Thursday, September 04, 2008

'A small-town girl'

As this presidential campaign enters its sixth decade, I'm starting to wonder if I'm even qualified to vote come November. All the talk about small-town values make me wonder if someone who's never eaten fried squirrel or moose stew can be an American. And yet, it's unclear what I'd be if not American. I still live in my hometown, in fact attend school at the same university where I was born, which sounds wholesome enough, until I mention that I'm referring to NYU, to New York. And in this election, 'coastal elites' (that is, anyone from New York or San Francisco, regardless of income, who can identify arugula at the supermarket) are the enemy du jour. This comes mostly from the Republican side, but really, it's both. If you're 'more beer than wine,' whatever that means, then your voice gets to be heard. If not, you obviously already rule the show via your cabal, via 'Seinfeld' reruns, and so on, so you shouldn't complain.

Which brings up the question: if we're defining as 'real' those who live in small towns, those whose lives are not represented in sitcoms, where does that leave those of us who see movie stars at the local Starbucks, those of us who took the subway to high school, those of us for whom both the snooty-sounding or 'ethnic' foods and tiny apartments that mark city life (that is, outside of abject poverty) are the default? Am I less of a real American because churches and exurbs are not my own life experience, because I'm 25 and no one I know my age yet has a kid? I'm not running for any office, and so have no need to claim a life other than the one I've led. But is it elitist and un-American simply to be who I am, a New York Jew, an atheist, and (and this is starting to be embarrassing) incapable of driving a car? It's one thing to say my experiences are not representative, but must they be denounced as those of a foreigner?

In response to those who will say, boo hoo, it must be sooo hard to be one of those urbanites who think they're so great, I'll say this: anti-cosmopolitanism, aka populism, can go too far. It can be unnerving not just for those of a Woody Allen demographic (although Jews have historical good reason to be disturbed by populist fervor), but to anyone who wants to see an inclusive vision of America, one in which it's not necessary to pronounce the word 'family' with that flat, middle-American 'a' for people to believe you think you have 'family values.' What seems to be lost in all the discussions of American authenticity is the difference between being urban and being elite. I mean, there is an elitism of fancy cheese and fancy graduate degrees, but there's also a hierarchy of authenticity or appearance thereof, and that hierarchy is the order of the day, across the political spectrum. We like Obama even though he went to Harvard, and so forth.

Somewhere in the middle of the candidates' attempts to show how much they care about the 'forgotten' parts of our country-- a worthy goal-- they've crossed the line into implying that those who do not, say, identify with Sarah Palin's biography are somehow foreign and thus unworthy of representation. Although I see how it could be confusing, given the throngs of European tourists on shopping tours of major American cities, I promise that there are indeed Americans among the hordes on lower Broadway. That 'Friends' and 'Sex and the City' are ever-so-loosely based on our life experiences does not mean we think we're better than everyone else, at least any more than those from small towns think this about themselves. We're still Americans, and we do, says the mailing I received directing me to the local Brooklyn polling station, have a vote.


Anonymous said...

I'm old enough to remember when all sit coms were set in some kind of generic small town/ suburb -- Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, My Three Sons. As a New Yorker, I never saw my reflection in those WASPY locales. Maybe they are angry about that -- though they could watch reruns or something. One bit of hope is that, as resident in a Red state, I can tell you "they" are not as numerous as it looks, esp. when they are cheering themselves at GOP convention. Here's hoping/ working for regime change. -- JM

Petey said...

"We're still Americans, and we do, says the mailing I received directing me to the local Brooklyn polling station, have a vote."

Unfortunately, while we do still have a vote, we don't have the median vote in the Presidential election.

The median voter in a Presidential election for the past generation has been in the small towns and rural areas of the upper Midwest. Hence, hunting and highways are a priority, while arugula availability and mass transit isn't.

The founding fathers actually had explicitly anti-city motives when they wrote the Constitution, and history has shown they were mostly successful in achieving their goals.