Tag Archives: small-town America

Walmart: The New American Company Town

In 21st century America, meet the new town center.

In 21st century America, meet the new “neighborhood”  town center.

Few institutions represent the bloated, socially stratified, natural-environment-degrading, corporation-worshipping, beached on a mile-wide parking-lot corpse that is 21st century America better than Walmart. The voracious Aspidochelone from Arkansas is not only the current twentieth most valuable brand on Earth, it’s also the largest employer in America, providing dynamic, food-stamp-assisted careers to some 1.3 million people. Unless you’ve been living under a boulder shamelessly draped with the American flag, you know that Walmart has for years been the subject of controversy. For some, it represents the essence of American freedom, to others, it’s the ultimate symbol of the ethically challenged, cheapness-obsessed, soul-degrading state of modern capitalism.

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The Midterm Elections and the Rural-Urban Divide in U.S. History

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (). The idea of a "Chick=f=lay+ section of America is really a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Walt Curlee, Taking Pumpkins to the Market (2012). The idea of a “Chick-fil-A Country” is really just a re-tread of the old agrarian myth.

Ah, the American press. The third estate. Delivering the hard journalistic facts to an information-starved American public. Okay, so those are the ideals that the more idealistic fools among us would wish upon U.S. journalism. Instead, we have programs like Meet the Press, now hosted by renowned Beltway fluffer Chuck Todd, who, like famed NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, has two first names. In a recent segment in which he discussed the upcoming 2014 midterm elections, the goeteed sage decided to frame the current political narrative through the lens of that most American of institutions: fast-food. You see, Todd believes that the current liberal-conservative divide in American politics has split the country into a “Starbucks Nation” and a “Chick-Fil-A Country.”

“Starbucks Nation” is characterized by big cities, where effete, spineless, multi-cultural, non-open-carrying, socialistic, Starbucks’ latte-sipping, atheistic, possibly homosexual, tax-raising urban liberal hippies vote for the Democratic Party and thus, plan to destroy America. “Chick-Fil-A Country,” by contrast, is characterized by small-towns — the real America — and is populated by white, gun-humping, (Protestant Christian) church-door-darkening, tax-cutting, flag-waving, freedom-oozing, military-worshipping, free-market-mouthing, conservative Chick-Fil-A patronizing rubes who vote Republican to save America. According to Chuck Todd, it’s the political battle between these two competing demographics — “the Democrats who live in the big cities” versus the “Republicans that live in the areas between suburban America and rural America” — that will decide the 2014 mid-term elections.

This is your press, America. And while Chuck Todd should certainly be taken to the proverbial woodshed for reducing American politics to a dualistic smackdown between competing styles of fast-food (believe it or not, there actually are small-town Starbucks AND big-city Chick-Fil-As!), he is nonetheless echoing a very old — and very real — divide in American culture: the clash between the rural and the urban; between the small-town and the big city.

Culturally, the Seattle-based Starbucks, as purveyors of crappy, overpriced coffee and mass-marketed faux-European cafe kitsch, is often used as an all-purpose stand-in for air-headed progressive urbanity (“Putting soymilk in your ten-dollar mocha-chai-pumpkin-Twinkie-latte AND supporting gay-marriage?! How sophisticated!”). By contrast, Chick-Fil-A has a conservative, middle-American image. Its founder is an evangelical Christian, and the chain’s critique of all-things queer-o-sexual made it a rallying point for right-wing, small-town Americans who wanted a big helping of culture-war conformity alongside their value-priced, coagulated chicken globules.

But regardless of how overly simplistic it is to associate Starbucks with liberal city life and Chick-Fil-A with small-town conservatism, Chuck Todd can get away with this kind of superficial bunk because there’s a very real history of urban-rural clashes in American history. Todd is referencing that history in his bone-headed, fast-food-based take on the 2014 midterm elections. After all, as the Wall Street Journal reported early in 2014, it’s a well-established fact that in modern America, cities tend to be havens for liberals while conservatives are mostly concentrated in rural areas and small towns. This type of political divide is the legacy of an American cultural proclivity towards viewing cities as bastions of openness, impersonality, and chaos in contrast to the supposed stability, conformity, and slower-paced, value-driven life of the countryside.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they're ordering the new Trotsky latte.

Just look at these left-wing, urban Starbucks patrons. Clearly, they’re ordering the new Trotsky latte.

As historian Paul Boyer writes in his book Urban Masses and Moral Order in America: 1820-1920, the urban-rural divide in American life is as old as the republic itself. The first wave of mass urban growth during the Jacksonian era struck fear into the hearts of American agrarians. “Urbanization posed profound threats to the social and moral order they knew,” Boyer writes, and, as a result, critics of urban life unleashed “somber warnings about the prevalence of intemperance, gambling, sexual immorality, profanity, and Sabbath breaking in the cities.”* To nineteenth century America’s moralizing country-bumpkins, “the urban order represented a volatile and unpredictable deviation from a familiar norm.”*

Perhaps America’s most famous of all agrarian apologists was none other than Thomas Jefferson. The archetypical Founding Father spent most of his life touting the importance of an agrarian ideal in which America would ideally be populated by independent, virtuous yeomen farmers far-removed from the tempting licentiousness of the cities.

In his famous 1784 book Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson waxed nostalgic about how rural and small-town life provided a bulwark against the dastardly influence of urbanization. “Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue,” Jefferson wrote. “It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth.” And what did Jefferson think of the cities? Although he wasn’t totally adverse to the growing importance of urban commerce, he nonetheless took a defiant stance in favor of the countryside, writing that, “The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body.” Ouch.

The influence of Jefferson, a southerner, echoed during the buildup to the Civil War. In the antebellum period, northern and southern opponents tended to cast the sectional conflict as a clash between a rural, slaveholding South and an industrial, urbanizing North. But such black-and-white distinctions were products of politics and culture, not reality. Historians have since shown that while the South was indeed more rural than the North, it had plenty of cities and industry, and while the North was more urbanized and industrial than the South, it was still a mostly agrarian region that sent far more farmers than factory workers to the battlefields.

But such nuances didn’t matter to pro-slavery politicians like South Carolina’s James Henry Hammond, who invoked the rural life to defend southern slavery against supposedly hypocritical, anti-slavery urban northerners who criticized the South’s peculiar institution while simultaneously ignoring the wage-slavery in their midst. In his famous 1858 “Mudsill Speech,” Hammond argued that southern slaves were, “hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our [enslaved] people, and not too much employment either.”

Unlike southern slaves, Hammond claimed that northern workers were, “hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most painful manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns.” “Why, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York, than you would meet in a lifetime in the whole South,” he boasted. The virtuous southern rural lifestyle, Hammond argued, was superior to northern urbanization because it kept only a specific group of (black) people enslaved, whereas wage-slavery affected whites and spread like a disease through northern cities. Checkmate, countryside!

Even decades after the Civil War, however, the allure of the countryside as an antidote to urban ills maintained a powerful hold on some folks in the conservative South. In the early twentieth century, a group of southern agrarian intellectuals railed against the influence of so-called “New South Boosters,”  who sought to remake the post-war South into a northern-style industrial urban powerhouse.

In their seminal essay collection I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, the agrarians made their case for the inherent virtue of Dixie’s rural and small town lifestyle. “Opposed to the industrial society is the agrarian,” they wrote, “the theory of agrarianism is that the culture of the soil is the best and most sensitive of vocations.” The rural lifestyle stood in sharp contrast to the “evils” of urbanization and industrialization, especially “overproduction, unemployment, and a growing inequality in the distribution of wealth.” Like that of Jefferson before them, the echoes of the agrarians ring loudly in modern American discourse that presents the conservative small town as morally and spiritually superior to the liberal big city.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

Small town America tends to fancy itself as more patriotic, but know this: even city-dwelling hippies like chicken nuggets.

While America’s rural areas are declining in population, the old historical preference for the countryside now surfaces via “traditional” residents of small-town America who put their faith in the Republican Party as the last bulwark against a creeping, urbanized, secular, liberal culture. As Josh Kron of the Atlantic wrote a few years back, “the new political divide is a stark division between cities and what remains of the countryside…the voting data suggest that people don’t make cities liberal — cities make people liberal.” This demographic reality is why 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin adopted her best “aw shucks, gosh darnnit'” tone to claim that authenticity reigned not in cities, but rather “in these small towns” and “wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America,” the residents of which were apparently “hard-working, very patriotic, and very pro-America.”

Palin’s speech is the type of hayseed-mongering that rural and small-town conservative voters lap up like St. Bernards at a cotton candy convention, and it’s a major component of the Republican Party’s electoral playbook. The same folks who were inspired by Palin’s neo-agrarian rhetoric are the same folks who get a major culture war hard-on when they buy a Chick-Fil-A sandwich just to spite teh gayz. And it’s these same conservative, small-town and rural voters that urban, lefty, Starbucks slurping, gay-marrying pinkos are dismissing as relics of a barbaric age.

Chuck Todd’s Starbucks vs. Chick-Fil-A approach to American politics may be slightly moronic, but it does make a certain kind of indirect sense when you consider the long urban/rural divide that his fast-food metaphor is clumsily referencing. And while this divide has been — and continues to be — a real thing, let’s not overlook the myriad complexities of American history that caution against total, black-and-white approaches to regionalism. Both cities and small towns have their virtues and vices; there are liberal farmers and conservative hedge funders; and pretty much everyone in America has, at some point in their lives, ordered a Starbucks coffee or chomped on some Chick-Fil-A waffle fries.

So while rural/urban divisions will probably never go away, we’ll all be better off if we try to identify our similarities as well as our differences, wherever we live. The reality is that most small towns aren’t idealistic Mayberrys, but they aren’t necessarily backwards hellholes either. Moreover, while they can certainly have higher crime rates, most cities aren’t morally deprived war zones. The charm and slower pace of the countryside can house deep-seated prejudices just as the dynamic multiculturalism of the city can conceal some very real feelings of anomie and alienation. The world is more complex than a simple urban/rural divide would suggest, despite its historical provenance. And as for Chuck Todd: lay off the fast-food, man, Jefferson would have wanted it that way.

* See Paul Boyer, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America, 1820-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 5, 4.

Todd Starnes, Fox News, and Nostalgia’s Twisted History

Tod Starnes, the epitomome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed.

Fleshy Fox News gas geyser Todd Starnes, the epitome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed. Isn’t that precious.

It’s a fairly well-established trope in American politics that conservatives are overly obsessed with the past. Anyone whose ever spent time experiencing the ear-invading ceti-eel that is conservative talk-radio, or viewing the idiot-box propaganda that is Fox News knows that conservatives love to reference a past that was invariably better than the allegedly freedom-crushing nightmare of the Obama era.

For those to the right of the political spectrum, the space-time continuum is defined by two — and only two — eras: before and after the authoritarian reign of Barack Obama. And, of course, the era before Obama’s conquest was much better (and whiter). That’s because conservatives imagine the past to be a simpler, morally superior time, and they want to return to that time pronto!

The problem with yearning for a more wholesome (and by extension, less liberal) time is that such a time never actually existed. The idea of a simpler American past over which right-wingers salivate like golden retrievers anticipating a bag of Beggin’ Strips is, in fact, a past constructed from nostalgia.

In his classic article “Nostalgia and the American,” the historian Arthur Dudden defined nostalgia as “a preference for things as they are believed to have been.”* Conservatives use nostalgia to rally their followers (usually, but not exclusively, grey-haired, government-hating medicare beneficiaries) into supporting Republican political candidates who promise to destroy liberalism and bring America back to a mythical time when the federal government was non-existent and most people lived in a version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, went to church every day, and didn’t have to deal with teh gayz.

Case in point: Todd Starnes — a pasty cross between Lou Dobbs and Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds who regularly serves as Fox News’ resident front-line correspondent for the non-existent “culture wars” — has written a new book that uses nostalgia to condemn all-things liberal. Brilliantly titled God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (conservatives don’t do irony), Starnes’ book is a standard collection of right-wing boilerplate describing the so-called assault on Christian values by the ever-expanding army of liberal heathens who are apparently intent on dragging the U.S. into a hellish orgy of critical thinking and secularism.

In most respects, Starnes’ screed differs little from the stack of conservative polemics published by the (now-threatened) right-wing book industry on a yearly basis that warn of America’s impending slide into moral anarchy. But Starnes’ book is notable thanks to its unbelievable reliance on hackneyed nostalgic clichés to describe a completely fictitious American past in which conservatism reigned supreme and that Barack Obama took away.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstarte, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

As this Andy Griffith statue in Raleigh, North Carolina demonstrates, the myth of a Mayberry-style small town still shapes American identity.

Andrew Kirell over at Mediaite first alerted me to the truly Shaksperian verbiage contained within Starnes’ mighty tome, and he dares people to actually get through the first six pages without bursting into uncontrollable (and possibly dangerous) fits of laughter. Take these paragraphs from Starnes’ Introduction,* in which the Fox News poet layeth down the corn-pone characteristics that defined his humble youth in small-town America:

I grew up in a much simpler time — when blackberry was a pie and dirty dancing meant somebody forgot to clean out the barn for the square dance. It was a time when father still knew best — when the girls were girls and the men were men. I grew up in a time when a rainbow was a sign of God’s promise, not gay rights.

And:

When I grew up, spam was something you ate and a hard drive was the twelve-hour trip to grandma’s house without any bathroom breaks. It was a time when a virus was cleared up with a bowl of chicken soup, not the Geek Squad from Best Buy. It was a time when Doobie was a brother and hip-hop was something a bunny rabbit did.

In a truly stunning feat of deception laced with stupidity, Starnes uses nostalgia to create a fictitious American past that is completely untethered from any actual time and space. Just look at the disparate pop-culture references he manages to cram into those two paragraphs: Square-dancing hasn’t been en vogue since at least the late-1970s; the film Dirty Dancing (which Starnes references to comment on the decline of American sexual values) came out in 1987; Best Buy’s Geek Squad was founded in 1994, and modern computers have been around in some form or another since the 1970s. This alleged “time” when Starnes “grew up” is an imaginary past that he created using nostalgia to stitch together disparate time-periods and pop-culture references into a mythical American historical cloth.

And then there’s the sheer obtuseness displayed in some of Starnes’ references to pop-culture, which he uses to contrast a simpler past with a more complicated present. Seriously, is there anything simple about what goes into making a can of Spam?! And what about the reference to a “Doobie” being merely a “brother?” If Starnes thinks that the name of seventies band the Doobie Brothers wasn’t a verbal nod to smoking weed — then he’s really, really dumb. Starnes commits the cardinal sin of all nostalgia mongers: he believes that because the past happened before, then it must have been simpler than what happened after. Of course, as historians have long pointed out, the past was never, ever “simple.”

So why do Starnes and other conservatives insist on viewing the past through nostalgia-colored lenses? Well, they do so because nostalgia simplifies the past and purports to offer solutions to problems in the present. In his book, Starnes invokes what scholar Andrew Murphy calls “Golden Age politics” by reappropriating the past in order to present a “solution to present difficulties.” Murphy writes that “nostalgic and Golden Age politics depend on the…claim that some aspect of the past offers the best way forward in addressing the inadequacies and corruptions of the present.”* In God Less America, Starnes is doing just that by claiming that the (fictional) America of his youth was simpler and, by extension, better than, the overly complex and morally depraved present that is the Obama era.

I’ve written about nostalgia before, particularly in reference to the reality show American Pickers and in terms of how nostalgia shapes the enduring myth of small-town U.S.A., and I’ve noted that nostalgia in-and-of-itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in some circumstances, it CAN be a bad thing, especially when conservatives use it reshape the past in an effort to disingenuously comment on the present.

Writing in the 1960s, Arthur Dudden recognized how nostalgia, which he characterized as a type of “cultural homesickness,” could be manipulated to serve devious ends. “Nostalgia implies a certain dissatisfaction with present circumstances, and very likely also a dissatisfaction with the apparent direction of trends leading into the future,” Dudden wrote — and I’ll be damned if he didn’t describe the essence of modern conservatism as promoted by Todd Starnes.*

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

For Todd Starnes, America begins and ends with this painting.

But by invoking a mythical past to fix what they see as a “broken” present, conservatives like Starnes fail to see how their own beliefs and policies have shaped a contemporary world that seems so much more complex and amoral than the “simple” past they claim to remember. Consider conservatives’ sanctification of free market capitalism. As Erica Grieder notes, “capitalism encourages mobility and disruption. It therefore represents a particular challenge to the traditional structures, like family or civil society, that used to represent a person’s personal safety net.” Grieder recognizes how the inherent dynamism of capitalism pays no heed to traditional structures like family, church, and small-town communities that conservatives want to preserve.

All of the complexities of modern society — which Starnes sees embodied in things like the Blackberry device, the film industry, popular music, the internet age, and urbanization — are the direct result of the relentless free-market dynamism that conservatives promote. Market forces drive the onslaught of technology by creating products that people want to buy, and if, in the process, these same market forces decimate small towns by shipping jobs to Third World countries, or make employment so scarce that tight-knit families and communities are forced to split up in order to find work that is increasingly concentrated in big cities, as opposed to the small towns over which Starnes waxes nostalgic, then so be it.

Market capitalism doesn’t care about disrupting American social institutions, but Todd Starnes does, and like other conservatives, he’s unable to recognize how his undying support for free-market capitalism creates the contemporary conditions that he views as far less simple than the idealized past that he longs to return to in God Less America. And therein lies the dangerous aspect of nostalgia: by creating a fictional and overly simplified vision of the past, it renders people unable to deal with the present as it is.

While it’s worth reiterating that nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing, it’s nonetheless something that can prevent people from understanding the very real complexities of the modern world. Shameless nostalgia mongers like Todd Starnes only make things worse by promoting a past that never existed in order to fix a present that they simply don’t like. So suck it up Todd; your gay rainbow is here to stay.

* See Todd Starnes, God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), 1-2.

* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961): 517.

* See Andrew R. Murphy, “Longing, Nostalgia, and Golden Age Politics: The American Jeremiad and the Power of the Past,” Perspectives on Politics 7 (Mar., 2009): 126.