The Embarrassing Truth About How We Talk About Small-Town America

What aren't we saying when we sum up small towns as close-knit and quaint?

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Michael Schaffer has a frank piece over at The New Republic this week about the double standard that travels between rural America and its big cities when those of us in the latter demographic get to talking (and writing) about events like rape allegations in a small town in Missouri.

(Please bear with me for a moment as I write about Schaffer writing about a New York Times story that wrote through a Kansas City Star report.) In Maryville, Missouri – this may sound a lot like Steubenville, Ohio – a 17-year-old football player was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl. Charges were dropped against the boy, the grandson of a local political figure. Amid suspicions of meddling in the case, the girl and her family have been pilloried, and the town, as if according to a pre-written script, now sits divided.

In a few words, the Times framed the narrative this week as a storm of negative attention complicating "the simplicity of small-town life" in Maryville. And this feels familiar. The setting is always as much the story as the events themselves in small-town tragedies because, from afar, these places are supposed to be harmonious, "close-knit," neighborly, more like Real America, or like America was in some generally superior past.

The problem, as Schaffer fingers it, is not just that this cliché is easy and inaccurate; it's that it stems from our inability to say what's really on our minds relative to small-town America:

In fact, the reductio ad Rockwell is a common tic of journalistic visits to small towns, especially those put on the map by infamy. And it’s one that really ought to stop. Decades of culture wars have left us with a set of social rules where it is largely OK for rural types to slander their citified co-citizens (cf. Sarah Palin, small-town mayor and “Real America” stalwart) but where urbanites can’t dis the country folks without being deemed elitist (cf. Barack Obama, Chicagoite and “cling” apologizer).

This recent quote, which rightly riled up some of the 650,000 people who are residents of Washington, D.C., quickly comes to mind.

Within these social rules, Schaffer argues, we're left with little to say about small-town America without retreating to stereotypes about its simplicity and "down-home values."

And yet small towns are arguably more complicated than big cities, Schaffer reasons, because the anonymity of living amid a million or two strangers helps ensure, in a comparable situation to the Maryville case, that your boss probably doesn't know the accuser's family, the prosecutor isn't swayed by someone's granddad, and the kids across town don't all recognize your daughter. (Some similar downsides to being "close-knit" emerged in The New Yorker's profile earlier this year of the Steubenville case.)

But even that assessment borders on taboo. Here, Schaffer spells it out in the bluntest way possible:

Bottom line: I’d much sooner trust a place big enough to have professionals whose duties are governed by rules and regulations rather than personal ties. I know, I know: It’s that red tape that we urbanites are always pushing on our God-fearing Real-American brethren. I tend to think of the apparatus, instead, as the rules for a civilized society. But, of course, we can’t say that Maryville is a Hobbesian hellhole whose very structure and folkways enable lawlessness. That would be snobby! So instead, we are left with elegiac bunkum about simplicity interrupted.

With one "Hobbesian hellhole," he rips a giant gash through our limited book of language about small-town America. Those are not quite the words I've been looking for, but I appreciate the opening.

Top image: David Dea/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.