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Marcia DeSanctis

Marcia DeSanctis

Posted: October 27, 2008 09:55 PM

Little Town, Big Town

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The town I live in has 3,500 people and this time of year, it seems almost cartoonishly picturesque. The clichés literally come to life: Pumpkin patches, apple orchards, streams of gold leaves blowing diagonally across the road. Though a mere two hours drive from New York City, this place has mythic elements of Norman Rockwell country -- referring, of course to the famous painter of archetypal small-town America, born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When I moved here from New York City, I neither expected to find, nor did I search for, the meaning of life, or for "real" American values of the sort that Governor Palin said are uniquely instilled in towns like these.

Gov. Palin's remarks this past week implicitly referenced some urban cabal of cosmopolitanism with values of a lesser worth and a suspect work ethic to boot. She spoke as if schoolteachers and factory workers belong exclusively to rural or small-town pockets of America. As if there are no patriots in Chicago, or hard-working folk in downtown Los Angeles, or faithful, family-first Americans in Kansas City. I'd go a step further and say her comments were vaguely sinister, encouraging an us-versus-them divisiveness that is the sign of an increasingly desperate campaign. It is also rhetoric that historically has fueled not only paranoia and group-think, but even tyranny.

We may be resigned to hearing about a 50-50 country for the rest of our time on earth. But it might be time for some mythbusting about rural vs. city, as if America's fissure occurs the minute you exit the urban highways. No agrarian area or factory town has the monopoly on values -- a word that has become so sullied and co-opted it is almost unusable -- nor can our country's small towns lay sole claim to patriotism. To assert otherwise is dangerous and inaccurate.

I spent 18 years in the suburbs of Boston, 20 years in Manhattan, and now six years in one of those supposedly-value-laden idylls in Connecticut, and what I have to report may shock you: there are good people everywhere. There are good values everywhere. There's devotion to family, faith, country, friends and workplace everywhere. And this just in: there are also mean, lazy, deadbeat Americans everywhere as well.

To give her the benefit of the doubt, Gov. Palin probably meant to flatter her audience when she made her remarks in Greensboro, N.C.: that's why she complimented that town for being not only pro-America but the real America. She wanted to tell them they were special, and to practice some affinity politicking - not only am I like you, but you're like me, and -- wink -- we're better than those elite city folk. She has now issued the kind of boilerplate apology -- or clarification - that has become so tiresome, and to which we have become so accustomed, from celebrities and public figures of every stripe when they speak too quickly, assess the damage, and have to repudiate what they just said. I am not sure I believe her apology, but while cementing her 'outsider' status as a small-town gal herself, her sweeping comments reinforced the artificial brick wall between city and country. They diminished the struggles of city dwellers who love their country, and fight for it, and marginalized their contributions both to a market economy and to society.

Like New York City, my town is filled with regular citizens, construction workers and bankers, activists and people who don't follow the news, and parents worried sick about their children, the schools and their jobs. Like New York, the people in my town are watching property values tank and 401Ks flameout. And like I did in New York, I chat with the woman who serves me a coffee-regular in the morning, and I wave and smile at my neighbors -- though I do have fewer of them -- who don't always have the time to stop and talk about the weather. When I was on bed rest in New York, my friends brought me delicious take-out and carted around my kids on the subway, and when I had surgery in the country, my friends brought me covered dishes and carted my kids around in mini-vans. Other than the fact that my plumber, Doug, usually comes within hours of my calling when there's a water emergency (my super used to take a few days), other than the fact that the air is crisper here, the small town life is no more American than the city life I left behind. Our July 4 parade is small and intimate, and the Cub Scouts do throw candy at the crowd, but we honor the veterans who march, and the volunteer firemen and women -- noble people, and the finest of citizens -- no more vigorously than we do their urban counterparts. In other words, there is plenty of "kindness" and "goodness," as Gov. Palin put it, even in big cities, and as we saw when the towers collapsed in our backyard, no shortage of "courage" either.

Many a politician has played the plain folk vs. elite game with its troubling innuendo in the past. McCarthy redefined "un-American," and profaned the concept of patriotism. Mao Zedong, from the countryside, feared the urban scene, and built a political philosophy on contradictions between city and country, agrarian and intellectual, and ultimately purged the scholars. Nixon famously feared the ivory tower. But where I obviously don't believe that Gov. Palin has a HUAC, a dictatorship, or another paranoid Nixon White House in mind, I do interpret her attribution of pro-American values and the embrace of hard work to small towns as a slap in the face to everyone else, and her (and the Republican campaign's) constant hammering of perceived elites as both a phony issue and a needlessly divisive one. There is simply no advantage in deliberately creating character divisions based on geography in a country where good and bad, and hard-worker, slacker -- and unemployed -- mean the same, everywhere. To her Greensboro audience it may have been shrewd politics. To the rest of us, it was insulting.

So, we hope for the gray area, and it exists in my small town. The other day, I found myself driving behind a big, gas-swilling pickup. On the right of the cab window, was a yellow ribbon magnet reading "We Support our Troops." Appropriately, on the left side of the rear bumper, was an 'Obama 08' sticker. Perhaps like millions of Americans who are working too hard and getting poorer by the hour, the driver needed to remind people like me, behind him on the country roads, to keep in mind the two ongoing wars. Perhaps he was reminding the rest of us that you can be both a patriot and a Democrat. For me it was an unvarnished, quiet snapshot of why Governor Palin's comments in Greensboro so entirely missed the shades and gradations of this great country.