Tuesday, September 20, 2011

NYT goes country

The whole Facebook-means-now-we-all-live-in-a-small-town thing, that I totally buy. Those notions - American classics in their own right - that you can go away even a short ways to a new high school or to college and reinvent yourself, that a big city means anonymity and the freedom that comes with, they're kind of done. This is true (it sure is!) if you're from a big city initially, if you go to a big high school that's a feeder school to a big college - soon enough, people you've just met will be reminding you about the time you (insert embarrassing incident here.) But it's also true if you come from a small town - a friend of mine from (insert big land-wise but not population-wise Midwestern state here) is, thanks to Facebook, back in touch with a high school classmate also living in NY. It's possible, as it's always been, to be the kind of person who doesn't much care what others think; also, as has no doubt always been the case, many of us who cared at 15 care less at 20, less still at 25, etc. But it's not possible to lead several lives in one lifetime without moving far, another planet perhaps.

Which is why I was kind of baffled by this NYT story about nastiness in small town gossip forums online. (PG, is this what you were referring to a while back re: the paper not properly covering non-NY news?) Other than the fact that the insults manifest themselves as... something less sophisticated-sounding than "banter" or "snark," what's the takeaway? That small towns can be crappy places to live if everyone in town is against you? That the Internet both increased and decreased anonymity, which it did everywhere and not just the Ozarks? (Who's not picturing Jean Smart's character on "Designing Women" right about now?)

Of course, if the point was merely that life in a small town is also something other than homogeneity and bliss, good values and mutual respect, that may have been reason enough to run it. We are, as Frank Bruni points out, channelling Christopher Hitchens, neck-deep in stories of political candidates' main credential as rustic-ness. It's a bunch of -ing becoming -in', and it ranges from annoying to offensive. This is not new territory (or terroir, if you will) at WWPD.

Bruni asks, "Will American politics ever get away from this crazy contest in which the players strive to out-ordinary one another, distancing themselves from any whiff of privilege and trying to project a woodsy, folksy, flannel essence?" And it's an interesting question. In what sense, in America these days, is flannel - worn unironically, and not as part of Nirvana-nostalgia - "ordinary"? And is "privilege" the same thing as "urban"? Aren't there wealthy people on (apologies to Monty Python) "huge... tracts of land," and poor ones in projects and run-down apartment buildings? Not to mention the fact - that I've mentioned here before - that within a city like New York, the only people who grow up with "country" experience - cars, Walmart, horses, Golden Retrievers - are the richest of the rich, who have summer/weekend houses where while relaxing they may also acquire Real American cred.

I wish that Bruni had looked a bit deeper and seen how key this is to the Republican message, this conflation of good-scrappy with rural. It's about how the scrappy and urban are dangerous and undeserving, the privileged and small-town our American heroes, the privileged and urban... just ask Sarah P. It all has about zilch to do with how candidates themselves were raised, let alone with whether if they had the choice they wouldn't all live in penthouse apartments on Central Park West and order in massive quantities of caviar from Zabars. Nor is it about small-town upbringings leading to honorable behavior. It's about poor blacks, rich Jews, and of course flamboyant (yet strangely marriage-and-family-oriented!) gays as proxies for Big Bad Modernity, not about YPIS or the marginalized or any of that liberal nonsense.

Anyway, speaking of country, something about my new habitat made me incredibly interested in L.L. Bean's offerings. If I'm going to be out every morning at 7:45 with a poodle who strikes me as kind of farm-animal-like (but in a cute way!), I want to dress the part.

6 comments:

CW said...

I think this focus on rural roots is, in part, a result of the ridiculous system we have for selecting major party nominees. Iowa is a great state. I went to college there and later married an Iowan, but the perceived preferences of the small percentage of Iowans who attend their caucuses have become far too important a factor in our politics.

I say perceived preferences because I'm not sure actual Iowans are as quite parochial as campaign managers and staff assume. Obama managed to win Iowa without pretending to be a country boy. That was on the democratic side, but still.

(For an anecdote that doesn't reflect well on Iowans, I would point to Bonnie Campbell. When she ran for Governor of Iowa, some Republicans tried to make an issue out of the fact that she was originally from New York. The Des Moines Register then sent a reporter to her hometown in upstate New York. They printed pictures of cows, farms, etc. She was a decent small-town girl, not some suspect big-city sophisticate.)

Phoebe said...

CW,

Right, Iowa. But what about same-sex marriage? That super-elite MFA program? College towns? Iowa's one of the Midwestern states I've never been do (and for a "suspect big-city sophisticate," I've been to a bunch), so basically I have no idea. Wikipedia tells me that "Iowa now has a predominantly urban population," but that it's almost entirely white. So maybe the idea is to appeal to people who think of themselves as having the potential to hunt deer, but who work in offices? The whole show seems less about appealing to actual farmers, hunters, etc. than about reaching out to voters who culturally identify with The Land.

PG said...

I don't know enough about "feud states" to say how accurate this particular article is, but it seems to have the typical NYT-reporting-about-flyover-country deficiencies, especially in giving the impression that this problem is somehow peculiar to small towns. The most glaring journalistic failure was not to mention the nationwide issue of slanderous comments in anonymous online fora. Has the reporter never heard of AutoAdmit? Ivy League law school students are quite as capable of making life suck for one another as the present-day Hatfields and McCoys do, albeit with victims who have a quicker draw on the litigation guns.

whether if they had the choice they wouldn't all live in penthouse apartments on Central Park West and order in massive quantities of caviar from Zabars.

In other words, if they weren't politicians who had to retain residency in their original districts, wouldn't they prefer to live like Rush Limbaugh?

But what about same-sex marriage?

Imposed by the courts and an impetus for voters' removing state Supreme Court justices from office for the first time.

However, your label "people who think of themselves as having the potential to hunt deer, but who work in offices" is dead-on. That's pretty much the current Nashville country music target audience. There aren't enough people who actually work in farms, coalmines and oilfields anymore to be a worthwhile cultural demographic in a capitalistic society, so who's "country" has become much more inclusive: goes fishin', owns a firearm, can keep a straight face while asking Jesus to take the wheel.

PG said...

Since you like to look at comments to NYT articles, you might enjoy this blogpost: http://www.woot.com/Blog/ViewEntry.aspx?Id=19317

Phoebe said...

PG,

A few thoughts on this:

-I thought the NYT article actually did a decent job of explaining what's different in these small towns, namely that the Internet only arrived in full force relatively recently. The reference to Gawker in the piece made it clear that the idea wasn't that sophisticated city-folk aren't nasty on the Internet. Rather, we were meant to be surprised that country-folk sometimes are.

-Some parts of the country probably really are worse places to live than others, even controlling for socioeconomic status, city-country, etc. My sense of that part of the country (and I have been to towns around there) is that even those who live in the same region and are not so well-off regard it as horrible. So it's not necessarily a case of "flyover" vs. the UWS. For MO, for KY, these might be especially not-upbeat places. So maybe the article might have been more painstakingly spelled out the extent to which whatever this phenomenon is, it's not about 'places that aren't NY or L.A.' but something far more specific, not applicable to Chicago or St. Louis, either.

-The problem I had with the article was basically that it wasn't clear to me why, these days, with everyone in some kind of perma-niche resulting from a mix of ever-virtually-present elementary school friends and frenemies and, like you say, professional cohorts, it's so much worse to be talked ill of in a small town than in any other setting. I mean, if the issue is you're a gay 13-year-old, then of course living somewhere where that's OK will be a better situation. But it's not as though anyone, even the super-privileged and super-urban, can that easily escape their milieu. When fancy snooty UES private-school girls turn on one another (which they do, which there are familiar books and a TV show about, thus launching the career of Bar Refaeli's replacement Blake Lively), yes, East Harlem is a mere block away, but it's not as though making a new set of friends on 98th Street is some kind of plausible outcome. In life, you're generally stuck with who you're stuck with, especially when young.

-The only possible useful takeaway from the NYT piece was that we really are neck-deep in rhetoric about how small, not-coastal towns are the only places in America where anyone has decent values, rhetoric that's obviously far less about values (which vary everywhere) than about tapping into resentment and speaking out in coded language against various Others. A reminder that life in such places isn't all sunshine might be helpful. Problem is, when that reminder is in the paper it was in, we're once again - as with the Bruni-Deen-Bourdain debacle - in murky territory, perception-wise. Is this just coastal elites being snooty? The fact that the quoted passages were notable not only for their insulting-ness but also for their let's say not-so-New Yorker magazine writing style made it seem, even if this was not the goal, as though the point was, 'hehe look at those hicks.'

PG said...

The fact that the quoted passages were notable not only for their insulting-ness but also for their let's say not-so-New Yorker magazine writing style made it seem, even if this was not the goal, as though the point was, 'hehe look at those hicks.'

Yeah, I don't find that insults on most open, unmoderated fora are at a very high level. Again, look at the AutoAdmit threads on female law students that sparked outrage, job-offer-withdrawals and lawsuits. Insults about their appearances, accusations of STDs... deep down, trashy people are really the same everywhere.

The reference to Gawker in the piece made it clear that the idea wasn't that sophisticated city-folk aren't nasty on the Internet.

Gawker is a gossip site, but it's one with named authors who have to take a certain amount of responsibility for their work (as with the Wonkette post that got in trouble for mocking Trig Palin). If the NYT reporter meant to refer to the anonymous comment section on Gawker, it didn't come across that way. The article very much seemed to be saying that "gossip sites" in places like NY and LA are written at the paid-professional Gawker level, whereas these poor hillbillies have to author their own gossiping.

I don't think the use of Topix for gossip is constrained solely to the kind of places where "even those who live in the same region and are not so well-off regard it as horrible." I just looked at the Topix for my hometown, which is the county seat, has almost 30,000 people and has a state university. While there's some serious discussions (albeit substantively disagreeable, e.g. people insulting gays in the discussion of DADT), there's also a ton of nasty gossip (accusing people of being pedophiles, child pornographer, thieves etc.).