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W.I. Crossroads

My column that will appear in Sunday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

 

A writer in a national magazine recently theorized that small town voters who are worried about the deterioration of American culture are “insular” and unenlightened, stuck in the past, resistant to progress.
Having grown up in a small town, and also having taught at a high school in the inner city of Milwaukee, I can say that most of my students and their families were also living in their hometown, and the hometown of their families. Does that make them insular? Or does it make them normal?

City life is fine. It is filled with cultural and social and employment opportunities that may not exist elsewhere. You can choose how and whether to connect with other people. But bustle is not for everyone, nor is anonymity.

Some among us choose to live in a different way. But it would be a mistake to believe that small town life is a bucolic and peaceful existence. Living in a small community is not for the faint of heart.

Small towns are a microcosm of the human experience, but with more intensity. You live shoulder to shoulder with your oldest friends, and your fiercest enemies. You daily encounter the person who cheated you; who stood you up; who broke your heart; and with people who know your complete history: every bad decision, every embarrassment, every moment of kindness (if any). In cities, there can be the relief of some anonymity, but not in a small town. Living in a small town is a psychologically raw way to live.

But small town life also requires a deep connection to community that city people may not acquire. It generally means that you go to church because that is what is expected, and what almost everyone does. It means you are surrounded by people who know you. In the city it’s called networking. In a small town, the network is your neighbors, and you are expected to participate. Your neighbors are the ones who gather around you to celebrate births and mourn deaths. They plow your driveway when you have the flu. They raise money to help in a tragedy. They put an arm around your shoulder. They make casseroles. And you, in turn, celebrate, and mourn, and plow, and comfort, and bake. This sharing and mutual support is as old as human beings. And it is good.

We live in a society in which the elites make a continuing push against the values of faith and decency and commonsense. The cultural gatekeepers seem to believe that someone who doesn’t live in your community can decide what’s wrong with you, and what you need. It’s an insult, and a barely veiled one. You are flyover country: insular, irrelevant bumpkins filled with prejudices, unable to participate in the enlightenment of the cities, destined never to be famous. Living in a small town means that you are aware of the scorn heaped upon you by city dwellers who think they are better, and you shrug your shoulders and get on with it.

Maybe resisting progress isn’t all bad. In an age of celebrity and reality television, of Instagram and Twitter, most small town people live out quiet, uncelebrated lives of dignity and depth. They work; they care for their families and their friends; they mow their lawns and mop their floors. They may not be famous or trend-setting. But they have lives worth living.

And that is something worth standing for.