Do you come from the liberal East Coast? Are you from the laid back hills of California? Are you a dang city slicker? Then you, my friend, are NOT a real American. Your opinion doesn’t count because you don’t live your life the right way. Too bad.
At least, that is the impression one gets from listening to the GOP and the conservative entertainment complex that consists of Fox and AM hate radio. The phrases “Small Town, USA,” “The Heartland” and “Middle America” are all dog whistles for the base. Real Americans don’t live in cities, they say; they live in little towns and work on farms and live the American dream that conservatives tell us is “how things should be.”
“City Slickers,” on the other hand, are degenerates. We’re perverts and homo lovers. We don’t believe in God and guns. We’re *gasp* globalists, accepting of foreigners and different cultures. We don’t really love Republican America™ and we’re all trying to destroy it. Republican America™ is similar to Republican Jesus™ in that both are highly distorted versions of the originals and both are unrecognizable to you, me or any sane individual.
City folk are lazy, too, they tell us. Didn’t you know? We wouldn’t know an honest day’s work if it jumped up and bit us on our latte drinking, couscous eating ass. We’re all office drones and Yuppies and lawyers. We don’t know what it’s like to make an honest living and the only American apple pie we know about is McDonald’s. And speaking of couscous, we don’t even eat like normal folks. We ask for arugula instead of plain old lettuce and put mustard on our hamburgers. Mustard! Sounds like something a foreigner would do, not something a real American would even think of.
But let’s take a look at that premise: Do small town people really represent America? Well, let us define “represent.” One of Webster’s definitions (among others) is as follows:
“to exhibit the counterpart or image of; to typify”
Under this definition, Small Town, USA should be a typical example of America. The average American would display most, if not all, of the characteristics ascribed to idealized rural residents. Good, honest, God-fearing, hard working (White) Christian folk living in small communities should be the norm as contrasted to city folk who are the down slope of the Bell curve and a drain on our society.
Except that doesn’t reflect reality at all. As of the 2010 census, 80.7% of the population of the United States live in what is considered urban environments. As of 2008, a tipping point was reached and more than 50% of the entire world’s population is urban dwelling. This is a rapidly accelerating trend that is predicted to reach 70% worldwide by 2050 (think Judge Dredd but less violent), so it’s not even a uniquely American phenomenon.
So the “norm” of the United States is actually city life. To add insult to injury, not only do most people live in cities, but a disproportionate majority of the nation’s wealth is produced in those cities as well. Part of this is simply population density. More people equals more productivity. Oops, there goes the lazy city slickers theory! Another part is that cities are centers of commerce. Again, more people means more consumption, whether it be of services or manufactured goods. Seaports, airports, train and highway nexuses also play a hard-to-understate role in the wealth of cities as well. Even if a major airport magically appeared in a small town, it wouldn’t be a small town for long. Trade centers are inherently prosperous and as long as they are, they grow.
To further compound the fallacy of “Small Town, USA” being the heart of America, the role that cities play in fostering innovation is almost impossible to exaggerate. Innovation comes from the free exchange of ideas among diverse disciplines and most major American cities are defined by their sociological, educational and intellectual diversity. Even in Texas. Most of the technology we take for granted was developed not on a farm in Idaho, but in a metropolitan setting. If there is one thing that America is known for more (besides “collateral damage”), it is our technological prowess. The internet, itself a technological marvel (thank you, Mr. Gore), may alter this dynamic as collaboration can now take place from any location with ease but, for the foreseeable future, cities are where the brain storming will take place. Just to be clear: The Mars rover, Curiosity, was not designed, built or launched from a farm.
So according to any reasonable definition of “real American,” you can’t be one unless you live in a city. Take that, ya hillbillies!
“But ya’ll city folk would starve without us farmers to feed ya,” you say? Well, sure. Of course; without cities, farmers would have no one to sell their produce to, so it’s a very symbiotic relationship. Besides, if you weren’t aware of it already, Big Agriculture is just that, BIG. A very small amount of companies produce the vast majority of our food and not a small amount of the world’s. The next time you hear a conservative complain about how the Estate Tax destroys small family farms, laugh at them. Laugh long and hard and then ask them to produce a single farmer, much less the threatened thousands, put out of business by it. It’s fun to watch them squirm. Then ask them about all the farmers put out of work by Big Agro, assisted by all the overly generous (and completely unnecessary) subsidies afforded them by the government. That’s always a real conversation stopper. Especially if you’re talking to Michele “250k” Bachmann. Not everyone is able to rip off the taxpayers like that.
But despite urban life being the statistical norm, there’s a distinct problem with the line of thought that one is more authentic than the other: it is all utter nonsense. There is no such thing as an American that’s intrinsically better than any other. If there was, this wouldn’t be the United States as we understand it. The whole theory behind the existence of this country is its egalitarianism. Yes, there are glaring (to put it mildly) inequalities and some people (cough, GOP, cough) want to keep it that way or even make it worse. Yes, money has more influence than it should but it doesn’t make those who have it “better.” More powerful to be sure, but not “better.” Look at Bernie Madoff or Paris Hilton. Are they “better” than you? I didn’t think so.
Needless to say, the whole rural/urban dichotomy is false at its very foundation. City people aren’t necessarily smarter than people in the countryside and people in the countryside aren’t necessarily harder working than city people. It’s simply a wedge used by politicians and pundits to pander to one group or the other. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this particular tactic. Although, for a change, liberals are more subtle about it than conservatives. When a conservative speaks in a derogatory fashion about liberals, they talk directly about intellectual elitists and Hollywood limousine liberals. When liberals poke fun at conservative ignorance, we’re summoning the image of back country yokels without actually saying it. Why do you think the word “redneck” comes up so often in a contentious political thread? It’s right up there with “Nazi.”[i] It’s an insidiously self-reinforcing cycle. The more liberals insist on dispassionate facts, the more conservatives rely on shallow emotion and around and around we go.
There is, as the Fat Smug Bastard pointed out to me, also a less-than-subtle racial overtone to conservative insistence that Small Town, USA is where the real (White) America lies (are you really surprised?). The idea that the most ethnically and sociologically diverse portions of our country are somehow lacking in purity is, at its heart, about race. “Real” Americans don’t know a second language or travel to foreign countries unless it’s Hawaii.[ii] It’s just not a good American thing to do. Jon Stewart calls it “our nation’s love affair with xenophobia[iii]” and it’s a sad thing to behold.
I used to hear the phrase “melting pot” a lot as a kid and I thought it was a wonderful idea. Take hundreds of cultures and smoosh them together to form something new. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. School House Rock even had a song for it (Go watch it, it’s awesome. I’ll wait). That’s gone now. On the one side you have overzealous liberals who champion multiculturalism to the point where American traditions shouldn’t overwhelm an immigrant’s native culture. On the other you have purists who see a foreign culture’s influence as a threat to the traditional American way of life.
Both are so incredibly wrong it’s painful to see. Both are encouraging artificial barriers within our ever-growing population. Growth comes from the injection of the new into the old. Liberals, we need immigrants and their new ideas to integrate. Keeping them apart doesn’t help us or them. Conservatives, American culture is already a hodgepodge of concepts from all over the world and that’s what makes us so strong. We are constantly reinventing ourselves because we are not slaves (very intentional usage, thank you) to our past. At the same time we need a solid foundation to stand on because uncontrolled change is not always a good thing. A good idea, left unchecked, could easily become unhealthy, like chocolate covered bacon.[iv]
What makes a person a “real” American? Who is to say? Not I, not you and certainly not Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly. There are so many ways to live the American dream of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness that there is no one way to be an American. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with living in the countryside. I’ve spent time there and the people I met were very nice. It’s quiet, it’s less crowded, it’s definitely slower paced and these are all very attractive to someone living in the middle of New York City. But living in the city has its own attractions as well: Broadway, a never ending parade of new (and freaky weird) people on the subway and the ability to get Chinese food at four in the morning is hard to oversell.
So really, being a “real American” means whatever you want it to mean and don’t let anyone tell you you’re wrong. Just remember, their idea is totally different from yours. And they’ll be just as right.
[i] Maybe I should call it Rosario’s Corollary to Godwin’s Law. Just kidding; it’s nowhere nearly ubiquitous enough to be a corollary (yet).
[ii] To anyone reading this and thinking “A-HA! He thinks Hawaii is another country! What a moron!” You are now legally classified as brain-damaged.
[iii] The Daily Show with Jon Stewart presents America (the book). Chapter nine. Pure genius from cover to cover.
[iv] Yes, such a thing exists. Google it but don’t blame your first coronary on me!