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Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Other Side

I’ve talked on a couple of occasions about the good side of small towns and rural communities, but there’s another side too and I feel like I should talk about that too.

I would not have wanted to be a minority in the small town I grew up in. To illustrate the general attitude, they used to film movies in the town, in part because of the southern look of the courthouse and some of the houses around town. For example, one was:

...tick...tick...tick... is an American movie made in 1970... Racially provocative for its time, it stars Jim Brown in the role of an African-American man elected as the sheriff of a rural county in the American South. It has become something of a cult classic for its cutting-edge portrayal of racial relations and its tense narrative. …

...tick...tick...tick... places a local African-American fully in charge of the police, aided somewhat by the former white sheriff. The lead was played by Jim Brown, who had only recently retired as a professional football player. …

The movie was filmed in and around the town of Colusa, California, whose central courthouse square was modeled on similar squares found in the American South. The same courthouse was also used for exterior shots in the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird. …

The whole town would turn out for some scenes (the white sheriff was George Kennedy). The two best nights were the car chase and watching how they scripted it together, and the night they created a thunderstorm with wind, rain, and lightening machines. The history of movies there goes back to when my mom was a little girl (she was born in the same town). She  stole the tasseled handlebar grips off of a bicycle that was to be used in a scene to keep as a souvenir, and it shut down production while they found new ones.

Shutting down the production of movies brings me to an illustration of how things worked in the town. They were shooting a scene for ...tick...tick...tick... at the house of one of my high school teachers – it was supposed to be the house of one of the main characters in the movie (all of the extras in the movie plus some of the speaking roles were residents of the town) – and the guy next door, the father of a kid in my class, would run his lawnmower every time they tried to shoot a scene and ruin it. The studio, obviously, was not happy. It was all because of Jim Brown and the topic of the movie, the objection was racial in nature - he didn't want black people in the town, it was as simple and ugly as that. The studio finally paid him off and he stopped, or that’s what I was told anyway. But the point is that there weren't many social consequences for him, I think most people kind of laughed about it - that's just who he was - and that is telling.

And that was pretty mild compared to what Mexicans and other immigrants  faced, especially if they didn’t speak the language. But even second, third, and later generations must have overheard things, had things said to their faces, things that must have hurt. There was a large population of Hispanic families in the town, and they were accepted into all of the social groups once they hit the second generation, for the most part anyway. Some distance remained though, partly, but not entirely, due to economic status.

The town was all Mayberry and smiles if you were white and of the correct socioeconomic status - middle class or above - but there was a dark underside nobody really talks about.

For example, when my Dad was young, he was a reserve police officer. It wasn't for very long, and he only rode along with others, but he did it long enough to get a sense of what went on there. He told me a story about one cop who, on one occasion, took an illegal immigrant to an alley after there had been a scuffle during the arrest and basically beat the crap out of him while he was cuffed. And there was no recourse for the people that sort of thing happened to - they were powerless. Kids I knew in high school also became police officers and things hadn't changed much by then. I don't think it was quite as overt, but from the stories I heard, it was just as bad. I don't mean to imply that these were regular events, the bad stuff was rare enough to be passed around the town's well developed gossip chains, but smaller injustices did occur daily, no doubt about it. Who you were and who you knew mattered.

Also, I'm certain there were gay people in town, there had to be, but I didn't know any until I went away to college. That was not something that you would want known in that town, at least not when I grew up there, and I doubt it has changed. The treatment would have been intolerable.

So you get the picture, the standard wholesome small town image on the outside, a place made up mostly of "salt of the earth" farmers who had been there for generations along with the businesses needed to support the needs of the community, but with another side that was as ugly as anywhere. Many people who grow up there, but who are not in the "correct" social groups, have one recurring thought, how to get out of there as soon as they possibly can. I don't blame them.

Part of that was the fact that there were no second chances. One girl in my class made a mistake in third grade, and even in high school she still had a nickname that referred to this event, one that I wouldn't wish one anyone. It must have been awful for her. It's hard to escape your mistakes there, hard to change how people view you once they've decided who you are in terms of basic character, etc., and where you fit into the social fabric. You are in school with the same group of people from kindergarten through high school, and it all gets sorted out during that time. And once it's set, that's who you are, like it or not. It does get jumbled some as people become adults, but for the most part memories are very long.

Another aspect of small towns is a high degree of inequality, and this is reflected in differences in power. Favoritism, cronyism, etc., it was all there in abundance, and there wasn't much effort or need to hide it. You knew the police officers, you had often gone to school with them, and whether you were given a ticket or a warning, who they believed in a dispute, all of it was governed to a large degree by your place in the town's social strata. And the rest of the justice system wasn't much different. It was fair for the most part, I don't mean it was one large corrupt operation, but it did bend around the edges according to its own set of rules.

There are people of all types in small towns, just like anywhere else, and I certainly do not wish to imply or suggest that everyone who lives there is a prejudiced jerk. Far from it. Some are, some are just the opposite, but most people are pretty much like people everywhere. Some reflect small town values that are admirable, while others reflect the detestable side of small towns. Some have bits of both, some seem to have values independent of their environment, it just depends. Being from a small town doesn't make you one thing or another, it doesn't make you special or better than people from other places just because you grew up in a setting that has been romanticized as the core of America and the repository of American values. There are open-minded people, people whose minds are closed, people who pay attention to and understand the world around them in all of its geo-political-social-economic relationships, and those who don't much pay attention to anything outside of the city or county.

Being from a small town, I bristle when I see people drawing inferences from that about my character, knowledge of the world, etc., and I've written about how it sometimes feels as though the so called elites are looking down their noses at you because you come from a rural area. I'm probably a bit over sensitive to that. But the reverse is just as objectionable, and people from small towns should not suggest that somehow their way of life is better than the way people live in urban areas. It isn't, both have their good sides, and both have their ugly sides. The core values aren't that different in any case, at least not as far as I can tell.

Your view of the world is certainly shaped by where you grow up and by the views of those around you, but it's not rigidly deterministic and there's no special osmotic force that endows you with special traits because you come from one place or another. I understand that there are differences in the issues that rural and urban areas face, and that this results in different needs that might compete for the same tax dollars or cause differences in views about the correct levels of taxation and government services. And it's true that different experience in terms of where you live can affect your sensitivity to these issues and how you think they ought to be resolved. So I understand why this might be used as a signal within the political arena about where a politician is likely to come down on these issues. But when the rural signal is used as something else - as a suggestion of superior values - my experience contradicts that at an individual level. Some people from rural areas are quite admirable. Others aren't.

    Posted by on Saturday, November 1, 2008 at 11:25 AM in Economics, Miscellaneous | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (14)

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