Pyx in the (Former) Sticks

Probably, this will fail to shock most of my readers, but….Christopher Hitchens doesn’t seem to get it. Why, oh why, he wonders in Slate, do presidential candidates feel compelled to play up their rural roots — or, when necessary, to invent some — at the expense of their learning and sophistication:

Where does it come from, this silly and feigned idea that it’s good to be able to claim a small-town background? It was once said that rural America moved to the cities as fast as it could, and then from urban to suburban as fast as it could after that. Every census for decades has confirmed this trend. Overall demographic impulses to one side, there is nothing about a bucolic upbringing that breeds the skills necessary to govern a complex society in an age of globalization and violent unease. We need candidates who know about laboratories, drones, trade cycles, and polychrome conurbations both here and overseas. Yet the media make us complicit in the myth—all politics is yokel?—that the fast-vanishing small-town life is the key to ancient virtues. Wasilla, Alaska, is only the most vivid recent demonstration of the severe limitations of this worldview. But still it goes on. Hence one’s glee at the resulting helpings of custard.

Part of the value in simple egalitarianism. Lenin wore his worker’s cap, Mao his rope sandals. In Last King of Scotland, Forrest Whittaker, playing Idi Amin, promises a crowd of peasants, “I may wear the uniform of a general, but in my heart, I am a simple man.” To Americans, “urban” equals “privileged” (except when it’s used as a euphemism for “black”). It probably matters little to Bachmann’s supporters that — as Matt Taibbi points out in Rolling Stone — her home base of Stillwater, Minnesota is “one of the wealthiest [districts] in America (with a median income $16,000 above the national average).” As long as their candidate didn’t pass her formative years on Beacon Hill or the Upper West Side, all is in good taste.

This sympathy for the common man (or woman) makes people do strange things. One good friend, who is a highly educated professional, overidentified with Sarah Palin to the point of sabotaging her own diction. As the 2008 campaign progressed, her gerunds and participles began shedding their g’s, even as her negatives began doubling up. By the time Palin stepped into the ring with Joe Biden (himself no stranger to the game of prolier-than-thou), she was speaking the White Man’s Ebonics. Just last week, I informed a friend that she numbered among America’s elites. Since she holds a PhD, is married to a doctor, and lives in a famously tony area, I saw the statement as incontestable. Nevertheless, she reacted as though I’d accused her of co-starring in a Tijuana donkey show. Conceding the point, she spoke with all the dazed horror of someone confronting a chemical dependency for the first time.

Now, I can see why Catholics would surrender to the allure of the poor mouth as readily as their opposite numbers in the evangelical camp. But if the peculiarly down-home variety has the same appeal, then I’m — pardon the expression — hanged. Traditionally, the Catholic commoner has fared badly in the countryside. If the landlords of County Meath had been less obnoxious, or the sod of Calabria less lethally malarial, New York and Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco, would all be a lot smaller. Yes, some tempest-tossed fish-eaters did take to farming in belated pursuit of the Jeffersonian dream; but many more remained in the shadows of the skyscrapers, moving, gradually, to ever more expensive and exclusive neighborhoods. Catholics, more than anyone else, have the right to claim residence in the suburbs as a badge of honor.

But anecdotal evidence, at least, suggests that some Catholics are doing what Americans, after all, are expected to do, namely, re-invent themselves in the master mold. A friend of mine, a native New Yorker and re-vert, moved down South. Though he allows himself to enjoy the horrified looks that cross the faces of Baptist missionaries who see the Marian statuary in his front lawn, he has still come, in some way, to identify with the region, along with its culture and history. It would not surprise me if he adopts its moonshining past and NASCAR present the way his immigrant father adopted Nathan Hale and the Brooklyn Dodgers.

This is even truer of another friend of mine, a native of a working-class Chicago suburb and member of the Legion of Mary, who now spends her meager spare time shooting firearms and visiting Confederate cemeteries. I suspect she regards the interred as Our Boys, if not the Glorious Dead. Both of these two recovering Yankees live in suburban areas indistinguishable, in terms of Starbucks or Blockbusters per square mile, from Bucks County, Pennsylvania or Morris County, New Jersey. Still, the history of their new homes is rural and Real American, and they seem determined to see surviving traces. And why not? The Mormons saw Zion in alkali desert; was there really any milk or honey in ancient Israel?

Both the people I’ve named are political conservatives. If political conservatism is what makes America’s hinterland distinctive, it may be Catholic urban refugees who save it from assimilation into the liberal Borg. In that act of conservation, they may, paradoxically, be transforming the region — by making it more Catholic. In “Bible-Belt Catholics,” Time Magazine reports that northerners after a “truer, purer” form of Catholicism, together with immigrants from the Far East and Latin America, are converting descendants of Orangemen. The Reverend Kevin Wildes, president of Loyola University, New Orleans, worries they may be abandoning Catholicism’s “intellectual heritage” in favor of a kind of “fundamentalism with incense.”

To this, I say: chile, please. If you want to worry about something, worry about Franco’s Spain with real Spanish moss.

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  • Warren Jewell

    I begin to question the spirituality at a ‘spiritual’ website when Chris Hitchens, dying while grasping at his atheistic nihilism, is brought into the conversation. 8-

    Anyway, I am a suburban Catholic because the city of Chicago is a dirty mess in too many ways to recount here. And, other cities, including their suburbs, are no attraction from my life-long home territory. Such barely affects my Catholicism, about which a Hitchens’ opinion would not matter a farthing to me.

  • Chris

    Out here in the western states, rural living meant — as few as 100 years ago — privation, hardship, and suffering. Settling in the west meant successfully navigating the always difficult balance of being reliant on oneself and being part of on one’s community. Hitchens claims that, “there is nothing about a bucolic upbringing that breeds the skills necessary to govern a complex society in an age of globalization and violent unease.” There was little I regard as “bucolic” about pioneer (rural American) life. That word, “bucolic”, suggests to me some sort of easy life, like Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess at Petite Trianon. Those who survived and triumphed over American frontier hardship were (are?) with good reason considered to have leadership skills. I think that Hitchens is confusing “rural” with “bucolic”. I think Americans, at least those of us out west, hear, “rural” and think not of the south, but of “frontier living” and all of the endurance, hard work, luck, and smarts that entails.

  • James Brown

    Chris – You make a good argument its just 150 years late. Now days is it really any harder to live in the middle of California than it is to live on the coast? You don’t live on the frontier – no one has for many many years.

  • Chris

    James — You are correct that I don’t live on the frontier and that, at least in the part of California in which I live, life is mostly urban or suburban. (Go up the northern coast of CA near Oregon, and it can still seem very Wild West. Also see parts of Wyoming, Utah, and South Dakota, to name just the few such places I have seen myself where it is not unusual for people to homestead and live self-reliant lives.) My point, perhaps not as clearly articulated as I would like — is that there is still a fairly recent history of such frontier living here in the western United States. Those of us who have lived in California for many generations can recall stories of frontier fortitude and ancestors who lived such lives. It’s part of our local history, and as such, part of who we are. I think that is true of many western states, which were settled far later than the eastern part of the country.

    What jumped out at me when I read Max’s post is that Hitchens, when he chose the word “bucolic” seems to have in mind his native, rural English countryside, which, to my knowledge, was not and is not currently a Wild West kind of place. I don’t think he understands that many Americans, whether it’s rational or not, associate the word “rural” with our frontier past and the skills it took to live then. I am not saying I think that’s how most of us live now. It seems to such history/images are part of our psyche and that candidates who reflect such an upbringing or display an overt connection to that past resonate with some people. Whether such a candidate is qualified to lead our “complex society in an age of globalization and violent unease” is not something on which I care to comment.

  • diane

    Cool article. “Prolier-than-thou” is genius. :)

    That TIME article spotlights my very own diocese, Charlotte, NC. Just sayin’. :D

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