nudge wink-wink sloganeering by appropriating the term "family values," blasting it as a suburban battle cry, and co-opting the meaning behind it as the exclusive property of the Republican party. George Bush and Dan Quayle couldn't make a public appearance without dropping the phrase at least three or four times, in tones ranging from scolding to triumphal. The problem, of course, is that even though the tactic worked as it was intended to -- as a means of energizing the conservative religious base -- it couldn't be recycled for the current Republican efforts; the unborn baby in Bristol Palin's belly pretty much shot that possibility all to hell. It's tough to claim that you're the party of old-fashioned family values when your vice presidential candidate's unmarried teenage daughter is pregnant by the local bad boy. That would require a level of hypocritical chutzpah even the Republicans don't possess.
So instead, they fashioned a similar call to arms around that vice presidential candidate's most notable characteristic (besides having a pregnant teen daughter): her small town background.
In the alternate universe that a phalanx of GOP operatives have conjured out of thin air in some Georgetown boardroom, Sarah Palin's small town charm and backwoods resourcefulness -- to say nothing of her "cute little filly" looks -- are all the qualifications she needs to succeed on the world stage and potentially take control of the most powerful nation to ever exist. She's been smartly packaged and sold to the common folk as one of their own -- a celebrity among those who claim to despise celebrities. What's more, it's not just Sarah Palin but what she supposedly represents that's cast as the cure for this country's ills. Like that laughably stupid grass roots push back in 1994 to "Elect Forrest Gump " -- only with a far more malevolent undertone -- voters are being asked to buy into the idea that provincial simpletonism, when thrust into the right situation by nothing more than circumstance, will not just prevail but will do so honorably. And the voters specifically being manipulated into swallowing this nonsense are those who supposedly share a special kinship with Palin that's based on nothing more than her having spent most of her life outside an urban center.
But this election isn't about small town and big city; it never was -- regardless of what the GOP mouthpieces are encouraging you to believe. Not all who live in a small town are the same. They may have plenty of common social and cultural touchstones, just as those who call any particular place home do; however, to say that Sarah Palin and the Republican party is the one true voice of rural America is insulting -- especially when this claim is little more than a political parlor trick designed to get a guy elected. Besides, pitting one half of this country against the other based solely on where each happens to live isn't politics at all -- it's civil war. And it's wrong.
I live in the largest metropolis in America, and to assume that I know what every one of my eight-million neighbors is thinking would be ridiculous and presumptuous. I can't speak for them.
I've traveled to dozens of small towns across America, and I wouldn't dare try to speak for the residents of those places either.
And neither should John McCain.
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