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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A Strange New Rosary
New Arab Saints: A Fountain of Virtue to the Thirsty

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