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Saturday, February 26, 2005

When City Mouse Hates Country Mouse

I just received my new copy of the Policy Studies Journal. Normally, I flip through it once and throw it in the circular file to join that mountain of garbage being shipped west to fill up the former coalmines of West Virginia. Today, however, my eye caught the last entry on the table of contents – “Jesus Loves Me, But He Can’t Stand You”.
It made me wish that I’d come up with the title enough to actually read the article. It’s actually just a reply from Kenneth Meier and Hop Sing Sabatier to their critics (elite academians do this in public letters to each other). It seems that Meier and Sabatier published an article citing country music as a prime generator of public policy ideas. It wasn’t the fact that the researchers found a rather odd place to study public policy that the critics objected to – it was the fact that they looked for it in country music.
There are two things I’d like to discuss about this article. The first is the idea of popular media giving rise to policy ideas, but that deserves its own post. The second, and the one I’ll actually talk about in this post, is the ongoing derision that anything associated with country/redneck/down-home/backwoods/rural life is, by default, less intellectual and inferior. It’s a type of prejudice that is actually not only alive and well, but seems to be pushed by both sides as the way things should be.
On the one hand, we have President George W. Bush pushing his image as a rural-style average man. Everything from his manner of speaking to his use of vacation time to clear brush on his Texas ranch portray him as a man who has simple tastes. I’ve never met the man, so I can’t say that this is a false impression. Actually, it doesn’t even matter. He is no less the President if he pitches horseshoes or hunts foxes, if he eats hamburger or foie gras.
But, it does matter, because there is no successful politician in the country that leaves any aspect of their public image to chance these days. The President pursues his image as a country-man because it suits his electorate as well as his personal taste. On the campaign trail, he often appeared in jeans or casual slacks with his tie pulled down and his sleeves rolled up. If there had been any indication that this had hurt his support, I’m sure he would have switched quickly back into the custom made suits he wears in Washington. The same is true for his manner of speech, even if some snobs sneer at his pronunciation of “nuke-you-ler”.
Think back to John Kerry’s public persona during the campaign and you find a total lack of anything remotely considered “rural”. Again, this is probably as much a function of the man’s character as it is of the management of his image to fit his supporters. This is true despite the fact that the Kerry family actually owns rural property in Montana and regularly spends time far away from the glare of city lights. The attempt to portray him as a backwoodsman in his brief hunting trip in Virginia was simply too much of a set-up to be natural. Because no part of the image fit with that event, both sides saw it as pandering for votes.
It is a prejudice that separates blue states and red states, and it serves no one. Having lived in both city and country, I can testify that both sides have valid views and equally valid, if sometimes contradictory, sets of wisdom. It can be boiled down into that part of the American spirit that was captured in the relentless push to the west – rugged individuals taming the lawless countryside through perseverance and force of will.
However, it was not only rugged individuals that settled the west – it was a sense of community. In my family, the tradition used to be that after a marriage both sides of the new family would spend the day building a house for the new couple. This tradition died out because it was simply impossible to accomplish once the free land was all gone. Anyone who has spent much time in a small farming community will have at least one story about how the whole county turned out to help bring in the crop of a sick friend.
There will always be a tension between the individual and the community. If the community gets too great a hold over the individual, creativity is stifled and people suffer. If the individual gains too great a hold over the community, then the aggregate good cannot be determined and everyone suffers. When a correct balance is struck, then everyone can move forward and improve their life without anyone getting left behind through lack of opportunity.
For such a balance to be found, however, it is necessary for both sides to understand that the other is badly needed. A farmer can no more dictate policy for New York City than a Manhattanite can tell what is best for a cotton field. Liberals spent much of the last forty years pushing for the recognition that diversity of race, religion, and gender equality grants greater strength. It’s time they realized that the same is true for valid differences in the choice of lifestyle and place.

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