Sunday, September 7, 2008

Small Towns

Daily Kos gleefully posted this Daily Show video denigrating the praises that have been heaped on small towns during the Republican convention. Stewart's "reporters" - a.k.a. "gotcha men" - reveal that the delegates weren't able to give a very good answer to the question of why small towns are worthy of praise (you can be sure that footage of anyone who was able to respond well is lying on the cutting room floor).

Perhaps Stewart's "reporters" should have read the New York Times - at least if the name of the town in question is not Wasilla, Alaska. Today's front page features an article on the demise of Iowa's barns, and the way of life that is passing away.

The article draws its information from a Depression-era Federal Writers Project, a history of Iowa during the early twentieth-century. Written by outsiders, it tells a story of small town life different than what has been intimated in recent condescending attacks on Sarah Palin's background.

According to the article:

After the writers moved on, machines, more and more, took the place of handwork and workhorses, and these farm implements grew ever bigger, more powerful, more expensive. Farms, in turn, ballooned in acreage. They shrank drastically in number. So farmhouses, schools, farming towns, even Mr. Scott’s beloved barns emptied, making way in some cases for the long, low, plain buildings used in modern large-scale livestock operations.

That period, as described in the guide, was steeped in a sense of community, an innocent warmth: county fair days, band concert nights, when farm families rushed through chores to gather for music, and threshing runs, when neighbor farmers helped one another with the harvest (before combines made that simpler, solitary work) and their wives gathered to prepare mountainous feasts of meat, potatoes, pie.

“We just don’t neighbor like we used to,” said Donald Wedeking, 81, of Nemaha (A “Mighty Small Town,” as its sign somewhat ambiguously promises), who grows 830 acres of corn and soybeans with his son, far more than his family once did.

He was one of many near and along U.S. 20 through western Iowa, where the guide’s writers wandered, who seemed to long for elements of the past.

“Now it’s kind of dog eat dog,” said LaDon Grotjohn, 63, a farmer in Schaller.

“It was a good way,” said Wendell Body, 76, of Sac City, the county seat for Sac County, an agricultural community where more than 17,600 people lived in the 1930s, but where fewer than 11,000 people live now.

Perhaps Stewart should dispatch some of his reporters there. But, unlike the WPA writers during the Depression, they would doubtless report on these farmers' weird religion (prayer), oppressive beliefs (morality), and strange appearance (overalls). How distant a time, but more, how distant a world, when outsiders - often from cities - could come to small towns and find something there of value. Now they are likely to find only smallness - the thing to be feared and rejected.

The Daily Show is watched - well, daily - by innumerable college students especially. It is representative of a broader culture of derision, sarcasm, and constant irony. This sarcastic detachment forms the true education of the youth of today's wealthy, powerful, free societies. It is very difficult to imagine that a nation whose youth is formed in such pervasive irony can have much of a future. Ironically, it was folkways learned in small towns especially that provided an alternative - earnest, decent, common. If Daily Show viewers can't comprehend why Sarah Palin appeals to broad swaths of their countrymen, they might spend some time reading about a more serious time when your life depended on your neighbors, such as in 1930s Iowa.

(This one's for you, John.)


Molly said...

It's interesting that you take on the Daily Show for its sarcasm, and contrast that with Sarah Palin. I found her speech at the RNC quite sarcastic, far more so than any speakers at the DNC.

PS--I was in one of your classes years ago at Princeton. I'm excited to have found, and look forward to reading, your blog. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Indeed-we should expect better from our satirists. It is a unique failure of our times that those who poke fun at our deepest-seated contradictions aren't able to equally salve the dissonance they note. Sarah Palin's speech was a perfect example! She showed a comfortable, down-to-earth attitude while simultaneously challenging the worth of Obama's past community work. She was sarcastic, but masked it with sweetness! Someone ought to do something about Stewart-his attitude is ruining America's youth, like a modern-day Ambrose Bierce.

Anonymous said...

I, like molly, was turned off by Palin's sarcasm, though I recognize it as politically effective. I fear that ironic detachment has overcome alternatives everywhere in America. Certainly all the conservatives in their 20s that I know practice it. I include myself, as it is such a reflex that one absorbs this mindset and behaves in such a manner without realizing it.

Conor said...

Am I the only one who isn't sure what to make of the anonymous comment? Is he/she being sarcastic or not?

Anonymous said...

I, too, think that we must learn about earnestness and the absence of derision from Rudy Giuliani and Rush Limbaugh. Indeed, I believe that we should all now begin this excerise by encouraging halls full of people at a national event watched by millions to jeer at "community organizers" for reasons which no one can condescend long enough to explain. No doubt they were too busy awash in "earnest, decent, common" values to express something othr than contempt for "community organizers". Sorry, is this too "sarcastic" for you?

Conor said...

Yeesh. Yes, sarcastic enough for me. I was only aiming for clarification. Furthermore, I agree-Giuliani has no place admonishing anyone for their cosmopolitanism, nor should we listen to him when he questions anyone else's religious convictions.

Actually, though, you raise a good point regarding the scope of small-town values in party politics. Is it possible to translate anything like the camaraderie of rural Iowans into a major political machine? I'm doubtful. Should we question the authenticity of such posturing? I think so, particularly when the characters making the claims are Giuliani and Co.

Now, as for Palin, her character becomes a political issue of the first order, of course, if we are to laud her for her background as a small-town mayor (with all the values implicated in this role). The Republican Party has certainly positioned her well in this regard. We are asked to take her seriously as a paragon of virtue in a world of corruption, but insofar as her virtue is questionably displayed in her political and personal life, legitimate arguments are denigrated as unfair, etc. Challenging THAT odd concatenation of positions seems to me the most plausible line of argument for liberals today-and instead of sarcastic, it is fair, honest, logical, and straightforward.