Posted by WLS:
Joe Klein has a truly breathtaking column out today which calls into question the authenticity of Sarah Palin’s life story by claiming that the “small town” America that Palin claims to represent doesn’t exist anymore, and that it’s really nothing more than a political construct of the Republican Party that appeals to nostalgia in order to win elections.
The Palins win elections and snowmobile races in a state that represents the last, lingering hint of that most basic Huckleberry Finn fantasy — lighting out for the territories. She quoted Westbrook Pegler, the F.D.R.-era conservative columnist, in her acceptance speech: “We grow good people in our small towns…” And then added, “I grew up with those people. They’re the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food and run our factories and fight our wars. They love their country in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America.”
Except that’s not really true. We haven’t been a nation of small towns for nearly a century. It is the suburbanites and city dwellers who do the fighting and hourly-wage work now, and the corporations who grow our food. But Palin’s embrace of small-town values is where her hold on the national imagination begins. She embodies the most basic American myth — Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, the fantasia of rural righteousness — updated in a crucial way: now Mom works too.
My life is a perfect expression of why Klein’s view is an east coast, urban-centric, myopic view of the country that he apparently doesn’t know all that well:
I was born in a city of about 300,000 people. I grew up within 15 miles of the urban core of that city. By the time I left for college the metro area — the city itself and its surrounding bedroom communities — had a population of close to 500,000. Today the population is close to 700,000.
Yet, I grew up on a farm. It wasn’t a big farm or a commercial farm, as my father was a cop and my mother was a secretary. But we had 5 acres, with a barn, a couple horses, some cattle, and we grew our own vegetables. Most of what we produced was for our consumption or the consumption of friends and family. There were 5 acre farms on both sides of us, and across the street that fronted our house. There were smaller farms in the area, and much, much larger farms as well. There were “ranches” consisting of thousands of acres not very far away — but about the same distance the other direction was a university with 15,000 students.
I always felt then — and I feel now — that I grew up on a farm. I don’t see how the life’s lessons I learned in my youth were any different than a kid growing up in rural Nebraska, South Dakota, or Georgia.
And the primary industry that fueled commerce in and around the metro area of half-a-million people was agriculture — both corporate agriculture and family farmers.
Then I left and went to college in the second largest urban area in the US — and I lived right in the middle of it. I then went law school in the 5th or 6th largest urban area in the US.
Does all of that make me any less the product of a small town environment — notwithstanding the fact that my “small town” actually had 500,000 residents? Is my background a “myth” as Klein calls it?
Now I live about 15 miles from one of the largest 15 cities in the US. Yet the community where my house is prides itself on maintaining its small town character that goes along with having only 20,000 residents. The town has a “Neighborhood Board”, and the residential neighborhood I live in has its “Homeowner’s Association.” Both are attended by appointees and volunteers who concern themselves with issues that are unique to the town in one instance, and the neighborhood in the other. The focus of their attention reflects quintessential “small town” concerns. I coach Little League and sit on the sidelines and root for my 7-year-old’s soccer team. I see the same parents and volunteers at both — just like I probably would if I lived in a small town like central Pennsylvania with 20,000 residents. Yet 15 miles away from my front door is an quintessentially urban city of close to 750,00 people.
But 5 miles away from my front door the other direction are farmers — both family farms and corporate farms.
Next Klein decides to insult the tens of millions of Americans who live below the Mason-Dixon line with the following observation, likely made from the vantage point of somewhere near the intersection of West 81st Street and Central Park West:
Nearly 50 years ago, in The Burden of Southern History, the historian C. Vann Woodward argued that the South was profoundly different from the rest of America because it was the only part of the country that had lost a war: “Southern history, unlike American…includes not only an overwhelming military defeat but long decades of defeat in the provinces of economic, social and political life.” Woodward believed that this heritage led Southerners to be more obsessed with the past than other Americans were — at its worst, in popular works like Gone With the Wind, there was a gagging nostalgia for a courtly antebellum South that never really existed.
During the past 50 years, the rest of the country has caught up to the South in the nostalgia department. We lost a war in Vietnam; Iraq hasn’t gone so well either. And there are two other developments that have cut into the sense of American perfection. The middle class has begun to lose altitude — there isn’t the certainty anymore that our children will live better than we do. More important, the patina of cultural homogeneity that camouflaged 1950s suburbia has vanished. We have become more obviously multiracial…. the feminist and gay-rights revolutions, the breakdown of the two-parent family…. They intruded upon the most traditional families in the smallest towns. The political impact was a conservative reaction of enormous vehemence.
You see, small town American is angry that urban America has become all these things that urban America didn’t used to be when it was only populated by people who moved from small town America.
And, as Klein conveniently points out for those of us who think Obama’s policy prescriptions would be particularly bad for the economic and social welfare of the country, we’re all racists — and its Reagan’s fault:
“The blinding whiteness and fervent religiosity of the party [Reagan] created are an enduring testament to the power of the myth of an America that existed before we had all these problems. The power of Sarah Palin is that she is the latest, freshest iteration of that myth… The Republican Party’s subliminal message seems stronger than ever this year because of the nature of the Democratic nominee for President. Barack Obama could not exist in the small-town America that Reagan fantasized. He’s the product of what used to be called miscegenation, a scenario that may still be more terrifying than a teen daughter’s pregnancy in many American households.
And, for the 60+ million people that are going to go to the polls and vote for John McCain — maybe more or maybe less than the number that vote for Barack Obama — well, Klein knows an roomful of idiots when he sees the way they vote:
The Democrats have no myth to counter this powerful Republican fantasy…. Democrats do have the facts in their favor. Polls show that Americans agree with them on the issues…. But Americans like stories more than issues….
So Obama faces an uphill struggle between now and Nov. 4. He has no personal anecdotes to match Palin’s mooseburgers. His story of a boy whose father came from Kenya and mother from Kansas takes place in an America not yet mythologized, a country that is struggling to be born — a multiracial country whose greatest cultural and economic strength is its diversity… a country with a much greater potential for justice and creativity — and perhaps even prosperity — than the sepia-tinted version of Main Street America. But that vision is not sellable right now to a critical mass of Americans. They live in a place, not unlike C. Vann Woodward’s South, where myths are more potent than the hope of getting past the dour realities they face each day.
Thanks, Joe. My lack of self-awareness for the inherent evil of my existence has me feeling guilty beyond your ability to know. With your enlightened help, I now understand that I’m such a horrible person being the product an American that doesn’t exist anymore, I’m going to go out and kill myself so as to put you out of your obvious misery at having to inhabit the same planet as me.